Posted by: Graeme McMillan on April 11, 2007
Perhaps fittingly, considering what’s currently going on in the Marvel Universe, IRON MAN #16 is a rather uncomfortable comic. It’s not uncomfortable for the good reasons – It prods places in the reader’s mind that they wouldn’t want to consider at the best of times, for example, or it offers up some inconvenient truth (Al Gore as Tony Stark; what a concept) – but because it just doesn’t hang together well at all. For one thing, Iron Man as a character (That is, Tony Stark when he’s wearing his technological supersuit) doesn’t really appear in the book, other than in flashback in one scene. The rest of the book revolves around Tony Stark as Director of SHIELD, bring so driven to take down terrorists that he doesn’t give a damn about military protocol. Which is a potentially interesting take, but one that doesn’t really sit well with his portrayal in other books, where his following the letter of the law over what his instincts may say causes him to, say, set a trap involving a pretend corpse of Captain America (Oh, and also: The book isn’t called “Tony Stark: Goateed Defender of America”). Sure, Stark comes across as a dick in this book as much as he does in other books, but it’s a different kind of dick, and that sort of thing should be important, somehow.
(There’s a moment of supreme dickishness towards the end of the issue, where Dum-Dum Dugan is giving Stark a lesson in how to be a good military leader. Dugan says, “As our commanding officer, you will make life-or-death decisions. When you do, you must ask yourself one very important question: Did your decisions today make for a better world tomorrow?” The dickish moment comes when Stark replies, with a smirk, “Yes.” It was a rhetorical question, Tony! And even if it wasn’t, that smarmy certainty isn’t going to win you any points.)
The end of the issue, where Stark speaks at the funeral of fallen SHIELD agents, is one of the few places where the characterisation of Stark seems consistent with the way he appears elsewhere, and it’s arguably accidental; speaking in tribute to the fallen soldiers, Stark says “I have had the distinct honor of fighting alongside hundreds of super-heroes in my life… but very few heroes.” And it’s such an odd line that what I took away was that Stark doesn’t consider super-heroes actual heroes. Which, you know, ties in with his Civil War persona of “superheroes are idiots who need to be registered and trained” and all, but at the same time makes you stop and think, Wait, why aren’t super-heroes heroes? Is their desire to do the right thing despite their personal cost somehow invalidated by them wearing costumes or something? (“I’m sorry, Spider-Man. Yes, you saved that nun and her band of orphans from certain death in that burning building, but I happen to have the exact mathematical formula for heroism here and, ohhhh, you were just slightly off. Better luck next time.”) That said, I’m convinced that such thinking isn’t what the writers intended, and instead they were just reaching for just another “You know who the real heroes are, America? Our brave boys and girls in uniform” moment, a la Civil War #7.
But here’s the thing: The events of Civil War, for better or worse, have ultimately pushed this character into the position of being not just a super-villain, but a pretty successful super-villain – He has created clones who kill people, manipulated governments, tried to ignite international war, and not only gotten away with it, but been rewarded for it. Books like New Avengers play the character as a villain fairly openly, and it’s in that light that you can get away with him devaluing the sacrifice of others while telling people with certainty that he has made a better world. But as a hero himself or even just as a sympathetic character, that arrogance and lack of self-doubt doesn’t make for interesting reading. Yes, he will inevitably be heading for a fall and will regain some humility prior to his movie launching, but without any attempt at moral uncertainty at this point, I find myself unable to care. In his own series, not only does Iron Man know that what he’s doing is right, but two issues into the new status quo, the creators appear to agree with him; there’s no ambiguity here, and that makes for dull reading. Eh.