Why Iron Man Is The First 21st Century Superhero


In 1938, on the eve of the Second World War, a relatively new medium called the comic book unleashed a new kind of character into the consciousness of American youth. Created by writer Jerry Siegel and illustrator Joe Shuster, this character possessed superhuman powers and a dedication to using those powers for the benefit of humanity. Often battling and defeating evil as hyperbolic as his own goodness, his iconic name would become the source of the term for this all-American archetype, the “superhero.” In the decades since Superman‘s arrival, innumerable variations on this theme have emerged, but always these characters have struggled under the weight of a concept about who they must be that was invented before television. For the past 70 years we have been living with a 20th century version of the superhero. Until now. Though the Iron Man character was originally created in the early 60s, his most recent incarnation, as played by Robert Downey Jr., and directed by Jon Favreau in the just released Iron Man 2, is really the first Millennial superhero.

The original Superman prototype possessed a key characteristic, one that his creators, first generation American sons of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, would have known something about, one that this “Man of Tomorrow” would pass on as part of his legacy to future generations of masked heroes: a secret identity. This trait would become an intractable part of the very definition of a superhero, as much a prerequisite for his mythology as extraordinary powers, or at least a flamboyant getup. And yet, in a press conference at the end of 2008’s first installment of the Iron Man franchise, Tony Stark announces to the world that he is Iron Man. This is where the sequel starts off. The need for a secret identity is gone. The entire world knows — and not because some tabloid uncovered the mystery man behind the mask, but because he just straight up told everyone. In the comic books, it took Stark 40 years to make this move. For Superman or Spiderman or Batman or virtually any other superhero from the prior century (save some like the X-Men) their secret identities were their most sacred possessions, the keys to their undoings, and they fought as hard to protect them as to save humanity itself. But in the 21st century, Tony Stark’s approach to privacy reflects how Millennials now think of the concept.

These days, the kind of stuff kids choose to reveal about themselves online is almost beyond comprehension. The latest social platform eroding the boundary between what was once strictly private and is now exposed to the world is Formspring.me, which the New York Times calls, “the online version of the bathroom wall in school“:

While Formspring is still under the radar of many parents and guidance counselors, over the last two months it has become an obsession for thousands of teenagers nationwide, a place to trade comments and questions like: Are you still friends with julia? Why wasn’t sam invited to lauren’s party? You’re not as hot as u think u are. Do you wear a d cup? You talk too much. You look stupid when you laugh.

Comments and questions go into a private mailbox, where the user can ignore, delete or answer them. Only the answered ones are posted publicly — leading parents and guidance counselors to wonder why so many young people make public so many nasty comments about their looks, friends and sexual habits.

Social media researcher danah boyd asked a similar question a couple of weeks ago:

This [behavior] has become so pervasive on Formspring so as to define what participation there means.  More startlingly, teens are answering self-humiliating questions and posting their answers to a publicly visible page that is commonly associated with their real name. Why? What’s going on?

While this particular trend is definitely a bit baffling, those of us that have grown up in the digital age have pretty much come to expect that the privacy arc of the internet is perpetually bending more and more towards greater disclosure. Privacy, as Facebook’s Millennial founder Mark Zuckerberg insists, is dead:

People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time… But we viewed that as a really important thing, to always keep a beginner’s mind and what would we do if we were starting [Facebook] now and we decided that these would be the social norms now and we just went for it.

Here’s an interesting visualization of the Evolution of Privacy on Facebook, indicating how the website has let ever more of our information become increasingly public over the years:





Oh… wait a second, no, that last one is actually the arc reactor implant that’s keeping Tony Stark alive. But, no doubt, Skynet… err.. Facebook is intent on catching up to the full-pie version of the chart soon.

Anyway, Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, Peter Parker, they were never prepared for this brave new networked world. Their entire way of being simply doesn’t fit anymore. Neither with Facebook and its social network platform ilk, nor the (*cough* relative) sensibilities of the Millennial youth who use it. For Tony Stark, transparency isn’t just relegated to the subject of his super-powered “alter ego,” it’s a pervasive part of his total personality, his way of being in the world. Stark is as blatant as his id, his mobile touch-screen device is actually, literally, transparent, allowing others to see everything he’s doing on it, every surface in his house seems to be equipped with touch-screen capabilities, his browsing activities public to anyone sitting nearby who cares to look. Zuckerberg himself likely couldn’t have dreamed up a more post-Privacy kind of superhero, one less conflicted about the disparate parts of his identity. With the death of privacy, you cannot be one thing in one context, and something different in another. You cannot be Clark Kent at the Daily Planet desk job, and then Superman on the night shift. You are exactly who you are to everyone at all times. Like no other superhero, Tony Stark’s identity isn’t conflicted. It’s absolute.

In her book Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever Before, psychology professor Jean Twenge writes:

It has always been normal for kids to have big dreams, but the dreams of kids today are bigger than ever. By the time kids figure out they’re not going to be celebrities or sports figures, they’re well into adolescence, or even their twenties.

High expectations can be the stuff of inspiration, but more often they set GenMe up for bitter disappointment. [The book] Quarterlife Crisis concludes that twenty-somethings often take a while to realize that the “be whatever you want to be, do whatever you want to do,” mantra of their childhoods is not attainable.

In the late 90’s, Tyler Durden, himself a sort of Gen X superhero — a transitional alpha version precursor to the Gen Y launch model, if you will — said it like:

We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”

Even in the throes of the economic crisis, my generation hasn’t really had a Great Depression either — though we did come this close. And even after 9/11 my generation hasn’t had a Great War. The world is now far too mind-numbingly complicated and complex to even have a clear concept of a single, monolithic Evil to fight. The “heroes” of my generation, the ideals that kids look up to and wish to be like, haven’t been men of steel battling evil for a long time, they are now, like Durden says, millionaires and rock stars. And that is precisely what 21st Century Tony Stark is. After he comes out of the closet (or, more accurately, the basement science lab) as Iron Man, he becomes a worldwide celebrity, a household name. Even the migrant worker he stops to buy strawberries from on the Pacific Coast Highway asks, “Are you Iron Man?” like he’s recognized a movie star.

And unlike Superman or SpiderMan or Batman or any other major superhero before him whose truth the world was not yet ready to handle, Tony Stark answers casually, “Sometimes.”

Perhaps that’s the other side of what allows a 21st century superhero to be transparent. The modern world can accept him as such. Gen Y is a lot more tolerant of lifestyle differences than prior generations, after all. The X-Men didn’t hide that they were different, either, but then again, they COULDN’T hide it — looking like Beast or Nightcrawler, or having Rogue or Cycolps’ particular mutations, you couldn’t just “pass” in normal society — and the humans the X-Men fought to protect could never accept them for being what they are. Not so in the world of Tony Stark. He’s no mutant. No outcast. He’s the most popular kid in school. The late DJ AM even spins at his birthday bash. The 21st century Tony Stark reveals to the world he is Iron Man, and the 21st century world says…. Awesome!

In the past, being a tech entrepreneur-slash-engineer, as Tony Stark is, would have made him a nerd, or otherwise Bruce Wayne, still stuck in the previous millennium, putting on a show of  irresponsible playboy-ness to deflect attention from both his morbidly serious crime-fighting alter ego and his humorless tech geek underbelly. Like, remember when no one would have wanted to sit at the lunch table with kids who talked about stuff like “augmented reality”?


Yeah, not so much, anymore. In the  21st century, being a tech geek no longer detracts from the image of a bad-ass or a dilettante. James Bond and Q have combined into one seamless character. It’s 2010, and geeks are cool! Hell, we’ve even got one as President.

While both Wayne and Stark are surrounded by high tech everything, for the 20th century hero all the gadgetry is just a means to an end. Even the Batmobile is ultimately just a flashy tool. Same could technically be said about the iPhone, but who would? In the post-iPod era we have a very different relationship with our technology. Our favorite tech objects aren’t just for utilitarian application, they’re obsessed over, fetishized, loved. It’s why Gizmodo would pay $10,000 for an exclusive scoop on an in-production, “lost” 4g iPhone, and why an enormous global audience would give a crap. When Stark says in the movie that the Iron Man suit is a part of him, that he and it are one, we all intimately understand exactly what he means even if the rest of us don’t actually literally plug our gadgets into our chest cavities.

After a raucous birthday party in which we see Stark, in full Iron Man gear, getting shitfaced and acting the fool, (he’s dying at the time, and feeling a bit of the nothing-really-matters mortality blues — being dissolute and apathetic, itself, unusually postmodern behavior for a superhero), S.H.I.E.L.D. agency director Nick Fury (played by Samuel L. Jackson) “grounds” the hungover superhero by sequestering him in his house with all access to communication with the outside world cut off until he solves a theoretical physics problem. This superhero’s punishment is having his phone and internet privileges revoked and being sent up to his room to finish his math homework. There isn’t a single one of the 60 million American Millennials that doesn’t relate to this.

When Favreau was looking for a 21st century industrialist corporate executive to use as a model for his and Robert Downey Jr’s interpretation of Tony Stark, he sought out Elon Musk, co-founder of paypal. Musk even has a cameo in the movie, chatting Tony up about an electric rocket, a concept referencing Musk’s current endeavors, Tesla Motors, which produces fully electric sports cars that rival Porsche in performance, and SpaceX, a private aerospace company working to invent the first reusable rockets, which would dramatically reduce costs and eventually lead to affordable space-travel. This dude is the inspiration for the 21st century version of Stark.

So what’s Tony Stak’s inspiration? Why does he do what he does? There was no childhood trauma that drove him to caped crusading. He wasn’t raised by adoptive Earth parents who imbued him with a strong moral compass during his formative years on a farm in the American Heartland. Sure, ok, he underwent a certain crisis of conscience in his 40s after escaping from a terrorist hostage situation in Afghanistan, shutting down the weapons manufacturing division of Stark Industries and all, but still, why does he take it so much further, going so far as to “privatize world peace.” …. For the thrill of it! As he himself says, he keeps up the good fight at his own pleasure, adding, “and I like to pleasure myself often.” Unlike the prior century’s superhero, this new version saves the world not out of any overwhelming sense of obligation or indentured servitude to duty, but because he can do what he wants, when he wants, because he wants to, and most importantly, he GETS what he wants. Sure he has to work for it, but unlike with, say, Peter Parker and Mary Jane or Clark Kent and Lois Lane or even Buffy and Angel, what he wants isn’t perpetually out of his grasp just because he is who he is. Being Iron Man isn’t a burden, it’s an epic thrill-ride.

The first 21st century superhero is a hedonistic, narcissistic, even nihilistic, adrenaline junkie, billionaire entrepreneur do-gooder. If Peter Parker’s life lesson is that “with great power comes great responsibility,” Tony Stark’s is that with great power comes a shit-ton of fun.

You can’t get any more Gen Y than that.

Welcome, 21st Century superhero, my generation has been waiting for you.


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25 thoughts on “Why Iron Man Is The First 21st Century Superhero

  1. This is perhaps one of my favorite articles this year. I loved the social media, millennial twist. I loved the superhero analogy and the in-depth archetype expose. I read a lot of contemporary critique blogs, and this one finally nailed the quarter-life crisis, which was perfectly supplemented with the Tyler Durden quote. This post was thought provoking and spot on. Thanks for the read, insight and geek gratification.

  2. Fantastic post, spot-on analysis.

    Just scanned through the wiki list of main superheroes, Iron Man really is alone in embracing (and publicly doing so) his super-identity. And that ‘sometimes’ line killed me too; perfecly matter of fact!

    I’m really hoping this is a game changer for the genre, and we’ll see far more heroes on tv, in comics and on the big screen being welcomed and cheered on by the public. Champions stepping out into the spot-light like Tony Stark, instead of donning a mask and hiding in the shadows like Batman.

  3. Mikey, I hope so too!! The fall of the masked superhero has been the fall of a century. This is precisely what makes Iron Man so relevant and modern and just plain fucking fun! I think this contemporary superhero adaptation is a big part why so many people are liking the movie as much as they are, even if they don’t even realize that’s what it is. This living in public plot twist is truly completely different from everything that’s come before in the superhero mythology.

    There’s more that I could have added, but the post was running too long. Like Tony Stark’s insane ADHD, or his completely laissez faire attitude towards copyright, for instance. The only character that cares about DRM, and encrypted passwords is a villain who gets pwned by a Russian hacker. Meanwhile, there’s a safety measure to prevent redundancies that Stark could have used to destroy the suit Rhodey takes, but he never uses it, instead he just innovates more. He’s like the open source superhero. It’s pretty wild.

  4. Hate to say it, but Tony Stark was “out of the closet” before Favreau’s films, before Facebook, before public access to the internet… and while he is a wonderful character and fits in nicely with today’s “Look at me!” culture, Tony being “out” as Iron Man goes back a long, long way.

  5. A feel good article, awesome review! I was planning on watching it sometime this weekend but now I’m definately making it a priority first showing tomorrow.

  6. I stopped reading once we got to the graph turning into the arc reactor. The article stopped being a thought out commentary on superheroes, and started acting as a promotion for Facebook.

    But I digress; I think you’ve confused Tony Stark admitting and owning up to his actions with a generation of people who’ve just lost their manners.

    1. Kevin, that’s a shame that you stopped reading right there, because if you had kept going you’d see that actually this is an article which talks about how the kind of superhero that Tony Stark is, as seen through his particular behavior, is in fact a reflection of 21st century youth behavior. This is in no way a “promotion” of Facebook, rather, it’s a critique of contemporary culture, of which Facebook is a part.

  7. Excellent article. Tho like Kevin Allen I sighed and ditched the article at the Arc Reactor…. however, I decided “no, I’ll give that a shot It seemed pretty interesting” and the rest of the article was really interesting!


  8. This article is awesome! Something about Iron Man felt more networked, more modern…now I understand why!

  9. Interesting stuff. Have to chime in with Lisilka, though. Tony’s been out and in and out and in a few times over the years. Other heroes like Luke Cage and Booster Gold have had publicly-known identities for yonks (they’re lesser-known now, but weren’t necessarily so before the film).

    In the terms discussed in the post, Iron Man is a high profile evolution of the 21st century super-hero, not the first.

    But, I know I’m quibbling over geeky details here and that’s not the point of the post. Interesting analysis of Iron Man and the Zeitgeist – thanks!

  10. Sound article. Iron Man is hot. Way hotter than Spidey or Super. Its definitely his attitude that does it for me. 21st century no bull. I totally would.

  11. I actually consider Tony Stark the first modern superhero based on Objectivism (along with, to some extent, the new interpretation of Batman). I would be surprised if Favreau and Theroux aren’t fascinated with Ayn Rand’s philosophy.

  12. Nikolai, I considered that, but objectivism isn’t really all that “modern.” The Fountainhead was published only 5 years after the original Superman comic, so it’s not exactly something particular to the 21st century.

  13. Nice read. Great article.
    this, would be the reason why I love Iron Man/Tony Stark – he is just plain awesome. not like some emo guy with a cape or some sort. Other thing I like is the one you pointed out he doesn’t have the ‘need’ to save the world because he feels responsible to clean-up society’s mess but because he can and wants too.

    in short, my kind of hero.

  14. Hi Jenks,

    Very interesting and entertaining social commentary. I believe age segmentation and metaphysical generational conflict, as it were, are marketing constructs and you are a marketer, so be it:) The reality is far more complex.

    The Next Big Thing (NBT) is not social networking as you describe it — Facebook, iPhones, and the like — but, rather, the ongoing development and adoption of virtual realities that offer exciting and fulfilling alternatives to our increasingly unimaginative, boring, and alienating consensus reality. This is not merely a Gen X, Y and Z thingy.

    You do not mention the impact of gaming and avatar “realities” on our culture, perhaps because you are too old to have experienced fully the massive paradigm change this merging of mind and matter. Boys and girls, men and women, need no longer be GenMe (?) losers. One can now be a hot gangsta, romantic knight, club kid, fighter pilot, or virtually anything else one might dream of by turning on the Xbox or similar device. Soon, I think, we will be able to plug into the Matrix.

    Who are you in this virtual world with unlimited possibility?

    1. Apollo, there are certainly MANY other Gen Y trends that didn’t make it into this post. Heck, there’s actually quite a bunch that the movie actually references in various ways, but I had to cut out cuz this post was getting waaaay too long. Lots can be said about Gen Y’s relationship to avatar-based self-representation, etc., for sure. Especially since the COPPA laws restrict kids under 13 from using photographs of themselves in online virtual worlds, so they are getting primed on using avatars in a way older generations never were. However, I don’t really think this is a trend that Iron Man specifically approaches — which is what I limited this post to. Specifically, for Tony Stark, there is no “avatar.” Iron Man is a part of his total identity, not an alternate identity, in the same way that it isn’t a “secret” one. Tony isn’t one thing in the “real” world, and something else in a “virtual” one. He is 100% who he at all times in all the worlds he inhabits, both wearing the iron man suit, and not.

  15. Anyone who has read a Superman comic since 1986 would know that the personality of Clark Kent is the real personality, there’s no longer the bumbling clumsy mild-mannered act, and that “Superman” is the disguise.
    Do we really want to interact with people whose true identities are loud and prone to oversharing? These people in real life are horrible. Sit on public transport long enough and you’ll find someone who will sit next to you and tell you anything and everything about their life. Not fun at all. Stark may be a blast on screen, but in reality, I bet he’d be bit of a douche-bag.
    (And are we forgetting that anytime a comic book superhero reveals their real identity, it ends badly either for themselves or their loved ones?)
    Personally I don’t see any problem with people showing different facets of their personalities in different places. I’ll use swear words when talking to my friends, but not when talking to my son. Am I being dishonest somehow? Of course not. Online I’m the same guy I am offline but I like being able to decide to be like this for myself, not have that decided for me by default.

    Here’s how I look at it; Does Mark Zuckerburg have a truly open Facebook account? No. What does that tell you?

    1. Mark, Zuckerberg may not have a truly open Facebook account, but there are plenty of people, particularly in the millennial demographic that do, and for whom embracing this kind of self exposure is ever more a norm. This post is neither an endorsement nor an indictment of the modern trend of radical transparency. It’s simply an analysis of Iron Man’s reflection of it. Whether it’s the Clark Kent identity or the Superman one that the “disguise,” the basic point is that to have two separate identities at all is a 20th century superhero construct. For Tony Stark, regardless of what context he’s in, all facets of who he is are part of one, seamless identity.

  16. After reading the article, I feel like sharing an Eastern/Middle European perspective on the social aspects of Iron Man. ( Why should care, you might ask? I don’t really know. )

    To clarify: I was born in 1992, so I’m probably much younger than the author of this article.

    You forget that the 21st century is not only about America.

    Throughout the movie, I found that Tony Stark was not at all a sympathetic character, while the Russian villain, is much closer to what I consider a hero.

    This Tony Stark, rich and educated, does everything in an effortless playboy manner. He doesn’t take anything in life seriously. His embrace of publicity only reaffirms this.
    His industrialist, laissez-faire political vision is a symptom of being a rich, successful American — something that is not attributable to individual merit.

    The Russian Ivan Vanko , however, is a true hero.
    ( I’m not Russian. In fact, due to my nationality, my prejudice of Russians in general is rather negative due to their prolonged occupation of my country )
    With talent, effort, determination and craziness, he dares to stand against the American playboy-industrialist-juggernaut, ruining his expensive but pointless game.

    Motivated by an urge for rightful vengeance ( carried out in a rather unfair way, I must admit ), he alone duplicates the results of the rich American under harsh conditions.

    All the film then appears as a battle between the talented playboy and the miserable genius.
    In these circumstances, the first is easily seen as representing America, and the second as representing rebellion against America.

    While your beloved Generations are growing up, I see a parallel generation here in Eastern Europe, those who oppose practically all the values of the parallel American generations: that is, they need no gadgets, they do obsess with Facebook. Hell, I even know someone of my age who admires tractors more than all the iPods of the world! ( His friends more or less share this )
    This generation looks on the free market as a toy of rich and irresponsible people, they hold tolerance to be hypocritical, in fact, they have quite strong national feelings but that is not absolute: they create their values arbitrarily, in an almost Nietzschean way.
    Their superhero might well be Ivan Vanko.
    Remember: reality is always different from the movie 🙂
    For every lazy American kid playing with his gadgets, there is a well-educated and strong-willed kid in Eastern Europe and other peripheries of the West, and there are ten educated and well-disciplined kids in China etc.

    If you lack both the talent and the willpower to finish your math homework, you will never be really successful. At least around these parts.

  17. Loifrak, interesting perspective. The one thing to keep in mind, however, is that the Superhero archetype is an American invention. Superman, the prototype of this genre, is as much a product of the U.S. of A. as he is a native of some fictional planet. So to fault Tony Stark for behaving “like an American” is really besides the point. The Superhero is a decidedly American character.

    That having been said, as a Russian Jew who emigrated to the U.S. when she was six, I have to admit that I’ve absolutely adored the Russian adaptation of the superhero genre in Night Watch and Day Watch. I think the gray area between good and evil, light and dark, which is such a driving theme in this saga, is a uniquely Eastern European approach to the superhero genre. For American superheroes, everything generally must be black and white. They are very uncomfortable with gray areas.

    That gray area is actually something that I think Tony Stark is incredibly comfortable with. He was a weapons manufacturer for most of his life, but even after shutting down that part of Stark Industries, he’s not a moralist. He’s a HEDONIST. Which, while not a particularly post-soviet characteristic, is by NO MEANS solely an American one.

    Also, while, no doubt, being all up on the haterade and disdain for America is as trendy as Nikes, I think that if your perception of Tony Stark is “a lazy American kid playing with his gadgets,” you might want to take a minute to educate yourself on the character.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iron_Man :

    Born Anthony Edward Stark, and usually called by his nickname, “Tony”, he is an industrialist playboy and ingenious engineer who suffers a severe heart injury during a kidnapping in which his captors attempt to force him to build a massively destructive weapon. He instead creates a powered suit of armor to save his life and escape captivity. He later decides to use the suit to protect the world as Iron Man. Initially, Iron Man was a vehicle for Stan Lee to explore Cold War themes, particularly the role of American technology and business in the fight against communism. Subsequent re-imaginings of Iron Man have gradually removed the Cold War themes, replacing them with more contemporary concerns such as corporate crime and terrorism.

  18. Loifrak, PS – Superman was invented in 1938 by two American Jews in part as a response to the evil they saw taking over europe. If America invented the superhero, Europe invented the supervillain. Might want to rethink aligning you and yours with regarding Iron Man 2’s villain as the true hero.

  19. 1. Just to clarify: that “kids playing with gadgets” part was not referring to Stark, but rather the contemporary audience of Facebook, gadgets, and Iron Man 2. Sorry if that was unclear.

    2. I do not hate America, and few people I know do.
    I am merely conscious of the fact that American examples are not to be followed unquestionedly.

    3. In my worldview, hedonism and heroism are mutually exclusive. Hedonism is of course not an American quality, but trying to reconcile it with heroism is something I’ve only seen in American movies.

    4. When it comes to heroes in the grey domain, classical Greek thought is superior to almost everything. Think of Heracles, Oedipus, Prometheus etc.

    5. The Watch novels are indeed a great approach to the problem of good and evil in a time and place lacking widely accepted ethical values, like the Moscow of the early 21st century. And if you read it carefully enough, you can find some thoughts that are quite different from what the American/EU15 societies are used to.

  20. Loifrak, in the 21st century there is no reason that hedonism and heroism must be mutually exclusive. It is actually decidedly NOT necessary to be a guilt-ridden ascetic in order to affect positive change and move humanity forward. Elon Musk, who is the basis for the modern interpretation of Tony Stark, is a great example of this. Perhaps, trying to reconcile hedonism and heroism is a uniquely American idea, but the notion that the experience and pursuit of pleasure can’t coexist with the drive to do good is an extremely limited world-view.

  21. What a great article… It all does make sense. I don’t have to be a kid to want to be just like Tony Stark and as far as Super Man, Spidy, Batman, and X-Men go; they seem pretty lame and boring in this time and 21st century world. With that said I am happy to adopt Iron man as MY first super hero of the 21st century!

    Thanks for an interesting and entertaining read!!

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