Iron Man and American Imperialism

Spencer Ackerman in the American Prospect:

[T]he lessons of Vietnam sunk in on the comics juggernaut. Perhaps the idea that all the United States had to do was build bigger gadgets of disaster to use on a complicated world was hopelessly flawed. Perhaps Iron Man was symptomatic of the rot. Perhaps, by holding up a mirror to U.S. policies, Iron Man could become a vehicle for cleansing the country of its Cold War hang-ups. Marvel set to work reworking the character and its themes.

A problem confronted the company, though. Iron Man is a superhero. Cold-War product or not, Marvel couldn’t very well turn him into a villain. Writers in the 1970s and 1980s solved the problem in two creative ways. First, the comic adopted the New Left’s structural critique of Vietnam — the war was the inevitable product of a systemic belief in unrestricted capitalism, American exceptionalism, and racism — by making Stark Industries an enemy of poor Tony Stark, who had unleashed malevolent forces he couldn’t control. Thus Iron Man’s nemesis became a black-mirror version of himself: the ruthless metal juggernaut (another metal-suit weapon) subtly named Iron Monger, controlled by rival defense-industry bloodsucker Obadiah Stane. More cleverly, Stark’s best friend Jim Rhodes became a second Iron Man — but one sent into a paranoid frenzy of destruction by the armor’s inability to interface properly with his brain. Rhodes’s secret identity? War Machine.

The second way Marvel subtly readjusted Iron Man for America’s post-Vietnam sensibilities was to reveal that the reason Stark could control neither his company nor his relationships was that he couldn’t control himself.