The Myth of Macho: Iron Man

Ariel Schudson takes a closer look at a man defined by his relationship to gadgets, because he's actually part machine.

Ariel Schudsonby Ariel Schudson

The Myth of Macho: Iron Man

On a scale of one to intimacy, where does technology lie? And how does it affect the masculine identity, especially the masculine identity of a superhero? While many of the men that we have examined in The Myth of Macho could be considered superheroes in their own day, age and film, this week’s topic is an undisputed superhero. However, much like Batman, he has no “special powers,” just a lot of cool toys. While lacking in the hard-edged revenge sentiment of Paul Kersey or the lean, mean testosterone pulsations of Jason Statham’s Transporter, Tony Stark’s slate is most certainly full when it comes to the discussion of his masculine development. While his identity as the superhero Iron Man traditionally places him high up on the ladder of “macho,” like many other superheroes, that physicality and bombastic persona serves to undermine him in certain ways as well. Tony Stark’s outward appearance as high-functioning masculine superhero may seem believable even to the most faithful “true believers,” but it is his own body that betrays him. His physical dependence on technology and deep relationship with machinery complicates his ability to relate to other people on an existential level, as well as to himself. Tony Stark has a robot problem and it affects his ability to reach his full masculine potential.

Masculinity has traditionally maintained a very tight relationship to the technological world. From the days when technology meant designing tools for agricultural purposes or swords for battle to more modern times when it has inched towards areas like building the latest bomber or custom car specializations and mechanics, the technological world has always held a great attraction for men. Tony Stark is no exception. In fact, this character leans on it to great length: it has created him, and made him who he is. It is the suit that he wears and the electronic parts that live inside of him, keeping him going. He is not Plastic Man, nor is he Rock Man, he is Iron Man, named so from the first suit that he built for out of foraged materials, cobbled and soldered together as though he were a blacksmith from days past, not the flamboyantly rich scientific wunderkind he is. As he has built this suit around himself, however, it has also managed to protect him from the other elements in the world. By becoming Iron Man and isolating himself within the highly masculinized world of technology, Tony Stark keeps the real world out and develops his singularly robotic and male identity.

The Myth of Macho: Iron Man

Generated by his appearances in Marvel comic books, the character of Iron Man has a history in the film that is a slight amalgamation of his history from the comics. While this is not unexpected, as it is rather difficult to squeeze in several decades and storylines into one 2-hour film, it was also done in order to ease certain racial and ethnic tensions that were definitely present in the first appearances of Iron Man-as-hero. If you read those beginning Tales of Suspense issues that he appears in and check out the ways in which Iron Man was “fighting Communism” (i.e. Red China), well, suffice to say that it’s more than a little problematic. However, Jon Favreau, in his filmic wisdom, decided to skip that for the film and refocus that energy onto a different ethnic background in the outset: the Middle East. While this is the region where Tony Stark’s “incident” occurs and the politics centered involved in this cinematic decision are heavy in and of themselves, that is not the goal of our discussion this week (clearly, however, it should be recognized that the political landscape of Iron Man displayed by comic book or film contains a proverbial hotbed of material to examine).

When Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) goes to the Middle East in Jon Favreau’s 2008 film, it’s as a rich businessman and genius technician, showing off his latest military toys in the Afghani nation. When things go awry, and a terrorist blast leaves Stark wounded in a cave, his life is saved by his fellow abductee, Yinsen (Shaun Toub), through science: Tony Stark becomes part man, part electric magnet. Yinsen has surgically placed an electromagnet in Tony Stark’s chest. This new physical feature works by magnetic force, keeping all of the shrapnel that had hit Stark’s body away from his heart, keeping him alive, more or less. While the terrorist group is attempting to steal his work by getting Stark to build them a missile of the same kind that he was trying to sell to the Afghanis, this is the time during which Iron Man is born.

The Myth of Macho: Iron Man

Not only was there access to the goods to rebuild the electrical items needed to keep his own body alive, but this is also the point where he builds the first Iron Man suit, and thus, lo and behold, out of the cave bursts the first incarnation of Iron Man, fully encapsulated and protected. Tony Stark escapes, and the film begins in earnest. However, as this initial “birth” of Iron Man sequence iterates to the audience, without the assistance of the electronic and magnetic world, Tony Stark would be stone cold dead. He literally owes everything to the cold, unfeeling universe of tin, metal and robotics, even if there was a human liaison.

When we witness Tony Stark in his workspace, using his high level equipment, we are immediately struck with awe and amazed by his skill. Each time he is shown working on something, the process of science is depicted in to its greatest capacity: initial failure of either man or machine, and then, ultimately, the success of the two coming together. This progression is the essential element. By exploring this area, much in the same way that the Demon in a Bottle comic book story arc explored Tony Stark’s alcoholism, the development of the armor shows us the development of the character; an essential and fascinating aspect that was not explored much within the comic book literature.

The Myth of Macho: Iron Man

The study of the Iron Man suit and the depictions of the various trials and tribulations that come along with its progress speak to the way that technology is seen to be its own character within the film. Even within the lab, Stark approaches his robotic creations as though they are human, anthropomorphizing them. In one of the scenes in which he tests his new suit, we see him standing in the workshop, robotic assistants surrounding him. He announces the test number, making it clear that it is being filmed and recorded, just as any scientist would do. He states that for “lack of a better option” one of his robots still has the position of fire safety. But, he says, looking sternly at the machine that responds to each word as though it were an excited and loyal puppy dog, “if you douse me again and I’m not on fire, I’m donating you to a city college.” To this, the robot responds physically, seeming to promise not to mistakenly douse him. As the experiment continues, the robot follows him, and he turns and says with irritation, “Please don’t follow me around either, because I feel like I’m going to catch on fire spontaneously. Just stand down and if something happens then come in.” The robot looks down, dejected.

Celeste Biever and Rowan Hooper in New Scientist write on the relationship that Tony has with his robots. While discussing the real-life possibilities of Iron Man, including Stark’s armor, they mention the intimacy Tony shares with his electronic counterparts, and how, although not human, these robots are made up of a very sophisticated “real world software,” which makes similar mistakes as humans. The depiction of error-prone robotic lab assistants only underscores Tony’s inability to relate to actual humans but desire to have them in his life. Nobody’s perfect, right? Well, neither are these robots. Perhaps that is one of the things that Tony actually enjoys about them. A few quirks can be charming. On the other hand, he does not have to deal with all the other ultra-human qualities of a real lab-tech: taking sick days, personal disagreements, personality conflicts or other elements that are beyond his complete control. Tony Stark’s interest in maintaining electronic relationships over biological ones has a great deal to do with his interest and obsession with control.

The Myth of Macho: Iron Man

Favreau is using the devices in this film in order to express many different thematic notions, however none of them are as strong or as insightful as the idea that Tony Stark’s relationship to technology is the most intimate relationship he has, or ever has had. He may be a ladies’ man and a recovering alcoholic (this aspect gets toyed around with a little in Iron Man 2 from 2010; they don’t quite play out the Demon in the Bottle story, but they brought in the drinking in a more heavy manner), but no woman or glass of whiskey in the comic books has ever played as central of a role in his development as his relationship to technology. To Tony Stark, he remains more intimately tied to the technological world because it is pliable, flexible, works with him and does whatever he tells it to because he serves as the programmer. In a certain sense, this relationship is a preferred relationship of dominance because he is terrified of being out of control. Why is this? His body is based upon technology, he is technology, and so it is what he trusts. We feel bonded to what we know. Stepping out of that realm is, for him, a scary proposition.


In addition to this, however, is Stark’s need for human “-ness,” which, while expressed in the way that he speaks to and treats his robots (as though they were human), is also shown in his interactions with his primary assistant J.A.R.V.I.S (“Just A Rather Very Intelligent System,” according to Peter David’s 2008 film novelization), a bodiless character who is voiced by Paul Bettany and is the cinematic surrogate for thehuman Jarvis in the comic book.  J.A.R.V.I.S is not only “Rather Intelligent” but he is also sarcastic and deadpan, making him the straight man, many times, for Stark’s wildness.  Like all good comic book butlers, Jarvis looks after Tony, however Favreau’s J.A.R.V.I.S looks after him electronically. But it is to the same end, as the care is still there and the relationship that built between the two during the armor evolution and its trial runs is especially intimate. At one point, this closeness is made even more explicit when Tony gets up from the computer to leave for a party, and tells J.A.R.V.I.S, “Don’t wait up for me, honey.” While it is an aside that fits in with the character’s sense of humor, this term of endearment is more than a simple off-handed remark. Without J.A.R.V.I.S, Tony would not be able to function: he survives on J.A.R.V.I.S, his house runs on J.A.R.V.I.S., and Iron Man’s continued presence is founded upon the existence of J.A.R.V.I.S.

The Myth of Macho: Iron Man

In the comic book, it is no different, except for the fact that, well, Jarvis is an older English gentleman, a real human being, not a robot, and has far less play in the technological side of things than J.A.R.V.I.S. However, the intimacy and the need for this character, human or robotic, is still present in both texts, filmic or comic, making him a central example of how Tony’s connection to humanity is being expressed through technological terms.

However, the item he is most dependent on, the one that represents his own technological marriage, is the one item that requires assistance from and the physical presence of another living, breathing person: Iron Man’s arc reactor. Tony Stark is being kept alive by technology. His life depends on it. Within the early years of the comic book (the Tales of Suspense years and a bit beyond), his near death experiences came primarily from incidents when he was unable to “charge” himself up in time. As the comic progressed, the technology for his arc reactor changed, as did his armor, making his survival methods easier to manage than a constant need to “plug in.”

The Myth of Macho: Iron Man

Favreau, on the other hand, chose to place humans in the technology cocktail, and this time, because of the consequence to the character, he makes the connection between human and machine more personal and intimate, and the situation more vital. When Tony is first captured in Afghanistan, the terrorists inform him that he must make weapons for them. Instead, he makes himself a small piece of machinery that simulates what the battery that they had attached to his chest would do: the arc reactor. Upon arriving home and having access to real tools and a sterile environment, he makes himself another, more modern and efficient one. All good, right? Well, almost. One last step in the process: Stark needs to get rid of the old outdated equipment and replace it with the newly created mechanism. In order to do this, he requires the help of Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his very lovely and very humanassistant. It is the most personal and private moment that the two have ever shared together, and Pepper has seen Tony do quite a bit of naughty business (as is intimated several times throughout the picture).

Not only is he partially naked in this scene, but Pepper must literally reach inside his body and perform a dangerous and fairly involved technological process. She has to literally fix his heart. A plethora of comments could be made here about broken hearts and other heavy-handed nonsense, but that would be obvious and unnecessary. What carries the most weight is the transaction that occurs between the two directly after the physical engagement. Pepper is freaked out; she tells Tony to “never ever never” ask her to do anything like that “ever again.” He looks up at Pepper, and says, quite simply, “I don’t have anyone else.” This conversation, in its simplicity, carries the most poignancy for Tony’s character and yet is also the most matter-of-fact.

The Myth of Macho: Iron Man

While Stark certainly has a few other compatriots, such as Rhodey (Terrence Howard), he has no one like Pepper. Pepper is the only humanperson in the film that is completely on his side and for him, no matter what may come. Sharing this moment, where Stark’s life is literally in someone else’s hands is the key moment during which Favreau connects machinery and humanity. Stark hungers for contact in this film, yet he transfers this onto all of his machine counterparts. Here we can recognize that when it comes down to the most critical moments, even the most sophisticated and advanced machines that replicate humans exactly cannot do what another person can do. Favreau is making the point that an upgrade in technology is no substitute for having the assistance or intimate contact of another person. 

While the film of Iron Man has certain similarities to the comic, one of the ways that it stands alone is in the way that it handles Tony Stark’s approach to his humanity and, in that sense, his masculinity. Stark has a difficult time maintaining intimate relations with anything that has a pulse, and the film reinforces that the playful “Iron Man”-ness that is partially Robert Downey, Jr. and partially the character adapted from a group of Marvel storylines who indeed in a state of crisis, unable to move forward from his own playboy mentality into being an adult male with adult male responsibilities and feelings.

The superhero spectrum is a collection of studies that work on transitions, especially since as adolescents that is where many of us started to read the books. These films are now positioning themselves as cinematic pieces for us to re-examine our roles in our own world, using fictional universes and extreme situations as mirrors. They tackle real subjects like issues of intimacy or a man preferring business or technological objects to the human beings in his life. These are real things. Not just “comic book drivel” or “superhero nonsense.”

Once again, I’m super glad you could join me for this week’s Myth of Macho. You’re all my heroes. Remember: the brain is a muscle… pump it up!

Ariel Schudson is a featured columnist at CraveOnline and the president of the Student Chapter of the Association of Moving Image Archivists at UCLA. Stalk her electronically at @Sinaphile.