Billion-Dollar Burning Question: Is Iron Man Now the Biggest Super Hero Ever?

Iron Man 3'Iron Man 3' (Photo: Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Pictures)

Settle a bet for me: Now that "Iron Man 3" has made a $1 billion worldwide, does that make him the most popular comic book hero of all time?
_ W. Emmett

Sorry, nope. Just because the world currently adores Robert Downey Jr.'s rapid-fire, eye-popping interpretation of Tony Stark — and all the CG explosions that he can deliver in a 130-minute span — does not mean that Iron Man always has ruled supreme.

For decades, in fact, the flying suit, and the bazillionaire inside of it, hovered somewhere in the middle of the superhero pack — at least, in the world of comic books, in which the Iron Man title first debuted in 1963.

Hard numbers for a franchise are tough to nail down, given the large number of ancillary titles and crossovers in the comic book world.

"But," notes John Jackson Miller, curator of the historical sales archive The Comics Chronicles, "'Iron Man' was never the perennial best-seller that 'Superman' and 'Batman' were for their publisher; 'Iron Man' only first approached the very top of the sales charts in 1996."

That year marked the debut of a reboot called "Heroes Reborn." Before then, however, the Tony Stark saga "had previously been a mid-range title, versus 'Superman' and 'Batman,'" says Miller, who himself wrote for the 'Iron Man' title for a year. "It really was that 1996 event that first made Iron Man a top-tier seller for Marvel; Marvel's 'Spider-Man' and 'X-Men' franchises were historically much larger."

So, to recap: Spider-Man, Superman, Batman, and the dozens of mutants who have appeared in X-Men comics over the years all enjoyed more popularity than the Iron Man character for a long time. (Again, just to hammer this home: For a while, mutants with names like Keratin, Squid-Boy and Bling! was part of a more popular franchise than Iron Man.)

All that said, the Iron Man movies have definitely skyrocketed the character to unprecedented heights. Box-office-wise, when it comes to sales, experts tell me that we're probably looking at a neck-and-neck contest between the Iron Man and Batman characters, adjusting for inflation.

"Batman has seven live-action films to his credit," Exhibitor Relations box-office analyst Jeff Bock tells me, "so I imagine Iron Man has a little ways to go still if you adjust for inflation. They're both around $3.7 billion unadjusted."

So why the relatively sudden popularity for the guy in the flying suit?

Look to — well, the guy in the flying suit.

"Before Robert Downey Jr. suited up, the comic book character really was one of Marvel's B-team members," Bock says. "Credit the infectious charm and charisma of Downey as Iron Man, who finally found the perfect vehicle to channel his manic energy and off-the-cuff zingers.

"In the same way that 'Pirates of the Caribbean' became a massive hit because of Johnny Depp's performance, it is Downey who deserves the lion's share of the credit for Marvel's success with 'Iron Man.' If they do go forward without Downey as the anchor of the franchise, they better replace him with, at minimum, three other 'Iron Man's."

Luckily, Tony Stark always seems to keep an underground bunker full of those suits ... just in case.

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