A while back I confessed to my renewed interest in comics. Iron Man was my favorite when I first started reading comics in high school. Tony Stark is Iron Man, and he’s essentially the Batman of the Marvel universe: a billionaire industrialist with no superpowers, he becomes a superhero by means of his own ingenuity and limitless resources (refreshingly though, he doesn’t have Bruce Wayne’s brooding, morbid personality). What impressed me at the time was the bold and unconventional plot the series had going in the 80s:
…a ruthless rival, Obadiah Stane, manipulates him [Stark] emotionally into a serious relapse into alcoholism. As a result, Stark loses control of Stark International, becomes a homeless vagrant and gives up his armored identity to Rhodes, who becomes the new Iron Man for a lengthy period of time. Eventually, Stark recovers and starts a new company, Circuits Maximus. While Stark concentrates on new technological designs, Rhodes continues to act as Iron Man but steadily grows more aggressive and paranoid…
That kind of storytelling has become more common as the audience for comics has matured, but it definitely stood out in the 80s. I was amazed to see issue after issue with the main character as a homeless man. It wasn’t just a “social issue of the day” storyline that the writers dispensed with in a couple months. They didn’t shy away from the ugliness of alcoholism, as Stark inexorably lost his company, his fortune, and his friends.
I stopped reading comics after high school, and then started again last year with Civil War, and the new Iron Man series. I was astonished to learn that the original Iron Man series was canceled in 1996, after a 28 year run. That was the year Marvel went into bankruptcy due to mismanagement. I also learned that the current series is actually the fourth, following two ill-fated attempts to revive it. Iron Man was one of many titles that suffered as Marvel’s top talent left the company.
The new series is great – one of the best titles Marvel has going right now. Both the character and plot development are intricate and engaging. What’s annoying though is the distortion of Stark’s character when he makes appearances in other series. In Civil War he becomes almost unrecognizable, portrayed as a brutal fascist, willing to violate any and all ethical principals to force total compliance with the superhuman registration act. And in the otherwise fantastic Ultimates, where he always seems to have a martini in hand and a woman on his arm.
Unfortunately, he’s a self-caricature in the new movie trailer as well (available in hi res for Quicktime, or low res at YouTube). I was looking forward to when it became available online last week, but my heart sank as I watched it. The problem is that they turn Stark into an overgrown frat boy with a passion for things that go boom. He thinks it’s cool when a reporter refers to him as a “merchant of death,” and in a speech to some troops he proclaims he prefers weapons you have to use only once, as opposed to ones you don’t have to use at all. Compare that to the more faithful portrayal of his character in the current comic series. This is from an interview he’s having with a Michael Moore-like filmmaker, after the interviewer takes him to task for designing hi-tech landmines and “seedpod,” a daisy-cutter style bomb (click to enlarge) :
Judging by the trailer, it seems likely you’re not going to get thoughtful dialog like that in the movie. Also, I have to admit while watching the trailer I went from just a sinking heart to an audible groan when my ears picked up the droning bass line of Black Sabbath’s Iron Man in the soundtrack. Being hit over the head with early 70s heavy metal is more than enough to take me out of the moment of the film. I can only hope that the song is just in the trailer and not the actual film.
I don’t understand how Marvel makes its decisions when bringing a comic series to the big screen. The flagship series Spider-man deservedly got top notch talent, substantial financial backing, and careful attention to the portrayal of the characters. So did the much more obscure series Blade. But then another flagship series, Fantastic Four, was made into not one, but two mediocre films that were far more cartoonish than the actual comic. Unfortunately, it looks like Iron Man is also getting the cartoonish treatment, just with a better cast.
Update: I’ve seen the movie since writing this post, and it was pretty good. Without giving anything away, Stark has an experience in the first part of the movie that changes his outlook, making him much less of a jerk. In the preview we only see him as a jerk, so I’m happy to report it was not representative of the overall film.