Tony Stark: Alcoholic?

Bloggified by Jake on Tuesday, January 8, 2008

I've known the gist of the seminal Iron Man story, "Demon in a Bottle," for decades, but hadn't actually read it until grabbing the trade paperback the other night. While I can see how the editorial decision to make Tony Stark admit to being an alcoholic and have an established hero admit a weakness could have a major impact, the fact is that Tony's alcoholism, which nearly thirty years later remains his primary character trait, is awkwardly forced and inconsistently portrayed in the story.

In fact, having read this story and taking into consideration Tony's current characterization in the Marvel Universe, I'm going to go out on a limb and say Tony isn't an alcoholic at all. He's just a guy who got a little overwhelmed with a situation that, frankly, was overwhelming and a busybody looking to erase her own guilty conscience convinced him he was an alcoholic.

The vast majority of "Demon in a Bottle," has nothing to do with Tony's drinking problem. Instead, little references are peppered into one or two frames per issue, such as when Tony is on a transoceanic flight in the opening.Yet, despite downing his fourth martini, much to the concern of the stewardess, he has no trouble springing to action when his plane is struck by a tank (don't ask) and is going to crash. The boozehound makes his way to the first class lavatory, puts on his armor, and saves hundreds of lives without showing the slightest ill effect.In fact, Tony goes on to spend an hour or so talking to a naval captain and his crew about problems they are having with Namor and an old hermit who lives on an island, then accompanying them to a battleground where he dukes it out with the Sub-Mariner and holds his own until out of nowhere his drinking causes a problem.Outside of that one moment, Iron Man has no trouble and eventually he and Namor come to find they are both being manipulated by the fake navy guys (who are really working for the Roxxon oil conglomerate), team up, and put everything right. Tony returns to New York, where new girlfriend-to-be Bethany Cabe argues with him and more alcohol references are inserted for no reason other than to be noticed later when readers go back and review issues leading up to Tony's alcoholic admission.The two go out on the town, where Bethany becomes concerned about Tony's out of control drinking.At this point, I can't help but think of the "7th Heaven" episode where a man (who's never been shown drinking any alcohol outside this episode) celebrating his anniversary orders a bottle of champagne and is chided by his wife who "can't understand why he has to have alcohol to have a good time" and is later called on the carpet for being within ten feet of a recovering alcoholic while champagne lingers his breath. The message is the same. Alcohol is evil and anyone who drinks it is out of control and must be reigned in by those who know better.

Again, however, as soon as a crisis arises, the drunkard Tony is fine and--in this case--able to hold his own against the Melter, Blizzard, and Whiplash, foiling their casino heist.The next day, Tony Stark spend the entire day drinking Irish coffees while trying to invent something brilliant to patent while warding off a hostile takeover of Stark Industries by SHIELD. When he needs a break from drowning himself in liquor, what else can he do but... ... save a soccer mom and a station wagon full of kids from being killed on the freeway.

Of course, Iron Man doesn't always have things under control, but ironically, given the theme of the story, he generally loses it while stone cold sober. Periodically, his armor malfunctions, most notably when he is posing for a photo with the Ambassador from Carnelia.All the malfunctions, including this fatal one, were caused by Justin Hammer, whose team of scientists figures out a way to control the armor remotely.

I strongly suspect this was an attempt by David Michelinie to draw a parallel between Tony losing control of the armor to Justin Hammer and losing control of his life to alcohol. The two are comparable if you overlook the fact they are absolutely nothing alike! Alcohol doesn't plot ways to destroy your life and manipulate you into publicly murdering fat foreign men to your shock and visible horror for it's own gain. In fact, alcohol doesn't have its own gain. If Tony thought Justin Hammer was a friend and shared his technology with him in spite of warnings from others that Hammer was untrustworthy and could lead to Tony's downfall, there might be a case, but as long as he operates from the shadows, it's a poor literary device at best.

So to recap, Iron Man is a murderer and may have jeopardized relations with a critical US ally in the Cold War, his armor is unsafe, his girlfriend (who doesn't know his secret identity) hates Iron Man, and SHIELD is trying to steal his company. I don't know anyone who would deny Mr. Stark a shot and a beer, but Tony takes it a little far.It's at this point Tony himself acknowledges he is drinking more than he used to, but quickly sets that thought aside to do what any barely functioning drunk would do after losing his superpowered armor...... take part in a several hours long hand-to-hand combat training exercise in which he holds his own against Captain America.

In case after case, the words tell us alcohol is bad and Tony has a drinking problem, but the actions contradict those words every time.

Tony's friends are worried about him.His new fuckbuddy is worried about him.Hell, even Justin Hammer's low-level henchmen have an opinion.But nothing bad ever happens until the day Tony transposes two digits in an address and he writes on a napkin, resulting in his and Bethany's simultaneously standing one another up for brunch one day.


She tells him to go to 914 and he goes to 419, so he decides to get rip-roaring drunk and take some bimbo back to Avengers Mansion and have some angry, "I just got stood up by some bitch who's been... well, a bitch to me pretty much ever since we slept together" sex. Unfortunately, Jarvis walks in and interrupts Tony's groove.And despite his insistence later that a man in his "station expects occasional stern treatment," he resigns. Pushing Tony over the edge and turning the Iron Man who could match Namor blow for blow on nothing but a stomach full of gin, vermouth, and olives into a soused idiot too stupid to open windows before flying through them and causing chlorine gas leaks that require evacuation of everyone within a five mile radius.Bethany comes to Tony and tells him the story of her husband, who was a pill popper. She left him and he accidentally drove his car off a bridge, leaving her to always wonder if he might be alive today had she not given up on him. She stays with Tony as he detoxes... which, considering Jarvis is still packing his things when they finish, might have taken all of twenty minutes. Tony apologizes, convinces Jarvis to stay, and swears off alcohol forever, even when faced with the fact SHIELD may have pulled off its takeover bid.

So, let's think about this.

Tony is a social drinker whose life is never adversely affected by his alcohol consumption. When he gets stressed out, maybe he drinks a little more, but never to the point that he's unable to function. However, when he starts dating someone who's seen the horrors of chemical addiction and blames herself for her ex-husband's death because she didn't help him overcome his demons, he is labeled a problem drinker by her. Slowly, she turns those closest to him to her way of thinking, and when things are going poorly for Tony, that support system of friends has been usurped. Eventually, Tony accepts what everyone expects of him regardless of his actions: that he's a boozer. Wasted and out of control, Bethany finally steps in to play the savior, convincing Tony that she's helping him overcome a problem she diagnosed him as having in the first place. Tony recovers without any complications and hasn't relapsed in 29 years, even when he went to war against his best friend, who was eventually killed as a result of Tony's actions. The only indications he's ever even tempted to drink are expository statements like "It's times like this... I'm so tempted to pick up that bottle, but I know what lies at the end of that path..." that ultimately are meaningless and don't really speak to the maddening obsession a true alcoholic would have.

In short, Tony Stark isn't an alcoholic. He merely plays one on the Avengers.

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