In the world of Marvel, Iron Man is one of many heroes to don an iconic symbol. Though many people treasure a symbol as a source of power, Tony Stark wears his as not only a mask, but as a testament to his own personal power: his intellect. In the world of symbols and implements, Tony Stark’s Mach V Iron Man suit is the holy grail. It’s a weapon that is uniquely utilized as an entity of protection. The primary relationship between the Armor and Tony, it seems, is its relationship with his identity. Specifically, the Armor allows Tony to foster his ideal self, void of his own demons.

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The suit’s design is an enigma. Since Tony created the suit to his specifications, its features should signify a great deal about Tony Stark. However, the details of the suit have no designs that carry significant meaning to Tony himself, unlike with most heroes. The color scheme of Tony’s suits suggests very little besides preference. Tony routinely changes the scheme on different armored suits.

The only reoccurring element is the core planted at the center of each suit that powers the entire suit. Even this element loses its meaning when Tony Stark has his core removed from his body in IRON MAN 3. Therefore, the Armor’s significance is its utility and how it makes Tony feel when worn.

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In general, armor is hard and hindering. It can protect the person inside from the outside world while still giving them the illusion of immersion. It accomplishes this because a suit of armor lies in an odd intersection of clothing and a private space. As a space, it is an area that is occupied by someone that is closed off at all points. Generally, armor is completely sealed off. Iron Man’s Armor is no different. By this association, Iron Man locks himself in a room and hides whenever he bares his suit of armor in combat, creating an area of privacy.

Iron Man’s helmet doubling as a mask further symbolizes the idea of hiding. Rather than acting a tool to protect his loved ones from the threats Tony faces as a hero, it merely maintains his personal image. It obscures for the sake of its psychological effects. In truth, the obscuring nature of the helmet has more in common with villains than with superheroes. In the comics, many villains have a public alter ego yet wear masks, like Dr. Doom or Baron Zemo, because of how it aids them psychologically.

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Most heroes operate behind their alter egos as a kind of refuge. The common hero trope of the “secret identity” is so important that Marvel’s famous CIVIL WAR arc centered around whether or not the government had a right to a hero’s identity. So it becomes odd to find a hero so dependent on hiding his true self also open with his personal life. In fact, the decision for Stark to act outside of the “masquerade” unlike many heroes is odd. In IRON MAN’s ending, Stark openly discloses his status as the Iron Man to the world. He tells the villains his actual place of residence (though, I feel surprised not everyone already knew due to all of the Gatsby-level parties he throws) in IRON MAN 3. We understand that Tony Stark is truly fearless, so why the Armor, which suggests fear?

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How Armor Really Works

If anyone truly knows how armor impacts the warrior, the world’s most revered Knights of them all, the Knights of the Round Table know. Armor is practically a cornerstone of Arthurian legend and European history. In the past, armor was often decorated with multiple symbols to reflect the knight and his kingdom. For example, the Green Knight in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is originally known for his phantasmic green armor that reflected the Green Chapel, and therefore his allegiance to it. The green is also symbolic of nature and supernatural themes. Further, the armor obscured the knight’s true identity — Lord Bercilak — in the persona of the Green Knight. Lord Bercilak’s true behavior and personality become subverted when he dons the armor of the Green Chapel. Thus, the Lord creates an alter ego to befit his “mask” of the green armor.

This “sympathetic association” between armor and knight is a cornerstone of all Arthurian knights. In many ways, Tony’s Armor reaffirms his allegiances and heroic ideals in the same way Sir Gawain’s armor might reaffirm his allegiances to his kingdom or the Green Knight to the Green Chapel. Though, unlike Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s aesthetics being the reaffirmation, Tony’s is in his technology. By refusing to wear anything but the technology he has personally designed, Tony becomes a walking testament to his full potential as a human being, like how a knight is a testament to his kingdom.

The Iron Man Suit Protects Tony Stark in More Ways Than One

In classical literature, armor symbolized preparation for great hardships. In The Illiad, Achilles has a substantial arming scene in preparation for his battle to avenge the death of his dear friend (and possible lover) Patroclus. The sheer detail of Achilles arming himself is significant to the extremes that Achilles will face, not because this battle would be hard physically for him to win — this is Achilles, he’s basically Superman without a cape — but because of the emotional hardships involved. Likewise, Iron Man often arms himself in spectacular ways: with polymorphing watches, suits that assemble around his body like sentient Lego blocks, caches attached to an atmosphere-bound satellite or briefcases filled with mech suits.

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The protection from the personal rather than external goes in line with Tony Stark’s history. His story is plagued with his journey to overcome his guilt for the people harmed by his family’s inventions and his own unresolved guilt for the death of his mother and father. Following AVENGERS, Tony Stark’s PTSD clearly manifests through his compulsive need to invent newer, more efficient suits of armor. By the end of his ordeal, Stark has designed well over forty different suits for a variety of needs. It isn’t until he reconciles with Pepper Potts that we see Stark finally dismantle these suits.

Tony Stark and Alcohol

Further, Tony Stark suffers from alcoholism. This characterizes him by his dependency with alcohol to cope with a void in his life. During the debut of Tony Stark’s alcoholism in the “Demon in a Bottle” storyline of THE INVINCIBLE IRONMAN #120-128, the Iron Man Armor malfunctions multiple times preceding a significant alcoholic binge. Each time, Tony finds himself placed in a situation of vulnerability. He can no longer act as the invincible hero and leader of the Avengers but, rather, the simple and flawed Tony Stark. When pressured by situations he can not cope with, Tony self-destructs and drinks. He lashes out at his close personal friend and butler, Edwin Jarvis.

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Tony Star is the Iron Man Behind the Iron Mask

The other most prominent use of the Iron Man suit is as a mask, rather than a weapon. In every design, the suit maintains its helmet even though it is not a requirement for the Armor — many suits in the series offer head protection without covering the face. Thus, everyone recognizes Tony as Iron Man no matter which of his many suits he wears. Also, Tony expresses a desire to always be seen as Iron Man.

Unlike most masks, Tony barely ever takes off Iron Man’s mask. He wears it at all times if he is able to. This is unlike a normal mask, such as one worn on Halloween, which never truly defines who the person is. Tony’s is never seen as a separate item to the user, much like a sword or other weapon, but is mutually a costume of sorts. Like anyone with a mask, it symbolizes a person attempting to imitate their ideal selves.

A Symbol Synonymous with Iron Man

This cognitive association of the Armor with Tony is so strong, not even villains consider it. Whereas one would move to disarm a warrior from his sword, most adversaries never try to remove Tony from his Armor. The Armor and Tony Stark are always one person when he wears the suit. Yet, this association isn’t truly Tony’s truest self. Rather, the association is with the persona Tony has convinced everyone he is. The identity Tony has constructed that he dons with the Armor invokes that false sense of godhood that will end in our united ends. The false godhood that tells someone that to wield technology is to be a god amongst mortals.

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By these extensions, the symbol of the Iron Man Suit can be seen as Stark’s desire to illustrate himself as someone else. Much like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, it’s about disassociation. The Armor represents an identity Tony Stark clings to for comfort and security. It protects him not merely in battle, but against his own self-destructive tendencies. He tackles problems that a mortal is too imperfect to conquer on their own. Much like any addict receive advice to lean on a higher power, Stark turns to the ingenuity and safety of the suit to create his own higher power. When Stark wears his Armor, he isn’t merely Tony Stark, he’s the invincible Iron Man.

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