As Iron Man 2 hits theaters today, moviegoers will be reminded of what comics fans have known for decades: Iron Man is one of the most exciting superheroes around, in no small part because of his fascinating alter ego, Tony Stark. As portrayed by Robert Downey, Jr., Stark comes to life as the brilliant, wealthy, and dashing inventor and industrialist who enjoys the company of a lovely woman as much as he enjoys conquering the business world or fighting supervillains like Whiplash. In other words, he's Bruce Wayne with a life, Batman without the angst.
But might he like women a bit too much? In the comics, alcohol has long been Tony Stark's main weakness, which he struggled with first in the groundbreaking storyline "Demon in a Bottle," and then later during a two-year-long run in the comics while his friend and pilot James Rhodes wore the red-and-gold armor, and from time to time ever since. (See the chapters by myself and Ron Novy in this book for more on the topic of Stark's alcoholism.) But while he does date a number of women in the comics, and is generally known as a "ladies' man" throughout the Marvel Universe, in truth most of his relationships are fairly lengthy and committed ones. However, in the films, the creators have chosen to highlight his womanizing tedencies, showing lurid encounters with reporters, flight attendants aboard his jet, and—in an infamous deleted scene from the first film—several random hotel guests "collected" as he saunters down the hall.
In earlier days, this behavior may have been laughed off (among men and women alike) as charmingly roguish. But with the recent surge of news reports of sex addiction and adultery among celebrities and politicians, Stark's promiscuity takes on a new life. (Never mind the fact that if a female character acted like Stark has, no one would be laughing.) To be fair, Stark is not married, nor even seriously dating anyone (in the film, much less the present comics); nonetheless, his behavior may be read as displaying a lack of respect for women as valuable persons, and is therefore problematic—especially for a hero.
So Tony Stark is an imperfect man, with strengths and weakness, good points and bad—who isn't? ("Let he who is without sin," "people who live in glass houses"—take your pick!) Of course, he is also the Invincible Iron Man, who uses the tremendous power of his armor to protect humankind, serve justice, and fight evil. But can the people in the Marvel Universe, or the world of the Iron Man films, trust a man with such significant character flaws to make sound decisions when he's piloting a suit of armor with incredible destructive capacity?
There are many ways to think about this issue, but I prefer to do so in terms of character, which I consider to include a person's judgment and will. As a superhero, Iron Man must display impeccable judgment, since a single mistake while using his awesome repulsor blasts can result in staggering damages to property—or lives. And once he judges a course of action to be best, he must have the fortitude or strength of will to go through with it, despite various contrasting influences like fears, anxieties, and distractions (especially those in high heels). Put superb judgment and will together, and you have a person of exemplary character, who deserves the public's trust and earns their admiration.
But can we trust Tony Stark to display sound judgment and strong will when he's in the Iron Man armor, even though that same judgment and will are lacking when he's in a tuxedo or corporate casual? After all, he's the same person in either case. True, he does face different circumstances in his various roles, but some of his decisions as leader of Stark Industries may be as consequential as those he makes as the Armored Avenger. Since the public in both the comics (at present) and the new film know that Tony Stark and Iron Man are one and the same, they will have to decide if Stark can keep his private failings from affecting his corporate behavior as well as his choices as Iron Man.
Tony Stark is a fictional character, of course, but philandering celebrities and politicians are all too real. So we have to ask ourselves: can we still admire celebrities' good qualities even when their bad ones are so evidently on display? More importantly, can we trust policymakers to make sound decisions—and follow through on them—in their official roles when they make such stunningly poor ones in their personal lives? Can personal and public lives be kept truly separate? As brilliant as he is, Tony Stark can't solve these problems for us, but as with most popular culture, his fictional life, with all its ups and downs, can help us think about real-world issues in a different and interesting way.
(For more philosophical discussion inspired by the Iron Man comics and films, including Tony Stark's moral compass, the role of technology in society, and the nature of intelligence, see the book Iron Man and Philosophy: Facing the Stark Reality—see here for a video preview.)