Movie Tony is a fantastic distillation of the entire history of the character. The Tony Stark we meet in Iron Man isn't original recipe Stan Lee Tony, from Tales of Suspense #9. He isn't the Tony Stark we get in innumerable retellings of his origin, or the Tony from his too many reboots and re-imaginings.
Movie Tony is ALL THE TONYS thrown into a characterization blender, with heavy emphasis on the aspects of the character and his history that are topical. Tony's wealth is contemporary--he's super rich, in the manner of Bill Gates (with an even cooler house). His weapons manufacturing has moved from the usual to the fantastic--SI produces the kind of wonderland weapons that come with million, hell, billion dollar price tags are are slowly bankrupting the DoD and the assorted arms of the American military. There's the obvious transistors to arc reactor update, but well, what's the real technological potential of arc reactor technology? Clean energy. And the blowing up of things, but.
One of the most interesting--to me--parts of the filmverse is Tony's move to 'privatize peace'. Old school Tony starts out an adventurer and stays that way for a long, long time. The more political Tony comes later. But movie Tony is forced into the international political sphere from the get go. His motivation, his transformational moment is about power and responsibility, American imperialism, black budgets, and his own personal failings. Tony is forced to grow up (kind of) and part of that process is taking up the reins of power that were latent to his position (money, occupation, influence)... while somehow continuing to avoid responsibility.
He avoids corporate responsibility. By the second movie he's ceded his position as CEO to Pepper. (Though he takes up control of the company again, the key word there is control).
Note also that he's avoided civic responsibility--he's not exactly a patriot anymore, which is quite a contrast to old school Tony. The Tony of Iron Man 2 is an American, who wants perhaps to be a global citizen (resident?) without letting go of his American/class/white privilege. He still believes, but his view of America is irrevocably changed. This is a Tony who wants to be responsible to himself only, while pursuing global priorities. (Shades of Armor Wars and Civil War here). His priorities being: total control of his technology, and turning it to economic, ecological and political good. And of course, personal redemption.
Movie Tony is also A LOT older than most baby Iron Men we've seen in the comics and cartoons. He's set in his ways. Bored, so bored, with no intellectual peers, and no enemies worth his complete attention. Justin Hammer? Generals and Senators looking to squeeze a sweet deal out of SI? Please. He's spent his life drifting from one shallow relationship to another, and now in his late 30s/early 40s, is just about incapable of real and sustained intimacy. In Iron Man Tony wakes up. It's as though his real life has just began, and being 40ish rather than 20ish, or 30ish, it's that much harder a change to make. Part mid life crisis, part coming of age. This geek asshole (Gates, Jobs) and billionaire playboy (Brason et al) who gets people but doesn't get people, is now going to save them. And he's going to do it his own way.
I really appreciate them hitting this character note, because it's so true to the contemporary global elite. Tony's not a Rockafeller, or a Hughes. He's the super rich of today.
To balance that, we get that uber-memetic line, “Tony Stark built this in a cave... with a box of scraps.” Sure Tony’s a dissipated, super rich, genius, but his intelligence is practical, dynamic, creative. He’s not a hedge fund manager, he’s an engineer. He generates actual wealth, creates actual things (including jobs). And importantly, while it’s clear that Tony is a true comic book genius, able to make incredible leaps under the worst of circumstances, he’s dependent on the work of others. Iron Man is a result of his personal genius, and the work done by his mentors--and he acknowledges this.
Stan Lee famously said that the point of Tony Stark was to create a character that readers would like despite themselves. Tony Stark is a billionaire, genius, playboy, arms dealer (later philanthropist) and we shouldn’t like him. Iron Man took up this challenge and gave us a Tony we shouldn’t like, but do--without any shortcuts, and without leaning on the comics for good will. Tony is one of those characters who has to earn our affection and respect (over and over), and I think this is one thing Favreau understood very well. A good Iron Man story keeps us on that edge of love/hate, respect/disdain.
My very favourite versions of the character are the ones where Tony is a shade more anti-hero than hero, perhaps wanting to rid himself of his less than desirable traits. I’m not so interested in an opera of self-hate, as the Tony of ideas, infinite possibility and failure, brilliance and arrogance, humility AND pride. I love the Tony who’s a bit scary, a futurist running faster than anyone else and running off the rails... but who’s also just a guy. Someone who wants to chill with his bros, install roller skates in his armor, eat old fashioned American cheeseburgers, and break all the laws of physics before breakfast.
Btw, one of the best things that RDJ brought to the character was the sense that this was a man who could turn on a dime. He nailed Tony’s innate quickness, and flexibility. Iron Man is Tony, in the sense that Tony is all speed, overwhelming force and flare. Or, Iron Man is the active part of Tony. The other side of Tony, the inactive, in denial, in extremis, traumatized Tony is also very present in RDJ’s performance, especially in Iron Man 2. Those wild swings between the two, just yes. Tony has an iron will, but the rest of him is mercury.