Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Iron Man

(or "Feet of Clay")

Someone commented, after reading last week's entry on Daredevil, that Iron Man is another super-hero that took a long time to get right. (Yes, I do read all your comments. I love getting reader feedback, even if it is sometimes, "You didn't read Marv Wolfman's Daredevil run, did you?") With all due respect, I have to disagree. Iron Man is one storytelling engine that started out great, then lost its direction...and to some extent, has never regained it.

When Iron Man started out, he was very much in the mold of Marvel's super-heroes. They tended to take a "typical" super-hero concept of the Silver Age, then give him or her a flaw; something that humanized the character, made them a little bit more identifiable to the average reader, and perhaps made them more an object of reader sympathy and less a pure wish-fulfillment fantasy. Everyone who read Superman wanted to be Superman, but when you read the classic Iron Man stories, you were never quite sure that it was worth it to be Iron Man. Sure, Tony Stark got to wear cool futuristic armor (that he was constantly updating, streamlining, and redesigning) and be fantastically rich...but on the other hand, that same armor was the only thing that stood between him and instantaneous death. The armor literally kept his heart beating every second. Iron Man was as much a prison for Tony Stark as a super-heroic identity.

This was a good thing. It added tension to every story; when Iron Man was running out of power, it wasn't just, "Will he defeat Villain X before his juice runs dry?", it was "Will he defeat Villain X before his heart explodes?" It gave him a plausible reason to continue being Iron Man, even when the identity became more trouble than it was worth. It also gave him a plausible reason to conceal his Iron Man identity; he doesn't want people finding out that he's one 'low battery' warning away from dying. It was just the kind of complication that made Marvel's heroes dynamic and intriguing in a way that DC's heroes of the same era weren't. Combine it with jet-setting action, anti-Communist propaganda (this was an era when a weapons manufacturer could be a hero), a solid rogue's gallery (OK, so the Unicorn and the Melter weren't great, but the Mandarin was a solid A-lister, and the Living Laser, the Crimson Dynamo, and the Titanium Man all made good B-list opponents), and a fun supporting cast (Pepper Potts and Happy Hogan had a great 'Moonlighting' dynamic going), and you have a good storytelling engine.

Then Iron Man had heart surgery. And suddenly, nobody was quite sure what to do with him. He suddenly became just another super-hero. He was a rich genius with super-powerful armor, a multi-national corporation, and any woman he wanted. Which is great, if you happen to be Tony Stark, but not so great if you happen to be trying to find interesting things to happen to Tony Stark. Suddenly, his comic became "defeat villain of the week", and nothing more.

Which is where the other problems began. Tony became an alcoholic (interesting idea, but once you've done the "Demon in a Bottle" storyline, there's only so many times you can show him aaaaalmost drinking before it gets dull.) Tony became a paraplegic (a very interesting idea, but they backed off on it...which was kind of tacky, really. Tony Stark comes up with a cure for spinal injuries, uses it on himself, and it's never mentioned again?) Tony got brainwashed into working for Kang, killed, replaced by his own teenage self from an alternate universe, who sustained a heart injury that required him to wear the Iron Man armor permanently or die (thank you and good-night.)

Ultimately, the biggest "handicap" for Iron Man, after curing his heart injury, is his own personality; in order to make him into a distinctive and interesting character, storylines like 'Armor Wars', 'Extremis', 'Illuminati', 'Civil War', and 'World War Hulk' make him out to be a control-freak, a borderline madman with an almost-megalomaniacal belief that he's smarter than everyone else, has a more cohesive vision for the future of the human race, and needs to put it into practice regardless of the human cost. Basically, in order to make him interesting, they've made him a borderline super-villain...and all because they needed to find something to do with the character after curing his heart injury.

Wisely, the upcoming movie has decided to scale back on the "Iron Man as power-hungry futurist" angle and reinstate the heart injury. However, it remains to be seen how Marvel will handle casual fans who see the film, pick up a copy of the comic, and find out that the hero they're interested in has killed an ambassador, wounded another, threatened a third, and ripped a civilian jetliner in half, killing hundreds. Marvel has managed to keep Iron Man "interesting" over the years, but it might have had a serious cost in terms of the image of the character.

17 comments:

Eric Teall said...

Just given the actions you've described--how do you justify the label "borderline" when applied to "super-villain"?

BTW, good call on Iron Man losing a key part of his story engine, but could they really have kept that part up indefinitely? In the same way that "Demon in the Bottle" can happen once and then a writer has maybe two or three almost-relapses before the storyline gets tired, doesn't the "my armor is a prison" gag get old?

In other words, didn't Tony kind of have to lose that part of his engine? I'd argue that it's poor writing since then that has kept him from growing enough as a character to find another genuine problem without "making one up," if that makes any sense.

Anyway, love the site and the posts as always.

Eric

Maven said...

Iron Man only appears to be a "villain" because Marvel vastly over-estimated the intelligence of not only their fans, but their writers. In the Civil War arc, Tony was CLEARLY in the right. In a "real-world" situation (which I know comics aren't, but that was the premise of the Civil War arc) there is NO WAY IN HELL that we'd allow a bunch of vigilantes to run around in masks, destroying public property on casual whims.

Marvel put Tony Stark into an impossible position: He was championing the entirely rational idea that you can't allow anonymous psychos to run around making their own laws, yet he was doing so in a fictional universe that's BASED on the idea of masked psychos making their own laws. None of the fans bothered to think the concept through past "Iron Man BAD".

Johnny B said...

In the beginning, unless I'm mistaken, the chest plate device (projecting a magnetic field, I believe) was supposedly keeping a piece of shrapnel that was supposedly too close to remove surgically from working its way forward and piercing his heart. It sounded plausible in 1963, but as surgical technique grew more advanced, it began to sound preposterous around 1968...so that's why, I'm pretty sure, it was decided to eliminate that particular storytelling engine. At the time, I thought it was a good idea- but I was 8 years old, so what did I know...

Eric Teall said...

Iron Man only appears to be a "villain" because Marvel vastly over-estimated the intelligence of not only their fans, but their writers.

Um, what? I don't mean to be hypersensitive, but did I just get called stupid?

In the Civil War arc, Tony was CLEARLY in the right.

Really? What part of "no-trials gulag" or "uncontrollable lethal weapon Thor-clone" is CLEARLY right?

In a "real-world" situation (which I know comics aren't, but that was the premise of the Civil War arc) there is NO WAY IN HELL that we'd allow a bunch of vigilantes to run around in masks, destroying public property on casual whims.

1. You're right. In the real world, superhero registration would be at least mandatory. However, let's be completely honest--not even the Ultimate universe goes far enough with how superheroes would be treated. These people would be dehumanized and used as weapons, period. (That is... before they took over the world.)

2. Realism that undermines the underpinnings of a whole universe is realism I'm not interested in, thanks. The whole concept behind Registration and Civil War was fatally flawed from day one.

Marvel put Tony Stark into an impossible position: He was championing the entirely rational idea that you can't allow anonymous psychos to run around making their own laws, yet he was doing so in a fictional universe that's BASED on the idea of masked psychos making their own laws. None of the fans bothered to think the concept through past "Iron Man BAD".

See, I'd argue that none of the CREATORS bothered to think the concept through past "we're ******* up the Marvel Universe but good so that we can be 'edgy.' Hooray for us!"

In other words, I go with Grant Morrison's old Earth-2 concept, where the good JLA always wins in the "good" universe, and the evil JLA/CSA always wins in the "evil" universe, but I apply it to Marvel: superheroes win and superheroes are good. Civil War is hopelessly flawed.

That said, I still maintain that the actions John describes in his post ("[Iron Man] has killed an ambassador, wounded another, threatened a third, and ripped a civilian jetliner in half, killing hundreds") are those of a super-villain, end-of-story. That he has government backing means nothing. So did Hitler, so does Doom.

Eric

John Seavey said...

Maven said:

"In a "real-world" situation (which I know comics aren't, but that was the premise of the Civil War arc) there is NO WAY IN HELL that we'd allow a bunch of vigilantes to run around in masks, destroying public property on casual whims."

That is true. However, in a real world, there's also no way in hell we'd decide instead to put them all under the authority of a single man, a known alcoholic who's been mind-controlled into murdering literally several hundred people, (and who's also killed a super-villain in a fit of pique, and covered it up by claiming it was "someone else"), who publicly claimed less than a month ago that he had given up the Iron Man identity for good after (as far as the public knows) getting drunk, showing up at the United Nations, and threatening to kill an ambassador, and make that person the only person who knows the secret identities of every single super-hero in the United States.

Oh, and if you don't do what he says, he'll lock you away in an other-dimensional prison for the rest of your life without trial.

Oh, and there's that whole thing where he brainwashed Norman Osborn into shooting another ambassador in order to start a war with Atlantis, for reasons that range from (and I directly quote Tony here) "Anger, ambition, lack of patience, revenge, control. Satisfied?" (Then again, I do find that 'Civil War' makes a whole hell of a lot more sense if you ignore 'Frontline'.)

I'm all in agreement with the idea that there should be some sort of plan for regulating super-heroes; however, that doesn't mean that any plan is better than no plan. Iron Man is unstable and unreliable even by the standards of super-heroes. He's the last person who should be in charge of the SHRA.

(In fact, that's how I'd have ended 'Civil War'. After the battle spills out into Manhattan, Iron Man gets fired by the US government, forbidden to use his armor, and "de-registered." Mister Fantastic is put in charge of the SHRA, and he decides to prioritize "going after bad guys" above "getting into a dick-measuring competition with Captain America". Officially, of course, not registering is still a crime. But unofficially, he decides that it's not worth going after reliable, trusted heroes like Captain America who do more good than harm, and focuses his attention where it's actually needed, on training new heroes, capturing villains, and bringing in really dangerous loose cannons like the Punisher.)

Eric Teall said...

John, do you really agree that in the Marvel Universe there should be some kind of super-hero registration? (Not in the real-world, where such a thing would almost be a given, but in the MU.)

John Seavey said...

Actually, no, I don't, and not simply because the same logic I applied to Iron Man (has been mind-controlled on multiple occasions into doing evil things, and hence is not trustworthy enough to handle authority over all super-heroes) can actually be applied to any authority you'd care to name, up to and including the White House. ("Well, yes, the President of the United States did turn out to be the leader of the Secret Empire, and yes, he did wind up shooting himself in the Oval Office...your point?")

I wouldn't do it if I was the EIC simply because the more you try to be "realistic", the more you attract attention to the holes in the internal consistency holding your universe together. There are just certain a priori assumptions that you have to take at face value in order for the Marvel Universe to work as a story, and when you start poking holes in it, the whole thing falls apart. It's like the logic of dreams--analyzing it always causes you to wake up. Which is kind of an unfair answer, I suppose, to the people who want to look at it in terms of an "Is registration right?" question, but I just frankly think it's such a limiting idea for a fictional universe that I wouldn't do it, right or wrong.

Eric Teall said...

I absolutely could not agree with you more. Well said (as always).

tavella said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
tavella said...

Thank you both for whacking down Maven so thoroughly, so that I didn't YET AGAIN have to point out the total illegality (going by Marvel's oh so proud "the MU is identical to our world, just with superheros" rule) of most of what went out (not that they didn't have Cap act stupid and illegally, but less viciously so, and at least he admitted it and faced consequences.)

And yeah, John nails it -- it's such a limiting concept. I ranted about it a little bit, but it comes down to a world where superheroes are useless except as various flavors of government minion, and that's freakin' boring.

patrick said...

Iron Man was practically flawless as a super hero flick; it drops pretty obvious hints that would indicate a sequel as well... i'm thinking the next one should be equally great

cease ill said...

I just loved Iron Man from childhood: you create your own "powers" which suffer consequences and limitations requiring intelligence! I really wasn't reading Iron Man thru most of the instances mentioned here; the movie really nailed what I loved about Shellhead. The bit where Justin Hammer controlled his armor should've had more continuing consequences, but it's not so bad a sitch as subverting Shellhead the way they did Hal Jordan. (You know IM #124 marked the second time I'd ever talked my way into some comic books? 'Twas over my head and not a strong action issue, but it intrigued me.) Civil War DID suffer from the obvious flaws listed here, from what I read of it. But Tony's present book under Matt Fraction is one of the only ones I've been buying, since it started; I rarely make it to a comics shop, but I kept finding IRON MAN on the spinner rack at Border's. What do you think?

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