published Monday, April 29th, 2013

After 50 years, fans of Iron Man appreciate his humanity as much as his heroics

Robert Downey Jr. plays Tony Stark in the "Iron Man" series.
Robert Downey Jr. plays Tony Stark in the "Iron Man" series.
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

THE SUIT

In Iron Man's case, the suit literally makes the hero. During a half century of comics, the armor has gone through dozens of variations, including self-repair, stealth and travel though space and underwater. In general, however, the following characteristics remain consistent across the many iterations:

1. Superhuman strength: With the aid of Iron Man armor, the pilot is capable of lifting about 100 tons.

2. Supersonic flight: The jet boots can propel Iron Man at speeds up to Mach 8 (about 6,000 mph) and can be employed in space or underwater.

3. Radar resistance: The armor is coated in a stealth coating to avoid radar detection and to prevent missile-lock.

4. Advanced computer: Integrated artificial intelligence allows the suit to act autonomously, automatically monitor a suite of sensors and target multiple threats simultaneously.

5. Repulsor technology: Iron Man's primary weapon system can direct powerful particle beams out of palm-mounted emitters in the suit's gauntlets.

6. Arc reactor: Located in the center of Iron Man's chest plate, a high-yield reactor provides power for the suit's other systems and is the site of the Unibeam, a multi-purpose tractor/laser beam and searchlight.

BY THE NUMBERS

$1.2 billion: Combined worldwide ticket sales for "Iron Man" and "Iron Man 2."

200: The official weight in pounds of the Iron Man suit, according to Marvel Comics.

12 cents: Street price of the "Tales of Suspense (1963) No. 39," in which Iron Man makes his comic book debut.

$72,000: Price paid at auction in 2011 for the same issue, in mint condition.

12: Iron Man's position on pop culture website IGN.com's list of Top 100 Comic Book Heroes.

2: Number of custom-built Rolls Royce Phantoms (estimated value $760,000-$900,000) that were destroyed during production of "Iron Man 2."

Source: The Internet Movie Database, Marvel.com, Box Office Mojo

MARVELOUS MUST-KNOWS

Think you know your Iron Man lore? Try these factoids on for size.

1. Iron Man alias Tony Stark's middle name is Edward.

2. Out of his suit, Stark is 6 foot 1, but as Iron Man, he crests 6 foot 6.

3. At one point Stark's career, he served as U.S. Secretary of Defense.

4. So far, fans of the movies have seen seven variations of the Iron Man armor, but in the comic book, Stark has developed more than 40 variations for different purposes.

5. Stark's playboy genius personality was inspired by eccentric, wealthy inventor Howard Hughes.

6. In his first comic book appearance, Iron Man's suit was all gray. It was replaced with a gold version in the next issue, and later came the familiar gold-and-red armor.

7. The prop used in the first film to represent the prototype Iron Man armor weighed 90 pounds.

8. According his Marvel bio, Stark graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at age 17 with degrees in physics and engineering.

9. Iron Man's first appearance on the screen was in the 1966 animated series "The Marvel Super Heroes."

10. In early issues of "Iron Man," the character was pitted against many Vietnamese villains, a reflection of the war but a decision that series creator Stan Lee later said he regretted.

FREE COMIC BOOKS

On Saturday, local comic shops will celebrate Free Comic Book Day by giving away special issues printed just for the occasion. Shops purchase issues at a substantial discount from a catalog of more than 50 comics, which this year includes a special lead-up to Marvel's upcoming "Infinity" story arc, featuring Iron Man and his Avengers teammates. Participating shops this year include:

Comic Hound, 6743 Ringgold Road, East Ridge

B&M Amusement Com-pany, 5036B Highway 58

Epikos Comics, Cards and Games, 9408 Apison Pike, Suite No. 9, Ooltewah

Dicehead Games and Comics, 200 Paul Huff Park-way No. 702, Cleveland, Tenn.

IRON MAN IN THE DYNAMO OF DIXIE

Chattanoogans will recognize at least one scene in "Iron Man 3" -- sort of. In July 2012, The Daily News in Jackson, N.C., reported that scenes from the film were being recorded in Rose Hill, N.C., and Kenansville, N.C, towns of less than 850 that had been dressed up to resemble wintertime Chattanooga. Details about the role the Scenic City plays in the film are scarce, but news reports last year suggest Rose Hill will serve as the site of a fictional Christmas parade through a doppelganger of downtown Chattanooga.

He has Hugh Hefner's libido, Bill Gates' bank account, Stephen Hawking's IQ and a suit of high-tech armor with enough firepower to make the Joint Chiefs of Staff drool.

Tony Stark, the alter ego of Marvel Comics' legendary Iron Man, has many heroic attributes, but since his introduction 50 years ago, he also has shown himself to be deeply flawed and vulnerable.

He has faced many all-too-human challenges, including a recurring struggle with alcoholism and an overriding arrogance that frequently alienates him from his friends and allies. Without his armor, Stark is frail, an ordinary person -- if an extremely wealthy one -- and has been critically injured on numerous occasions, including several heart attacks and a paralyzing spinal injury.

The equal emphasis that writers have placed on Iron Man's human and superhuman qualities is what makes him so interesting, say fans of the character's comics and films, the latest of which, "Iron Man 3," hits theaters on Friday.

"Iron Man is literally a shell. On the inside, he is just a man," says Carson Foley, 22, a tour guide at Ruby Falls who puts Iron Man at the top of his list of favorite characters. "He's just like any of us, but on the outside, he has this awesome power."

A PRODUCT OF THE TIMES

That balancing act between hero and superhero has defined Iron Man since 1963, when Marvel Comics introduced him in "Tales of Suspense No. 39" by Stan Lee, who also created characters such as Spider-Man, Hulk and The X-Men.

At the time of Iron Man's creation, public sentiment -- particularly among young adults -- was turning against the Vietnam War. As an armsmaker-turned-hero, Tony Stark/Iron Man tested whether the public could learn to love what they despised, Lee explained in the 2007 documentary "Marvel: Then & Now."

"At the time we did Iron Man, I was feeling a bit cocky," Lee explains in the film. "I said, 'I'm going to come up with a character who represents everything everybody hates and shove it down their throats.' The funny thing is, the book did very well."

In some ways, Iron Man's weaknesses were a breakout from the comic norm, an experiment in emphasizing the man behind the mask, says Shane Grubb, owner of Dicehead Games and Comics in Cleveland, Tenn.

"There was a time in the '60s and '70s when all the characters were really just the same with a different look," he says. "Iron Man was Marvel's first really big step out to bringing character to their heroes."

Of course, he adds, just as many fans are drawn in by Iron Man's signature armor, which originally was introduced as a means of preventing a deadly piece of shrapnel from reaching Stark's heart.

"When I was a kid, it was all about how cool he looked," Grubb says. "The suits are what everyone is always talking about when it comes to him."

SUPER HERO TO SUPERSTAR

Although he was a favorite of comic book fans for decades, Iron Man hit the pop culture mainstream with the first live-action film in 2008. Critics credit much of the success of "Iron Man" to leading man Robert Downey Jr., who they say fit the role of a flippant, sarcastic hero like a tailored, armored glove.

"So comfortable is Downey with Tony Stark's dialogue, so familiar does it sound coming from him, that the screenplay seems almost to have been dictated by Downey's persona," reads the Chicago Sun-Times review written by the late Roger Ebert. "At the end of the day it's ... Downey ... who powers the lift-off separating this from most other superhero movies."

After the first film's homage to the character, fans say they felt let down slightly by 2010's "Iron Man 2," which they say felt more like a teaser for "The Avengers" movie than a true successor to the first film.

Nevertheless, Foley says, he has high hopes for "Iron Man 3" when it opens Friday.

"I saw the first one on opening night and the second one on opening night, so the third one? I'll be there," he says. "I'm looking forward to it."

Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, young adults, technology and people of interest. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German. He previously worked as the features editor for Sidelines at Middle Tennessee State University. Casey received the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists Award of Excellence for Reviewing/Criticism in ...

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