Dear One of Many,
I also enjoyed the film immensely, I consider it to be one of the greatest superhero films of all time. It́’s good to see another superhero besides Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, or the X-Men become a blockbuster and enter the popular cultural consciousness in America. Í’ll address each of your questions, but not in order, because I can arbitrarily rearrange the order of your questions.
How accurate was the movie to the character and history of Iron Man and what are the discrepancies?
Pretty accurate. However, in saying that the film was true to the character and history of Iron Man, there needs to be an accompanying caveat about extreme complexity of the character and history of Iron Man. Iron Man was created in 1963, and has appeared in his own title and many team titles each month since his creation. There have been multiple writers and artists who have interpreted the characters, and there have been classic stories (Demon in a Bottle, in which Tony Stark battled alcoholism), and not so classic stories (at one point the Avengers traveled back in time to retrieve a teenage Tony Stark to replace the adult Tony Starkâ€¦that story was undone fairly quickly). Also, there are multiple continuities in the Marvel Universe. There is what Í’ll call the Classic Marvel Universe, which is what started up in the 1960s and has more or less run since then. Theré’s the Ultimate Marvel Universe, which was started in 2000, and was meant to restart comics with the classic Marvel characters, but updating their origins for modern times and tell stories that wereń’t weighted down with 40 years of continuity. Theré’s also Marvel Adventures, which are written to be all ages stories which are usually done in a single issue without many references to previous issues, so that children could pick up any issue and enjoy the story without being confused about all the character interactions.
At this very moment Iron Man has two monthly titles in the Classic Marvel Universe (Iron Man and The Invincible Iron Man), appears in one team book in the Classic Marvel Universe (Mighty Avengers), has one mini-series in the Classic Marvel Universe (Iron Man: Viva Las Vegas (which is written by the director of the Iron Man movie), one mini-series set back in Iron Mań’s earliest days in the Classic Marvel Universe (Iron Man: Enter the Mandaring), one solo title in the kid-friendly Marvel Adventures line (Marvel Adventures Iron Man), appears in a kid-friendly team book in the Marvel Adventures line (Marvel Adventures Avengers), appears in an Ultimate Universe team book (The Ultimates), and has a mini-series in the Ultimate Universe (Ultimate Iron Man: Volume II (written by Orson Scott Card)). That́’s nine different Iron Man comic books coming out this month, and they doń’t all agree in tone or interpretation of the character of Tony Stark.
But, the movie did get the key elements that are pretty consistently portrayed about Iron Man. He is a super-genius, especially with technology. He is the head of a company which his father started. He is a billionaire. He is a playboy bachelor. He did fight Obadiah Stane in the comic books, and Obadiah Stane wore a big honkiń’ suit of armor (and went by the name Iron Monger).
Pepper Potts ends up married to Happy Hogan (Stark's driver in the movie) in the comics, and Stark is pretty constantly a womanizer. Iron Man's classic villain is The Mandarin, who was a Cold War stereotype of Asians, so perhaps it is best they didn't use him in the film. However, the Mandarin is obsessed with ruling all of Asia, and has ten rings of power, so there were hints towards the Mandarin with the main bad guy leading the terrorists.
How did Iron Man in the comic universe get the electronic stuff in his heart?
In the original 1963 origin story for Iron Man, Tony Stark travels to Viet Nam to see how his technology is helping the war effort, when he falls prey to a booby trap set by Communists. Stark is captured, and his fellow captive, Ho Yinsin builds a magnetic plate that Stark must wear on his chest so that shrapnel will not enter his heart. Stark is supposed to develop weapons for the Communists, but instead he and Yinsin build a suit of armor, and Stark escapes while Yinsin dies in the attempt. That probably all sounded pretty familiar, because the film didn't alter the origin too much. The film updated the battleground to Afghanistan, but otherwise pretty much kept the origin intact.
As for the electronic stuff in his heart, at various times in his comic book history Stark has been unable to live outside of the Iron Man suit, had the suit's chestplate force his heart to pump, hé’s been pretty much healed from any heart damage, hé’s been able to live in computers, hé’s been turned into an android womanâ€¦so yeah, the origin about shrapnel in the heart is the same in the comic book and the movie, but it goes all over the place in the forty years since Iron Man was created in the comic books.
Did he ever work with SHIELD in the comics?
In the Classic Marvel Universe Iron Man is the director of SHIELD right now. So yeah, theý’ve been involved.
However, the movie seems to be referencing more of the Ultimate Universe version of SHIELD and the Avengers. In the Ultimate Universe Nick Fury (who is black and was modeled after Samuel L. Jackson (in the Classic Marvel Universe he is White and started fighting evil back in WWII before heading up SHIELD (yeah, hé’s oldâ€¦)) starts up the Avengers to work for SHIELD. In the Classic Marvel Universe the Avengers are formed by accident, when a bunch of heroes are called together to face down the same threat, and then think it́’s a good idea to keep the team thing going. That seems to be the direction Marvel is going with the films they are producing (Marvel is now a movie studio as well as a comic book publisher). Marvel is also putting out The Incredible Hulk this summer, then will put out Iron Man 2 and Thor in 2010, and then put out Captain America: The First Avenger (working title) and The Avengers in 2011. There may be an Ant-Man and Nick Fury movie thrown in somewhere along there as well. From the title of the Captain America movie Í’m assuming it will be set entirely in WWII, and end with Captain America falling into the arctic ocean after blowing up a Nazi plane, and then hé’ll be pulled out of the ice in the modern day at the start of the Avengers movie, thus giving him the man-out-of-time element which is key to that character.
So, was Iron Man faithful to the comic books? Pretty much. They even brought in current comic book writers who are writing Iron Mań’s comic books to look over the script before they started shooting, and they had a popular comic book artist do all the armor designs for the movie. I doubt Incredible Hulk will be as popular as Iron Man, but I love that the Marvel Universe can be shared across films now that Marvel is producing their own movies (Nick Fury appeared in Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr. is going to have a cameo as Tony Stark in the Incredible Hulk). Hopefully future Marvel films will be as solid as Iron Man, and as respectful of the source material.
PS If anyone is really interested in Marvel superheroes, there was a fantastic essay written about the cultural relevance of Marvel superheroes in the 1960s in the December 2007 volume of the Journal of Popular Culture. It was written by Robert Genter, and titled "'With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility': Cold War Culture and the Birth of Marvel Comics" (there was another solid essay on Captain America comics during the Reagan era in the same volume).