A high-tech concept downgrades to a low-tech, but serviceable narrative.
We all have our inner demons and we all love to blame our problems on those demons. They’re right up there with alcohol and bad parenting as our top excuses for screwing up. Whereas some will blame, others will confront. Few that confront succeed and those that do have the right to say they’re superior on some levels. In many respects, Tony Stark has earned that right.
Superior Iron Man has been a case study in confronting inner demons. However, this superior version of Tony Stark doesn’t fight them. He embraces them. In his inverted state of mind, he turned those demons into a strength and he did it in a way that some of his closest friends found disturbing. This descent into a twisted brand of strength and ambition is what has made the concept of Superior Iron Man so compelling. At the same time, it has had its share of glaring flaws.
At this point in the superior Tony Stark’s story, he confronts something more daunting than his inner demons. He confronts a back-up version of himself that isn’t inverted and hasn’t become jaded by a world where bad Transformers movies make a billion dollars and Kardashians are treated as legitimate talents. This older more idealistic Tony Stark is a shadow of the man he once was. He’s supposed to be a more heroic Tony Stark. However, the conflict that emerges in Superior Iron Man #8 reveals a different dynamic that undermines the overall concept.
This concept has been built around the moral ambiguity that the inverted Tony Stark has exercised since he unleashed Extremis 3.0 on San Francisco. What he did was reckless, but not inherently evil. Like Walter White in his pre-Heisenberg days, he tried to achieve something he believed to be moral using less-than-moral tactics. The main difference in Tony’s case is that these tactics worked and without any pizzas getting stuck on any roofs.
These results put him at odds with allies like Pepper Potts, but he was able to walk that fine line that Walter White tried to walk in that he didn’t come off as overly villainous. That’s has helped give the narrative of Superior Iron Man a sense of balance, which makes for a struggle that feels more novel than just some angry employee whining about her boss. But in responding to Pepper’s tactics, the inverted Tony Stark decides to stop walking that line. In fact, he comes dangerously close to spitting on it altogether.
The tone and theme of the story is no longer about this new Tony Stark trying to further his vision. It’s now about him shoving Pepper out of the way and doing it in a way that even Donald Trump wouldn’t approve of. He resorts to using hostages and human shields, forcing Pepper and a back-up version of his non-inverted self to adjust their tactics. It’s no longer a battle of ideas or methods. It’s a battle of people who are okay with human shields and people who aren’t.
Such a shift disrupts that fragile balance that the Superior Iron Man was able to maintain in the face of so much criticism. It used to be that a part of us might be willing to go along with his vision. Who wouldn’t want to live in a city that gave them something that made them smarter, sexier, and stronger that didn’t involve quack advice from Dr. Oz? Some might be willing to live in that world where Tony Stark is a de-facto mob boss, giving them what they want so long as they pay the price.
Now even ardent communists probably wouldn’t pay the price Tony is asking. If Extremis 3.0 comes with a human shield clause in the user agreement, that’s a deal-breaker. And Tony’s willingness to exercise this part of the agreement that nobody probably read goes beyond inversion. It goes beyond reckless. It might as well be a move stolen directly out of Dr. Doom’s playbook.
That’s not to say that the theme of Superior Iron Man as a whole is shattered by this change, but it does cause a significant crack. The inverted Tony Stark still has a vision that he wants to pursue. That vision still has merits. He’s now just caught up in confronting those who stand in his way, even if they are cherished friends. But his methods for doing so lack the cunning and charm that’s supposed to come with superiority. When he resorts to bigger fancier sets of armor, he’s basically reverting to mediocrity.
Beyond Tony’s more inferior approach, there are other parts of the story that are less disruptive. Pepper’s new connection to Teen Abomination provides a solid sub-plot that doesn’t feel completely disconnected from the narrative. His presence helps make this conflict more personal for Pepper, which in turn helps her come off as more than just a whiny employee. She’s a lot easier to root for, even if she’s done a poor job of challenging Tony’s vision. She no longer comes off as some cantankerous old woman who whines about how complicated smart phones have gotten. She’s trying to stop someone from doing legitimate harm to innocent people.
It’s not a poor narrative in and of itself, but Superior Iron Man #8 does sacrifice some of the complexity and novelty that made it such an intriguing concept. If this were a game of dodge ball, everyone would be ganging up on Tony right about now. He didn’t just lose his credibility as a savvy yet morally ambiguous visionary. He threw it away, spit on it, and stepped on it. Now he may still have a plan that’s worth following that doesn’t involve human shields. But like Peter Parker trying to be a marriage counselor, Tony now has little credibility left to work with.