Iron Man a Second-Tier Superhero?

The lead character of the new Marvel movie hasn't received the pop-culture exposure of Superman, Batman, Spiderman, or the Hulk.

Jonathan Last notes a WaPo write-up on the new “Iron Man” live action movie starring Robert Downey Jr. and observes:

The reporter makes the case that Iron Man is a second-tier hero, closer to Thor than Spider-Man. I’m not sure I buy that. In recent years, Iron Man has assumed a larger and larger role in the Marvel universe; being one of the two main protagonists in Civil War, being the center (we think) of Secret Invasion; being the center of the very popular Ultimates and having his own very well regarded Ultimate Iron Man. If anything, I’d argue that Iron Man has become Marvel’s ubiquitous hero, sort of their Batman and Superman rolled into one.

The film’s director disagrees,

He’s not Superman, he’s not Batman, he’s not even Spider-Man . . . “or Hulk or X-Men or Fantastic Four,” admits director Jon Favreau. “You could really go down the list till you get to Iron Man.”

I’m only vaguely aware of these recent story lines, not having actively read the books for fifteen years or more. Iron Man was one of the better characters, though, and many of the storylines in his book and the various Avengers titles he was part of were better than those of, say, The Fantastic Four, who have already been the subject of two recent movies.

My guess is that Iron Man is perceived to be a lesser character because he hasn’t gotten the pop culture exposure of some of the others. Superman was the subject of movie serials in the 1940s, a television show in the 1950s, and a series of films starting in 1978. Batman, too, has been everywhere, including the campy 1960s TV show and the darker films of the 1980s and the current decade. Wonder Woman was popularized by the Lynda Carter show of the 1970s and the Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno treatment of the Hulk. Even Daredevil, essentially a Batman rip-off (albeit a well done one), has had his own movie. The only real exposure Iron Man got outside of comics was the 1960s “Marvel Superheroes Show” cartoon (which I recall being excellent when I saw them in reruns a decade or so later) but that was a serial which also featured Captain America, Thor, Hulk and (oddly) The Sub-Mariner.

Not clear is whether the character got short shrift because Marvel considered it less marketable or because of the technical limitations of presenting the character in live action mode. Until recent advances in CGI, Iron Man would have been incredibly hard to pull off.

Surely, though, Iron Man occupies a higher rung on the Marvel pecking order than Ghost Rider? The latter is a relatively minor character who was never able to carry a monthly solo title for very long. Iron Man, by contrast, has had his own book continuously since 1968. Yet, Ghost Rider was a subject of a movie (starring Nicolas Cage) a couple years ago.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Derrick says:

    Your in my geeky wheel-house here, and I would agree with one of your last points about the limitations of the Iron Man suit. Robocop was one of the only movies able to pull off the armored suit bit, and he had to move almost painfully slow with the realistic looking exo-skeleton that probably weighed about 100 lbs. The suit and the CGI were probably the biggest thing preventing a tv show or a movie in the past.

    Iron Man has been a core Marvel character for decades, and definitely a much more interesting back story than say the Fantastic Four or Daredevil. The other point against his popularity might be the adult nature of his character. He’s a whiskey drinking womanizer with a Roger Clemens-like libido which doesn’t make for an appealing family friendly super-hero. I think the popularity of Wolverine in the X-Men movies showed that on that contrary that type of flawed adult character is probably more appealing in a way, even to children.

  2. Wayne says:

    Of course it depends on what you mean by second-tier hero. From the sound of it popularity outside of their respected community is what was meant. Sort of like Jordon and Babe Ruth is known by a very large population outside of their respected sports. Under those criteria Iron Man is right on the cuff. Someone like my girlfriend would recognize Batman or Superman, a 50/50 chance of knowing Iron Man and less than that in recognizing Ghost Rider until I took her to that movie.

    Within the Marvel Universe I would say he is in the top tier but not the very top. Also if your talking selecting a hero for their overall abilities including non-fighting ones, he would be a popular selection. He is defiantly no Jubilee. As a child I thought he was OK but like the Hulk, Spiderman, Batman, Ghost Rider and Wolverine better. I like him better then Cyclops, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow and Power Man.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    The stable of Marvel superheroes were all a bit after my prime comic-reading period. I remember buying and reading the issue in which Tony Stark first got the yellow suit; I lost interest around the time he got he snazzy red-flashed one.

  4. Paul Barnes says:

    Don’t forget these other, non-top movies made from superheroes: Hellboy, Punisher (TWO!) and Spawn.

  5. FireWolf says:

    Yup…Hellboy is coming out with a second movie that looks quite good. I am looking forward to the IronMan movie this weekend (if i can find time to go out and see it).

  6. Robby Reed says:

    For the SECRET ORIGINS OF IRON MAN, check out…