[00:00:00] As always, intro and outro music, as well as all audio production, done by my fabulous team at Podcast FastTrack.
[00:07:12] ❤ Don Cheadle
[00:09:54] Evdokia Stefanopoulou, “Iron Man As Cyborg: Between Masculinities”
[00:11:30] Content warning for discussion of sexual violence from 11:30-13:12 .
Episode 31 Notes
Hello and welcome to Invincible Iron Pod, the unofficial and not remotely connected to Marvel in any capacity podcast. My name is Megan, and in each episode of this show I will be reading and commenting on at least one of the over 2000 comic book appearances made by one Tony Stark, also known as Iron Man.
This is another special week here on Invincible Iron Pod, because it’s week two of our conversation about how the MCU’s version of the Iron Man origin story compares to the comics we’ve read so far. In part one last week, we talked about Tony’s life pre-captivity in both narratives, as well as the socio-political context each version of the character exists within, and how trauma and disability impact their respective stories. Today we’ll be chatting about our supporting characters and comparing their roles in the comics and film. Because it’s me we’ll also have a pretty extended conversation about gender and sexuality (literally no one who has listened to a single other episode of this show should be surprised). We’ll chat about the aesthetics and technology of the suit, and about the role of the secret identity trope and the theme of redemption. There’s a lot of ground to cover, and it’s going to be freakin’ awesome.
My disclaimer from last week obviously applies here too: if you haven’t seen the movie, or it’s been a long time, I’d suggest stopping now and watching it first. But you know, you do you. On a more serious note, I also want to provide a content warning for the fact that this episode will contain a brief conversation about sexual assault in relation to the dynamic between Obidiah Stane and Tony Stark. If this is a trigger area for you, I will make sure to include a time stamp for that discussion in the show notes so that you can skip it if you wish. I will also provide a verbal warning in the show itself right before we get into that material.
Point #4: Supporting Characters
Alright, so without any further preamble let’s just dive right in and talk supporting characters. I think the first one we should talk about is Ho Yinsen. Some of you will remember that in the comics, he was a longtime captive of the North Vietnamese. Tony is thrilled when they’re introduced, because he knows and recognizes Yinsen’s work and he’s a huge fan. It’s honestly super cute.
Now, Yinsen’s overall arc is generally the same, in that he helps Tony develop the Iron Man armour and ends up sacrificing his life to ensure that Tony’s escape is successful. But there are also some subtle, important distinctions between the two representations of the character. In the film, Tony has met Yinsen before at a technical conference, but he doesn’t remember it due to having been pretty wasted the entire evening. But this isn’t just a lazy reversal of the comic dynamic with Yinsen as the fan and admirer.
It’s Yinsen who initially saved Tony’s life, performing the surgery that inserted an electromagnet powered by a car battery into Tony’s chest. The intimacy of that act is very much paralleled on an emotional level. We see the two of them have several emotional conversations, including one where Yinsen, upon learning that Tony has no family to speak of, describes Stark as “a man who has everything…and nothing.” These sentiments that something fundamental is lacking in Tony’s life are later echoed as Yinsen lays dying and begs Stark not to waste his life.
It’s funny because the skeleton of this character is still very much the same, but these shifts in the adaptation dramatically alter his significance. Not only is the character more fleshed out and active, but Yinsen goes from essentially a glorified assistant (admittedly one Tony has high regard for, but still) to a kind of moral compass. In the comics Tony vows to avenge Yinsen’s death, and certainly we do see Tony’s fury in the immediate aftermath. But movie Yinsen’s lasting impact is the way he serves as a kind of mirror to Tony, reflecting him back to himself and triggering the redemption arc that is key to Tony’s journey over the course of the film.
Of course, this does not entirely get away from having a character of colour’s primary purpose being to further the white male protagonist’s journey. However, especially in 2008 I think it would have been relatively easy and even expected for the Yinsen character to be changed out and whitewashed somehow— to an American POW, for instance. So I did appreciate that identification with—and sympathy for—an Afghani character ended up being such a crucial aspect of the movie at a point when American audiences were typically being encouraged to direct hate and fear in the direction of folks like Yinsen.
Next let’s talk Pepper Potts. This one was a bit of a mixed bag for me. When we first meet comics Pepper, she borders on a kind of hero-worship toward Tony, who barely seems to realize she exists until she gets a makeover and covers up her horrible deformities—like, you know, her freckles. The version we get in the movie is much more confident and aware of her value. She teases Tony that he wouldn’t be capable of tying his shoes without her, and she’s perfectly willing to express disagreement when he does things she thinks are dangerous or risky. And blessed be to all of us, there is no love triangle in this movie. That’s because Happy Hogan’s role is sadly minimal, but honestly as much as I love comics Happy, I am completely willing to accept this change.
So far so good, yeah? Here’s where the Pepper characterization gets a little dicey for me, though. She doesn’t just love Tony, she is also incredibly catty and judgemental toward the women he’s with. When she delivers Christine Everhart’s clothes and basically tells her to get out of Tony’s house following their evening together, she refers to Everhart as “trash” she is taking out. (Now yes, before Pepper stans get mad at me, Christine did start it by taunting Pepper about the fact that her role at Stark Industries still involves picking up the dry cleaning. But the fact that Pepper responds to this relatively benign taunt by slut-shaming Everhart is pretty gross. And it’s part of the larger project of the film’s characterization of her, which is to effectively isolate Pepper from pretty much everyone but Tony. She openly says she has no one else, and not only would she never be able to pass the Bechtel test, but she seems to actively hate other women, all while telling Tony that the way he is with “girls” (not women, notably, girls) is “fine.”
I could talk a lot about the role of women in the MCU. Like…a lot. And if that’s something you’d be interested in hearing, you can feel free to let me know and we can see about future episodes down the road. But for now what I’ll say about Pepper is that this was in some ways a bit of an uphill battle. Comics Pepper is great, but there is also some deeply rooted misogyny at the heart of her character, and I would imagine that trying to update her for a contemporary viewer at the same time as not turning her into someone that shares nothing with the source text would be a particular challenge. But I wish that the changes they did make had been less surface-level; I’m glad she’s willing to snark at Tony, sure, but I would be even more thrilled to see Pepper as a well-rounded and developed character who has something beyond Tony Stark.
Finally, let’s talk about the two people in the film that we haven’t met in the comics thus far: James Rhodes and Obadiah Stane. I don’t think it’s spoilery to acknowledge that Rhodes will have a presence in the comics eventually, but the timeline for his role is definitely moved up in the movie. Other than eventually allowing me to stare upon the gloriousness that is Don Cheadle, why this shift? Well partially I think Rhodey ends up fulfilling the role that Happy plays in the comics, just minus the love triangle drama. His character is also one of the first indications we get that there must be more to Tony than meets the eye at the beginning of the movie. Rhodes is presented as someone grounded and well-disciplined, and extremely fond of Tony, whom he views as not living up to his potential. One of my favourite deleted scenes, which I will forever be mad about being cut from the theatrical version, tells us that Rhodey was searching for Tony long past the point where the military wanted to give up the hunt, to the point where he was starting to put his career at risk. Long before Tony is actively making choices that demonstrate he deserves a second chance, the movie does a great job of raising him in our esteem purely through the company he keeps.
And on the opposing end of the spectrum, we have Obadiah Stane. I can honestly say I don’t know whether or not he’ll be showing up in the comics down the road or not, but we can certainly think about how he compares to the villains that Iron Man faces early on in the comics. Our most common recurring villains to this point have been The Mandarin, Black Widow, and Hawkeye. While the latter two are highly sympathetic—a woman who is being forced to serve the Soviet Union and the man who loves her—the Mandarin is more uncomplicatedly evil. We’ve talked a lot about him in past episodes, and especially the way he works to define Iron Man and Tony Stark through similarity and contrast. Both men are highly intelligent, driven, and somewhat individualistic. But of course, these traits are necessarily a threat when associated with a collection of anti-Asian stereotypes, meaning the Mandarin is also depicted as scheming, brutal, and above all else, Othered in a way that is designed to prevent a presumed white readership from sympathizing or identifying with him.
Obadiah Stane is, for me, one of the very best villains the MCU has ever had, in part because he is not what one would expect. He’s a white, cis-male industrialist, set up to be the stern guiding hand that keeps Stark Industries steady in the face of Tony’s much more tumultuous and unpredictable leadership style. Plus he’s an old family friend of the Starks, and therefore has a sort of parental bond with Tony. We’ll get to the ways that that bond is somewhat creepy the entire way through, effectively foreshadowing what’s to come, but on the surface at least, this is the kind of guy that movies like this would usually ask us to root for.
Point #5: Gender and Sexuality
Now, we’re going to move on to point 5, which is gender and sexuality. We’re going to stick with Obie, though, because that conversation definitely isn’t finished, and we’re also going to talk about Tony. Because just like with the Mandarin in the comics, we gain a lot of understanding of who the film version of Tony Stark is through contrast with the villain he’s facing off against.
Alright, so last week I mentioned Evdokia Stefanopoulou’s piece, “Iron Man as Cyborg.” You might recall that the article contends that after being reborn in Afghanistan—which Stefanopoulou is made quite clear in the imagery of him emerging from a womb-like cave—one of the binaries that Tony is no longer situated neatly within is that of gender. Now I want to be clear that the claim here is not that Tony goes into Afghanistan a masculinist douche and emerges a perfect, progressive feminist. I mean the super gross transphobic joke he makes at the Air Force base alone would soundly disqualify him from that category. But Stefanopoulou does argue that Tony emerges a more sensitive, considerate person, ‘softened’ in all kinds of ways that associate him at least partially with a feminine subjectivity. And we see this in all kinds of ways, from the big moments—his refusal to produce any more super phallic weapons—to the small—like when he defends his role as Iron Man to Pepper by telling her knows in his heart that it is the right course for him.
This is effectively contrasted by Obidiah’s character. Unlike Tony’s traumatic rebirth, which has changed him from the inside out as a person, Obadiah only makes use of the stolen Iron Man technology as a kind of external shell. He uses the suit to make himself into what Stefanopoulou calls a “meaner, larger, darker version of [Tony]” that essentially exaggerates the worst parts of Stark’s masculinity while stripping him of all other personality traits.
This climax of this particular conflict is, I would suggest, not the final fight sequence, but rather the scene immediately preceding it when Obadiah takes the arc reactor out of Tony’s chest. (Content warning for discussions of dynamics resembling sexual assault are to follow here, so take care listening folks.) I am not even close to the first to point out how incredibly intimate, creepy, and bordering on a kind of sexual assault this sequence feels. I mean Obie is all but crooning to Tony as he leans into him and rips the device from his chest. And it’s foreshadowed so well in almost every scene the two share together. Stane is constantly touching Tony—a hand on his shoulder, buttoning up his shirt after Tony has shown him the arc reactor as Stane himself insisted. He’s naked when Tony video calls him from Afghanistan. So at the same time as he’s setting himself up as a sort of Father figure, constantly invoking Howard Stark and claiming he knows how Howard would respond to particular decisions Tony makes, we get the sense even before the details of his betrayal unfold that something just isn’t right with the guy.
It’s a hard scene to watch, and I think it’s absolutely brilliant storytelling. What makes Obie work so well as a villain for me is the intimacy of his treachery. Scenes like this one brilliantly connect violence at so many levels; he’s doing this horrible thing to someone he loves and who trusts him, and it’s the same utter lack of empathy and amped-up toxic masculinity that also allows him to deal weapons in all kinds of shady ways that worsen global conflicts while actively profiting from them. Other than Black Panther’s Killmonger, who was a brilliant villain for entirely different reasons, I don’t know that the MCU has ever matched Obidiah Stane. This is also why I think killing him off in the first movie was a tremendously bad idea, but that’s a rant for another time.
Okay. Other gender and sexuality stuff. So last time we talked a little bit about how the film undoes some of the problematic stuff from the comics, where there’s this persistent presumed link between disability and asexuality. But it does so, I noted, by immediately having Tony turn toward heterosexual monogamy as the one true path. When we also take into account the absence of the love triangle—a trope that pretty much always has at least some degree of bisexual overtones—Iron Man would seem to be shaping up to be an almost excessively straight film.
For the most part that’s honestly pretty true, with one key exception: Lt. Colonel James Rhodes. Yes, they do give Rhodes that silly homophobic line about how he doesn’t blow on other men’s dice. That’s a thing that happens for sure. But we also get a lot of material that counteracts or at least complicates that. I already talked about that deleted scene that reveals the extent of Rhodey’s willingness to put his entire life on hold to find Tony when he was in captivity, even when all the evidence seemed to suggest he was dead. Even before that on the plane, the two of them have a very couple-like banter, and even the moments when Rhodey is at his most furious with Tony, they’re all basically rooted in him wanting Tony to have support and to recognize that he’s capable of more and better. There’s another great deleted scene, actually—why did they delete all the good Rhodey/Tony stuff, anyway?—where Tony has gone off to fool around with one of the flight attendants, and Rhodey is being pretty clearly hit on by another. But he’s barely paying attention to this poor woman, because he just wants to rant about how great Tony is.
Look, I get why Steve and Bucky get much more attention as the clearly queer couple of the MCU. I honestly don’t know how to read The Winter Soldier as anything but a love story. Rhodes and Tony though, they honestly come pretty close in my mind, especially in this particular instalment of the franchise. So thanks to you, James Rhodes, for taking a movie that otherwise would have broken my little bisexual heart, and adding a tiny splash of rainbow.
And since we’re already on this point, let’s stop here for our Bisexuality Metre. Look, when I first started re-watching the movie and scripting these episodes, I thought it was going to be a pretty close race. I mean, Robert Downey Junior’s performance in these movies in some ways feels like bisexual chaos energy personified. And I do give him major points for that, and for every single time he calls Rhodey Sour Patch and related cutesy nicknames.
And the comics started in the 60s! There’s no way they could possible win an Iron Man v. Iron Man showdown for the bisexuality metre champion, right? …team, it’s not even close. Comics Tony takes it by a mile. We’ve seen this guy sub out to Cleopatra, do a Mr. and Mr. Smith thing by falling in love with Ivan Vanko, get entangled in a love triangle with his two closest (and maybe only) friends…yeah, while movie Tony gets a respectable 6/10, I’d have to go ahead and give comics Tony and 7 or an 8 overall. When we come back to some of the later movies, I imagine it’ll be a much tighter battle. But for now, go to the corner and think about what you’ve done, Movie Tony—and yes, now I guess I am talking about that horrible transphobic joke again!
Point #6: The Iron Man Armour
Alright, next up is going to be a kind of short, breather segment in between some heavier content. Let’s talk about the suit!
Let’s get the most obvious point out of the way first: the film does raise the possibility of starting with the same aesthetic as the comics (the fully gold armour), but quickly makes a kind of meta joke out of the possibility by having Tony call it “a little ostentatious.” More than anything I suspect this is mostly just about streamlining the armour development process and getting it more quickly to the design that most people would remember and recognize. Plus the gold probably wouldn’t look great on film. But you might remember that the gold suit comes up in the context of Tony trying to make Iron Man look more friendly and inviting to civilians. A date of his suggests the gold, and explicitly associates the aesthetic with Arthurian legends—you know, knights, chivalry, all that fun stuff.
For me it makes sense to kind of gloss over that phase. No one even knows about Iron Man yet, plus the ableism that was underpinning people’s reactions in the comics is not really a factor in how Tony thinks about what the suit looks like. And thematically, Iron Man the Golden Knight doesn’t really work with the story that’s being told here.
Other important changes are the fact that the comics Iron Man armour relied on what was essentially exaggerated version of real life technology—transistors, magnets, suction cups, all that fun stuff. So the joy in following the suit at that point was rooted very much in recognizing the technology of that time being put to use in all these spectacular ways. Again, really fitting for the time period, which was so much about celebrating American superiority in all the things and imagining this big, bright future ahead.
The movie version, meanwhile, is simplified and stripped down. We don’t get any of the hilarious and charming utility-belt kind of additions. The suit’s entire function is basically rooted in three things: the repulsors that allow it to fly, the arc reactor that serves as its power source, and the artificial intelligence powering the heads up display that allows for things like extremely precise targeting and navigation. It’s worth noting that two out of three of these technologies—the repulsors and the arc reactor—are entirely fictional, and that the third is so advanced from where current AI technology is that it’s almost unrecognizable. This suggests an interesting shift in how we’re now thinking about technology. There are clearly places we want to go—like clean alternative energy—but we don’t seem to have as clear of a sense of how we think we’re going to get there. These are technologies rooted in the imagination rather than in a kind of aspirational extension of existing products.
There could be all kinds of reasons for this, including the fact that contemporary film viewers understand a lot more about how things work than comics readers in the 60s might have known about, for instance, transistors. So it might be asking for too much suspension of disbelief to present an existing piece of tech and claim it’s a source of inexhaustible clean energy. But beyond the practical, we might also read this as indicative of a shift away from that boundless national optimism that characterized the postwar years. By 2008 we were all well aware there were many problems the United States could not solve, and in fact several they seemed to be actively making worse. (Sorry, neighbours, I call ‘em like I see ‘em!) So the changes in the Iron Man suit could also be seen as illustrative of a more cynical—and realistic—vision of what the nation has to offer.
Point #7: Identities, Secret and Otherwise
Alright. Now I suspect that if I made a word cloud—remember those? They were such a big deal for like a year and now you never see them—of all the scripts for this show so far, one of the most commonly used terms would be identity. We had a three episode long conversation about the secret identity trope, because it’s such a big thing in the Iron Man comics, just as it was in many others of its time period. Because of the length of that discussion I won’t recap all of it, but I will remind us of the big points:
- The secret or dual identity represents a kind of schism in American consciousness between the communal and the individual.
- The trope also embodies a similar tension at the level of labour, this time between the Organization—bound by rules and social networks of belonging—and the outlaw—individualistic and working outside existing structures.
- Finally, the dual identity is tied to a crisis of masculinity. The superhero, human enough to want and super enough to never be able to fulfill those desires, embodies a masculinity that’s full of anxiety, always under threat of collapsing.
So comics Tony is basically always undergoing this complex array of negotiations between all of these states—human and machine, communal and individual, organization and outlaw, masculinity and femininity—that are supposed to be firm binaries and which are constantly shifting under his feet.
And then movie Tony Stark strolls up in the joint, stands up on the podium at the end of the movie, and declares “I am Iron Man.” Now, I will fully admit that as a comics newbie, and as one who watched the MCU movies for the first time out of order, I did not have any idea what a big deal this was the first time I saw it. I felt like oh okay that’s nice. Even once I started to get a sense of the history and heard all the on-set stories about this moment, I think I really didn’t fully get it until I started reading the comics and doing this show. Like. Holy crap, team.
To be honest, I think in some ways I’m still digesting the entirety of how this changes the story and the character. And I can only partially answer some of these questions because I think events from subsequent films become really relevant in how I approach this moment. But one thing I will say at this point is that I don’t think the elimination of the secret identity storyline means that all the tensions I just outlined are resolved. Far, far from it. I would say that instead part of what is at stake for all the characters in the MCU but especially Tony Stark is the question of how to continue negotiating these conditions without the benefit of being able to conceal certain parts of yourself.
Here’s what I mean: yes, the dual identity thing is about anxiety and the struggle to conceal a part of yourself at all times. But they also allow people to work through difficult questions with some degree of privacy. I mean, think about what’s at stake in these exploded binaries we’ve been discussing. What does it mean to be a global citizen in 2008? Who am I responsible to? What does it mean to be a man? How do I remain an individual while also expressing care and support for others within a set of social structures? Even for someone with the immense amount of wealth and privilege that Tony Stark has, these are not small or simple questions to be trying to work out in the public eye.
So I guess what I’m saying is that at the same time as the movie brilliantly does away with the dual identity trope, there’s still a kind of lingering question about whether it’s possible for Tony Stark and Iron Man to exist long term in any sustainable kind of a way, and without going into future movies too much, I think it’s a question that sort of haunts the rest of the MCU.
Point #8: Redemption
Alright, thank you for those of you who have stayed with me for so long. I know this has been a longer episode than normal, and we are nearing the end. But there’s one common thread that has tied together almost every smaller piece of the puzzle we’ve spent the last two episodes talking about, so before we’re done, we need to bring all those pieces together and talk about redemption.
Let’s talk about the comics first, because that’s in many ways a pretty short conversation. Initially, the comics do not figure Tony Stark as needing to be redeemed for anything because he is not at fault. Yes, maybe it’s about time he settle down with a nice girl, but beyond that, we’re constantly reminded that Tony’s story is a tragic one because he is not imagined as having any misdeeds that his misfortunes are atoning for.
This might change as the comics go on. We of course have the spectre of Senator Byrd on the horizon, and through him a potentially escalating tension between Tony Stark and the government. And I mean these comics go on for decades, so certainly I would imagine that how they understand Tony Stark—both who he was at the beginning of the series and who he will go on to be—will shape and evolve with the time. But in terms of the origin story offered in the issues we’ve encountered so far, redemption is not a particularly important element at play.
Things couldn’t be more different in the film. Redemption is perhaps the key theme of this movie. And there’s a lot of levels that it’s working on; redemption not just for Tony Stark, a careless, wealthy weapons manufacturer turned superhero with a heart of gold, but also for Robert Downey Junior, for Marvel Studios…Redemption is this almost palpable force shaping everything going on in front of and behind the camera.
Again I want to be careful and attentive to how we frame that redemption. This is not an anti-war film. This is not a feminist nor a leftist depiction of the undoing of toxic masculinity and capitalism and all the ways those two forces thrive in one another’s company. We are basically being asked to celebrate a billionaire, white, cis-male character for re-learning to recognize the humanity in other people, and in himself, and for acting in accordance with that recognition. That many of us did and do celebrate him for that might feel depressing.
But I also think that in some ways the nature of this redemption is even more urgent a message now than it was in 2008. And here’s what I mean. I think if the last couple of years have encouraged us to recognize anything, it’s the basic sociopathy at the heart of capitalism—and racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. which for me are sort of baked right into how modern capitalism works. We’ve watched and sort of learned to accept as basic fact that the folks at the top of the heap have no regard for the dignity, well-being, or life of those at the bottom. The veil has sort of come off in that respect, given that we’ve had folks on the news essentially saying we just have to be cool with elderly people, immunocompromised people, and children dying for the sake of the economy.
But Iron Man asks to imagine that perhaps the world might work differently—at least a little. It doesn’t do away with billionaires or anything too radical, but it does ask us to imagine how we might not do away entirely with any semblance of a social contract, and the empathy, compassion, and self-sacrifice that that contract sometimes involves. It envisions a situation where there is no amount of privilege that precludes caring for those with less, and no moment where it is too late to start caring if you’ve stopped. And I think that matters. I think given some of the problems facing our world that has to matter if we don’t want to just collectively drop into a pit of despair and never get up again.
Closing Notes and Readers Like You
Phew. That got heavier than I expected. But dang this was fun. I love the Iron Man movies so it was not a surprise to me that it was fun to go back there. What did really end up surprising me about this process, though, was how much I’ve come to like comics Tony on his own terms, too. I think before doing this I felt slightly afraid that I would start talking about the movies and realize that I’m just an MCU stan disguised as someone attempting to like the comics for street cred or something. But comparing the different version of the character made me recognize how genuinely fond I am of each of them. The movie is a great adaptation, and there is also value and fun to be had in going back to the source material.
Speaking of which, next week we’re going to be going back to our regular format by covering the comics. We’ll be looking at Tales of Suspense #68 for that episode. In the meantime, if you have thoughts about these most recent couple of episodes I would love to hear them. How do the Tonys compare for you? Was there anything I didn’t cover that you want to talk about? Or anything I said you disagreed with? Do you want to try this again when it makes sense to deal with Iron Man 2? Let me know on Twitter or Tumblr both @invinciblepod, or by email at email@example.com . And if you’ve been enjoying the show, please be an everyday superhero and take a few minutes to rate, review, and/or share.
And tune in next week, where
-Happy returns to Stark Industries
-And Tony begins to question his sanity (Baby, we’ve been doing that for weeks, where have you been?)
Until then, thanks for listening! This has been the Invincible Iron Pod!