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It’s hard to imagine now, but there used to be a time when Iron Man was a relatively unknown character outside the world of comic books. As a kid, I was always interested in popular characters like Spider-Man, Hulk, and the X-Men. It was easy for them to become household names and earn public recognition.
I remember watching their cartoons Saturday morning and collecting their toys afterward. This public interest was probably why Marvel saw a lucrative opportunity to license the film rights to Fox, Sony, and Universal. Buyers probably weren’t as interested in Iron Man.
I barely recall him even being a guest hero on those shows. But luckily, this allowed Marvel the opportunity to kickstart its cinematic universe using him. These movies propelled Iron Man and Tony Stark, whom Robert Downey Jr. portrayed to perfection, into the public consciousness.
As I started reading comics in my early teens, I learned how easy it was to portray multiple versions of the characters. Non-comic fans might be shocked to learn the Iron Man they know from the movies is even different from the mainstream one who often appeared in the comics.
As far as a character goes, Iron Man is very versatile towards variation and design changes. This is because he’s technically two characters. Iron Man was more than just Tony Stark’s alter ego in the early days.
Iron Man was publicly known as Tony Stark’s bodyguard and a separate individual, which I always thought was a smart move the first movie did away with in its closing moments.
But in the comics, that dynamic made perfect sense. It allowed the two to seemingly exist independently, a trend that continued as different writers sought to make different versions of the character.
I always loved when Marvel did spin-off universes like 1602 and the Ultimate Universe, where writers could focus on crafting different variations of Tony Stark as an eccentric, billionaire, playboy, and inventor.
Or they could focus on the Iron Man side of the character, putting different individuals in the suit and customizing the armor for different eras and alternate timelines.
The following criteria are the ones I considered for the selection of the Best Iron Man of All Time:
- Coolness factor: I weighed how cool the character is compared to others.
- Popularity: It matters how much people respond to the character.
- Impact: Iron Man needs to have a major impact on the universe he’s in.
- Versatility: Some of the best characters to wear the Iron Man armor aren’t just soldiers in a suit. They need to be something else, as well.
Superior Iron Man
- First Appearance: Axis #1
- Creators: Rick Remender
- Character core: Iron Man with no morality
I’m always weary of Marvel crossovers. They tend to get a little forced, but Axis was fun. Many of Marvel’s heroes and villains swapped alignments during the crossover event. Good guys became bad guys, and bad guys became good guys.
A personal favorite was Deadpool, who became a sort of pacifistic guru. When the event ended, many characters reverted to their status quo, which I found boring, but Iron Man did not. This version of Iron Man shielded himself from the reversal spell, so he continued as a villain in the mainstream universe.
He’s essentially Tony Stark with all of the morality removed. He still views himself as a hero and wants to do good but without any sort of conscience, which I think makes for the best characters. (There are a couple on this list.)
For him, all the ends justify the means, resulting in him clashing with several heroes, including Spider-Man, Daredevil, and even Tony’s former assistant, Pepper Potts. But personally, my favorite moment was when he gave Daredevil his sight back…just temporarily, to show that he could. Now that’s devious.
- First Appearance: Age of X #1
- Creators: Simon Spurrier, Jim Mccann
- Character core: Iron Man, but his suit is eating him alive
Marvel is certainly no stranger to creating dystopian timelines. I’m not typically a fan of them, but Age of X was fairly interesting. This reality revealed what would happen if the Avengers were tasked by the military to hunt down all mutants, including the X-Men.
And at two issues, I found it to be an easy read. Because this is such a dark timeline, twisted versions of the Avengers were created, too. Iron Man’s variant was particularly bizarre. A virus infected him that effectively turned his armor against him.
The suit began eating away at him from the inside, earning him the nickname Steel Corpse, probably one of the best Iron Man has ever had. It was almost as if Tony Stark, the man, was gone, nothing more than a shell of a person being puppeted by the armor.
This became apparent when Tony Stark had second thoughts about killing mutant children. The Punisher, who was in charge of the Avengers, overrode Tony’s change of heart and directed the armor to execute the mutants anyway.
I’m not sure I would want to read more about this universe, but that name should be revived in some fashion.
Ultimate Iron Man
- First Appearance: The Ultimates #1
- Creators: Mark Millar, Bryan Hitch
- Character core: Pretty much the same Iron Man but in the Ultimate Universe
The Ultimate Universe was a marketing gimmick for people like me. It was about taking the classic Marvel characters and re-imagining their origins in today’s world, which suckered me right in. In many ways, Iron Man from the Ultimate Universe is extremely similar to Iron Man from the regular universe.
His armor has a more anime-inspired design, which I felt was a very cool departure from what we’re used to, but the two characters followed a very similar path in life. They were both genius inventors at a very young age that tried to work their way out of their father’s shadows.
Ultimately, their differences came from when the two versions of the Avengers entered the picture. Iron Man joined the Ultimates in the Ultimate Universe and married Black Widow.
Unfortunately, she turned out to be a traitor, and Tony was forced to use the nanites he had given her as a wedding present to take her down, which was probably one of my favorite parts about their relationship.
- First Appearance: Infamous Iron Man #1
- Creators: Brian Michael Bendis
- Character core: Doctor Doom as Iron Man
Although the first Civil War was one of my favorites, I wasn’t a fan of Civil War II for many reasons, including that they killed Tony Stark. His death left an opening for the role of Iron Man in the Marvel Universe. After trying to play God during the Secret War storyline, Victor von Doom saw the error of his ways.
One of the things I love about this character is that, in his eyes, he always viewed himself as the savior of humanity. He thought that this role entitled him to do whatever he wanted for whatever concept of the greater good he had in mind, which earned him the title of “villain.”
Doom was ready to try something new. He wanted to align his actions with those he considered “heroes.” So for Doom, becoming the new Iron Man seemed like the right thing to do, and I was all in on seeing how he would pull it off.
Surprisingly, Doom was pretty effective as Marvel’s new Iron Man during this time period. Many of Marvel’s most notorious villains, like the Hood and the Wizard, realized they would be in trouble with Doom as a hero and teamed up to take him down.
Surprisingly, they were unsuccessful, even though they had much greater numbers. Doom’s unconventional form of heroism might not be what some superheroes have in mind, but they couldn’t deny that he wasn’t effective with these methods.
Plus, there was something about the combined Doom and Iron Man armor design that I found perfect for its simplicity.
- First Appearance: Dark Avengers #1
- Creators: Brian Michael Bendis
- Character core: Norman Osborn as Iron Man with Captain America colors
Dark Reign was a truly bizarre time in the Marvel Universe, yet it was also my favorite. It wasn’t so much a crossover as it was an entire line of different stories that had a cohesive narrative to them. Just thinking about the events leading up to it makes me nostalgic for those days.
As the story goes, the aliens known as Skrulls had invaded Earth’s superhero community. At the end of the invasion, Norman Osborn, also known as the Green Goblin, came out as a hero as he was the one to kill the Skrull queen.
The consequence of this was that Osborn was given command of SHIELD and the Avengers. I remember eagerly going to the comic store every week to see what new plans Osborn had in store for the universe.
Rather than stick with his goblin persona, Osborn wisely knew that the Avengers needed certain symbols people could look up to. So as he assembled his team, Osborn combined the patriotism of Captain America and the technological might of Iron Man.
Iron Patriot was the result, and it made for an extremely compelling time in the Marvel Universe as he ruled the superhero and supervillain communities with an iron fist.
Unfortunately, they butchered the concept of the character in the Iron Man 3 film, and I really wish they would’ve held off to do him justice some other way.
- First Appearance: Young Avengers #1
- Creators: Allan Heinberg, Jim Cheung
- Character core: A young Kang the Conqueror trying to do good in an Iron Man suit
Iron Lad might not be my favorite entry on this list, but I can’t deny that he’s a pretty interesting character. He’s effectively the Iron Man of the Young Avengers, a team I could never quite get into. Iron Lad was even responsible for forming them.
However, he’s not Tony Stark. He’s a younger version of Kang the Conqueror who had discovered his future villainous ways and decided to be a hero.
To accomplish this, he traveled back in time to form the Young Avengers to try and confront his destiny as a villain. Kang the Conqueror is one of my favorite villains, as he’s multifaceted and complex.
Iron Lad is a clear example of that, and with Kang the Conqueror about to make waves in the MCU, it will certainly be interesting to see if this character reemerges in the comics and grows his place in these mainstream stories.
I wouldn’t mind seeing more of him, but less in terms of the Young Avengers and more in line with his connection to Kang.
- First Appearance: Black Cat #11
- Creators: Jed MacKay
- Character core: Black Cat in an Iron Man suit
It might seem strange to think of Black Cat and Iron Man existing in the same circles. After all, Black Cat is technically a Spider-Man villain and sometimes love interest. So to see her interacting with Tony Stark is a bit odd. But the two of them get along fabulously.
Tony even built Felicia Hardy her own Iron Man suit, dubbed the Iron Cat. It might seem strange for a cat burglar to need a suit of armor like this, but it’s really not about Felicia.
It’s about Tony. He only builds suits to protect the people he cares about, so the fact he did it for Felicia is very informative about his feelings toward her.
- First Appearance: Invincible Iron Man #10
- Creators: Matt Fraction
- Character core: Pepper Potts in an Iron Man armor designed for search and rescue
I’m not the biggest Pepper Potts fan, so the idea of putting her in armor didn’t appeal to me at first. But her suit has an interesting distinction to it that wasn’t really explained when Gwyneth Paltrow appeared in it in Avengers: Endgame.
That’s how most people learned that Tony Stark’s secretary and lover had her own armor. However, what they might not be aware of is just how special the suit is.
It was never talked about or expanded on in the film, but Pepper’s armor, dubbed Rescue, is extremely unique as far as Iron Man armors go.
Her whole purpose is in her name, which means she’s meant to rescue people. Tony went out of his way to make sure that the armor had no weapons systems at all. It was all rescue and defensive technology. He wanted Pepper to help and protect people, not fight.
This was lost when the character was adapted for the screen, but it just goes to show how specific Tony can be while building his suits. In a world where so many people can wear an Iron Man suit and blast things, I appreciated the different approach Pepper had to hers.
MCU Iron Man
- First Appearance: Iron Man
- Creators: John Favreau, Robert Downey Jr.
- Character core: Currently, the most well-known version of the character
Now that the MCU has blown up at the box office, Iron Man is a household name, and the most well-known version of the character is portrayed by Robert Downey Jr. There’s a reason he’s so liked, though. RDJ is an absolutely incredible actor that embodies Tony Stark in every scene.
He’s witty, quick, caring, and determined to do right by the world. Plus, for fans like myself, the post-credits scene with Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury was a promise of an expanded universe that the MCU more than delivered on.
Unfortunately, he’s not a comic character. He ages like a normal person does. This meant that his time in the MCU wasn’t infinite.
The actor would eventually have to move on. Fortunately, this version of Iron Man had a send-off fit for the hero he is. Personally, I would love to see Tony possibly return in digital form with the use of some CGI technology, but I admit it’s probably unlikely. RDJ has to move on, and the MCU does, too.
Iron Man Noir
- First Appearance: Iron Man Noir #1
- Creators: Scott Snyder
- Character core: A pulp adventurer of the 1930s with art deco/steampunk-inspired armor
Spider-Man might be the most popular and well-known Marvel Noir character in large part due to his appearance in Enter the Spider-Verse. And how could he not? He’s got a slick design with a trench coat, and Nic Cage voiced him perfectly.
However, there was a whole universe of other characters that also got the noir treatment. This time period is perfect for someone like Tony Stark. It takes place during the tail end of the Industrial Revolution, when science and warfare were dancing with each other around the start of World War II.
In this version, Tony Stark is reimagined as a sort of pulp adventurer searching for a way to cure his heart ailment. There are a couple of twists and turns in his story, the most notable of which was that his father was brainwashed by Wolfgang von Strucker into becoming this universe’s version of Baron Zemo.
Years ago, Marvel collected a gallery of different Iron Man designs from different ages and styles. I loved the art deco and steampunk ones especially, which would be perfect for this time period. Although the comic itself went in a different direction, I still loved how those motifs were implemented.
The suit was created based on Tony’s father’s designs, so it’s no surprise that it’s heavily steampunk influenced. And because of the time period, this may be the first point in history a mechanized suit of armor like Iron Man can actually be built for a story as opposed to a random gallery of pinups.
Question: Which of these versions is the strongest?
Answer: Strength is a relative term when it comes to a man capable of building incredible suits of armor that can be upgraded and tweaked.
Though it’s hard to argue against Superior Iron Man. Without morality holding him back, this version of Tony Stark is willing to push his strength way past any ethical limits, which is why I love to hate him.
Question: Have Different Versions of Iron Man ever Interacted?
Answer: Of course! Many times. One I always think about is during Ultimate End, a Secret Wars tie-in that featured the Ultimate Universe and mainstream versions of Tony Stark working together to stop the Ultimate Universe’s destruction. Unfortunately, they failed, and my beloved Ultimate Universe was no more.
Question: Are there more versions of Iron Man?
Answer: Many, many more. There are other armor-wearing individuals based on Iron Man, like Ironheart and War Machine, as well as alternate versions of Tony Stark, such as the one from Neil Gaiman’s 1602 universe. A list of them all could theoretically go on forever.