At the risk of stating the obvious, a key component of Iron Man’s mythology is the suit of armor. And all the science and engineering research and development that Tony Stark has poured into that suit—and related technology—through Stark Industries.
With the next Marvel Studies movie (“Iron Man 3”) coming up in May, I thought this was a good time to reflect back on the Armored Avenger and some of the key moments in his last half century of life. What you read below is my chronological “Top 10” list of epic technological outcomes for the Man of Metal.
1. Tales of Suspense #39 from March 1963 “Iron Man Is Born!”
2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the Invincible Iron Man. So let’ start by pointing out his debut in a story penned by Stan Lee and Larry Lieber with art by Don Heck and lettering by Art Simek. This is the original Iron Man origin story with Tony Stark injured in Viet Nam. Tony, along with professor Ho Yinsen, is forced by evil Wong-Chu to build weapons. Instead they build the original Iron Man “gray armor.” This suit is really just like a heavily reinforced suit of armor with some rockets and limited weapons. My favorite quote is Tony Stark to Wong-Chu: “You are not facing a wounded dying man now—or an aged, gentle professor! This is Iron Man who opposes you and all you stand for!” In fact this quote makes me wonder—where are all the young, aggressive professors when you really need them?
2. Tales of Suspense #48 from December 1963 “The New Iron Man Battles… The Mysterious Mr. Doll!”
Tony creates a new red and gold armor system that is much reduced in bulkiness. It may seem a subtle advance, but it is a much more anthropomorphic suit. This means he can move in it much more easily and the armor is also shown as modular and storable. While it looks much more awe-inspiring, it is less safe and protective against concussive impacts than the old armor.
3. Invincible Iron man #218 “Deep Trouble” from 1987. In this story Tony Stark develops an additional exoskeleton to fit over his Iron Man armor so he can go deep sea diving. This fantastic armor is shown in Panel “C” of the Figure below. Notice how it is pretty close to the general design ideas in the “swimmable” Newtsuit and Exosuits (shown in the A and B panels) and created by inventor Phil Nuytten. I really like this link between science fact and science fiction. I also really like how Tony wears the Iron Man helmet even while inside the additional exoskeleton for deep water action.
4. Iron Man #284 from September 1992 “Legacy of Iron”
This is the full debut of Jim Rhodes as War Machine. Tony (in a “posthumous” transmission) tells Rhodey he created the new heavily militarized armor specifically for him and his body. This hints at the need for customized armor and the fact that a neuroprosthetic as advanced as the Iron Man and War Machine suits cannot simply be worn like clothing off a rack. Personal tuning and a lot of training are needed.
5. Iron Man #290 from March 1993 “This Year’s Model”
Tony is partially paralyzed and it is uncertain whether he will be able to regain movement. So he creates a remote control “telepresence armor” (NTU-150) that makes use of remote control via a brain implant and headset. The general idea presages concepts of brain-machine interfaces being explored now. But not for controlling robot suits of armor. Yet.
6. Iron Man (Volume 4) #1-6 from January 2005 to May 2006 “Extremis” story arc
This is the arc that unveils the brilliant concept of the “Extremis” neural interface armor. It was written under the gifted hand of Warren Ellis with amazing art by Adi Granov. Iron Man’s origin story is updated from Viet Nam to the Gulf War and the concept of a neural interface for the Iron Man suit is described. As I argue extensively in “Inventing Iron Man”, the Extremis armor is the closest to what would be needed for the whole Iron Man concept to work with a biological human body—as a fully integrated neuroprosthetic. Lots of indications in advance of Iron Man 3 suggest Extremis will play a major part in the plot.
7. Iron Man #1-6 from March to August 2007 in special “Iron Man: Hypervelocity” series
In “Hypervelocity,” the Iron Man armor gains sentience and goes berserk. It flies around without a “pilot” wreaking havoc until Tony, using older armor, eventually defeats it. A good warning of the delicate balance between needing to create almost autonomous armor that can be controlled by a human user with safeguards (think Isaac Asimov’s 3 laws of robotics) holding it in check and in control.
8. Marvel Studios Films Iron Man (2008)
This movie introduced the motorized robotic equipment for dressing Tony Stark in Iron Man armor. Right now we don’t even have the technology to safely dress Tony Stark in the Iron Man as shown in the robotics, let alone create the Iron Man armor itself. I suggest the closest we are is dressing automobiles. The 2013 Ford Escape has been reckoned as deriving from one of the most automated manufacturing processes yet seen. But we are not yet able to safely place armor plating on a human via robot controls.
9. Iron Man (Volume 5) Invincible Iron Man #8 from February 2009 “World’s Most Wanted # 1: Shipbreaking” (and continued in 6 parts until July 2009).
Under the deft penmanship of Matt Fraction, this storyline uses concepts from Warren Ellis’ neural interface of “Extremis” with “biological upgrading” of humans and direct nanotech interface. A neat twist in this story arc is the introduction of Pepper Potts to the Extremis procedure. During which she wonders “…Where is the line drawn? Between man and machine? Where does…humanity end?” This is followed up by Pepper discovering a special suit of armor for her—officially known as the MARK 1616. But it’s commonly known as “Rescue” because it was designed for “heavy rescue and recovery”. Pepper in the Rescue suit really is the ultimate application of one-time military technology for full-on civilian use. In Part 5 of “World’s Most Wanted” Pepper says “There’s not a single weapon anywhere on this suit. Everything is defensive, protective…I kind of love it.”
10. Iron Man 2 (2010)
At his birthday party, Tony Stark is shown wearing and using the Iron Man suit while heavily intoxicated. Jim Rhodes dons the spare (soon to become War Machine) armor to try and subdue him. Blasts go off and huge armored bodies crash through large chunks of the building. This scene riffs heavily on the story lines in the classic David Michelinie story arc “Demon in a Bottle” from the ‘80s. It also shows very clearly the horrific implications of mixing technology and alcohol abuse. Here it’s in the form of a fictional suit of armor, but it stands as a metaphor for our use of commonly found “exoskeletons”—our cars.
11. Yes. I know this is a Top 10 list. But in homage to the heavy metal theme, I’m going all “Spinal Tap” here—my list goes to 11.
And at number 11 I am going to plug my own revised origin story for the Golden Avenger found in Inventing Iron man (2011). Instead of a chest plate magnetic field to keep shrapnel from his heart, I prefer that Tony had an arrhythmia. His life- threatening arrhythmia (let’s give him ventricular fibrillation) means that the intrinsic electrical pacing that causes Tony’s heart to contract and to pump blood is not working correctly. As a result of this arrhythmia, Tony’s heart beats irregularly either too fast or too slow or with gaps. Because of this he creates and has surgically implanted a cardioverting defibrillator (ICD). The ICD monitors his heart rate and then provides electrical shocks to reset his heart rhythm when he has a problem. I hope Stan Lee forgives me, but I like this version better.
That brings us to the end of my list celebrating Iron Man’s Golden Anniversary. Now we just have to sit back and wait for the intersection points where real science fact often catches up with—and occasionally exceeds—comic book science fiction.