Muscle Memories Did I Want Tony Stark Or Want to Be Him?
‘Iron Man’ is far from the origin story of my sexuality, but it’s an inescapable part of the multiverse that is my queerness.
This is Muscle Memories , a column by Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya that reexamines her relationship with action movies.
In my parents’ attic sits a deep, wide box made of thick black plastic and latched with metal clasps. Unlatch it to enter an infinite universe. Inside, it’s somehow deeper and wider. Bigger on the inside , as the fantasy trope goes. Like a body, the box contains soft parts and hard parts. Scarves, strips of fabric, capes and cloaks, gloves, feathered boas. Lightsabers, wands, holsters, swords, a Batman cowl or two, a hand-me-down Darth Vader mask with a busted voice changer, odds and ends for Wolverine, Spider-Man, Thor, Captain America, and my personal favorite: a partial Iron Man costume, forever incomplete.
This is the costume trunk. And from when I’m little, playing pretend games with my younger sister, until I’m considered much “too old” to play dress-up anymore, I keep returning to its wonders. I ascend the attic stairs—bone cold in the winter, sweltering in the summer—to unlatch it. I want to live inside that trunk, climb inside and close the lid. I slide the fabrics against my skin, mix and match superhero parts until I become some strange amalgamation. Iron Spider. Captain Thor. The trunk is my favorite nonplace in the world.
When I start high school, I still want to dress up and play pretend. So I go to an arts school and study musical theater, and it should be the perfect fit, but it isn’t. Something’s off. I’m not a great actor, so I don’t land roles beyond the ensemble, but it isn’t just that. Musical theater doesn’t feel the same as when I unlatch that costume trunk, or when I daydream for hours about moving among the worlds of the action movies I love. I handwrite fan fiction that’s just for me, pen a letter to Pepper Potts from Tony Stark tucked between homework assignments in a notebook. I’m just okay at acting, but I’m great at pretending.
I want to live in my daydreams. Those action-packed worlds make sense to me, even if I am not of them. After all, I don’t feel of the real world either.
Latched inside of me, my queerness churns. There but not there.
I’ve come to hate the closet metaphor for all the obvious reasons. It’s so contained, so stifling. It forces sexuality, identity, and attraction into a linear, Western, too-tidy narrative. You’re in the closet and then you’re out and that’s that. But my closet had halls and rooms and mirrors and secret doors. My closet sprawled and perplexed—more labyrinth than storage room.
When I think about the time before I ever uttered the words “I am a lesbian,” I don’t think about a closet. I think about a costume trunk.
In May 2008, the first Iron Man movie premiered, kicking off the now-sprawling, often-exhausting Marvel Cinematic Universe. I was there on opening night, arriving at my local strip mall theater over an hour early to claim my favorite spot (middle row, middle seat, obviously). That month, I turned sixteen. I didn’t know much about myself, but who does at that age?
I did know I was incapable of liking things casually. I was either uninterested or fully obsessed, with no in-between. I’d seen and liked superhero movies before. But watching Iron Man on opening night, the stars were aligned for a new obsession to take shape. I didn ’ t just like the movie. I swallowed it and let it swallow me.
To say the Marvel Cinematic Universe has lost some of its early wonder is an understatement. It has become a cesspool of tie-ins, IP grabs, and exposition for setting up the next sequel (and the next and the next). Iron Man came before all that and, sure, that doesn’t make it extractable from the Marvel supermonster. All these movies are cogs in the same machine. But Iron Man ’s storytelling stands on its own. It’s set in a lived-in world, and its side characters and relationship dynamics are fleshed out. It’s funny. Its action, sound mixing, and performances are immersive throughout. It’s not a perfect movie by any means. For all its anti-war posturing, it’s also steeped in racist stereotypes about the Middle East and ultimately circles back to American patriotism, yielding a muddled point of view. But it’s original and playful in a way the MCU movies so rarely get to be anymore. It hooked me in, and I kept coming back for more MCU midnight releases—dressed in a full costume every time.
I didn’t just like the movie. I swallowed it and let it swallow me.
But before all that, there was just Iron Man . My first superhero crush. I journeyed to the toy section of Target to buy an arc reactor, the core of Iron Man’s iconic bionic suit. His heart, if you will. I bought a single hand-blaster, even though the official suit has two. I got a mask, and, as soon as I got home, I put it on.
I began to collect Iron Man bracelets, stickers, and Slurpee cups. I started making weekend trips to the local comic book store for back issues and new releases of Marvel comics. I painted my nails alternating shades of gold and deep red, a color combination I still sometimes find myself subconsciously drifting toward before remembering Oh, right, Iron Man colors .
After seeing Iron Man , I’d taken to writing lengthy Facebook notes (remember those?) about the movie, comics, and theories about the post-credits scene. A friend told me I should join Tumblr, saying I’d probably find others to talk about these things with. That was an understatement.
On Tumblr, Iron Man was everywhere. We could all crush together. I was suddenly surrounded by people who felt very much like my people. I had friends at school, close ones, who shared some of my nerdy interests. It was art school after all. But as with musical theater, something was off in these friendships. Something was missing. But the friends I made on Tumblr were just as rabidly fannish as me. They knew about obsession, about letting something swallow you. We had our own language, our own rhythms, our own wildness. None of us were out at the time, but a decade later, we all came out as gay, bi, queer, one by one, like dominoes. That phenomenon alone warrants an essay of its own, but I do like to believe we could see each other’s whole selves before any of us knew. A little bit of queer magic.
Joining Tumblr defined the next decade of my life. Almost overnight, it became my new favorite nonplace. Tumblr was the costume trunk, digitized. I could be whoever I wanted here. This created an identity paradox: I felt like I could control how other people saw me, which made me feel complete and authentic in a way I didn’t feel in my real life. But in the beginning what I presented on Tumblr was still a costume, a performance of heterosexuality heightened to the point of caricature. In some ways, I felt exactly like me, but in others I was still pretending.
It was easy to imprint onto superheroes. These misunderstood, costumed individuals who are sometimes reluctant to become the person they’re meant to be. It’s too big a risk to tell people who they really are. They have to live two lives.
It was easy to imprint onto Iron Man.
Every superhero has a special relationship with their suit. Their suits provide protection and anonymity. They might enhance their powers. But Iron Man’s suit is his power. It’s inextricable from him and how he moves through the world. By Iron Man 3 , Tony Stark has been through so much with the suit and all of its iterations that he looks unwell without it. He has always needed the arc reactor to live. It’s not a costume for him; it’s a second skin. When he puts it on, he doubles. He completes himself.
Then there was the man behind the man behind the mask: Robert Downey Jr., whose tumultuous history I was too young to really experience as it was happening and yet whose life story and filmography I instantly inhaled post– Iron Man . Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as Tony Stark/Iron Man has long been celebrated by critics and fans. He is Iron Man. No one else could play this role. Indeed, in that first movie, it’s like the actor has slid into a second skin too. On Tumblr, he became simply “RDJ,” this man we could never know and yet tracked obsessively, examining and reposting candids and press photos and interviews with a level of infatuation I find difficult to explain. It’s like we were trying to figure out who he really was.
I rewatched the first movie recently with my girlfriend, and something about it was off. All the quips, the needle-drops, the action sequences, the predictable-but-satisfying superhero tropes—everything was exactly where I remembered it. But it looked different. The colors were more muted than I remembered. Some action sequences unfolded too quickly.
Though I’d seen the movie at least a dozen times before, my memories were all mixed up because I’d seen many of these scenes hundreds of times before: in gifsets, photosets, and edits on Tumblr. Iron Man became a series of bright, saturated images that reimagined story and character possibilities and recolored the movie to death. My love for the movie is sutured to that secondary experience, to the fandom funhouse. There was the actual movie, and there was the simulacrum. In a way, I’m not sure which version is more real for me.
In my teens, I too felt doubled. There was my real life, and there was the online life. A superhero and her alter ego. Real life was confusing and upsetting. I felt too sensitive and undesirable, constantly on the verge of tears or nausea. Online, I was charismatic and cool, my brightness dialed up and saturated. It didn’t even matter if other people actually perceived me as cool. It’s how I felt. Like I’d finally found a suit that fit.
The first time I said the words “I’m a lesbian,” I still didn’t dare speak them aloud. I typed and posted them. It was always easier to be myself in a space just outside of reality.
Back in real life, I still found ways to disguise myself. I found every excuse to wear my low-budget Iron Man costume. To school, to a friend’s house, to a party, to a park. When Iron Man 2 came out, I wore the suit to the midnight release. It literally traveled to my college dorm room with me. But before then, I mostly just wore it around the house, waiting until everyone went to sleep before conducting elaborate self-photoshoots. I posted the results on Tumblr, where I was desperate for validation that I looked as good as I felt in it. I wanted people to notice me in this particular form.
I vowed to return to Target for a second hand-blaster one day but never did. Instead, I leaned into the incompleteness of the costume and decided it made me look like Tony Stark midtransformation. I was the playboy billionaire caught in the middle of a fancy event who had to quickly don a suit to go save the world. I loved this particular fantasy. I paired my cheap electronic plastics with a white oversized button-down from H&M and a skinny tie, stolen out of my dad’s closet, that I had to scissor the end off of so it wouldn’t look cartoonishly long on me. I thought I looked good. I thought I looked hot. Like me, like me, like me , I thought every time I uploaded a goofy-ass new graphic of me in the suit I’d spent way too much time photoshopping (my graphic design skills were abysmal, but that never stopped me).
I loved my combination costume, because in truth, I didn’t just want to be Iron Man. I wanted to be Tony Stark. I wanted sex appeal and, at sixteen, I wasn’t really sure what that denoted, but I was confident Tony Stark had it in spades. I wanted to put on a tailored suit and flirt with women and have it all look and feel too easy, the way it does in the movie.
Part of my attraction to the movie was that I thought it was sexy . I mean, the smash cut to Tony and a reporter literally crashing into bed together? Rewatching it now, yeah, it’s not that hot. It’s ridiculous. It looks like weird horny robots making out. And yet I remember thinking very clearly that this was it—the epitome of sex appeal. Being so irresistible that women will just throw themselves at you. It’s so basic, so hetero. But I liked how simple and uncomplicated it was. How frenetic. How wildly physical, limbs thrashing. Most of my early images of sex were those in action movies. I was so repressed I’d never even seen porn yet, somehow managing to avoid that very popular section of Tumblr.
I didn’t know how to name the reasons I wanted to be Tony Stark, so I turned the desire to emulate into desire itself.
Before Iron Man , I gravitated toward the villains in superhero films. They were the meatier roles in my eyes, wilder and more theatrical than the sturdy, straightlaced heroes they faced. Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark captivated me in a way other heroes hadn’t (I will say: Wolverine came close). Tony Stark was a bad boy. He had a genuine sense of humor. He was unabashedly self-obsessed. He was a charismatic asshole. He was a womanizer, yes, and in my young, repressed, confused teenage mind, I think I wanted to be a little bit of a womanizer too. I wanted to talk to girls differently than I did. I was already pretty good at making them laugh. One of the costumes I often wore was that of the quirky, weird friend to the cool girls. The jester. But I wanted to make them giggle. I wanted to make them blush. I was a good girl in my real life, a stickler for rules and reason. Tony Stark had the same appeal as those villains did. He’s a hero, of course, but he gets to be bad.
On Tumblr, I clung to my RDJ crush because it meant I wouldn’t have to unlatch and let forth my secrets. I didn’t know how to name the reasons I wanted to be Tony Stark, so I turned the desire to emulate into desire itself, made it easier to understand. I’ve had many queer friends through the years talk about the early gay confusion of not knowing whether you wanted to be someone or be with them, and though I rarely wanted to be the girls I crushed on, I knew all about the confusing lines between envy and lust. Amorous obsession does sometimes feel like possession.
One month after I saw Iron Man , I messaged a boy on Facebook:
Well there is this little thing that my friends and I like to call the Kayla Upadhyaya Love Curse.
Basically any guy I have ever liked has had a girlfriend/is not interested/turns out to be an idiot and or jerk.
As a result of the curse, I have never had a boyfriend.
Or been kissed.
A love curse ! Ha! I long for the superpower to visit my past self and tell her this curse is just called being gay , and that it’s not a curse at all but the thing that will allow me to be who I’m meant to be. But alas, this is not a superhero movie.
A costume trunk, a love curse. I’ve always had a flair for theatrics, for dramatizing my own life and internalizing that narrative. I kept my real self so tightly concealed that it was undiscoverable even to me. I thought if I were gay there’d be more proof . (There were trunkfuls of proof, but none of it was discernible to me yet.)
Instead of unlatching myself, I crafted the Kayla Upadhyaya Love Curse. I crafted crushes on unavailable boys. And these false-crushes really did feel like my creation, like something I could control to convincingly convey desire. Even my crush on Robert Downey Jr. felt more real. In a way, it did have the depth and urgency of a genuine crush. I desperately wanted it to be real to the point that maybe it was. And it helped that the object of my affection was unobtainable. But my real crushes, the queer ones I kept latched up, weren’t creations. They were events. They happened to me. They weren’t controllable at all, and that’s what made them terrifying and all-consuming.
The boy at the other end of that Facebook message gifted me a shirt he made himself with Robert Downey Jr.’s face on it, making some joke about how he was the only man who could break my love curse. I wished it could be true.
RDJ, like Tony Stark, was the object of my affection but also the thing I wanted to be. It was an elusive self-crush, just like wearing that Iron Man/Tony Stark costume was a nearly masturbatory act. Looking at myself on the fingerprint-smudged digital camera display during those meticulous photoshoots for Tumblr, I felt an urge to kiss the screen.
In retrospect, I wasn’t exactly becoming the thing I desired; I was becoming the thing I thought would make me desirable. I wanted what Tony Stark had. I wasn’t attracted to Pepper Potts and yet I was attracted to the way she was attracted to Tony and he to her. I wanted the power of seduction. I wanted sexual tension. And these things only felt accessible to me in my daydreams.
I didn’t see my queerness between the lines of Iron Man . The movie entered my life at a time when, frankly, I didn’t want to be seen at all. I wanted to be concealed. I wanted to imagine what it would be like to be Tony Stark, who as a straight white man was everything I was not.
Tony was not me, and neither was Pepper, but I was drawn in by that. I liked feeling unrepresented, erased. It made it easier to ignore the real-life crushes I had on girls. If I didn’t see those parts of me, then maybe I could more easily pretend they didn’t exist.
I didn’t want to be seen because I feared my truest self. Something that still fascinates me about the first Iron Man is its descent into horror in certain moments of its final act. Jeff Bridges’s Obadiah looming over an incapacitated Tony at a slightly oblique angle. Tony desperately army-crawling on the floor like a victim in a slasher. Pepper peering through the tendrils of thick metal chains. To truly become Iron Man, to become someone else, can be terrifying. Even if it’s who you’re meant to be.
Every time I got close enough to my queerness to touch it, I pulled back. I feared it would change everything. It was easier to latch it up, shut it out, turn it into a love curse. I wanted my origin story to be cut-and-dried.
When I think about the time before I ever uttered the words “I am a lesbian,” I think about how I let myself be everything but. I tried on costume after costume, personality after personality. I could be a nerd. I could be obsessed with superhero movies. I could be Iron Man. That seemed more attainable than being gay.
People love to tell the story of Iron Man ’s final line, famously changed to an adlib from RDJ. “I am Iron Man,” he says to a press conference of reporters. He breaks the superhero’s curse of anonymity and secrecy. He isn’t just confessing this to a few trusted confidantes. No, he’s telling the world. What is it if not a coming out? I see it now, even if I couldn’t see it then.
Fear not—I never became Iron Man or Tony Stark for real. Even when I finally allowed myself to act on my queerness, I didn’t become some lesbian playboi with a witty comeback for everything, dressed in designer suits and driving fast cars. When I came out, I was just as sensitive and earnest as before. Talking to girls still made me nervous, but it was the fun kind of nerves, the loopy feeling of want.
Maybe desire is a time loop. Because even though I don’t want to be Tony Stark anymore, I found my Tony Stark. I’m in love with a handsome woman who’s confident, funny, creative, spontaneous, a little on the wild side. She charmed me over drinks at a hotel bar. Does that not sound like Tony Stark energy?! And to be honest, rewatching the movie made me realize I’m a bit of a Pepper Potts in our relationship. Trying to be Tony was always a costume that didn’t quite fit. Iron Man is far from the origin story of my sexuality, but it’s an inescapable part of the multiverse that is my queerness.
I still watch superhero movies. I still know too much about the MCU. But it’s hard to recapture the all-encompassing obsession of watching that first one. And maybe that isn’t merely corporate Disney’s fault. Maybe I need these superheroes less than I used to. It’s less that I grew up and more that I grew into myself. I’m no longer just putting on a costume. The suit has become my actual self. I am Iron Man.