Hello, and welcome to incredibly niche content.
Tony Stark of the Marvel Universe and the MCU (Earth 616 and Earth-199999 for those of you playing along at home) may be an engineering genius, but his HUD and UI designs leave a lot to be desired.
So, we’re going to take a look at the history of the Iron Man User Experience (UX).
Thinking of an Iron Man movie? You’re seeing the picture above. These iconic shots - close, claustrophobic, just Robert Downey Jr. looking at bright red and blue lights - are impressive feats of movie magic and acting.
But we are not here to discuss how they function in cinema. No, this is about the history of Iron Man, and asking an important question: “Why is Tony Stark bad at designing a UI?”
It’s because he’s a self-focused narcissist with negative incentives to make Iron Man useful for others, so instead we’ll take a look at the Iron Man UX itself, and ignore the fact that someone with frequent hangovers would NEVER design something that shines bright lights in your face while you sit in the dark.
First of all: that MCU interface: He doesn’t REALLY need all that information to fire “guided micro-projectiles.” Much of it seems to be vector analysis, which will be handled by his AI. Some seems to be monitoring his arc energy reactor, but rather alarmingly, none of the information on screen conveys “what you’re firing missiles at.” School bus? Maybe!
Also, “97% full” is a weird way to relay discrete information like “how many rockets do I have,” unless the answer is 97/100. Right next to it is a tiny icon of each rocket, which is a better way to convey the information, and would work better if “97%” wasn’t glowing right beside it.
This HUD is perfect for getting into a situation where you accidentally run out of missiles because you didn’t know you what you were firing them at.
This sort of friendly-fire shouldn’t be a surprise, since the Iron Man UI is based on the real-life HUDs of the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning, two aircraft that have their own record of nightmarish HUD and control failures.
So it has some real-life influence. Obviously, it has some video game influence - only a video game would have “97% ammo” on less than 10 rockets. But does this iconic, if somewhat wonky, HUD show up in any old Iron Man comics?
No. But! Let’s take a stroll down classic comic memory lane, thanks to the folks at Marvel Unlimited, who have categorized 1,958 comics in which Iron Man appears that are available from their service.
I did not sit down and read 1,958 Iron Man/Avengers/Team-Up comics, nor did I read the 62 comics featuring Ultimate Iron Man from the god-awful Ultimate Universe.
However, I skimmed through hundreds of Iron Man and Avenger comics, concentrating on issues shortly before and after “new suits” were debuted, to bring this to you. You’re welcome.
Just as a quick aside before we dive in: While the Ultimate Universe is highly influential in how the MCU heroes look and what their storylines are, the one exception to that rule seems to be Iron Man, who thankfully is nothing like the Orson Scott Card techno-baby grown up to pilot an anime mecha.
We begin in Tales of Suspense #39, from 1963, the same year as JFK is assassinated, MLK delivers his “I Have A Dream” speech, the Beatles debut in the UK, TAB cola and ZIP codes hit the US, and Astro Boy is first televised in Japan!
It’s a world that’s changing rapidly and a huge part of that change is transmitted around the world due to a seemingly miraculous new technology that came into American homes and stores in the mid 1950s - the transistor.
It’s hard to imagine the impact that the transistor had on the world, from our vantage point in 20xx. It was a miracle of miniaturization that wouldn’t be topped until the microchip. What had once required a building full of tubes and switches could now be done with a room full of tiny circuits.
As comic book superscience often does, it saw what might be possible if the technology of today was removed from all the boring mundane restraints of reality, difficulty, and logistics.
And absent all those real-world issues, what would be possible? Anything! You may not remember the steel-warping mega-magnets of the transistor radio days, because they never existed. But as Tony Stark escaped Vietnam he did so with a suit full of magical transistors, bringing us back to the focal point of the whole shebang: How does Tony Stark operate the Iron Man armor?
With his goddamn brain, of course. Sensor technology of the kind implied doesn’t exist now nor in 1963. However, this does answer our question: Does the Iron Man suit have an Operating System? A HUD?
It would appear not. Tony seems to get all his sense of the world through his eyes, and while there are lenses that can pop down over the eye-slits of the armor, they don’t seem to provide him with any situational awareness.
The chest-mounted arc reactor that is identifiable by everyone from No-Prize winners to people who were drunk during Iron Man 3 does serve as a sort of control panel for some things. This fits into the electro-mechanical technology of the time, which is operated by Stark physically pushing a tiny button.
The overall control of the suit may be “brain waves,” but he’s frequently pushing buttons on his gauntlets, activating boot jets or roller skates, by tapping at his legs, arms, helmet, whatever.
While my non-existent readers may not care about the technology of Iron Man, the comic book buyers of 1964 sure did! They frequently feature cutaways and discussions that never show anything about control of the suit or feedback: We are left to believe that Tony Stark uses his own eyes and brainwaves. Also, transistors. So many transistors.
In the rare occasion that a “first person” panel comes up you only see total blackness inside the mask, and small slots for the eyes. This leads me to believe that Iron Man has visibility issues on par with the average stormtrooper.
The only hint of anything inside the helmet comes from 1973, when Iron Man goes to space. There, we see instrumentation, but no HUD or screens.
I feel like we should see a HUD! Why?
Flying high speed war machines is not something human beings naturally do, (even you, War Machine) so our brains have some problems when we try: we become disoriented when changing focus from the instrument panel to the sky, we become momentarily blind when focusing on dim indicator lights then on brilliant daylight. The opposite happens during nighttime flights, our slow brains can lose a target while checking their surroundings instead of gun sights, or lose track of their surroundings while focusing on their sights.
That is the purpose of the “heads up” - keeping the head up and checking out the sky instead of down on the instruments. Iron Man only needs one if he's fighting at high speed in the air or other inhospitable environments.
Golden Avenger Iron Man spends a lot of time at low speed fighting on the ground. Therefore it's only a little surprising that our first hint of an Iron Man HUD doesn't arrive until 1973.
Still: reflex and gyroscope sights would have been familiar to veterans of World War II, and HUDs were used in aircraft during the very Vietnam War Stark was manufacturing weapons for.
To return to an earlier point: I think this is because Tony does not have the disposition of a UX designer. He doesn’t think he needs a HUD, he doesn’t think he needs any assistance. The Iron Man OS is dense and hard to use, because Tony is like some Linux die-hard on a reddit forum who thinks that things like “usability” are for the weak-minded.
This is the only conceivable reason there are never any Iron Man HUDs and GUIs. After the release of Top Gun in 1986, audiences both American and international were intimately familiar with HUDs and the electric neon displays of fighter jets.
During the 1980s, as the garage-tech du jour switches from transistors to microprocessors, the Iron Man armor adjusts, and we can only assume that Tony thinks “command prompts are for noobs,” prefering to interface directly with either his brain waves or by shouting into random telephones like a phreaker.
We never get any in-close explanations or views of any interface technology. It’s not until 1992 that we start seeing anything that would be recognizable as such.
And as much as the Iron Man HUD is influenced by the intuitive tech of the iPhone (which came out during filming of the original Iron Man), the 1992 “Stark OS” looks like the Mac OS of the day.
Yes, while fighting aliens and superscience villains, Tony Stark is selecting drop-down menus. We do not know HOW he is doing so, eye-tracking technology would have been unknown at the time and doesn’t fit into the Iron Man tech of the day, so we must assume that the drop downs or mouse-overs are done via brainwaves.
Importantly, this is also the first time we see things from Tony’s perspective. If I had to hazard a guess, he is looking at a window off to the side of his vision, and this is not a full-eyes-up display.
Later, however, we encounter “vision modes” that, if they ARE side windows, would be extremely distracting - they essentially recreate the airplane gunner’s issue of having a distracting glowing object not in the main view of their surroundings.
And if THIS is a HUD or Augmented Reality style overlay (AR, from here on out) it is fails in the main goal of AR: Instead of augmenting the natural vision of the scene, it cuts out background and environmental details and forcing the user to focus entirely on the target.
The Stark OS has some staying power, lasting from those early 90s scenes all the way until the “Heroes Reborn” storyline of the early 00s.
Then, AR-stye HUD elements become more prominent. First Person Shooter games as well as flight simulators and other first-person games, would be very familiar to readers in the late 90s and early 00s. These games usually feature displays which overlay information in a HUD style.
Indeed, the visual overlays look digital.
The nature of what Iron Man gets up to changes, as well. Instead of a clunky ground-pounding fist-fighter, he partakes in high-speed aerial combat like a fighter jet. Iron Man finally gets an Air Force HUD treatment in the EXTREMIS arc, when artist Adi Granov uses minimalist reflex-sight LED designs reminiscent of fighter jet HUDs. Granov would go on to work on the Iron Man films, and the spartan military aesthetic of his work on paper is quite the contrast to the flashy 2008 cinematic HUD, and the eerie grey images recall images from drone bombs and military hardware of America’s wars.
This is also the first hint we have that Tony Stark can actually develop a useful UX. Being able to pull up holographs that we could interact with would be an excuse to have an overly complicated (to the point of uselessness) UX for many designers in real life, but the minimalist displays and informative overlays seem to come from an elegant, touch interface that predates anything done by Apple.
Yet other than a single shot from the early 00s with some heat-vision, none of the comic book technologies seem to be what inspires the iconic MCU shots. It seems to be whole-heartedly an invention of the cinema, and it is a testament to it’s effectiveness that it has carried over to the comics.
After 2008, the close-up face shot of the Iron Man HUD becomes a key graphical motif, on par with the suit itself, in Iron Man comics.
Even when Tony Stark isn’t using it, the personalized colors and design of projections in these panels serve to show us “This is Iron Man.”
Even when Old Man Captain America suits up to kick Iron Man’s ass, his UI (imagine THAT tech support discussion) has the look, colored, of course, red, white, and blue.
Of course the comic panels are entirely impossible to discern as being “useful UI.” Is that text? Code? Why on Earth would you need a scroll of code while you’re piloting your exoskeleton?
Vectors, cool science-y looking diagrams, and most of all, random assortments of numbers, seem to be the entire Iron Man HUD in these representations, which are all built off of the 2008 version.
It’s no wonder Tony Stark is always crashing these things.