Downey Goes Heavy Mettle in 'Iron Man'

To their diehard fans, Iron Man and Robert Downey Jr. are knights. But there are chinks in their shining armor.

And comic book and Downey aficionados see life somewhat imitating art – and vice versa – in one of the trailers for “Iron Man,” which opens nationwide Friday in movie theaters. Tony Stark, Marvel Comics’ billion-dollar man behind the iron mask portrayed by Downey, tries to distance himself from the rumors linking and the superhero by saying, “There’s been speculation that I’ve been parading around as a superhero … But clearly, I’m not the hero type.”

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You don’t really have to be a comic book reader to see through Downey/Stark’s ruse. But you may not be aware of how much Stark and Downey have in common. They share more than a penchant for flying around in a high-tech armored suit and saving the world. Both Downey, whose struggle with substance abuse landed him in prison and made headlines for years, and the fictional Stark battle addiction. They are troubled idols whose battles with their personal demons are as daunting as Dr. Doom.

“Some of the greatest heroes have been tragically flawed. It [casting Robert Downey Jr.] as Iron Man was a brilliant and interesting casting choice,” said Rachel Weingarten, president of GTK marketing Group. “Robert Downey – here was a guy who was supposed to be Hollywood’s golden boy. The son of a famous father, talented … but it never worked out that way. He had problems with drugs and drinking. He seems to have been fine for awhile now. … We’re holding our breath, hoping that he has finally gotten past it, but wondering, in the back of our mind, whether this will be the time he falls off. Casting him was a great metaphor.”

Iron Man has been a comic book industry staple since he made his debut in Marvel’s Tales of Suspense, No. 39 in 1963. Created by Stan Lee and inspired in part by Howard Hughes, Iron Man originally battled communists. But that anti-communist theme in Iron Man was short-lived.

Comic books and superheroes underwent a transformation during Iron Man’s formative years. His predecessors – Superman, Wonder Woman and Captain America – were born during a simpler time when the United States was much more united against a common enemy in World War II. They embodied patriotism as they defended truth, justice and the American way against Adolph Hitler and the Nazis. However, against the background of the civil rights movement, assassinations, and the Vietnam War, heroes, along with the rest of the nation, lost their innocence in the turbulent 1960s.

“Our culture began to change in the 1960s. We went from rooting for John Wayne to rooting for more ambiguous heroes like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and the Wild Bunch,” said Robert Thompson, professor of Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “These bandits were the guys that sheriffs were trying to catch in the first place and now we were rooting for them. Our general opinion of authority figures began to erode. World War II has often been referred to as ‘the good war.’ America was united behind this war. Our goals were clear. With the Vietnam War and even today with the war in Iraq, you can’t say that. Government figures and cops were no longer seen as unambiguous authority figures – and our superheroes changed to reflect that.”

Iron Man was among the new breed of very human and vulnerable heroes Marvel Comics' creator Stan Lee introduced in the 1960s. Spider-Man worried about paying the rent and his doting Aunt May while The Fantastic Four's Invisible Girl worried about her marriage to a workaholic. The X-Men, who debuted in 1963 along with Iron Man, were foils for the civil rights movement. Heroes grew increasingly troubled and conflicted as the nation grew more divided over the Vietnam War. The white cowboy hat worn by our heroes took on more shades of gray.

And Iron Man’s alter ego, Tony Stark, wore a very gray hat. That became especially apparent in 1979, when he battled alcoholism in a storyline that became known as “Demon in a Bottle.” Like Downey, Stark is also a tarnished golden boy. In both comics and the film, he is the heir to a corporation founded by his father. Stark is both tech geek and playboy, known for his brilliant inventions and his love for finer things in life – whether they be women, alcohol or the other excesses that wealth brings. He uses his genius to help build weapons for the government. But Stark discovers his heroism when he is injured in a war zone, captured by U.S. enemies and must wear a chest plate to keep his damaged heart beating. When Stark's captors force him to make weapons that they’ll use against his own country, Iron Man is born.

“Iron Man is the story of one man struggling against physical and psychological adversity to become – and remain – a hero,” said Danny Fingeroth, former Marvel Comics editor and author of Superman On the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us About Ourselves and Our Society. “Despite Stark's wealth and all that it brings, he's always brought down to Earth by his own personal deficiencies which he, like all of us, must struggle against.”

Still, the troubled superhero seems to have become the norm. No matter how many times he defeats the Joker, Bruce Wayne can’t take off the bat costume and put the trauma of his parents’ murder behind him. Bruce Banner will always have not-so-jolly-green giant anger management issues. Spider-Man will be friendly in your neighborhood but never really happy behind close doors.

These guys are head cases – but are they also passé?

“There’s so much in our world that we can’t control, that there’s always going to be that need to escape,” said Weingarten. “We don’t believe in Santa Claus; we don’t believe in the Tooth Fairy. But if a superhero can get past some horrible villain or demon, then maybe I can overcome some small evil in the world, whether it’s my landlord or just getting to work in the morning. I don’t think that [the superhero] ever gets old.”

Besides an escape and fantasy, fans may also look for a piece of themselves in their superhero. They, along with the world around them, fuel characters’ evolution.

“As long as people watching the movies and reading the comics also have troubles, then there will always be an audience for superhero fiction where characters metaphorically struggle with their inner demons,” said Fingeroth. “There's always a way to keep characters fresh, even a character with years and years of stories behind him. It just requires smart, creative, writers, artists, and editors – and filmmakers.”

So, what is the hero type? Despite what Downey says in "Iron Man," maybe, deep down under our armored shells we all are – dents and all.