Tales of Suspense #39 was published by Marvel Comics in March 1963, the story by Stan Lee. With issue #39, the mythology of Iron Man began its establishment. Stan Lee desired to make a controversial character, a “quintessential capitalist”, a man of war and weapons, who represented everything Marvel’s young readership hated at the height of the Cold War. He wanted to make this character tailored to the readership’s distaste, and make them love him. His character was made appealing by the romanticization of the solitary inventor, and borrowing the traits of a young Howard Hughes, crafting a singular Mr. Anthony Stark into a charming and glamorous adventurer.
Over time, even the game of the unlikely likeable character palled in the face of the political climate, always uniquely political in the pantheon of Marvel heroes, and the evolution Stark’s political views and moral beliefs, rather than their unwavering tendencies, became a cornerstone of his character.
The film Iron Man (2008), directed by Jon Favreau, synthesizes the first run of Tales of Suspense with later retroactive continuity and story arcs to create a coherent linear plot communicating the Iron Man creation myth. In addition to aligning various scattered plot points into a succinct film length arc, the details of plot and setting are recontextualized for the time period in which the movie was filmed, as opposed to the period in which the comics were set. Replacing the Cold War with the ongoing War in Afghanistan, and directly addressing the evolution in Stark’s morals and politics (rather than their gradual and initially unplanned progression of the comics), Favreau created an Iron Man simultaneously reflecting the events of his comic book origin and the modern climate in which he was being re-forged.
Iron Man: Armored Adventures, edited by showrunner Christopher Yost, aired on the Nicktoons television channel in April 2009, following the success of the Iron Man film. The show re-imagines Iron Man for a much younger set than the film, transforming the story into that of a teen superhero (and his friends), and sanitizing the themes of weapons and war to a degree surpassing even the Comics Code Authority’s influence over Tales of Suspense, villainizing both as is currently considered appropriate. Due to the show dismissing war and weapons from the start, the details of Iron Man’s origin diverge wildly from both Tales of Suspense and Iron Man. Yet, in some ways (perhaps due to the hard reboot) the cartoon resembles the early comics, the darker elements (particularly the demons of Tony Stark) are done away with, and the atmosphere is equipped to deal with villains deemed to ‘cartoony’ and out of place for the film. In this way it is able to sustain a long form serialization, periodically borrowing elements from the comics for story arcs, while remaining (in terms of the technology, at least) aesthetically similar to the film.
Within the textual network containing the original text beginning with Tales of Suspense #39, the film Iron Man, and the animated cartoon Iron Man: Armored Adventures, each adaptations’ narratives exist independently of the one another, but hinge upon the inclusion of certain elements/signifiers must be included from previous instances to grant the adaptation legitimacy as an instance of the Iron Man title.
Roberta E. Pearson and William Uricchio introduce in The Many Lives of Batman, the idea that a character, like Iron Man, spread across multiple adaptations becomes a floating signifier to whom meaning is attached, each iteration representing something unique. To take this idea a step farther, the concept of Iron Man is composed of a series of floating signifiers. Each adaptation fulfills a checklist of sorts, certain story elements with the correct signifiers that qualify the adaptation to bear the title of Iron Man. These elements can range from characters (for example: Pepper Potts, James Rhodes, Happy Hogan), to symbols (Stark Industries, the Iron Man suit, and by extension the life support system of Anthony Stark AKA Iron Man), even events (the death of Tony Stark’s parents). These elements render an adaptation recognizable as an instance of the Iron Man franchise, though the significance attached to each element may differ from text to text as well as their composition. Each adaptation may not include all the elements, but just enough to count. Always mind these are adaptations, they are, “repetition without replication,” their goal is not to re-create exactly, but to utilize these instrumental signifiers to achieve their own ends (Hutcheon). Certain story lines follow through on this pattern, chosen from the original text of the comics to be included in the adaptations to legitimize their claims.
The instrumental nature of floating signifiers is in play even before the texts are spread across comics, television, and film. Each of these mediums is without a single author, in these particular comics there at least three people credited as responsible with the common practice of the story being written by one person, while the script is written by another, further dividing the authorship. After time passes, an element of authorship is passed on (to another writer, another artist), until countless persons have drawn or written or colored Iron Man, and made (or attempted to make) their mark on the character and extended narrative using the list of elements left to them by their predecessors. A film is yet another composite, from time to time in the “authorship” of a film is credited to its director, but even in the instances of auteurs there are other people involved, script writers, actors, producers running checks, and a whole gamut of people unseen aside from the scrolling of the credits. The animated television program is similar to both, with the structures of art and production sifting the narrative through many hands, until no single person can claim authorship. In order to create a coherent body of work under any one of these circumstances, certain elements must be singled out and defined as the component parts of the narrative so that they might be handled by the many people involved in their conception without being mangled beyond recognition. It is with this in mind that I approach these texts.
Iron man is character whose setting is not so much a specific time period as it is the cutting edge of modernity (such as that exists within the timeframe of a given adaptation.) Once upon a time, comics were the perfect medium with which to express this, “Comics could carry heroes beyond the limits of possibility imposed by… film (sounds with pictures, but constrained by technology)… Comic book artists and writers could produce that which could be conceived, which was more than the creators of motion pictures…could claim” (Savage). With this in mind, the new millennium was the perfect time to transfer the narrative elements of Iron Man to film, where the limits of technology were no longer exactly limiting. Where the comics’ pages were once the only forum capable of telling the adventures of Tony Stark, a man living in the present while inventing the future, the film of 2008 could at very least be said to have caught up to the imagination 1963.
The film adaptation of the comics is fairly faithful to the spirit of the signifiers as they were defined in Tales of Suspense while building them in a narrative environment that does not require reference to the original text. The origin story of Iron Man follows pattern, however altered to fit into the modern context: Tony is a genius, a rich and famous defense contractor, he is mortally wounded and kidnapped when abroad to demonstrate new weapons technology, and must construct the Iron Man suit in order to save his own life, both from his wounds and in pursuit of escape. These elements are all assigned the same meaning as in the original text, details altered here and again in terms of setting, updating the warzone and technology for a modern age. The comic book narratives are condensed and rearranged to accommodate the story telling format of film, bringing in the retroactive continuity of the comics wherein the weapon almost killing Stark was one of his own design (inciting a much more rapid change of heart in the munitions manufacturer in regards to his company’s legacy), introducing the character of Obadiah Stane far sooner than the comics, and presenting him as the incendiary antagonist. The omnipresent political themes from the Tales of Suspense are still in play. These characters and events are, superficially similar to their purpose in the source text; these are the floating signifiers, elements whose exact values are re-defined to suit the purpose of a condensed closed narrative. Re-assigned and re-arranged the elements come together to form the free standing origin film, no further reading required.
Following the release and success of the film, the Iron Man: Armored Adventures animated television series was produced in 2009. Even with the massive advancements made in film, there are boundaries it presents. It is well suited to a well-made tale re-write of Iron Man’s origins, but lacks the ease afforded by animation to create an extensively serialized narrative in the spirit of the comics. Armored Adventures makes headway into a form of digital animation unique to few series at the time in which it was produced, the computerized look continuing tradition of Iron Man in its animation in the spirit of Tony Stark’s innovation.
This animated adaptation makes far more use of the mutable signifiers than the film adaptation in its bid to be recognized as an extension of the Iron Man brand. It is a complete re-imagining; many of the signifiers are re-defined completely rather than in parts as they are in the film. The narrative is stripped down and re-built with the intention of appealing to a younger audience set. The character of Iron Man and many of the other characters are cast as teenagers, rather than as the adults of the previous iterations, and are so undone of the backstories that defined their characters in the previous two texts; Stark Industries is no longer a weapons manufacturer, the narrative is stripped from all obvious context, bearing no reference to a present war- fictitious or not. The entire hostage plot is done away with; the viewer is given no insight into the creation of the armor or the Stark’s life support. Every element means something different now, and yet the Iron Man universe remains recognizable. There is a redhead called Pepper Potts, a best friend called Rhodey, Tony Stark is still dying, and still flies around fighting crime in a red and gold suit of robotic armor. However, each element barely resembles their forbearers in any way but name and appearance, but therein lays the tribute to the texts that came before. This particular assemblage of characters, including the use of Obadiah Stane as the overarching antagonist, closely mirrors that of the film, even the design of Stark’s life support as an implanted device and the particular design of the Iron Man suit resemble the film. And then there are elements found in the comics, yet not the film, such as the wrist mounted heart monitor Stark wears, and the season long antagonist The Mandarin, hark back to the source text. The animated series is rife with thoroughly re-written signifiers, barely edging into the meaning they once had, and are yet entirely recognizable though scrambled into a largely new version of how Iron Man came to be.
These adaptations are texts created to be discarded by the original text; they were not made to extend Marvel comics’ continuity, but to create continuities of their own (Reynolds). They are given some characters on loan, a flashy suit of armor, and a hero whose heart is consistently literally broken. From there a new narrative is built, and it may look more or it may look less like its blueprints, but it can stand on its own. One way or another every viewer will know. It is Iron Man.
Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.
Pearson, Roberta E., and William Uricchio. The Many Lives of the Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and His Media. New York: Routledge, 1991. Print.
Reynolds, Richard. Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 1994. Print.
Savage, William W. Comic Books and America. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma, 1990. Print.
Every new adaptation is built upon an earlier variation. Each successive layer can be viewed as a stand alone work. Though if sought out, the influences of the prior texts shine through.
(Iron Man’s ‘hearts’ (life support/power source) is chosen as the through thread, as it is an icon that consistently appears in each adaptation despite substantial altering for each work.)