Like every good superhero story, “The Five Nightmares” is an essay in confrontation. In a bold stroke, reminiscent of Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Triumphant” chapter of The Dark Knight Returns, writer Matt Fraction forces Tony Stark, the man also known as Iron Man, into an inter-generational conflict with the son of his most crippling adversary.
Ezekiel Stane, son of Obadiah, plots to avenge his father’s death by killing Stark and decimating the multibillion dollar Stark Industries. Younger than Stark, and more driven, Zeke Stane is the Iron Man’s functional antithesis. Where Stark has established a corporation headquartered in four countries, Stane has no fixed residence living off highly mobile capital. No ID, no bank account, Stane is the epitome of asymmetrical warfare and he has aimed himself directly at Stark Industries.
In his role as the superhero Iron Man, as the Director of intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D., and as CEO of Stark Industries, Tony Stark finds himself at war with not a competitor but a successor. For a character designed to be a paragon of cutting edge technologies, Iron Man’s greatest opponent in “The Five Nightmares” is perhaps his dawning awareness of his own obsolescence.
What is Iron Man about? Why read Iron Man and not Spider-Man or Fantastic Four? If Spider-Man is about the price of super powers and Fantastic Four about exploring the borders of imagination, then Fraction suggests that Iron Man is about the immobilizing dread that comes with unfulfilled promise.
This story taps that primal fear of inadequacy. Not properly a superhuman, not completely a technologist, not even fully a businessman, Tony Stark’s incredible achievements seem to be nothing more than a knee-jerk response to his fear of failure. This brilliant characterization makes “The Five Nightmares” an engaging character study. He exposes Tony Stark as a character for whom obsolescence, inadequacy and fear of failure are baseline states, and equally powerful motivational drives. Fraction’s Iron Man is in direct confrontation not only with the Villain and the Self, but with the Other.
The story’s primary confrontation, it would seem, is not between Iron Man and his successor, but between Fraction and corporate ethos. While Marvel has clearly been deferential toward Fraction’s vision, certain continuity elements are required for a marquee superhero character starring in two separate titles, and some of these elements clearly compromise that vision. Iron Man’s interactions with S.H.I.E.L.D. are stilted and smack of contrivance. Clearly developing this relationship is required to reaffirm Stark’s role as agency director. But these scenes are not only intrusive but they seriously undermine minor but crucial plot points like Stark’s plan to use a soda company’s vending machines to distribute AIDS anti-retrovirals in Africa.
Reading “The Five Nightmares” is an engaging experience. Fraction’s strong characterization positions The Invincible Iron Man as a worthy counterpoint to the family Knauf’s skilled rendering of an Iron Man seeking atonement in Iron Man: Director of S.H.I.E.L.D.. In fact, Fraction’s characterization tends toward the definitive. Decades from now, a new audience might find this work and be able to point to it as exemplar of Iron Man as a unique fictional creation.