Veteran Iron Man fans currently reading his comic strip, written by Matt Fraction and illustrated by Salvador Larroca, have been put in a very uncomfortable position. Their knight-in-mechanical-armor, the inventive genius and veteran superhero Tony Stark, is quickly losing the intellectual abilities that empower him in the first place. Using his nanomachines to systematically delete his brain to keep its secrets out of the hands of those too powerful for him to fight directly, Tony’s mind has severely deteriorated; he’s not just an average mind, but quite obviously impaired. Large portions of his long-term memory are gone, he’s finding lapses in his short-term memory and difficulty pronouncing multi-syllabic words, and his reduced manual dexterity has forced him to downgrade to older and cruder Iron Man suits. Even more surprising is that Tony does not seem as upset about his decline as one might expect, instead finding peace in this reprieve from a constantly active mind. Reviews of the current strip by critics have been excellent ( as well they should be ), and the creators won a coveted Eisner award, yet vocal segments of fandom are angry. You’ll see complaints that they have ( R-word I will not use )-ed Tony Stark, the very idea of seeing their hero mentally disabled troubling them beyond the normal topics of online fan whining.
The stereotypical online superhero fan can have a sometimes fetishistic preoccupation with character power, and Iron Man’s fans seem particularly egregious. Like Batman, Tony Stark is a genius who can invent a solution to any problem. His origin had him build the original Iron Man out of scraps in an Afghani cave, which speaks to the incredible power of later models funded by a multi-billion dollar personal fortune. If Tony has time to prepare, he can defeat any enemy; all he needs to do is tinker with his suit. His power is predominantly intellectual, allowing him to overcome limitations.
Yet overcoming limitations is only part of Iron Man’s character arc; the other part is the hatred Tony feels towards the very notion of his limits. Ever since it debuted in the 60’s, the strip has explicitly dealt with themes of disability. The particular afflictions Tony has faced have varied by era and writer, and he’s not tied to one particular visual marker, as opposed to a character like the blind hero Daredevil or the wheelchair-bound Professor Xavier of the X-Men. But the emotions behind the character deal constantly with feelings of impairment. Physically, intellectually, and morally, Tony Stark comes from a place where he feels he is inadequate, and must constantly improve himself. The fact that his power is a prosthetic metal skin is very telling in and of itself.
What makes Tony’s identity as a disabled character so unique is that he works to either completely fix his perceived defects, or hide them and pass for normal. The hook that Stan Lee and Don Heck envisioned for Tony was that he looked like he had everything a red-blooded American man could want, money and brains and good looks as well as adoration as a hero, but was secretly a tragic figure due to his metal heart. The sixties stories tended to use Tony’s heart problems for convenient dramatic tension, more often as a physical weakness in the vein of Superman’s kryptonite. But even then there was evidence that the defect had impaired his personal life; obviously he could not be sexually active with a large metal plate constantly attached to his chest, and the potential strain on a damaged heart kept him from recreational physical activities ( except for Iron Man, but in that case it was the prosthetic metal skin doing all the work ). Factoring in the need to constantly recharge his heart, and Tony strongly perceived himself as a cripple, and kept himself from making any romantic connections because he felt it would be cruel to attach a woman to an invalid man. Once Marvel’s writers got tired of doing stories around the pacemaker, Tony hurried to get a heart transplant and never looked back.
But the hook of the character as a handicapped hero remained so strong that it resurfaced in multiple forms. In the 1980’s, Tony Stark battled with alcoholism, often finding the liquid that dulled his mind more palatable than his responsibilities, and paying dearly as a result. In the early 1990’s, the problems were moved to Tony’s nervous system, starting with being paralyzed due to a stalker’s gunshot and unable to walk without the Iron Man’s assistance; Tony hastily volunteered for an experimental treatment that fixed his spine, unaware that it would later eat away at his central nervous system and cause even more debilitating pain. In the mid-2000’s Tony made a gesture to overcome his physical frailties once and for all, by using nanotechnology to upgrade his physical body and wire the Iron Man directly into his central nervous system. At first this made him far faster and stronger than ever before, but the difficulty he had coping with his enhanced thought speed resulted in paranoid episodes and fugue states, moving his handicap from the physical space to the psychological.
The pattern here seems to be that Tony cannot stand the notion that he is somehow disabled, and will do whatever he can to improve despite the long-term consequences. Other superheroes with physical differences make peace with them; Daredevil has learned to accept his blindness ( though since the radioactive waste that damaged his eyes also turbo-charged his other senses, he’s hardly impaired ), and Professor Xavier has more pressing concerns than bemoaning the loss of his legs. Tony Stark tries to excise them like a tumor. His talent as an engineer makes him look for practical solutions to his problems, but it’s always been clear that Tony has a very low opinion of himself.
A 1990’s story about Tony’s childhood by the vastly underrated Iron Man writer Len Kaminski gives quite a bit of insight into this, even more than the common explanation of Iron Man being Tony’s attempt to atone for years of munitions manufacture. Young Tony was a shy, bookish child who preferred dealing with machines over people, finding life easier to cope with in technological terms. His father was a cold-hearted tycoon, a distant patriarch and an abusive drunk; he saw Tony’s intellectual pursuits as soft and weak, and eventually sent the boy to boarding school. Howard Stark’s plans worked to make Tony a success in the world, and Tony became respected in the social world and the business world as well as the technological. At the same time, Tony’s attempts to please his father left him even more emotionally distanced.
In many ways, the Kaminski origin casts Tony as a potentially autistic protagonist, albeit a very high-functioning one; he was born with superior talents in a singular area, but his abilities were seen as a sign of difference and weakness. In his young adulthood, Tony attempts to fit by following his father’s path, becoming a philandering socialite and successful munitions manufacturer. When he is knocked off the path by his trauma in Afghanistan, he reinvents himself once more-- but this time the self he makes is Iron Man, a superheroic machine suit in line with who Tony wanted to be as a boy. Iron Man becomes the hero who Tony always wanted to be, while the man inside retains the feelings of weakness and difference that his father inculcated, even if he’s not consciously aware of it. This informs all his decisions, for good or ill; Tony wants not to be infirm, be it inside his body or outside in his world. Hence the superhero tasks of saving lives and stopping super-threats, creating pacifistic technology to lead the world away from war, and even ( in the Civil War storyline ) trying to take over the government to impose his own order on the world.
But in the current strip, Tony-- that is, Tony at a small fraction of his mental capacity-- is as heroic as ever. He’s disabled in the most profound way Tony Stark could be disabled, where he can’t just build a specialized Iron Man unit to compensate; the symbolic meaning of his downgraded armor is profound, giving up sophistication and versatility simply to accommodate his limited cognitive abilities. Tony’s successes in his addled state are based on his human decency and courage; even when he loses sight of where he’s going, he keeps moving and pushing forward. And though his mission is one of suicide, it has given him rewards that he might not have claimed at full capacity. His relationship with long-suffering assistant Pepper Potts has finally developed; it is strongly implied that Pepper and Tony consumated, and Pepper did so not when Tony was a suave playboy with a long list of one-night stands, but in an impaired yet completely honest state.
Given the nature of franchise superhero comics, we know Tony will regain his full intellect; I doubt that we will still be reading about a neurologically handicapped hero when the second live action Iron Man movie debuts. But this story represents a profound shift for Tony. Prior to this story, the character’s arc was about overcoming weakness through technological solutions. Now that Tony has lost the ability to do so, there’s a pattern of acceptance of disability and infirmity. When he emerges from his brain damage state, he will be stronger for it, because he will not see his imperfections as signs of failure.