The Ultimate Marvel Universe was built around bold reinventions of Marvel’s stable of classic characters that were simultaneously true to the cores of those characters while offering fresh takes that updated these heroes for the 21st century. More than any other Marvel hero, Ultimate Iron Man was the ultimate embodiment of this idea. And years before Robert Downey Jr. brought Tony Stark to life in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Marvel’s Ultimate Iron Man proved himself to be the best version of the character ever.
The Ultimate Marvel take on the character rebuilt the character from the ground up. While Stark is famously an amoral playboy billionaire who has a crisis of conscience after being held captive, Ultimate Marvel’s Iron Man had a brain tumor. Rather than a contrived series of events leading to an oddly specific heart condition, Ultimate Tony Stark had a powerful moment of clarity when his doctors gave an uncertain prognosis for the amount of time he had left to live.
Deciding to embrace life to the fullest and make up for his decades of misdeeds, the super genius became a superhero with an Iron Man armor that proved to be much more grounded in the reality that many of its other iterations. For its first several models, Ultimate Iron Man’s armor needed a team of people to help him assemble it together, and he essentially had a pit crew to get him in and out of the armor and support him through satellite communication during his outings in Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s The Ultimates. However, brain tumors and pit crews weren’t the only ways the character proved more refreshingly realistic.
One of Tony Stark’s most notable traits has been his struggle with alcoholism, with Denny O’Neil, John Romita Jr., and Bob Layton’s “Demon in a Bottle” arc representing mature handling of the illness for its time. For years, Tony Stark before then had the charming persona of a free-wheeling playboy cavorting about high society, but exploring his alcoholism introduced readers to the very real vulnerabilities resting beneath the armor. While the underlying ideas behind that storyline are as strong as ever, the story comes across as more ham-fisted than moving in 2020.
Perhaps even worse, the MCU’s Iron Man dropped alcoholism as a subplot altogether. Whereas Tony’s drinking worsened between his first and second films, the higher profile that came with the bigger movies meant that the rough edges had to be sanded off of Iron Man to make him the family-friendly international icon he is today. There’s no question that the MCU’s Tony Stark was a great character, but Iron Man’s struggle with addiction was a core part of the character that was lost in translation on the way to becoming the centerpiece of pop culture’s biggest franchise.
By contrast, Ultimate Iron Man’s alcoholism was a present and important aspect of the character that developed over the course of his character arc. What began as his usual caddish antics developed into a pathological coping mechanism following his cancer diagnosis, and it was common for the character to make it clear that drinking played a key psychological role in his journey to suiting up as Iron Man in the first place. While it was constantly clear that Tony’s alcoholism was hurting him, its treatment rarely talked down to the readers and conveyed it as the actual reality of the character.
Yet throughout all of these struggles, Iron Man kept the character’s spirit of fun and adventure. One of the best stories with the character at its heart involves the father-son relationship he forms with his tumor, naming it “Anthony” after it manifests to him mentally as a small child he talks through his problems with. The other heroes grow increasingly worried about Tony even as his optimism burns ever brighter. In a universe that was infamous for its especially dark heroes, this relatively cheery Tony Stark stands out as a striking exception to the rule.
With a complex character like Iron Man, it’s difficult to consistently balance the dramatic highs and lows of the character without losing something in the mix. While the Marvel Universe and MCU versions of Iron Man have struggled at various times with the character’s complexities and consistencies, the Ultimate Iron Man seemed to experience his highs and lows in equal measure, which truly made him the ultimate Iron Man.
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While the Ultimate Marvel version of Tony Stark might not be as famous as his MCU counterpart. the Ultimate Iron Man is the hero's best incarnation.