Maybe the clothes do make the man. Or maybe the suit of billion-dollar titanium armour wrapped around the smug face of a genius playboy philanthropist makes the Iron Man. Point is, is that Tony Stark has had a lot of armour over the years. That’s the point of the character in comic books and films: A futurist who always looks forward and never stops innovating, never settling for tradition or the past in his quest to go beyond the present.
Here’re ten of the best Iron Man looks from over the years, while I tinker away with my Mark IX cardboard armour and hope that this time I don’t set myself on fire.
It all began in a cave with a box of scraps. Cobbled together from junk and leftover weapons, Tony Stark’s very first suit of armour wasn’t designed to fly or carry runaway nuclear bombs. It was a suit made for one purpose: survival at any cost. 2008’s Iron Man film was a near pitch-perfect recreation of this armour, but somehow scrappier and more daring with all of its faults and desperation welded to a massively unwieldy frame.
We all start somewhere in life, and for Tony Stark that was in a dank cave with a hundred terrorists out for his blood as he relied not on his weapons but on his genius mind to escape and become the golden Avenger that we all know and love.
The Mark I may have kick-started a career in superheroics for Stark, but it was the Mark III that defined his look. Far less bulky and made up of various metals, Tony Stark set the template for what he’d build in the decades to come: Bulletproof and flight-capable exo-skeletons with a sexy red and gold finish. Agile, durable and iconic, the Mark III went on to become the design bible for the future of Iron Man.
If the Mark III defined Iron Man for the Silver and Bronze Age of comic books, then Adi Granov’s more grounded redesign of Stark’s armour was the template for a more modern take on the shellhead. Featuring more aerodynamic curves and lines, the Extremis armour was Stark’s response to his suit being drastically outclassed by a new generation of super-soldiers in 2006. Able to communicate quicker than ever thanks to a tailored cocktail of the Extremis formula, Stark’s latest suit wasn’t just a shell to protect him but also a blurred line between man and machine.
Sometimes, you need more than just the latest technology to stop a rampaging green steroid rage monster from tearing the planet apart. You need that and enough weaponry to stop an army dead in its tracks. When it comes to Hulkbuster suits, Stark has always had one philosophy: Bigger is better. The initial Hulkbuster suit made its debut all the way back in 1994, with a clash that resulted in a stalemate between the two titans.
Fast forward a few years later, and a stronger and angrier Hulk was more than a match for all of that metal, easily tearing it apart. It may not be able to match haymakers with the Hulk, but the Hulkbuster is still a fantastic example of just how far Tony is willing to go to trade punches with the green Goliath.
Although the Hulk isn’t the only Avenger that Tony has had to draft up a contingency suit of armour for. Clearly modelled after the Asgardian Destroyer, the Thorbuster is Tony’s answer to fighting magic with magic (and some trademark science on the side). Powered by Asgardian artifacts, the Thorbuster was designed to stop a Thunder God dead in his tracks. Which it did for a few minutes at least, until the Odinson finally got fed up and utterly trashed it.
Still, points for it being a wicked cool idea at the time.
For all of its faults, I loved the brash attitude of Marvel during the Heroes Reborn saga of the mid-90s. Pulling a New 52 long before DC Comics had the idea, Marvel attempted to restart the Silver Age from scratch with heroes who seemingly perished during the Onslaught saga. Iron Man was possibly the peak symbol of 90s excess then, and I’ll defend that damn over-wired hotrod of a suit with my dying breath dammit.
I can just imagine the conversation that artist Whilce Portacio must have had with his editors when he designed it:
”Hey Whilce, why are there exhaust pipes on Iron Man?”
“Because f*ck you, that’s why!”
Awesome suit. Awesome.
Bleeding Edge/Mark XLVI
I’m kind of cheating here, but hear me out. The Bleeding Edge armour was Iron Man taking his Extremis-enhanced ideas to a logical conclusion: A suit made up of nano-technology that was housed inside of his body and controlled with a simple thought. This was the idea of post-humanism taken to another level, a staggering leap forward for a genius who previously had to rely on crates and briefcases to carry his greatest invention with him.
It also looked bitchin’, and perfect on the big screen in Captain America: Civil War. This just might be my favourite armour visually: A cherry red masterpiece that oozes style and futurism.
After two decades of red and yellow metal, Iron Man was due for an upgrade. At the height of 1985, Stark debuted his Silver Centurion exoskeleton, a suit that updated all of his trademark abilities for the Armor Wars as he fought to regain his technology from the hands of techno terrorists who were using it for nefarious ends. Massive shoulder pads and a gleaming silver finish, the suit would make two appearances in the Iron Man movies:
As a last-minute save in the form of the Mark V, and in a far more dedicated design that popped up during the final battle when Stark activated his House Party protocol in response to Aldrich Killian’s Extremis-enhanced threat.
Tony Stark has always been a jerk but after the Inversion event, all of his worst qualities bubbled to the surface. Greed and vanity played havoc on his mind, resulting in an abomination of science and biology. A semi-sentient symbiote of liquid metal that Stark could mentally control, packing plenty of punch and one other key factor: A face that was invitingly open to punch, but you couldn’t reach as the Superior Iron Man looked down on people.
Marvel movies may be beholden (loosely) to the laws of reality, but the comic books certainly aren’t. After a massive saga that saw Extremis purged from his system, Tony Stark needed to focus on a new vision for his armour that would allow him to not only meet new threats head on, but adapt to counter them on the fly.
The solution? The Mark LI, a technological breakthrough that made use of new modular technologies to create armour which could fight any threat with instant countermeasures. A base model of the armour accompanied Stark wherever he went, acting as a platform that could augment itself to be a tank in one instance or a stealth suit the next. It was also Stark’s final suit, used in the second Civil War and eventually inherited by Riri “Lionheart” Williams.