Credit: Zade Rosenthal

Unsure who Black Widow is? Having trouble deciphering the Hulk’s roar? Can’t tell the difference between Hawkeye and Katniss? In anticipation of the release of The Avengers on May 4, EW’s team of super geeks is here to help guide you through the mythos with our seven-part series of superhero primers, the recently declassified “Avengers Files.” It doesn’t matter if you’re a comic book connoisseur or a Nick Fury newbie — follow along this week as we deconstruct Earth’s mightiest heroes and pose the question: Which Avenger is the mightiest?

Name: Iron Man/Tony Stark

First comic appearance: Tales of Suspense #39 (March 10, 1963), created by Stan Lee, written by Larry Lieber, and designed by Don Heck and Jack Kirby

First movie appearance: Iron Man (2008); $318.4 million domestic, $585.1 million worldwide

Portrayed by: Save for an array of voice actors that have brought the metallic toon to life, Robert Downey, Jr. was the first thesp to bring Iron Man to the tough, non-pixelated reality of live-action.

Origin story: After a car crash killed both of his parents, brilliant engineer Tony Stark inherited Stark Industries. During a military field test, a land mine exploded and sent a piece of shrapnel into Stark’s chest, lodging somewhere near his heart. While Stark was held prisoner at a terrorist camp and instructed by his captives to construct advanced weapons, he instead worked with his cellmate to manufacture a magnetic chest plate that prevented the shrapnel from ever reaching his heart. At the same time, Stark built a crude battlesuit — the first Iron Man armor, replete with unrefined weaponry and basic defenses — that he used to break out of captivity and return home.

Back in his lab at Stark Industries, he redesigned the rechargeable chest plate — now necessary to keep him alive — so that it would be small enough to fit under his everyday clothing. Eventually, Stark decided to recreate the armor suit with the plan of releasing it to the public, but ditched the idea after a group of thieves attempted to steal one of his prototypes. One quashed terrorist bomb threat later, Stark resolved to become the crime-fighting superhero known as Iron Man.

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

Weapon/Superpower: Stark is a genius, and any enhanced senses he may have developed over the years came from artificial programs of his own making, but the real Hora at the metaphorical bar mitzvah is Iron Man’s suit of armor. What Batman’s utility belt is to Bruce Wayne, Iron Man’s suit is to Stark — although the latter’s is considerably more essential to his health. The shiny bodysuit (classically red and gold, though not consistently) has always allowed for enhanced strength, life support and flight, but over the years it’s also seen missiles, cannons, launchers, tasers, particle beams, rocket boots, sensors, sonars, finger lasers, machine guns, sledgehammers, force field generators, energy swords, invisibility shields and a whole array of other light-based weaponry. So, yeah, nothing too extravagant or anything.

Outfit/Clothing: See above. Considering that Stark’s favorite sartorial choice doubles as his greatest weapon, it would be unwise to suggest any other outfit option. When he’s not suited up, Stark dabbles in both the super-formal (although this white tux is an utter sin) and the super-casual (is that chiffon?). His only unforgivable fashion crime comes in the form of his oft dreadful hair, which in the ’80s fell victim to… well, the ’80s. May his mullet rest in peace.

Secret Identity: Initially, Stark plays up a lavish playboy lifestyle (creator Stan Lee has said the character is based on Howard Hughes) to detract from suspicion that he is Iron Man, whom he claims is his personal bodyguard. Stark confided his superhero alter ego to a select few close to him, but ensuing events over the years caused him to publicly reveal his identity. However, Tony Stark is so organically composed of bad-ass that eventually he needs no secret identity: the name Tony Stark becomes synonymous with Iron Man, Iron Man with Tony Stark, and somewhere in an alternate universe, Chuck Norris weeps.

Sidekicks: During his first tour as Iron Man, Stark encounters injured Marine Jim “Rhodey” Rhodes (played by Terrence Howard and Don Cheadle in the films), who becomes his close friend and personal pilot. Over time Rhodey adopts his own superhero personality as War Machine, a slightly copycat version of Iron Man. Although he never became a sidekick in the traditional sense of matching costumes and pithy catchphrases, at one point Rhodey actually steps into the Iron Man armor as Stark fades away due to his struggle with alcoholism.

Love life: Stark has taken plenty of dips in the romantic pool over the years — such is the benefit of being a charming billionaire — but two women in particular stole his heart away (or at least, stole his metal chestplate): Joanna Nivena, to whom Stark was engaged before the accident that led to the creation of Iron Man; and Pepper Potts, Stark’s personal secretary, who married Stark’s chauffeur despite secretly falling in love with the man behind the iron. In the films, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper is positioned as Stark’s main squeeze, although she had a significantly greater inclination to keep her full-time boss/part-time lover in the worst place of all: the friend zone.

Sample tweet from Tony Stark: Does anyone know if there’s a maid service that knows how to avoid setting off a proton beam? #LOL #IAmThe1%

Random fact of obscure trivia: Crossovers between comics have become increasingly more common in recent years (chalk that up to a number of explanations), but one classic crossover appearance is a lesser-known but thoroughly hilarious one: in DC Comics’ Super Friends #5, “Telethon Treachery,” Stark makes a cameo appearance as a donor at a Super Friends fundraiser telethon, pledging a $75,000 donation to the heart fund. The operator at the other end of the line? Batman.

Actors, Assemble!: Among the other actors supposedly considered for the metal mercenary were Nicolas Cage, Leonardo DiCaprio, Clive Owen, Timothy Olyphant and Sam Rockwell (who appeared in Iron Man 2), but the most surprising almost-hero was Tom Cruise, who was famously rumored to produce and star in the film adaptation. The buzz continued for several years, with Cruise reportedly wanting to get involved even before the growing superhero vogue of the early 2000s, but the operation fizzled out in 2005. Downey, Jr. was ultimately cast a year later, leaving the rest of the world to wonder what would have happened if Cruise had got his way.

Avengers Trailer 08

Why he might be the best Avenger: Smooth, suave and heroically stylish, watching Tony Stark have his way with thugs and villains is like watching a cooler, manlier version of yourself blow out all the candles on a birthday cake with relaxed ease. With full confidence in his hefty array of battle-ready doodads and dinglehoppers, Stark has something that other Avengers (albeit with actual superpowers) often lack: swagger. Considering that the Hulk has trouble fitting into society and Captain America has the coif of a young Tilda Swinton, Stark leads the pack with his unbridled confidence, snappy comebacks and the fact that, above all else, he can fly. (Unfortunately for Thor, powertools just don’t count.)

Why he might NOT be the best Avenger: For all his boastfulness, Stark has a major deficiency: he’s essentially a walking life support system. One well-placed ultra magnet near his chestplate and he’s literally a heartbeat away from extinction. Iron Man’s health is perpetually in limbo, with the danger only exacerbated by his reckless crime fighting. His armor makes him the most well-protected of the group, but Stark’s vulnerability and stubborn temper are enough to make him a slightly erratic team player in the scheme of things.

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Iron Man

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 125 minutes
  • Jon Favreau