Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Iron Man and Technology

With the Iron Man movie coming out soon, I thought I'd look back at how his technology has changed. No other hero is so intimately involved with technology  and the changes that have occurred over the 45 years since Iron Man was created are impressive.

Iron Man was a product of his time, the early 1960s. Tony Stark was an inventor and a patriot. His genius was in adapting transistors to armaments to be used in the cold war in general and in the hot war being fought in Viet Nam. He was separated from his group and triggered an explosive booby trap. The communists recovered his wounded body and were told that he was terminal in around a week. When Stark revived he was told that he had to create a new weapon for the communists within a week and surgeons would save him, otherwise he would die. Not fooled by the threats, Stark and an Asian scientist created a life support system for him. This included head-to-toe armor and a servo system that amplified his strength. The original suit didn't have any weapons built into it although it had enough spare components that Stark could improvise some weapons on the spot. The armor's strength wasn't that great. The communist warlord pinned him for a time with a dresser filled with rocks. Stark blew up the communist base and returned home.

He quickly started modifying his armor. He added boot jets so that he could fly and boosted the armor's strength. He also added a built-in radio with a shoulder-mounted antenna.

The original gray armor was given a gold paint job fairly quickly. Still, it was bulky and didn't project the hero image very well.

After a villain with a voodoo doll defeated him, Stark did a major rebuild of his armor. The new armor was close-fitting with a red and gold color scheme. With a few minor changes, this was what Stark used for the next couple of decades.

The new suit was exceptionally light and thin. It could be carried in a briefcase. The arm and leg pieces collapsed like fabric until activated. This led the the big question - how does something like this give the wearer strength and protection? Eventually a writer explained that the armor was polarized. Presumably it responded to his motions by re-polarizing itself to mimic his movements.

Iron Man's biggest problem in those days was his batteries. They constantly ran down. Since his life support system was powered by the same batteries, this was potentially life-threatening.

As time passed, the built-in weaponry in the armor was defined. His main weapons were repulsor beams in his gauntlets. He still had jets in his boots. He also had pop-out skates. His chest had a "unibeam" which was basically a spotlight. Radar and sonar were added fairly early as was an internal oxygen supply good for a half hour.

In the early 1970s Stark was the recipient of a different kind of technology - a synthetic heart transplant. This was only partially successful and he was back to wearing the armor to stop tissue rejection.

During most of the 1970s the writers wanted to focus on the man inside the armor instead of the technology. They were also embarrassed by Stark's background as an arms maker. Stark got out of the weapons business and spent a few years chasing a hippy passivist (who had an anarchist brother).

Things changed dramatically in the late 1970s. Iron Man got a new creative team - David Michelinie (plot/writer) and Bob Layton (plot/inker). They went through a few artists, most notably John Romita, jr. Under this team Stark went back to his roots as a millionaire, jet-set, playboy. They also introduced James Rhodes, his pilot and friend.

Under this team, Iron Man rediscovered technology. His armor had computers built in and he had a few more weapons. They also introduced the idea of special-purpose armor. Stark built suits for orbital travel, underwater work, and stealth. These had different strengths and weaknesses.

They also introduced Stark's drinking problem. I think that Stark was the first super hero to have a personal problem like this. Stark also made the first major change to his armor in over a decade - he built a red and white model.

Later, under different writers Stark's drinking problem reemerged and became worse. Within one issue he was a drunk in the gutter. That left a void while Stark was missing. Who would be Iron Man? This turned out to be James Rhodes.

Eventually Stark sobered up and built himself a new red and gold suit. Rhodes kept the red and white one for a while. The new suit was bigger and more powerful. This started a series of new suits of armor,all giving the same general impression but with minor differences.

At one point Stark was declared dead but he left Rhodes a new suit to replace him as Iron Man. When Stark returned from the dead, Rhodes started calling himself War Machine. Bulky and angular with a shoulder-mounted missile rack, the War Machine armor is probably the best example of what a man in powered armor would actually look like. Poor sales doomed the armor.

In 2000 Stark's armor made the ultimate upgrade. A combination of the Y2k bug and a lightening strike made the armor self-aware. Stark quickly found himself in conflict with his merciless armor. This was ended when Stark had a new heart attack and the armor sacrificed itself in order to give Stark an artificial heart.

For most of his career, Iron Man was placed in the same general class as Thor. Recently the two fought and Thor tore Stark's armor to pieces, prointing out that Stark is a man in a suit while Thor is a god.

In another few weeks we will see if Iron Man is a box office attraction.

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