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I’m just going to say up front that I find Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” to be one of the creepiest songs in the history of the world. I knew I was going to have to listen to it to write this post and I picked the brightest part of the morning to do it in. And even then, I kept catching myself moving to stop the song, so I wouldn’t have to keep listening to it. I don’t think I’m alone. That song is just objectively, deliciously, scary.
It’s creepy from its opening moments, starting with just the thud of the bass pedal. Now, you can’t possibly know that there’s something just a little bit off about the timing of those thuds—since there’s no other accompaniment to compare it to—but even with nothing else going on in the song, those thuds don’t sound right. It’s hard to tell right at the beginning if Bill Ward is hitting each beat in a very slow four beat measure or hitting every other beat in a rather quick four beat measure (though later on, when you hear some actual quarter notes four in a row, I think it’s apparent that he’s doing the latter). But it leaves me feeling like the beats are somehow coming too fast and not fast enough.
Then comes the dissonant guitar riff, with the notes that refuse to differentiate themselves from one another, but just slide all over the place bearing bad news. And I don’t even have to tell you what comes next—that creepy voice, sounding like it’s rattling out of a metallic graveyard. It never fails to scare the shit out of me.
The lyrics themselves adhere to the first rule of good horror—don’t let your audience get a clear look at what’s going wrong. The longer the audience can’t tell what’s happening or why, the scarier the thing remains. Once there are clear answers, the scariest part is over.
There aren’t really clear answers in “Iron Man.” A man goes to the future to save mankind, though we don’t know from what. There’s some kind of accident and he’s turned to iron—somehow—in the magnetic field. And then he comes back to earth, gets propped up somewhere, and plots his revenge, though what he needs revenge for is also unclear. A third of the song is just unresolved questions about the iron man. And then there’s the killing.
I think this song is brilliant and I love it. But it is, to me, scary as hell.
Which is why I find it baffling that it’s kind of been adopted as the unofficial anthem of Iron Man, the superhero. “Iron Man” plays in the last Iron Man movie. Tony Stark wears a Black Sabbath t-shirt in The Avengers. When you look at lists of songs adapted from or influenced by comics, every single one of them both includes “Iron Man” and concedes that it doesn’t originally have anything to do with Iron Man.
They share a name, but that wouldn’t necessarily seem to lead so many people to connect the two, especially when they’re otherwise so diametrically opposed. But it’s that opposition that I wonder about. After all, if you think about it, “Iron Man” would make the perfect nemesis for Iron Man. “Iron Man” seems to have had some great scientific skill—since he travelled through time—which Stark could appreciate. But “Iron Man” is isolated from people where Tony Stark, though somewhat misanthropic, is in community. We know Iron Man by his intellect and quick wit. It’s not even clear that “Iron Man” thinks about much but revenge. And, of course, Stark is looking to save humanity while “Iron Man” is bent on destroying it.
I’m not a Jungian, but it seems like we’ve, weirdly, decided that Tony Stark needs a pseudo-Jungian shadow, a part of himself that he doesn’t acknowledge, but which we, as the audience, all know is there—and that shadow is “Iron Man.” It’s not him, it’s not even about him, but, in our minds, it can’t be separated from him. Now, the thing that makes this weird (and not Jungian) is that it is us, the audience, who has given Stark this alternate “Iron Man.” And yet, of course, if he’s going to have one, we have to give it to him. Who is there who can give a fictional character a shadow aspect if the artist creating him has not? It has to be the audience.
We have linked Iron Man so closely to “Iron Man” that it would, then, seem to be Tony Stark’s most secret identity—even though we’ve never seen it acknowledged in the Marvel Universe, we suspect he’s the lonely tin man slowly going crazy enough to destroy us all. He just doesn’t know it.
It’s kind of like fan fiction in which we’ve merged these two characters to see what would happen. But no stories have come out of this merger. Except that, clearly, the narrative of “Iron Man” itself is different, even though nothing changes, when it’s Stark who didn’t come back through the magnetic field the same guy he left Earth as.
Here’s what I wonder: Even now, is “Iron Man” so strange and terrifying that we link Iron Man and “Iron Man” not to improve Iron Man, but to give “Iron Man” some context, some way of being easily known and understood? Now, instead of asking, “What the hell happened? Who is this thing and why is it killing everyone?”, we get to pretend that it makes a certain kind of sense—“Oh, it’s Tony Stark! And he’s gone mad, finally.” If figuring out what’s happening makes a horror story less frightening and more manageable, I think the Iron Man/”Iron Man” merge is about making “Iron Man” less terrifying. It gives the song a context in which to understand it that the song itself refuses.
Linking “Iron Man” and Iron Man gives Tony Stark a much darker subtext, but it also gives “Iron Man” a less-frightening context. And more than a darker Stark, I think we crave a less-scary “Iron Man.”
Tales of Suspense #39 (March 1963): Iron Man debuts. Cover art by Jack Kirby and Don Heck.