Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Co-Review: Invincible Iron Man #500

Tessa: Howdy.

Geoffrey: Hi. I'm trying to fix up my books on my phone, but it keeps deleting my music. I'm trying to kill print media, not my music. It's rough out here three hours into the future.


Geoffrey: WHAAAT?

Tessa: Riiiiight?

Geoffrey: So I don't think I'm off base when I say that Iron Man #500 was probably the biggest, most ambitious Iron Man story I'd ever read, right?

Tessa: No arguments here, there was A LOT going on.

Geoffrey: 3 generations of Stark! 3 generations of destruction! One deadly secret! ALL IN THE MIGHTY MARVEL MANNER!

Tessa: Yes! What I loved is that we're seeing two big comics tropes at work here: the team-up and the dystopian future. And damned if I'm not a sucker for seeing them both done well.

Geoffrey: Yeah, I loved this issue because it centered around my two favorite superhero comics tropes, but what made it better was that they were pushed further than the standard "fight and team up" and "let's see how shitty the future is" moves. On the team-up side of things, we had a team-up with Spider-Man and Iron Man, but we also got to see them team up in their secret identities, and every time we get to see Peter Parker being smart I have a great time.

Tessa: Yes, it's so fun to see those characters interacting with each other, both as superheroes and civilians, but in some ways more so out of uniform.

Geoffrey: And in the future dystopia we get all the standard future tropes AND another team-up of sorts this time utilizing the whole legacy of Tony Stark to push it along.

Tessa: And of course, both team-ups in the future and the past are intrinsic to each other. The Spider! That's one of those things that you see coming, but it doesn't make it any less rewarding. It's just nice, clean storytelling.

Geoffrey: Definitely, and having Peter be the one to suggest it to Tony was just gold to me. He also got to sneak in that Human Torch joke which is just classic "Peter Parker being a funny dork." People usually remember to write Peter Parker as a funny guy, but they usually don't play up the smart guy angle, so I'm glad we got that in this issue.

Tessa: Yes! I love the way Fraction writes Peter Parker/Spider Man. My issue with Spider-Man is he so often comes off as just quippy for the sake of being quippy. Like, he makes jokes because that's in his character description. But what I liked in this issue is that his joking came off so naturally. It didn't seem like forced superhero banter, which was so refreshing!

Geoffrey: Yeah it seemed to come from a nice place of being frustrated with what Tony had done to him, but still wanting to help him anyway because he's a good guy. Man, I don't Tony's ever going to stop looking for redemption. That seems like all he does anymore since the Marvel Civil War event a few years ago. I guess he's been doing it ever since he stopped manufacturing weapons, but it seems like ever since Captain America died that's all Tony ever does. Being indirectly responsible for wars and the deaths of countless people is his Uncle Ben.

Tessa: Yeah, I guess I would find it tedious, except Tony's brand of redemption is always so whiz-bang.

Geoffrey: Yeah, Tony's plans are always great to see, but Tony's never going to get over it.
my fear is that this will be the only kind of Iron Man story, the one where Tony feels guilty about something that's in his past so he unveils a flashy plan that nobody really gets at first, but once it starts working they're all like "Well, we should have trusted Tony because he knows what he's doing-- hey, he's not such a bad guy after all."

Tessa: Right, I think if we're talking specific formulas, I could stand to move away from the "Tony puts out fires that he indirectly started by repurposing his inventions for good" plot,
BUT I don't know that he really should have to get over it in the broader sense. We could maybe stand to lose some of the literalism in terms of redemption plotline, but he kind of does have a lot to atone for. That's part of what makes the Spider-Man/Iron Man team-up so interesting--Tony Stark and Peter Parker have such a great balance of similarities and contrasts, so you get the distorted mirror effect. They're both funny, guilt-ridden science geniuses, but here's Tony who (being rich and good looking) has had the opportunity to fuck up on a way more global level, compared to Peter, whose guilt is more personal. So I don't know if bringing them together is a way of signaling that this is kind going to be the tone for a while or if it's a sign that we're going to kind of broaden those themes, but I think it's an interesting way of addressing it.

Geoffrey: Totally. But I'm not calling for Tony to stop feeling guilty all together I'm just concerned that that may be the one thing that every writer of Iron Man to come will be latching onto forever.

Tessa: Right.

Geoffrey: I mean, Batman just now got over being written by Frank Miller.

Tessa: Yeah, I think the movies play a role in that as well. You end up seeing comics parrot storylines that sell well as movies because they received so much exposure that they take precedence over other interpretations. Which was absolutely the case with Batman--if the Joel Schumacher movies had actually been any good at all, Batman probably would have regained his sense of humor a lot sooner. And for movie audiences, I think the "Tony Stark is sorry and he's going to fix it" angle is an easy one to latch onto. So I think you may be right in worrying we'll be seeing that for a while.

Geoffrey: Right. How else are you going to root for a billionaire/industrialist/mass murderer if not by giving him a guilt complex?

Tessa: Yeah, and the mustache doesn't help.

Geoffrey: That reminds me that Matt Fraction made it clear at Comic-Con that he made sure that Tony had that mustache. He said that they had told Sal Larocca to make Tony look like RDJ, so he was gonna draw him with the goatee, but Fraction made him keep the mustache.

Tessa: You know what? I respect that. Wholeheartedly. Tony Stark deserves his 'stache. Everyone else may endeavor to deserve theirs.

Geoffrey: Also by that same token, how'd you like Jake Gyllenhall as Peter Parker?

Tessa: Nothing much to say on that score. It wasn't too distracting.

Geoffrey: Sal Larocca takes a lot of shit for his photoreference. RDJ (and later Sawyer from LOST) as Tony Stark, Tommy Lee Jones as Norman Osborn, he had Nicole Kidman as Pepper Potts. But I don't really mind the photoreferencing, especially since it usually comes out on time.

Tessa: Right? I hate to use a quasi-fascist rationalization for anything, but punctuality covers all manner of sins.

Geoffrey: If it didn't come out on time it'd be a different story, but the title's been pretty consistent for Fraction and Larocca's run, which is much appreciated in these times.

Tessa: Yeah, what are we supposed to do while we wait, BLOG about it?

Geoffrey: Oof.

Tessa: Sorry, that was a groaner.

Geoffrey: But speaking of the bleak future--dystopia, right?

Tessa: Yeah, nobody ever seems to have fun in the Marvel future.

Geoffrey: Yeah, I was thinking about this, and I'll probably expand on this in a future essay, but Marvel futures are usually dystopian and not a lot of fun. They're much different from DC futures. I mean, kingdom come wasn't any fun for anyone, but any other time we get a glimpse into a DC future it's always markedly more optimistic than Marvel ones, and I think this stems from the core differences between Marvel heroes and DC heroes. Marvel is all about the underdog. Marvel heroes have big, human flaws. The whole "they're just like us" mentality. "They're just like us, and they're being heroes, so it makes it more heroic." So the natural progression is a dystopian future where everything is against the hero and the odds are tangibly insurmountable.

Whereas DC is more of an aspirational brand.

Geoffrey: Yes, DC comes from a place of aspiration and legacy. If Marvel is who we are, DC is who we want to be. Therefore the legacy angle is played up in DC futures. We see the future versions of the heroes we want to be, descended from the heroes of the present. The very fact that there's a legacy means that heroism has won in the end, that the fight for good will continue, and in a Marvel dystopia it's a wonder that the fight for good is still even happening.

Tessa: Right, and moreover a sense that even acting with the best of intentions, the good guys could have contributed to the disasters in the world.

Geoffrey: Which is a big key of this future in Iron Man #500. I read a review up on CBR where the reviewer described it as another adventure of Tony Stark and "the brain that always gets him in trouble," which is probably the most apt description of Fraction's Iron Man plots thus far.

Tessa: Motivations aside, I think it's pretty compelling watching Tony Stark play chess with himself, which he's been forced to do a lot. In this case, even more compelling because of the anticipation involved. He has to figure out how to beat moves that haven't even been made yet.

Geoffrey: I think what hit hardest about this future is that there was no insistence about it being a "possible" future.

Tessa: YES.

Geoffrey: There's a very real sense that this is something that WILL happen, no matter what Tony does.

Tessa: And that's borne out not just in the future segments, but in the fact that his solution, in the end, is not to prevent disaster, but rather to create a failsafe in the event of, which is pretty grim.

Geoffrey: Right, Spidey's suggestion of a failsafe is just delaying the inevitable.

Tessa: I think there's something so uncomfortably adult about this issue. Taking responsibility in the event that you really can't cut corners anymore. It's very anti-escapist.

Geoffrey: Yeah, that's something that's really been missing from a more "adult" look to comics: the accountability.

Tessa: It's kind of thrilling to see it, but also pretty damn sobering.

Geoffrey: If there's something that Tony Stark's always needed it's sobering. I mean AMIRITE?!! HEY-YO! I'll stop. But I am kind of serious about that. Tony's actions have gone unchecked for the most part. He's made a crazy huge amount of destructive weapons, he was director of SHIELD, he's super rich, and i think he got off kind of light with an alcohol problem. He kicked that, but now it's time for him to deal with everything else. And all at once, at that.

Tessa: Right, up until now he's always been one step ahead, even when he's in deep shit. For the first time, there's no easy fix. And that's a different kind of struggle than we've seen before.

Geoffrey: The most "one step ahead" he can get is a haphazard failsafe. But I mean, that being said about Tony being one step ahead even in deep shit-- he does come up with a pretty great plan.

Tessa: Well, it'd be a drag if he didn't.

Geoffrey: I mean beyond the actual failsafe thing, the plan with Ginny, Howard, and himself is pretty great. Maybe not the most clever plan, but definitely ballsy as fuck, especially considering that a large part of it involves having his son Howard get repurposed as a soldier in the Mandarin's army, and that furthermore a large part is contingent on Howard retaining his humanity.

Tessa: Well, and that the whole endgame here is just "We'll start from scratch when it's all over!" Not that Tony Stark has ever shown any qualms about that, given that he erased his own brain that one time.

Geoffrey: Yeah, I like that Tony's victories are largely damaging to himself and his legacy. It's a different kind of selflessness in that it's as destructive as it is heroic, which is a nice commentary on Tony Stark.

Tessa: Absolutely, bit there's a lot of ego to it as well. In the sense that he gets the last word on who he is and what he's done. Reputation be damned.

Geoffrey: It's sort of like the kid getting fed up and taking his ball home with him, although more heroic than immature, but still a little bit selfish.

Tessa: I think that one of the strengths of this issue is that it really does get into the meat of all those complexities in his character.

Geoffrey: Definitely. And we see some reflections of different aspects of his personality in his descendants. It's the DC approach of legacy filtered through the Marvel lens of dystopia. We get his heroism and stubbornness in Ginny, and Howard acts as a look into one of the things that Tony fears he'll turn into.

Tessa: Right, it really gets to the heart of the fact that, even without the suit, Tony's wealth and intellect basically make him a weaponized human, whose work can be used for good or ill.

Geoffrey: speaking of reflections and weaponized humans I love the use of the Mandarin as a dark mirror to Tony Stark's empire. Tony had an industrial empire, the Mandarin has an empire of world domination. Tony has his technology, the Mandarin has his rings and now Tony's technology. Tony has a parade of hot models for meaningless sexual encounters, the Mandarin has a harem.

Tessa: Absolutely. And again, looking at reputation, he is the reverse of Tony, in that, as we've seen in the past, he is very concerned with having a positive image and is meanwhile committing huge atrocities. He's kind of the iron fist to Tony's velvet glove, ironically enough.

Geoffrey: Yes. And Tony's eventual victory over the Mandarin is of course, a victory over himself and his flaws.

Tessa: I am so resisting the urge to compare this to both Tron: Legacy and Black Swan.

Geoffrey: Well, don't because I haven't seen either of them.

Tessa: I won't (I will, however, shamelessly link you to an essay I wrote about those two films), but the point I'm making is that this kind of dark double is kind of having a cultural moment right now.

Geoffrey: Why do you suppose doubles are back in the zeitgeist?

Tessa: If I had to venture a guess, I'd say right now, at least in America, we're in a mess of our own creation, economically, environmentally, globally, and in some ways we fear ourselves as much as, if not more than, anything else. Both the fear of our capacity to destroy and the fear of the responsibility and potentially ruinous self-sacrifice it may take to repair our mistakes.

Geoffrey: Sounds an awful lot like a certain Tony Stark.

Tessa: It certainly does, doesn't it? Except I don't think our generalized cultural anxiety is quite so handsome and charismatic. But I guess that's the escapism part.

Geoffrey: Yeah, our cultural anxiety would be a lot easier to deal with if we could just wear our iPhones. Or maybe it'd make things worse. SPECULATIVE FICTION.


Geoffrey: I think that means we've reached the end.

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