Genesis scene of the genesis hero of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Tony Stark is in a Humvee rattling fast on a dirt road in Kunar Province, Afghanistan. It’s war, but he’s in a slick pin-striped suit, and holding a cocktail. The soldiers he’s with won’t talk, so he turns on the charm. He simultaneously hits on and insults the female officer who’s driving, and she loves it. They all do. Tony is rich, famous, brilliant, awesome.
An explosion takes out the vehicle ahead, and Tony watches the soldiers he’s just befriended get killed. From this moment on, he’s never the same, and this is profound because comic-book movies are our new myths, and Iron Man has some deep-seeded American neuroses to iron out for us.
Seriously. The first time Tony puts on the suit to go fight, it’s because he’s mad from watching news reports about American weapons (he made) in the hands of terrorists. With fury on his face, he dons the costume and blasts halfway across the world to rescue innocent civilians from violent fanatics. Then he saves an American soldier who’s about to die.
We can’t just do that when we see bad news, can we? But by God we wish we could. America has wrought so much havoc in that part of the world, and here’s a man with the powers to solve that problem. Iron Man might be a mythic response to collective guilt; mythic because he works.
He’s a great superhero because he looks cool, and can fly and blast laser beams. And he’s a great character because for all his mastery of technology (no one is better with computers and engines), Tony can’t attain joy. By the end of Captain America: Civil War, he’s a broken man lashing out in pure thoughtless rage. Maybe he’s never recovered from seeing those soldiers die in Afghanistan.
Captain America is a WWII fighter, a pumped and primed member of the greatest generation, transplanted into our confused modern era to scold and help us. Hulk is anger’s power. These characters mean something. Iron Mean means we have issues.