Over the last decade-plus, Iron Man has shot through the ranks from C-list or fringe B-list hero in Marvel’s stable to a bonafide star thanks to Marvel Studios film output and the revitalized career of Robert Downey Jr. which has sparked us to rank the best Iron Man stories of all time. Take a look.
10. The Five Nightmares of Tony Stark
(Invincible Iron Man #1 - 7)
Matt Fraction’s four-and-a-half-year run on Invincible Iron Man began here and the writer really established himself as one of Marvel’s premier talents at the time.
Tasked with providing a new jumping-on point for fans of the first Iron Man film, Fraction did more than just have Iron Man fight a new villain in a different suit of armor. Instead, he dove into what would become a defining theme of his work: what would Tony Stark be like without the compulsion and drive to do good. The result in this first arc was Ezekiel Stane, a worthy adversary with all the brains and none of the moral compass of Tony Stark.
This arc also brought Pepper Potts back in a big way, marking the first time that the comic books would begin to take cues from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
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9. Enter the Mandarin
If Iron Man has a signature villain, it has to be the Mandarin. But a look back through Iron Man’s publishing history reveals that they didn’t really face off as much as you’d think and a lot of those appearances would be considered fairly problematic by modern standards.
Thankfully, Joe Casey and Eric Canete’s Enter the Mandarin limited series revisits and somewhat recontextualizes those early battles, bringing a greater depth to their skirmishes than readers had been treated to in the past.
But if you come for the Mandarin, you’ll have to stay for the electric Eric Canete art. Canete’s work practically leaps off the page, honoring the look of the past while putting his own unique spin on it.
8. The Mask in the Iron Man
(Iron Man Vol. 3 #26-30)
This may be one of the stranger entries on the list and one that seems a bit dated but Joe Quesada takes the Iron Man concept in a really different direction here. After so many upgrades, the suit has become sentient and Tony must rein in its immense power while teaching it morality and what it means to be human.
This is so much of Tony’s internal struggles externalized, similar to how what we’ve seen in many other entries on this list, but it casts Tony in a new role: father. In a way, it provides a basis for a lot of what we see in Avengers: Age of Ultron with regards to Tony’s creation of Ultron. And it really doubles down on Tony’s need for control. Sure, a reference to the Y2K bug seems silly now but overall, this story has stood the test of time.
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(Iron Man Vol. 1 #182)
Addiction isn’t something that can completely cured; It’s something that stays with you and in your darkest moments, it’s something that tries to entice you back to its cold and suffocating grip. In Denny O’Neil’s Deliverance, Tony Stark experienced that firsthand.
Reeling from the death of a friend and the collapse of his life, Tony looks for hope on a snowy New York night and he doesn’t exactly find it. But he does find strength within himself and the resolve to get better and move forward that is so crucial to fighting back his demons and as we’ll see in our next entry, putting his life back together.
This is not a story that features the Iron Man suit because it’s one that doesn’t need it. It shows the everyday heroism of being a human being that is hopefully inherent in all of us.
6. Iron Monger Saga
(Iron Man Vol. 1 #190-200)
Denny O’Neil needed to have Tony hit rock bottom because he wanted him to reach greater heights than ever before and The Iron Monger Saga bears that out.
With his life decimated by Obadiah Stane, things look pretty dire for Tony Stark - but instead of continuing to spiral out, he decides to take control. He builds his Silver Centurion suit to combat Stane’s Iron Monger and gives readers one of the best comebacks in comic books.
This is another story that focuses on Tony’s perseverance and resilience as well as one that provided a blueprint for the first Iron Man film.
(Iron Man Vol. 1 #149-150)
So much of Tony Stark’s greatest hits are marked by tragedy and sadness but Doomquest proves that his publishing history hasn’t been all doom and gloom. Well, maybe a little Doom.
Iron Man and Doctor Doom travel back in time by magical means and find themselves on opposite ends of a conflict between King Arthur and Morgan Le Fey. To this point, Doom hadn’t really been considered an Iron Man villain but David Micheline, Bob Layton, and John Romita Jr. work here definitely changed that perception.
This is definitely not the moody melodrama that marks so many of the other stories on this list but it’s incredibly fun and we’ve seen its legacy reverberate into modern comic books.
4. World's Most Wanted
(Invincible Iron Man #8-19)
Feelings about Marvel’s 2006-2007 Civil War event vary, but there’s no doubt that in conjunction with Secret Invasion, it helped usher in a really interesting time for the entire publishing line. Dark Reign loomed heavy over the entire Marvel Universe and as Matt Fraction and Salvador Larocca’s Invincible Iron Man kicked into its second arc, Tony Stark found himself directly in Norman Osborn’s crosshairs.
With a warrant out for his arrest, Fraction and LaRocca are able to make Tony Stark feel like an underdog more than ever before as stays just out of the reach of his pursuers and destroys all of his data and technology that could fall into Osborn’s hands.
All the while, he struggles with what he must do - the Superhero Registration Act files live in his mind and his mind alone, can he sacrifice everything to protect the people that entrusted him with their secret identities?
It’s a somewhat familiar quandary for a superhero, but Fraction’s continued juxtaposition of Tony with the kind of men he could have been makes for one of the finest Iron Man stories.
3. Armor Wars
(Iron Man Vol. 1 #225-232)
Obviously, Iron Man’s armor is one of the coolest parts of the character but we’ve been reminded time and time again that should that armor ever fail into the wrong hands, the consequences would be dire. Armor Wars is basically Tony Stark’s worst nightmare come true as his designs are stolen and he’s got to go on a one man warpath to get them back. But Tony doesn’t stop there. He also decides that he doesn’t want any of his tech used by other because he can’t trust them - putting him at odds with friends and foe alike.
Considering the immense power of some heroes in the Marvel Universe, it’s sometimes a little frustrating that they don’t just let loose a little bit. Iron Man has no problem with that here, taking on anyone that will get in his way and really encompassing so much of what makes Tony Stark such a compelling character - he’s a genius who wants to do good but he’s haunted by so much that he can’t control and that quest for control defines so much of his actions.
(Iron Man Vol. 4 #1-6)
When Marvel had Warren Ellis and Adi Granov take over Iron Man in 2005, they unknowingly ushered in the start of an era that will define ol’ Shellhead forever. Ellis and Granov provide the Iron Avenger with his own Anatomy Lesson of sorts, forcing readers to question their own thoughts and feelings about Tony Stark’s impact on the Marvel Universe. But by tearing Tony down, the creative team was able to rebuild him - pushing his tech further than we had seen before while simultaneously seeding the ideas that could become future threats to Tony.
In addition to setting the stage for Matt Fraction’s eventual run, Extremis' most obvious impact is felt on the silver screen where Granov’s visual style seemed almost adapted wholesale across all of Iron Man’s appearances. And Iron Man 3 in particular tries its hand at adapting parts of this story.
1. Demon in a Bottle
(Iron Man Vol. 1 #120-129)
This might be an obvious candidate for the top spot but Occam’s Razor definitely applies here. There’s a reason that this story is cited by fans and creators alike as the definitive Iron Man story - it’s impacted everything that came after it and shed new light on everything before. It turned the dial up on Stan Lee’s belief that heroes had to have flaws by making Tony Stark’s shortcomings graver but simultaneously even more relatable. Many readers might never be a billionaire playboy philanthropist superhero like Stark but with the armor stripped away, both literally and figuratively, they could see themselves in Tony’s struggle.
The creators of the late 1980s are oft credited with bringing true depth and more adult themes to superhero comic books. But writer David Micheline and artist Bob Layton’s work on “Demon in a Bottle” can be seen as an obvious precursor to and influence on what many consider the upper echelon of capes comic books.