Some people believe that when it comes to clothes and fashion, you get what you paid for. Well this week’s column spotlights a guy who wears a special red and gold suit that, according to him, costs roughly four billion dollars to make and maintain.
Ever since becoming the hero called Iron Man, Tony Stark (inventor, futurist AND wealthy businessman) has been known as the “cool exec with a heart of steel.” Some superheroes may change their threads on occasion, but our Armored Avenger here is a technologist of the highest order and tends to upgrade and modify his armor more often than Apple comes out with new computers.
So let’s take a look at Ol’ Shellhead’s wardrobe. Now, Tony has often utilized specialty armors for specific times when he had to do something such as fight the Hulk or battle with Thor or travel to other planets. He’s also occasionally used robot Iron Men who were under his control via telepresence. And there have been experimental models that only lasted for a single story or a few issues. In order to keep this column trimmed down, we’re omitting those cases and focusing on the main, all-purpose suits of armor that Tony considered to be the new status quo.
We will not discuss the “Crossing” storyline with Evil Tony and Teen Tony because it was a bad idea and should not be discussed. If you think that’s an unfair bias, keep in mind this is a column and not a documentary.
Tony Stark was a young, brilliant scientist who inherited his father’s company and made high-tech military weapons. Months after designing an exo-skeleton called the “Iron Man,” Tony took a trip into a war zone and wound up injured by one of his own weapons. A piece of shrapnel was now in his body, pressing against his heart. He was then captured by agents of the warlord known as the Mandarin, who demanded that Stark create an invincible weapon for him. To help him, the Mandarin’s forces had also captured Ho Yinsen, a brilliant physicist and “medical futurist.”
Pretending to agree to the Mandarin’s demands, Tony and Yinsen first created a magnetic-field generator (later called a “repulsor generator”) that attached to Tony’s chest and held the shrapnel in place. To escape his captors, Tony then had Yinsen help him build a new, improved version of the Iron Man exo-skeleton that would be powered by the same mag-field generator. Tony was able to use this armor to escape, but was forced to wear the repulsor generator on his chest for years until an operation at last fixed his heart.
Almost immediately after escaping, Tony found himself drawn to using the Iron Man identity to live the double life of a superhero. Sometimes working alone, sometimes working alongside the team known as the Avengers, of which he is a founding member, Iron Man has acted as a hero for years and is constantly changing and updating his armor. For years, the world believed that the armored Avenger was a man employed by Tony Stark, a sort of high-tech security agent and bodyguard, but in recent times the truth was revealed. Nowadays, Tony has become one with his armor, able to summon it at will. Obsessed with preparing for the future, Iron Man is ready to take on any threat to humanity.
So here we are with the original make-shift armor, which appeared in the very first Iron Man story, published in Tales of Suspense #39 in March, 1963. The comics have recently designated this suit as the “Mark 0 armor” since it was basically a proto-type that Tony only used to escape his captors, one that he rebuilt as soon as he got back to the United States.
This is, literally, an Iron Man. Looking at it, there’s no way you can mistake this guy for “steel man” or “aluminum man” or “tin man.” Adding to this is the shape of the suit. It’s mobile, clearly, but it’s also bulky and gives a definite impression of weight, a quality we mentally associate with iron. Seeing this figure walk in the comic, a reader can imagine the heavy, metallic sounds his footfalls make. Yet this impression provides an interesting contrast because this armor also has pressurized jets that allow our hero limited flight.
Looking at this armor, we might easily guess that Iron Man is a villain or a robotic Frankenstein monster. The helmet recalls iron masks that certain prisoners of history were forced to wear. This is interesting because, at this time, Tony Stark was indeed a prisoner of the armor.
If its repulsor power generator was drained during the course of a serious battle or if it simply ran out of power, the magnetic field would shut off and the shrapnel at his heart would kill him within minutes (this was before he’d perfected repulsor technology to be self-sustaining). Tony was living on borrowed time and the suit he wore reminded him of that every second.
And considering that Tony Stark, a weapons maker, has just been captured by people who demanded he make even greater weapons to help them kill innocents and his own countrymen, the Frankenstein association is fitting. Tony, in being forced to make a device that actually preserves life, has finally realized the darkness he is partly responsible for.
So for this specific origin story, this suit is pretty near perfect.
MARK 1 ARMOR – GRAY TO GOLD
Tony eventually got home, of course. Realizing the potential good he could do as a superhero, he went to his lab and created a new version of the Mark 0 armor. Its outward appearance was identical to the proto-type armor he and Yinsen had built, but it was equipped with more and better devices, technology which could be miniaturized thanks to the resources of Stark Industries.
Naturally, Tony couldn’t wear the armor underneath his civilian clothes in the same way that many superheroes wear their skin-tight uniforms hidden beneath a shirt and trousers. In the very second Iron Man story, we learned that Tony had built the Mark I suit in tiny layers rather than large pieces, making it akin to chain-mail. When deactivated, the suit was collapsible and could be folded into a special attache case. When Tony turned on the power cells, magnetic fields caused the suit to become rigid armor that was powered by the repulsor generator on his chest.
Tony realized though that his menacing appearance was making the public afraid of him. A girlfriend remarked that Iron Man should be adorned in gold to symbolize that he was a modern-day shining knight and our hero followed this advice by giving this suit of armor a new paint job.
This new look definitely makes Iron Man symbolize the optimistic promise of what technology can do for us, rather than the stern warning the Mark 0 armor gave. But here’s the problem: he’s still a creepy robot. That look worked in the origin story for the reasons we’ve explained and because that origin was very a militaristic, survival tale.
Once you shift gears and turn Iron Man into a superhero story though, you need more than a simple paint job. Tony looks like he’s getting ready to guest-star on Lost in Space. This is the early 1960s, yes, but even readers of the time sometimes wondered why Tony could not make his suit more form-fitting if he was also smart enough to make the armor fit into a brief case.
Fun trivia. The golden armor is briefly referenced in the first Iron Man movie when the computer A.I. program J.A.R.V.I.S. initially designs a version of the suit to be of a gold-titanium alloy. In the film, Tony sees this all gold look and then suggests having parts of it colored red, which leads us to …
Artists Jack Kirby, Don Heck and Larry Lieber may have been fine with Tony’s bulky look, but when Steve Ditko (co-creator of Spider-Man) became the new artist of the series, he decided to redesign the whole thing. A few issues after Ditko took over, Iron Man faced a villain who could over-ride his armor controls. To adjust to this new foe, Tony had to design a new suit and decided to pull out all the stops. It would be significantly more form-fitting and lighter in weight, allowing Iron Man to maneuver better while also creating less strain on his power cells and his weakened heart.
We have here the first red-and-gold model, the “hot-rod” look as Robert Downey, Jr. called it in the first Iron Man film. At last, we have some contrast of colors, which is definitely more visually appealing. The form-fitting nature of the arm and leg coverings, and the slimmed down look, at last emphasize the “MAN” in Iron Man. This is no longer a Frankenstein-born creature or a shiny robot. This is clearly a person in a suit of armor and, more importantly, a superhero.
This implies a greater freedom and mobility than the previous models. In the world of comic book science, I have no problem believing that Iron Man can walk, run and even fly without tripping from the weight he’s carrying. This suit also had a new armoring process. Like the previous model, the boots, gloves, helmet and main units would fold down when de-powered. When Tony donned them, magnets would cause the collapsible leg and arm coverings to telescope out and secure themselves. When not in use, the whole thing was kept in a special briefcase, just like the Mark I armor.
A couple of things, though. Even in the 1960s, the antenna on the shoulder gives the impression that Tony’s friends can tune him into a classic rock station. The raised lines at the top of the torso also seem odd on an otherwise pretty sleek suit. And there’s the helmet.
The fact that the mouth is divided into three parts implies the presence of teeth. And the tips of the mask are so raised that they resemble horns. These again make Iron Man slightly villainous in appearance.
Iron Man later changed the helmet for another that he considered more comfortable and flexible. It was a step in the right direction, but the teeth impression is still there and the rivets along the seams make me think of metal pimples. There are no visible rivets anywhere else, so they stand out in an odd way.
THE CLASSIC MODEL
Now here is the standard against which all later models are compared. This says our hero is called Iron Man not because of the material his suit is made from but because he is a person bursting with power and strength.
Like the arm and leg coverings, the torso itself now gives an impression of musculature and doesn’t just seem to be a metal barrel wrapped around Tony’s trunk. The chest unit has been trimmed of unnecessary lines and seams. The helmet is simplistic enough that it gives the impression of something robotic but it’s also form-fitting enough and expressive enough to let us know there is a man behind that shell.
This armor was the status quo for many years and every now and then artists and writers go back to it. It is an interesting design and somewhat timeless. With nothing such as a shoulder antenna or a robotic clunkiness to it, this armor looks like it could have been designed today as easily as it was in the 1960s. It is, in every sense of the word, classic.
At one point, Tony experimented with making the helmet even more expressive, adding a nose to the face-plate. This just looked weird. I’m not sure why, but the nose works for Dr. Doom and not for Iron Man. Perhaps because we want to be assured that the face-plate is just that and not actually a substitute for Tony Stark’s face, whereas Dr. Doom considers his metal mask to be the only face he can show to the world since he’s horribly scarred. In any event, Tony later got rid of the nose.
Not long after building this model, Tony attempted a new way of storing his suit. He made the torso unit so light-weight that it could easily fit beneath his clothes. Then, when he needed to go into action, he just threw off his clothes and activated a process that caused the rest of the armor to expand outward and cover him.
Pretty nifty, but making the armor light-weight enough to do this also meant sacrificing a lot of his resiliency and strength. So after a while, Ol’ Shellhead went back to storing it in his briefcase. Since the armor was getting more advanced and, as a result, heavier now, Tony equipped the briefcase with repulsor technology to create a small anti-gravity effect, keeping it much lighter than it should have been when the suit was inside.
I personally like this because, like the Flash’s costume ring, it keeps Iron Man unique from other heroes who simply wear their costume beneath their shirt and pants.
The so-called “Silver Centurion” armor remains one of the biggest departures from the Iron Man armors. Since Ditko, just about every single suit has been red and gold, yet here gold is replaced and the effect is interesting.
Iron Man seems a bit colder, more futuristic with the angular look that dominates his form, as opposed to the more rounded look of his previous armor. The chest power-cell that doubles as his famous “uni-beam” weapon has followed suit, changing from a disc to a triangle. And the helmet is now more angular at the bottom, giving a slightly more serious look to the face-plate.
Years later, we found out that Tony had a spare model of this suit which was nearly identical except that the uni-beam was a hexagon rather than a triangle and the helmet was once again rounded out around the jawline, much like the classic look. These subtle alterations already make the suit seem like just another version of the classic armor rather than a serious departure.
To this day, the Silver Centurion look remains popular and a version of it shows up in the film Iron Man 2.
This suit has been nicknamed the “coffee can Iron Man” by some fans. It’s a return to the sensibility of the classic look, but strangely Tony seems to have decided that years of being streamlined is enough and bulkier is the way to go.
The red stripe that goes from the chest to the belt seems odd. I’m not really sure what the advantage or design purpose of that section is, unless Tony just wanted to emulate Spider-Man’s costume in some small way. The thicker neck and helmet make me wonder how easily Iron Man can turn his head. And the boots are just plain ridiculous. Look at those things! Honestly, it makes me wonder if Shellhead is wearing platforms because he realized Thor was taller than him.
WAR MACHINE ARMOR
Tony was trapped in his plant and high-tech assassins were coming after him. Knowing he needed to sacrifice speed and maneuverability for protection and fire-power, he put together the “Variable Threat Response Battle Suit” and took on his enemies. Soon afterward, his buddy Rhodey would take this armor as his own, calling it the “War Marchine” suit.
The 1990s had a trend of superhero costumes involving lots of accessories such as belts and pouches that served no purpose, as well as several blades and/or guns strapped to the hero’s body. The original War Machine looks reflects this. It’s a cynical, post-Watchmen version of Iron Man with a bit of Rambo thrown in. The plates down the torso looks like a tank tread and the monochromatic look gives us the impression of a black-and-white philosophy (“either you’re with me or against me”). These all match up with the fact that Tony was feeling very cornered and a bit desperate at this point in his life.
But while it’s interesting for a story, it’s not really Iron Man. It’s not bright, it’s not streamlined as we’ve come to know Iron Man, and it doesn’t have any kind of uni-beam or repulsor disc on the chest, which has been a staple of every other suit Tony has designed.
But for Rhodey, this armor works, especially when you alter it slightly. Just by taking away some pouches, this look is more streamlined and definitely more maneuverable. The uni-beam on the chest tells us this is Stark technology and not just another armored hero. The tank-like look of the suit is perfect now. Rhodey is a marine, so he needs a suit that says both “superhero” and “military.” And the monochromatic philosophy works well since Rhodey, unlike Tony, has never felt comfortable allowing for gray areas in his morality. He does not believe in manipulation for the sake of the greater good. He believes in actions telling the story of whether a person is a hero or not, not their justifications after the fact.
An excellent design that fits the character.
After relying on a robot he controlled through telepresence, Tony at last regained his health and was ready to be a hero again. He made this new armor based on a modular philosophy. Rather than bulk it up with equipment and special weapons, he built it so that different toys could be attached to the arms and legs at a moment’s notice, depending on what the situation called for.
This takes the idea of “streamlined” to a whole new level and there’s a lot to be said for this armor. It’s sleek, it’s form-fitting, it conveys strength. But the mouth-less helmet brings up a concern. While it may make sense for Tony to completely cover his face from the standpoint of protection, we have to accept that this is a fictional character existing in a visual medium. It is very hard for an artist to convey emotion and for a reader to understand it when there is no face.
The Question wears a face-less mask, but we can see the shadowy impressions of her eyes and sometimes her mouth. Spider-Man’s pencilers sometimes use artistic license to have him visibly squint despite the fact that he’s wearing mirrored lenses. With Iron Man’s mouth, you can play with the angle of the helmet to give the reader a sense of a facial expression. Without it, you’re limited to his eye-slits.
To avoid boring you with complicated details, let’s just say that Tony Stark, along with many other heroes, was sent to a place called “Counter-Earth” where they were basically reincarnated to live similar lives to the ones they’d lived on their native Earth. This event was called Heroes Reborn and, in this new history, Tony was injured by the Hulk rather than by one of his own weapons and was forced to use his experimental “Prometheus armor” to stay alive.
This armor says one word to me: “Excess.” Seriously, what else can be thrown onto this suit? We’ve got some weird control panel looking thing on the chest that looks like it serves no purpose. We have a mouth-piece that doesn’t show the mouth, it just shows more red armor underneath. We have thigh-guards that don’t connect to the boots and gauntlets that awkwardly extend over the elbows. We’ve turned the Iron Man’s trunks into a full on protective cup design.
We’ve also got cables everywhere instead of sleek armor over the limbs and neck. Just how do those cables work? How do they connect around the neck and shoulders like that without rubbing against each other and tearing? The comic implied that Tony had to connect those cables individually. What if he connects one of them in port A when he meant to put it into port B? Will he start flying backwards?
And why are there exhaust ports on the back where there are no rockets on the back? The rockets are on the boots. Not only that, but what if some clever enemy puts a banana in those exhaust ports? The whole suit could blow up!
Honestly, this suit makes Tony seem less like Iron Man and more like a transformer that’s about to turn into a race car. A race car with a whole mess of cables lying everywhere! Cables!!!
ULTIMATE IRON MAN
Speaking of alternate histories, the Ultimate Marvel comics showcase a parallel universe where some of the heroes and villains we know are vastly different. In this reality, Tony was born with a regenerative virus that caused the spread of neural tissue all over his body. Because of the constant pain that he’s in, Tony eventually makes the Iron Man armor to protect himself and winds up becoming a hero.
This suit certainly emphasizes the protective aspect of the armor. There’s no hint of the man inside and that’s also part of the problem. Like the first two models, this could easily be a robot, especially with the boots and helmet shaped as they are. The expressionless face-plate brings us back to problems I described earlier. And the gray color is rather drab to be so dominant, especially when placed alongside two primary colors.
For a robot character, this could work, but it doesn’t say “superhero” to me.
After the events of “Heroes Reborn,” Tony and the others returned to their native Earth to resume their lives. First thing Tony did, of course, was build himself a new suit. Interestingly, this armor reminds us of the original red-and-gold look with the notorious horned face-plate.
After seeing the Heroes Reborn suit of many cables, this definitely emphasizes a simplified, back-to-basics approach. The horned face-plate is back, but the mouth no longer gives the impression of teeth and the horns now don’t raise so dramatically past Tony’s head. It gives a friendlier impression, though we are in danger of implying a widow’s peak.
The shoulder pads seem a bit incongruous to the rest of the suit, bulkier and multi-plated. And the cables that connect it to the uni-beam make me think that Iron Man’s movements are now somewhat inhibited.
This armor was kept in a briefcase, just like the old days, but then Tony learned that the energy fields it utilized were causing cellular breakdown in his body. He adjusted the armor. As you can see here, the cables are gone and the shoulders sleeker, so now the outfit worked pretty well on the whole. Whether you like the angled face-plate is a matter of personal preference at this point, as I personally have no objection to this version of it.
This modified suit was constructed in such a way that it could no longer fit into a briefcase. To keep it easy to transport, Tony designed it to collapse into a briefcase-like box which could then be stored in the trunk of his car. A signal from Tony would summon the box to fly to him (thanks to that handy repulsor tech) and then this armor would expand and wrap around him, ready for action. This short-lived take on the briefcase armor mirrors a scene in the film Iron Man 2.
TIN MAN ARMOR
Since Tony was implanted with a new, robotic heart soon before he made this suit, it has been called the “Tin Man” armor by several fans (as in, “if I only had a heart”).
Like the Heroes Reborn look, it gives me a sense of being more complicated than it needs to be. The cables pose the same problem that they did before. The boots are fully connected, which is nice, but the gloves now seem to have an extra plate for no real reason and the shoulder pads look like they’re sure to knock over lamps or get caught on a door frame. The spiky design and many angled/segmented plates on the torso give an insect-like, almost alien, feel that doesn’t seem quite right for Iron Man.
By the way, this armor was once again able to fit into a briefcase. Miniature anti-grav units allowed its individual pieces to actually fly over Tony and connect around him when he activated the suit. This feature was kept with the next suit.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE
Around the time that Tony Stark became Secretary of Defense for the United States, he started sporting this look. I like it better than the spikiness of the previous armor. With fewer plates connecting down the front and the cables being replaced, this suit seem sleeker and less busy than the previous one. The shoulder pads are now more closely fitted and seem a part of the armor again rather than just serving as decoration.
But I have to criticize the helmet. This design makes Tony seem like he has fangs or some kind of overbite. It reminds me a bit of the evil Arno Stark, the Iron Man of a possible future.
Tony redesigned his suit a little bit again during the famous “Extremis” story by Warren Ellis, wherein he was injected with a techno-virus that gave him control over nanites in his body and allowed him to mentally connect to computers.
This suit is, in many ways, a simplified version of Tony’s Secretary of Defense armor. The torso is large plates smoothly connected alongside each other rather than layered pieces, making Iron Man seem slimmer and lighter. Some accessories, such as the belt design and connection screws on the shoulder pads, have been eliminated.
And the helmet has not only lost its fanged appearance, but it is sleeker and softer, giving a more human impression again by utilizing curves rather than harsh angles. A very nice design.
This armor was made out of memory metals, an updated version of the old collapsible suit that had to be polarized. When the armor was de-activated, the elements could compress to about 90% of their working volume. This was still not as compact as Tony’s old suits, so he built a much larger metal briefcase to accommodate this armor. When activated, an electric charge snapped the armor pieces into place and the molecular structure of the metal would collimate into super-hard planes. Since he couldn’t miniaturize the control systems, Tony compensated by using his new Extremis abilities to store the under armor in the hollow of his bones. When he wished, he could will the under armor to form over his body and then send out a mental signal to the outer armor, causing it to fly out of its briefcase and attach itself around him.
BLEEDING EDGE ARMOR
After losing his Extremis abilities and being rendered nearly brain-dead, Tony had to have a repulsor generator disc implanted in his chest in order to keep his body and brain functioning. Unlike the old magnetic field generator he’d worn on his chest, this disc had self-sustaining power so Tony wouldn’t have to worry about plugging in to recharge every night. The repulsor disc also enhanced his senses and intelligence in the same way that Extremis did, giving him a few new ideas on how to modify his armor.
With Extremis, Tony had moved beyond being a man in armor and had become a cyborg, a mixture of biology and technology. This has been taken a step further in his latest comics, where the entire Iron Man suit now miniaturizes and hides itself inside his body, coming forth when he mentally wills it into being.
Because of this, the new design was intended to have a more “organic” look. Considering Tony’s current status, this makes sense and I can clearly see it in some ways. The red is almost the same layering as the gold pieces and the way they are divided reminds me of medical drawings when they highlight different muscles. On the other hand, the fact that there are so many independent pieces of red divided by yellow can make this armor seem a little complicated and less unified.
The various lights are going to take some getting used to. In a way, it reminds us that this is a character who is trying to symbolize the light of technology and a positive future. It also, frankly, makes practical sense if Iron Man is going to be flying in a crowded airspace at night and wants commercial airliners to know he’s around. But there’s also a danger of implying that he’s a Christmas tree.
And that about wraps us up, readers. I hope you enjoyed this and now feel educated on the ever-updated styles of the armored Avenger. Lord only knows what new styles Tony will go through and whether or not he’ll become a man inside a suit again instead of a cyborg. Either way, it will be fun to see what happens. And rest assured, we may indeed look at Tony’s specialty armors in the future. This is Alan Kistler, Agent of S.T.Y.L.E., signing off!
Alan Kistler writes the comic book history/fashion column Agent of S.T.Y.L.E. He is an actor and freelance writer living in New York who has been recognized by Warner Bros. Films and major media/news outlets as a comic book historian. He is also the creator/host of the web-show “Crazy Sexy Geeks: The Series.” He knows entirely too much about the history of comics, Star Trek, Doctor Who, time travel, and vampires that don’t sparkle.