In my view, it’s generally a worthwhile and interesting endeavor to try and figure out what makes any popular comic book (or fictional) character that way, but since he’s currently got a number one movie out and ain’t doing too shabby in the periodicals either, let’s take a look at Iron Man for a bit.
Way back when I was in elementary school, I have a pretty distinct memory of going up to a girl in my class during recess and telling her I was related to Iron Man; now though I do feel I developed the flirting gene earlier than most dudes I grew up with (or at least overcame my “girls are icky” phase far sooner than most), I didn’t do this out of any desire to impress a member of the fairer sex, it was just what seemed to my young mind a cool thing to do. Surprisingly though, the lady in question responded to my revelation with, “Yeah, so am I.”
Was either of us actually related to the fictional Armored Avenger? I can say definitely that I at least am not, but the more interesting thing here is that not just a burgeoning comic geek like myself but also a girl who had little to no interest in super heroes both knew who Iron Man was while still in grade school and thought he was impressive enough to feign familial ties with.
I think Iron Man is a character that appeals very quickly and on a very surface level to children and inner children alike. He’s basically a walking action figure, the type of concept that is like candy coated in crack to a kid, as you can go wild over his accessories and the fact that he’s got different suits for different occasions. I also think the idea of “suit of armor” is just easier for people to wrap their head around than something like telepathy, a healing factor, freeze breath or even super speed (to say nothing of the really complex super powers). And the other nice thing about the abilities Iron Man’s suit afford him are that they’re really only limited by the imagination of the writer and/or fan; you can pretty much take any super power from any other hero—flight, super strength, energy projection, invulnerability, sonic blasts, heat blasts, roller skates, etc.—and graft them all onto Iron Man at once with pretty simple if pseudo-science-packed explanations (but that’s part of the fun).
For whatever reason, I also maintain and will stand by as expertly as a color blind person can that the combination of red and yellow (or “gold”) as a character’s costume is inherently pleasing to the eye, particularly for people just getting into comics. It’s the shading scheme for Iron Man and The Flash, but also figures prominently into the looks of Superman, Robin, Captain Marvel (both of them), Deathlok and so on; red’s a good medium between flashy and subdued and yellow just accentuates it well.
But digging deeper beyond the stuff that make a 10-year-old—or 28-year-old in arrested development—smile, the main under the helmet, Tony Stark, is obviously the biggest component of Iron Man’s continued relevance and success, particularly in cinematic form. I give all the credit in the world to Robert Downey Jr. for making Tony Stark simply magnetic and a star around which a cinematic universe can be anchored, but with respect to RDJ, his major accomplishment has been realizing and “getting” a protagonist who came to him with a boatload of upside and potential, not spinning him out of thin air.
Tony Stark is in his own way as unique and groundbreaking a character in the medium of comics as Peter Parker was in his. Where Peter was among the first (and certainly the most prominent) teenage heroes to actually behave like a real teenager, Tony was perhaps the first flawed hero who didn’t necessarily learn from his mistakes, and he’s been alternately succeeding in and failing to do so ever since.
I know a lot of people—particularly non-comic fans exposed via the movie—dig Tony Stark because he’s both cool and far from perfect, while I know many folks, including some of my closest comic-reading buddies, who can’t stand Tony because he is—for lack of a better way to say it—kind of a douche. Indeed what some people really like about the guy is a part of what other people find off-putting, but this is the risk you run with a character as boldly imperfect as Tony Stark.
Superman is more or less infallible in his drive to do the right thing. Spider-Man was born out of a selfish act but has sought to make up for it ever since. Batman is singularly driven to pursue justice due to personal tragedy and adhered to a strict moral code. These are perhaps the three biggest archetypes in comics—though there are countless exceptions to that rule—and while Iron Man takes pieces from each, he does not fully owe his characterization to any.
Tony Stark experienced personal tragedy when he was abducted and had damage done to his heart. He has spent years trying to replace his legacy as a glorified war profiteer and make up for his past by striving for peace. At his heart, he is a guy who wants to do the right thing.
However, despite being a decent man beneath his layers, Tony Stark remains more often than not selfish, arrogant, cavalier and prone to treating people very poorly. He doesn’t do any of these things out of real malice; he’s just a person with a litany of character defects. Comics in general and the Marvel Universe in particular are littered with these types of heroes, but Tony is something of a rarity in that despite being a genius, he doesn’t always learn from his mistakes.
To put it in another way: if Uncle Ben died on Tony’s watch because of something he did, he’d feel terrible about it and do everything in his considerable power to make right the wrong he was responsible for, but there’s no guarantee he’d be so vigilant as to make sure he didn’t commit the same faux pas again the way Peter Parker always is.
Tony Stark always feels he’s the smartest guy in the room and that his way is the right way, regardless of what people tell him. He showed this decades ago during Armor Wars and that didn’t necessarily work out terribly well for him, and yet despite all that event—and its aftermath—cost him, he still took it upon himself to be the be-all, end-all authority during Civil War and beyond. His reward for that was having to induce his own brain-death and watch Norman Osborn run the country.
Despite that, the next time a similar crisis erupts and a judgment call needs to be made, Tony Stark will most likely once again put it on himself to make that call, not necessarily heeding the judgment of those around him. This is partly out of ego and partly out of impatience, but there’s also a part of Tony Stark that just feels taking on the burden of responsibility is the heroic thing to do.
Like I said, some people I know process all of the last few paragraphs and combined with Tony’s general smarminess do not like the character; I get that and he’s certainly not a character you’d expect to be universally-beloved. On the flip side, I do think most of us can see a lot of ourselves in Tony’s basic behaviors, though it might be tough to recognize at first because we don’t possess the resources or abilities to succeed or fail on the epic level he does. Ultimately though, most of us do tend to believe we are right in most instances, most of us will impose our way if we have a chance rather than take the gamble that somebody else’s will fail, and most of us will make the same mistake more than once before learning not to (if indeed we ever do).
Tony Stark is something of a wish fulfillment character in that he’s wealthy, suave and charming, but he’s not a paragon of virtue in the sense that the aforementioned Superman, Spider-Man, et al. are. He’s a hero to be sure, but he’s far from perfect at it. For some people, that makes him among our favorite characters because he’s relatable to the way we are; for others, that makes him a guy they don’t want to read about because that’s not an aspect of themselves they particularly want to explore in escapist fiction.
Iron Man and Tony Stark each have a great many surface-level qualities that make them appealing that I covered early on and there’s a great deal going on a bit deeper that either adds to or subtracts from that appeal depending on where you fall. That Iron Man is not so much a character that creators, actors, directors, etc. feel needs to appeal to all people at all times both contributes to his unique standing in the pantheon of super heroes and perhaps explains the appeal he does possess best of all.