So, Civil War was a big hit, a monster hit if we’re being blatantly honest with each other. Given that I’m going to be writing post-Civil War articles for a while now and this is one of them. As all the trailers and posters probably gave away Iron Man is a big part of the film so it’s about time I actually started talking about him on this blog. What’s always been weird about Iron Man as a hero is that he was never all that popular prior to 2008. Oh, he was around but he was a lot like Green Lantern, a C-list hero that came out consistently without ever being a “must read” comic.
The only thing that kept Iron Man in the nerd consciousness was the awesome multitude of armor designs his character generated. As such, this Comics Rainbow isn’t going to be about periods in Tony Stark’s life and history as a character but rather the different designs of his armor. The only limit is that the armors have to be something of continuous substance rather than one-offs or cult favorites so don’t expect any stealth suits or arctic exploration mechs. With that said, let’s get the full spectrum on the armors of Iron Man.
Even without diving into the amalgam of dumb decisions that was Heroes Reborn this Iron Man armor is just wretched. It was the first design where the faceplate ended up actually having facial features rather than a simple, neutral mask, which ends up making him look like a total villain.
The rest of the suit is pretty junky with fluid musculature, a runny color palette with no clear definition of boundaries, and, my personal favorite, giant turbines sticking out of the back and serving basically no function whatsoever. This design came out in the dog days of the ‘90s when artistic design was at an all time slump for comics but this was still a pretty terrible even given that consideration.
As to the name of the suit, Heroes Reborn was a Marvel stunt from the mid ‘90s that’s often regarded as one of their worst decisions. After a series of events that are stupid and boring a bunch of Marvel heroes ended up dead only to be revived by Franklin Richards, the super powered son of Mr. Fantastic.
The revived heroes were basically an excuse to jump start continuity and redesign everyone’s costumes to conform to the worst trends of the era. So you got ugly heroes glowering and snarling their way around as they beat villains to bloody pulps to show how adult and mature they were. It was all incredibly stupid, I mean laughably so, not the least of which being for the God-awful outfits it spawned.
If you’re a fan of the films the Silver Centurion armor probably appears similar to Tony’s portable armor from Iron Man 2. Even though the Silver Centurion technically appeared in Iron Man 3’s massive armor fight scene I like to think the portable suit is the MCU’s iteration of this design. As to why it’s awesome, well much like many of the entries on this list that’s partly to do with context but a lot to do with just being a kick-ass color scheme and visual design.
The Silver Centurion armor was the armor Tony slipped into during a period of reinvention in the mid ‘80s and the suit reflects that. Unlike previous armors at this time this one actually looked like a mechanical suit rather than literal armor in the vein of a knight or the like. The armor change reflects a greater sense of reality to the character and his mythos. Suddenly Tony isn’t just a science knight but a guy actually piloting a piece of super hardware.
I especially love the giant shoulder pads and big, rhomboid arc reactor in the center of the costume. The whole design was just so different and daring for the time it ends up sticking really well in the mind, and I won’t pretend the color reworking isn’t striking. Red and white/silver is a great color combo that creates this brilliant visual pop that I absolutely adore. Also, this was Tony’s costume during his initial tenure with the West Coast Avengers, a team of C-list Avengers working out of Los Angeles who are one of the greatest superhero groups of all time so there was really no way I couldn’t pick it as my favorite.
Back to the ‘90s for the armor everyone but me loves, this was the version of Tony’s suit immediately prior to Heroes Reborn and while it’s better than his Heroes Reborn costume it’s still not a great fit. Everything about it feels like a deliberate attempt to move away from and betray the design choices of the Silver Centurion.
Instead of being weighty and mechanical it’s light and maneuverable, harkening back to Iron Man’s ‘70s armor. It doesn’t even really feel like armor or a metallic suit but rather a kind of hard rubber plastic costume allowing Tony tones of flexibility and ease of motion. It’s a mech suit that doesn’t come with the weight, rigidity, or strength I like a mech suit to exude.
Additionally I’m not terribly fond of the color scheme reworking. The red and gold colors will forever be Iron Man’s trademark but at least previously he was defined by the red with the yellow as an accenting pop. Here, both red and yellow are fighting for attention and the lovingly sculpted metal yellow abs aren’t doing him any favors.
The whole suit reeks of a kind of weird vanity to me, an attempt to prove to all the kids that Iron Man is totally hip and with it. That whole ouvre is only worsened by the fact that’s exactly what they did, plastering this costume design on a ton of action figures, video games, and even the Iron Man animated series of the time.
As I mentioned at the start of this article, for the longest time in comics Iron Man just didn’t matter. Now this was partly a good thing as it allowed plenty of authors and artists to play around with the character to create cool costume designs and tell bold stories like the ‘Devil in a Bottle’ arc. On the flip side, all that experimentation means that Iron Man didn’t really get an iconic look on the same level as Batman or Superman till the modern era, the 2000s, but when he did…man was it great. This is more or less the Iron Man costume everybody knows as his default design from the 2008 movie onward and it’s one of the best superhero redesigns to come out 40 years after a character’s debut.
Everything I liked about the Silver Centurion suit is here but turned up to 11, emphasizing the mechanical aspects of Iron Man’s suit through heavy detail and a sense of weight and strength. It doesn’t feel like flexible cloth with molded abs like the Modular suit but it also avoids slipping into the role of just metal casing like the ‘70s costume.
What’s more, the color scheme here is the perfect update of the classic Iron Man visual palette. The red has returned to serious dominance but not to a point that it overwhelms the yellow, and that metal ring design on the arms and sides is a great touch. I also really like the shoulder joints, paying tribute to the padded designs of the past while looking like a more believable kind of mechanical socket. It even manages to figure out the problem of Iron Man’s face as the mask design can look at once neutral and menacing depending on the angle from which its viewed.
Fun fact, there are actually 2 different variations on the Mach I Iron Man armor from the comics, this silver one and a gold one that came later. Most comic nerds are big fans of the gold costume but I much prefer the silver design. There’s something about the metallic look of the suit that I just really dig, also they’d pare it with a blue energy design that was an absolutely killer color combo.
Nowadays the difference between the two has kind of been completely wiped from memory thanks to the first Iron Man movie. In the 2008 film Iron Man’s very first suit was a big silver/gray monstrosity so, from now on, that’s what his first suit always looks like in the comics, and the gold variation hasn’t been seen in forever.
What I love about the Mach I is how little its actually changed over the years. The damn thing still looks like it was sautered together from a box of scraps in a cave and has this uniquely B-movie vibe about it. Pretty much ALL of Marvel’s founding heroes (Fantastic Four, Hulk, Thor etc.) were informed by the popularity of B-movie schlock that had dominated the comics medium in the lead up to Marvel’s debut.
That’s why so many of the original Marvel heroes were, in some way, based on monster/horror sci-fi. Iron Man was a little less monstrous but still very much a product of ‘50s sci-fi conventions, favoring clunky junky atomic monsters, only filtered through the growing ideals of the new man and blossoming golden age of spy movies. Tony Stark was initially conceived as something close to the point where James Bond meets Robot Monster and this armor is the best iteration of that.
Ah the Hulkbuster, the favorite Iron Man armor of everyone. Seriously, every comic nerd with their salt knows the Hulkbuster, even if they never cracked an Iron Man comic in their lives. After the ‘70s costume it’s the most recognizable visual design the character’s ever enjoyed in the books and it’s easy to see why. Just from the outset the Hulkbuster looks awesome and shockingly unique.
The costume came about in the midst of the ‘80s, right when the Iron Man creators were getting hip to the idea he’s supposed to be piloting a piece of high tech machinery rather than dawning medieval jousting gear so the Hulkbuster was their way of doubling down on that technical design and they did a fantastic job. The costume just screams heavy metal, figuratively and literally, you just need to look at it to hear the rivets and rock guitar coming off this thing. I especially love how monstrous Tony’s upper half looks in the suit, with his giant shoulder turbines and that freaky neck-less helmet.
However, the appeal of the Hulkbuster goes beyond a pitch perfect visualization of machinery, it’s a symbol. See, in the comics Tony and Hulk are actually closer to archenemies rather than allies and it all tends to go down to what they represent as archetypes. The Hulk, as a creature, is all about biology and animal instinct, he’s the most powerful organism in the galaxy and all it cost him was any semblance of humanity.
Iron Man is the opposite, he’s all about intellect and technology, using his skills to make himself incredibly powerful as a way of trying to cover up his own humanity in the form of his own looming mortality. The two are natural opposites and as a result comics fans really WANT them to fight, and that’s what the Hulkbuster symbolizes, the way that intelligence and fear of our own mortality goes head-to-head with raw, biological power robbed of any humanity.
So…yeah, Iron Man has a “Thor Buster” armor. This is the only armor on the list that’s kind of a fudge on my own rules as the Thor Buster hasn’t appeared a ton in the comics but it’s one of those weird and wonderful Iron Man armors I just had to mention. Also it’s a more substantial thing to bring up than his space suit or deep-sea diving armor. So far, the Thor Buster’s lone appearance was in 2003.
The early 2000s (IE prior to 2004) were a weird and kind of terrible time for Marvel as they were still recovering from their crippling bankruptcy in the late ‘90s so they were doing a ton of weird things. One such weird idea was that Thor took his father’s place as king of the Asgardian Gods and then came down to Earth to reignite Viking worship. It was a weird and crazy story that eventually culminated in Thor trying to take over the entire world. So, faced with such a threat the governments of Earth called in Iron Man, because nothing says “god killer” like an alcoholic CEO and tech head.
In all honesty, the idea of Thor throwing down with Iron Man actually makes a lot of sense. Much like with Hulk, and really ALL of the founding Avengers, the two are composed as opposites. That’s something that’s always stuck out about the shared universe nature of comics, it forces characters that exist as living, symbolic avatars of conflicting ideals to co-exist and sometimes that gets messy.
So, what happens when the living embodiment of human ingenuity and innovation in the face of adversity goes head-to-head with a literal God of myth and wonder? A crazy massive fight is what. Seriously, it’s one of the best throwdowns in comics, mainly because the Thorbuster cribs some Asgardian magic from Thor’s enemy the Destroyer (the evil armor from the first Thor movie for the uninitiated in the audience.) Incidentally, that means that Iron Man has had to put the beat down on all three of his fellow core Avengers; this is what happens when you drink kids.
And now let’s close the guide on a stone cold classic: the shell head armor. After Iron Man abandoned the big, clunky armor of his initial appearances this is what he switched to and stuck with for the better part of two decades and frankly it’s easy to see why. Though not my favorite or ideal Iron Man armor this is the one that would most define how Iron Man’s iconography should and would work.
It’s the first instance of the red and gold color scheme, the first time Iron Man’s chest plate and arc reactor got major focus in the design of the armor, and a major move away from the heavier, more metallic initial design for this light weight alternative. For the longest time this was consider the pinnacle of Iron Man’s visual design, only really getting supplanted in the 2000s by the modern design I already covered and, in fairness, it’s easier to see why.
I’ve mentioned this earlier but this design emphasizes a very unique approach to Iron Man’s mechanical armor, which is to stress the ARMOR over the mech. Rather than showing off all the moving parts and rivets of machinery this design is much more in line with a medieval suit of armor in the vein of a knight. That kind of mythic reference was king at Marvel for the longest time so it’s easy to see why they’d try and fit it into a character like Iron Man.
They even once dropped Iron Man back in time to Camelot and it featured this particular armor and it was a perfect fit. The only problem was that the set-up ended up making the armor more important than the man wearing it, to the point that for a time James ‘Warmachine’ Rhodes took over and just put on the same costume. It wasn’t till authors started trying to tell Tony Stark stories that someone finally put together an armor that worked better.