[26 April 2013]
PopMatters Comics Editor
The anticipation around Iron Man 3, the carefully-timed leak of news that Maya Hansen will be playing a role in the movie, all lead back to the Warren Ellis-scribed, Adi Granov-drawn Iron Man: Extremis. Extremis was the storyarc which kicked off the fourth volume of the Invincible Iron Man (one volume prior to Fraction and Larroca’s “tie-in” to the 2007 movie). Extremis also displayed Maya Hansen in a way that would almost come to define her in the Marvel mindset—she’s super-smart, a geneticist who’s every bit the equal of Tony Stark as technologist, and she’s a damsel in distress. Neither the father-and-son writing team of the Knaufs who followed on as Iron Man writers after Ellis, nor Kieron Gillen who writes the currently-published Iron Man evolved these central elements of Maya Hansen’s character.
Reading Extremis in the collected edition, it became hard to segment the story back into its individual issues. Tony’s “trouble”, as his mentor Sal Kennedy puts it, takes center-stage. Ostensibly, this arc is about “rescuing” Maya. Her invention, the Extremis bio-enhancile has been stolen by her own project director. It’s been sold off to the highest bidder (a secessionist Midwest militia), and used to empower one Militia member with superhuman strength, speed and healing. But the Militia member run amok just becomes an external manifestation of the deeper, psychological quandary faced by Tony Stark. As Sal Kennedy says, “You’re both in trouble. It’s just that he doesn’t know it yet. You can barely look at yourself in the mirror, can you Tony? You’re rich now. Independent. I have a feeling you do good works when you can. But it’s not enough. You have intellect and power, but it’s not enough. It’s like there’s a dam across your life.”
That conversation with Sal Kennedy is one of the most powerful in comics, and it achieves the rare feat of elevating the medium into the politics of the literary. It’s hard to read that second chapter of Extremis, where Old Wise Man Sal receives his “student” Tony and his “daughter” Maya in his garden and not draw a straight line from Ellis’ writing to Chekov’s short story “The Black Monk”. Read in one sitting, maybe the collected edition is slightly overwhelming. The whole of the work begins to shine through and the power of the individual chapters maybe lose their impact.
By the time you read the time you read that second chapter, by the time ideas of Chekov begin swirling around… (Now granted, you’d need access to Chekov, but, in an age of Wikipedia and Project Gutenberg and SparkNotes, in the age of Big Data, who doesn’t have access to Chekov) …you’ve already lost the power of that one magical line from the first chapter, “Iron Man used to represent the future.”
It’s the magic of an inherent pun. In one sense, Iron Man once represented the future. In this sense there’s a longing, a yearning a nostalgia, a literal pain from the past (a painful longing for home, if you’re into Classical Greek). In another sense, Iron Man was a template that was used to represent the future, a means of road-testing what was still to come. In this sense, another side of Tony Stark’s personality shines through—his intellect, his capacity to reduce the world to a cerebral space, his ability to control his environment by prototyping workable solutions. Ellis’ pun hits on an essential conundrum of Tony Stark as a character—is he last year’s man on the cusp of being thrown to the wolves of obsolescence, is he a wounded survivor just barely clinging on, or is a grand visionary who is able to architect things that have not happened as yet? What Ellis’ vision of Tony Stark happens to elide however (or at least glosses over; glimpses of it can be seen when Tony recompiles Maya’s Extremis and runs it on himself, but Ellis doesn’t do enough with the story to ground these glimpses in Tony Stark’s character, instead they read like Iron Man-geek paraphernalia), is Tony Stark’s almost fanatical drive to self-destruction.
It’s the self-destructiveness that really ties it all together for Tony Stark. It’s because he’s a wounded survivor just barely clinging on, that Tony Stark assumes the role of grand visionary. Tony’s intellectual capacities and emotional and psychological resources are far less relevant to his composition as character. This was always the most arresting aspect of Tony Stark, that his messianism was a kind of revenge on the entire world, and even on himself. In this sense Tony Stark would always prove to be the conceptual opposite of the roles embraced by Damian Lewis in such shows as Life and Homeland, where revenge takes on the messianic proportions.
In the final analysis however, Ellis’ contribution of an incomplete characterization of Tony Stark might have worked out well after all. It did provide an opportunity for other Volume Four-era writers, writers like the Knaufs and Joe Casey to explore exactly that self-destructiveness.
For Daniel Knauf, working with his son Charles, Tony’s self-destructiveness married together with his now unleashed geopolitical ambitions (Tony had subsequently been appointed head of the international intelligence and security agency S.H.I.E.L.D.) became the vectors by which sinister, unseen forces (Tony’s old nemesis the Mandarin) drew the noose around him. The Knaufs slow, brooding vision of Tony stumbling headlong towards a pit, all the while goaded on by an unseen, unknowable conspiracy is a vision of Tony Stark that rings true with other Knauf projects like Carnivale or even in a sense, the non-horror infused Standoff.
In the limited series, Iron Man: the Inevitable writer Joe Casey would explore Tony Stark’s impotence to launch the next great civilizational wave, in the light of his propensity for using people up as if they were resources. During the events that play out in the Inevitable, Dr. Maggie Dillon pays the ultimate price in Tony’s pursuit of rescuing the Living Laser. But even her death is simply narrative foreground to get to the heart of the series—Tony Stark’s verbal confrontation with Leonard Samson. “‘Evolve?’” Casey writes for Tony Stark, “You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about Leonard…! Everything I am has evolved! That’s what my entire life has been about! I’ve taken risks! Taken my life into my own hands! Put others at risk! Maggie’s not the first casualty of my ‘Evolution’—And no matter what I do…she won’t be the last! That’s what I live with! I’m not what you think I am …it’s all different now. The process. The technology. I sent a drone to fight the Ghost. I could’ve sent a hundred… all at once. Remote triggers and creating localized repulsor fields. Multiple POV satellite vision. That’s second nature to me now. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg… It’s all different. But the world and the way I look at it seem to be completely at odds. I use cellphones and Blackberries and laptops because Tony Stark would use those things… My concessions to the concept of ‘normal’. But I don’t need them. So these are things that only I know… But ask anyone and they’ll tell you they’ve got Iron Man pegged… Bodyguard. Super hero. Avenger. But the worst of it… one side of a ‘vs.’ marquee that I’ve come to see as a ridiculous paradigm of pro wrestling clichés and wasted energies. There are individuals out there who are so intent on violent engagement with me that they will go to great lengths to engineer one… including the murder of those close to me. And everything I’ve come to believe about myself and my so-called ‘evolution’… they completely disregard. They just don’t get it. They’re fighting they’re fighting against an inevitable future, but they just don’t realize that I’m already here….”
But of course (based entirely on your personal preference, and this is mine), both visions of Iron Man’s self-destructiveness pale in comparison to Matt Fraction’s “What It Was Like, What Happened, and What it’s Like Now”, issue #500.1 of Invincible Iron Man. Through the metaphor of a corporate environment, Tony excavates the darker psychological elements of his time as superhero. He even goes so far as to examine the underpinnings of his addiction as they began to manifest during his childhood. It’s not Tony’s self-audit that steals the show in this issue (although, the self-audit and its quirky metaphor is hauntingly powerful), but the ending. Despite having reached the insight he already has, Tony still leaves with the girl. But, only after Pepper rejects him.
Invincible Iron Man #500.1 releases about a year after the Jon Favreau-directed Iron Man 2, in which Tony Stark does get the girl (get Pepper) despite having gone through the dark psychological demons he confronted during the movie. “What it was Like, What Happened, and What it’s Like Now” reads like a minor schism between the Iron Man of the Marvel Cineverse and the Iron Man of the comicbooks. But now with that bigger break established, with Iron Man of the comicbooks being a spacefaring adventurer of the stars, can we look back at Favreau’s Iron Man and begin to guess at that intrinsic magic that Favreau himself first saw, and that we saw but perhaps couldn’t immediately understand?
Perhaps the most emotionally moving parts of the original Iron Man could be found not in the scenes of Afghanistan where Tony found his resilience and built the Iron Man Mark I, but later in California where Tony designed the Marks II and III. Alone in his basement, talking with his machines as if they were living human companions (small child geniuses perhaps, who didn’t completely understand the world, but were highly competent at executing tasks), we as audiences could begin to understand that simultaneous impulse to revenge and messianism. But those scenes reminded us of more. They reminded us of the complexity of the problem we face when we pose the question, “How do you make money from the internet?”
Tony of course isn’t alone in that basement. The robotic arms, the 3D, holographic CAD, the great arrays of tools and cars and engines and hotrods all point to the mega-scale industrialized economy. Such things don’t come from nowhere, they don’t even come from a single source, but spring from the vast civilizational networks that take thousands of man-hours to produce a single cup of coffee. (Matt Ridley will tell you that even a single cup of coffee takes highly specialized knowledge to milk the cows to get the milk, to mine the stone that will eventually be shaped into your mug, to grow the beans to transport, and sell the beans to process the beans, to make the machinery that will grind the beans, etcetera, etcetera). Tony’s work in that Californian basement seems more and more like something the scope of NASA.
And of course there’s another, entirely different story that emerges from those scenes. The one of Tony’s individuated genius. Later in the movie, Obie Stane (played with aplomb by Jeff Bridges) will castigate his design team by saying “Tony Stark built this, in a cave, in the Third World.” The vein in his forehead will swell at just the right time to emphasize the various beats in that line, giving the audience the right emotional resonances to appreciate the harrowed and harangued team leader’s response, “But nowhere here is Tony Stark.”
Those scenes in the Californian basement are as much about Tony’s sublime genius, about his individuated capacity to take on the role of technological visionary. And that story is very much at odds with vast, industrialized anonymous wealth of material and tools produced by the industrialized economy. We don’t need a Karl Marx to remind us that laborers (intellectual or otherwise) are alienated from their work product, and that under the auspices of the industrialized economy, labor itself is an alienating process. We need only look at the faces of those cowering scientists who fear that at any moment, Stane might take their jobs from them.
Yet despite the anonymizing aspects, group labor has always seemed something of a necessary evil—leaving us with Pyramids and Cathedrals and computers and rocketships and Moon Landings. That’s the secret and unpleasant grandeur of the industrialized economy—it gives us greatness, materialized ascensions. But somehow the cultural yields of social media, the imprinting of the importance of a personalized voice, of individuation, of disalienation from your work-product remain relevant. After all, that’s what blogging and Facebook and Wikipedia all have in common, they mark out the rise of individuation.
When we ask the question, “How do we make money from the internet?” we’re really asking, How do we ensure that we don’t lose the ground we’ve made up in both social media and in the industrialized economy? And more than anything, that’s what Favreau’s vision of Iron Man holds dearest—that both social media advances in the disalienation from work product and advances arising from the industrialized economy can be met. What Favreau’s Iron Man reminds us, is that if Iron Man can be Used to Represent the Future, it’s only because Tomorrow Is a Thief that will steal focus from balancing the cultural yields of the social media revolution with the industrialized economy.