Iron Man 3 arrives in theaters this weekend, and while there are all sorts of reasons Tony Stark's return to the big screen is notable, the biggest surprise may be that the character has stuck around long enough to become the centerpiece of Marvel's blockbuster movie universe.
Make no mistake: before Robert Downey Jr. made his debut as Tony Stark, Iron Man had languished in second- or third-tier status among Marvel's characters for much of his 50-year existence, and his rise to fame in recent years may indeed be the biggest success story of all Marvel's creations.
Originally conceived as the “quintessential capitalist,” Tony Stark was introduced in 1963 as a billionaire industrialist who amassed considerable wealth by developing weapons for the military. Making his debut at a time when the Cold War had made readers tired of war and the greed that accompanied it, he was at a disadvantage from the very start as the comic book personification of everything his audience hated.
“I gave myself a dare,” Stan Lee said of the character's origins in an interview found on the Iron Man DVD. “I thought it would be fun to take the kind of character that nobody would like, none of our readers would like, and shove him down their throats and make them like him.”
And like him they eventually did, to the tune of more than 50 years worth of comics, more than $1 billion in worldwide box office sales (another $2 billion if you add The Avengers), and more animated movies, television series, toys and other Iron Man products than anyone could possibly count.
But it wasn't until recent years that Iron Man emerged from the shadow of higher profile Marvel heroes like Spider-Man, the X-Men and even some of his teammates in the Avengers.
Although sales of Iron Man comics rarely dipped low enough to threaten the character over the last few decades, Tony Stark and his armored alter ego never quite managed to achieve the mainstream popularity of their peers – due in no small part to those same elements that first made him stand out from the crowd.
Where popular characters like Spider-Man and the X-Men drew strength from persecution and adversity – something everyone can relate to – Tony Stark came from a place of privilege. His wealth and intelligence were his only superpowers, with the former built on the spoils of war and the latter nurtured at the most prestigious institutions in the world. For much of his fictional existence, Tony Stark had been the living embodiment of the uber-elite, and as such, required more of both his storytellers and readers in order to forge a connection.
While Hulk personified his brilliant alter ego's repressed aggression and the Fantastic Four offered readers a genuine family of superheroes, Iron Man continued to be a hero that readers cheered for in spite of their personal politics and experiences.
In 1979, writers David Michelinie and Bob Layton penned their celebrated “Demon in a Bottle” storyline that saw Tony Stark succumbing to alcoholism, but even this chapter of his life remained firmly tied to his status as a billionaire socialite and superhero. This allowed the character's darkest hour to become yet another experience that struggled to strike a sympathetic chord with readers.
In the end, however, it was the combination of all of these unsympathetic elements that may have played the biggest role in Iron Man becoming the big-screen success he is today.
According to Iron Man director Jon Favreau, the similarities between Tony Stark's up-and-down celebrity life and that of actor Robert Downey Jr. – who was in the midst of resuscitating his career after much-publicized personal troubles – offered the most compelling argument for giving him the role.
“The best and worst moments of Robert`s life have been in the public eye,” Favreau said of casting Downey in a 2008 interview. “That's Tony Stark. Robert brings a depth that goes beyond a comic book character having trouble in high school, or can't get the girl.”
Five years and multiple movies later, it's hard to imagine anyone but Downey as Tony Stark, thanks to the lightning-in-a-bottle combination of Marvel's billionaire playboy hero and a formerly tabloid-friendly Hollywood bad boy.
For a hero whose existence has always been an exercise in unconventional appeal, Tony Stark suddenly has a lot of fans both at home and abroad.
With Iron Man 3 expected to only further solidify his status as one of the big screen's most bankable, A-list superheroes, Tony Stark's evolution may be the best example of how the right combination of elements at just the right time can bring out the best in any character – even a character you're supposed to hate.