Origins and Secret Origins

Whew… been away for a good while and that has been a function both my private life and the decline in value that the Fraction era left me with.  Enter what I suppose we might as well call the Kieron Gillen era of Iron Man and the final departure from the Civil War Tony Stark that made many of us fell in love with Iron Man (or at least I did) all over again. To a long time reader Gillen suggests a period of follow-on to epic runs both good, bad or misguided. Love or hate John Byrne’s run it was epic; for example. What came after well…it was canon.  To me it suggests the mid-Nineties Force Works or the even the earlier follow-on eras of writers Gerry Conway 1971 or Mike Friedrich 1972-1975, neither of which was epic, but turned out some different ideas and direction for the character.

That is what we have here in this the Fifth! volume of the Iron Man. For the next week I hope to get us through the first arc of this run and race up to the present.

wish me luck.

Iron Man 3 or Jet Boots into Darkness

It has been awhile since I have found the time to post about anything significant about Iron Man but as I made time to see the latest movie this weekend I figured that I leave some thoughts on my first viewing here. Before going any further I’ll add that it was mostly an enjoyable experience before being critical and still something to see on a big screen than on your TV.

Given that we are now seeing Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark for the fourth time in the role in a big way one might have been worrying as to how much more could they mine from the comic books. Downey’s ad libbing patter which has come to define the character, and not just on film, is more than up to the task of filling screen time with just his presence. His talent has also been a sort of crutch for the scriptwriters. Movies however also require motives, action and plots. If anything this third titled Iron Man film pulls on elements from all across the history of the comic to create a very science fiction story with iconic images that have made the past films and comics so successful.

To simply class this film and character as action hero or super hero is to dwell on the wrong genre elements and sort of settle for a picture as a character-driven solo adventure on a smaller scale, with personal stakes for Tony Stark. Viewed through that genre we have nothing more than a Christmas Carol of an arrogant genius millionaire. Science Fiction, like a lot of larger fictions, enjoins a critique of the world or at least aspects of our humanity that are less than flattering whereas a strictly heroic film wouldn’t have that extra dimension of looking beyond what we see on the screen.

It should be noted that like the rest of this blog we are full on with the spoilers here so know now that to talk further about this critique in play it is dependent on who the villain of the story is; if we can even still talk in terms of heroes and villains. If you went into a theater expecting a major player from the Iron Man comics to be the focus then you won’t be disappointed.

If your first answer was Iron Man’s most recognized arch-foe, the Mandarin, then sorry kids but thanks for playing. The real bad guy of the movie is A.I.M. And as we have seen in the first two outings of the armored avenger the true villain is a warped individual motivated by a mixture of greed and twisted personal justice. Whether it was Stane of the first picture with his ambition combined with his sense of rightful ownership or the Justin Hammer/Vanko symbiosis of greed and inferiority complex running the show is a far more fleshed out motive than simply wanting to destroy it.


Indeed if this were the “racial stereotype” that director Shane Black outlined in interviews as wanting to avoid (and curry favor with the emerging market?) then perhaps we would have had a Mandarin that wanted to pull the strings of the world. Black however has made his contempt for that clear when he noted that:

Black: Also, The Mandarin, as Kevin has pointed out — it’s not like he’s a classic villain in the sense you go, “Oh my god, remember that great Mandarin story?” You go, “Well, no, not really, do you?” “No, I guess we don’t.” But he’s been around a long time. It’s like Bob Hope. Everyone says, “Bob Hope! Classic comedian!” Yet for the last 20 years of his life, it’s like, “That’s not funny.”

The issue of the day, relevancy and the realism does lie with those who simply want to destroy the world as it exists. They are the terrorists, extremists and the champions of the disenfranchised.  However the producers of the films on to the director and writers of this film have been very keen on telling us that they are a distraction or pawns for a deep villainy which echoes back to the film origin story of our character. The Military industrial complex which we believed was a savior from the perils of the world and protector of our interests is in fact the demon of our creation. Like a Noir movie there no innocents in this story and even a child carries some baggage.

The movie opens with a voiceover that fairly tells us that we create are own problems and even warns us that things can get meta. ( I never called this movie subtle)  As a movie, a faceless cabal of corruption and evil genius  like the comics’ version of A.I.M. does no favors to engaging an audience and so we have the introduction of a character that only an obsessive Iron Man reader would be familiar with by name from the Extremis storyline.   And as Extremis is only one(if perhaps the major one) of the comics elements retooled for the movie he also takes on an expanded role in the film.  Aldrich Killian as played by Guy Pearce pulls off a delightful transformation in the crucial past is prologue sequence which establishes our “demons” of the film  for us.

Without recapping the film, the 90′s flashback introduction is a Switzerland-set Davos-esque prologue where Stark had a one night stand with a sumptuous scientist Maya Hansen as played by Rebecca Hall who was experimenting with the regenerative capacity of DNA. In pre-coitus banter we learn that one particular formula (called Extremis) could be made to help humans re-grow body parts. But as we see, her formula was unstable even in plants and resulted in small-scale explosions. At the same Swiss convention, Stark, Happy and Hansen meet the archly nerdy Aldrich Killian , who has established a scientific think-tank called Advanced Idea Mechanics (or A.I.M.) and wants Tony to join. Stark blows him off with particularly nasty trick on his naivety, never the less, years later Killian shows up at Stark Industries looking for Potts to propose having her company join forces with A.I.M. on continuing to find a more stable version of Extremis. She too rejects him, but not for being a nerd and if anything is impressed by him, but because doesn’t like the weaponized possibilities of the program and takes a pass.

The twist, if you can call it that as it is given away early on in the film due to Happy Hogan, is that rather than Killian being the supplier for the lurking big bad that is the Mandarin we come to understand that he is the big bad.  If terrorism is as much theater then what we have is puppet theater to what a proper marxist would understand as the base to the  superstructure. If we understand that the super soldiers that Killian produces with the Extremis are just another mode of production of material life it follows that supply and demand are just arrangements. Also you don’t have to be a regular listener to WBAI to see the parallel to our world’s super terrorist OBL and one time claims that he was and remained a product of the CIA or that he even really did exist as anything more than a figurehead. 

In addition to this critique there is also the additional mockery of the effort to fight this phantom as we witness the return of Warmachine  now played by Don Cheadle being rebranded as the Iron Patriot to hunt down America’s Most Wanted after an “attack” in L.A.  Jim “Rhodey” Rhodes becomes a bit of joke due to the inbuilt ineptness of the efforts to track down the Mandarin  and hence the War on Terror but like I have always felt Jim comes off as a better character out of the suit than in it.  As Tony and Rhodey converge on the effort to rescue the President of the United States and Pepper Potts from Killian’s A.I.M. 

What most people will remember most from the film are the set pieces of action spectaculars that they have seen some of already in the trailers.  Not all them work for me like the Army of Armors in the over busy conclusion but the intial attack on Malibu is gripping.  It also sets up a whole section of the film which could use a whole post in itself.  Wih his suit badly damaged, Stark is flown by his operating system Jarvis (voiced by Paul Bettany) to Tennessee to investigate the history and source of the bombless explosions of  the Mandarin. With the suit in dire need of repair and recharging, a huge chunk of the middle of this movie features Stark out of costume but still fighting  the good fight with the help of latchkey kid Harley (Ty Simpkins), a local kid who isn’t shy about asking Tony about New York and the Avengers and falling out of a worm hole in space — all of the things that send Stark into hyperventilating  as he has a severe panic attack.   The whole core of this personal crisis that floats through this film over the events in the Avengers rings false once it comes out of Stark’s mouth but there it is and is gotten over with as he rises to make the world better.

It is important to note that if there is a heroism here it is a just about taking a pretty scewed up world and righting some wrongs.

For the Civil War critics and comic lovers.

I have been looking over excerpts of the recently published Super-history: Comic Book Superheroes and American Society, 1938 to the Present by Jeffrey K. Johnson that is up on Amazon and was encouraged that these postings have not been off track in viewing Marvel’s and Iron Man’s political POV over the decades..

Super-history

It is expensive even though it is in paperback so to read the whole thing your academic library might be your only option. I happened to also see what I was missing at my LCS in the mostly omitted Counter Culture Heroes (1960-1969) Chapter and was only surprised by the amount that DC comics was discussed. In fact unlike a lot of academic writing on comics the book stays with much of what is considered the mainstream of comics publishers DC and Marvel. Of course this makes sense since this is intended to look at reflections of the mainstream body poltic and the metaphors of power. Click on the amazon link and enjoy.

The Coming of the Avengers…movie

And lo there shall come the crossover of all mass media crossovers that is officially Marvel’s The Avengers movie. What we have in theaters this week is a sequel to many movies by the super fanboy writer/director Joss Whedon of TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In adapting issue #1 of The Avengers for present day moviegoers by swapping out the Teen Brigade for Nick Fury and keeping the central villain the movie doesn’t particular add much to superhero history but that is not what people are coming to see.  For the most part one will either love it or hate it based on the treatment of the characters that we have already seen on the big screen before but now playing in the band. Well sort of…

Whedon, in trying to do equal justice to each character,  goes overboard on characterization wher some characters just aren’t that deserving of their screen time. This being an Iron Man blog one might consider that of these comic-book icons—Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) I would have had the focus be on Robert Downey Jr. (RDJ)  but in truth it does do that character  justice while the film itself breathes welcome life into the multi-film portrayed Hulk.

Where the film strays is in the seeming need to expand on the characters that have appeared in supporting roles with those icons.  Characters like the Black Widow and Hawkeye played by Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner respectively seem to command script time that their debut films never afforded them and for good reason.

While there are bound to be fans of even the most obscure superheroes out there it seems hard to believe this is all just soas to not alienate a part of fandom. What one suspects in this is that with such high-profile actors in the roles they were inflated to fit egos or contracts but with others like Stellan Skarsgård as Professor Erik Selvig or Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts having smaller parts that doesn’t wholly answer the swelling running time of the film.

Nick Fury for example, played yet again by Samuel L. Jackson, pays off the obligation of building on what bits have gone before and just how super heroic he is supposed to be regarded.  He gets a good dose of screen time as a result by doing any number of cool action scenes and bad-ass dialogue as he struts the SHIELD super spy banner to the full after a series of movies that  gave the audience only a glimpse of him and the organization behind the Avengers Initiative.

Buffy boy Whedon however can’t just give a girl equal time and he has near admitted that both the Black Widow and the Hulk emerged as discoveries to him in the writing process for reasons that have to do with their not being quite heroic Heroes as such anyway.   The Hulk’s alter ego Banner steals many a scene with the aplomb that perhaps only RDJ has been able to match it in the prior films due to both sharp writing and performance.  While the Hulk, without going all-spoiler here, has the best scene when dealing with the bad guy in the whole film.

The film itself is almost of two halves with first the threat of Loki and the gathering of the Heroes which deivers some of the hero vs. hero conflict that Marvel near-trademarked in its comics.  Indeed, those not familiar with Avengers #1 should note that it follows its plot outline in that first half.  In the comic, Loki, like his film counterpart, is angered by his recent defeat and seeks revenge on  his step-brother Thor and he mortals of Earth. He, in both media, uses his magical abilities/AlienTech to position the Hulk as a monstrous threat to human safety. And before anything gets done we see a lot of heroes fighting each other verbally and with their fists before the real foe is dealt with.

Enter ‘the Other’ and the departure from the comic if not from comic tropes, for length of the film all we know of this ‘Other’ is that he is the leader of an alien race known as the Chitauri, who look like leftovers from one of the Mummy movies, and even Loki is a bit awed by him. At the film’s start we see that Loki has struck a deal in exchange for retrieving something called the Tesseract, a powerful energy source of unknown potential introduced in the Captain America film whereby the Other promises Loki a Chitauri army with which he can subjugate the Earth. The Tesseract also powers a device which bridges the space between earth and the Chitauri. Cue the invading alien army that is the second half of this film and something which the Avengers have beaten back in a number of comics.  While being seemingly pro forma for the comics, Whedon does well to bring off an attacking with some tension and a swell of battle such that it got rise out of the audience who cheered at the performance I attended.

Needless to say the horde from another space dimension is beaten back by a pretty awesome Iron Man moment, which also pays off a comment made by Captain America in the film as a swipe on the character, as he almost makes the ultimate sacrifice. In fact the are a lot of Iron Man and Tony Stark brilliant moments to please fans of the Iron Man films and the comic character as he takes on at different points Thor, Hulk and the space dragon ship that takes chunks out of Manhattan. See the clip for Tony taking on Loki. Tony talks

In the end Nick Fury, director of the espionage agency S.H.I.E.L.D., gets his hero team even if he has to manipulate the situation when after the battle and after defeating Loki, the five heroes decide to team-up and then start The Avengers. Just like he first comic did.

Watching the final double scenes embedded in the closing credits I put aside the revelation of comics villain Thanos as being the Other and remembered these weren’t the characters that I had come to love from the comics but had just enjoyed from the films.  Even if I still don’t care for Scarlett Johansson and she cramped a large chunk of this movie the whole still works.  Simply fulfilling the promises of those films is more than enough payoff for the audience and should make any comic geek glad that a multi-part epic event on par with our months’ long storylines has come off as well as it has.

The Iron Age: Omega #1

In Rob Williams’ The Iron Age: Omega, what he started as a compelling and meaty story arc has now just ended with the feeling that it was really just an elaborate excuse for Rob Williams to throw a bunch of random characters he likes onto one team. It’s not a bad conclusion, necessarily, but it does seem to leave us with an ‘oh well’ sort of feeling.

It began with The Iron Age: Alpha, which gave us a great set up with an enemy Tony Stark had entirely forgotten about coming out of nowhere to play an end-of-the-world trump card on his deathbed, succeeding in destroying the world by pulling the Dark Phoenix out of the time stream, amping her up (as if she needed it), pissing her off and letting her go crazy. The only hope was the fact that Stark managed to leap into the Dr. Doom® Brand Time Machine, depositing himself in the past – back when he was in the depths of his alcoholism.

It continued in The Iron Age #1-3, which allowed a lot of talented writers and artists to climb on board and tell the various chapters in the stories of Stark’s mad scramble to reassemble Doom’s time machine in that era so he could get himself back to the future in time to stop the vengeful Dr. Donald Birch from bringing his master plan to fruition, leading him into encounters with a seemingly unconnected string of heroes – Captain Britain, Dazzler, the Human Torch, Cyclops, Hank Pym and Power Man & Iron Fist. At the end of that, though, all their efforts proved to be for naught, as Jean Grey, at that point the Black Queen of the Hellfire Club, completely obliterated the time machine, leaving Stark back at square one.

So now, here in the final chapter, we see that Tony Stark has holed himself up for a whole decade to try to stay out of history’s way and rebuild his own time machine from scratch. We see that he’s started drinking again, and he has continued to fail. Then, suddenly, on the next page, we see he’s succeeded, and that same group of heroes comes barging through the time portal to be the monkey in the wrench of Birch’s plans – something we saw no trace of in Alpha, but hey, here it is, and it even seems to be something Birch has anticipated. Okay, then.

Apparently, Tony finally broke down and asked Hank Pym for help, the last lesson in humility stemming from Birch’s machinations – plans which began out of spite against Stark’s tendency towards arrogance in the first place. Birch is eventually denied his master plan, but he does at least get to murder Tony Stark – one of them, anyway. The Iron Man who’d been isolated for ten years sacrifices himself to save Luke Cage from a Dark Phoenix attack, leaving only the wide-eyed and weakened Stark that Birch had abducted in the first place. Given the prologue bit with the old and infirm Birch mournfully watching his childhood self play with a Captain America doll, I would have guessed this was a stellar way to reinvent Birch, aka the Z-list villain known as the Phantom, as a major threat… if he didn’t just croak at the end here.

But who really knows? It’s time travel here, so he could show up again, as could Older Stark. Maybe they’ve changed around their rules for it but when last I read a big chrono-adventure like this in the 616,  I was under the impression that if you went back in time, anything you did wouldn’t change your future, but rather it would create a new branching timeline. Yet, there’s no sense of that here – other than the old, surly Stark making mention of having conversations with Reed Richards about how you shouldn’t mess with the time stream – nothing mentioning that you couldn’t. Also, Williams never really explains why these particular heroes are involved, other than a vague reference claiming that “they’re the only ones meant to be involved,” which is malarkey supporting the Williams theory in he first paragraph here.

Again, it’s time travel here, and picking it apart leads to headaches. Instead, we’ll mention on Rebekah Isaacs’ artwork, which at times is really neat and expressive, and at others, seemingly a little rushed.

So, in the end, we’ve got a weird team of relative strangers with a normal Tony Stark that didn’t experience any of the last three issues of interesting drama and adventure (and, more importantly, the cycle of redemption and reaffirmation I was excited by in the last issue), yet he inexplicably feels some sort of bond with these random people who just showed up in the middle of Birch’s swan song to save the day – enough so that they feel the need to have a reunion. It’s decent enough, but it’s just a strange ending for such a fun story. The pacing here feels off, and although the overall story was entertaining and intriguing, the end result just feels sort of hollow.  One walks away like that surviving Stark not one whit the wiser and bit overwhelmed.

アイアンマン Aian Man

While manga treatment of Marvel characters has happened before this current series and the video game crossovers have tapped into the Tokusatsu elements of Marvel icons it is hard to believe that no formal anime productions have happened before. Discounting the fact that Marvel animation has been linked into Japan’s market and production since some of its 90′s shows like X-men and Iron Man bringing a distinct Japanese influence and setting to the properties would seem long overdue.  A character like Iron Man shares a good deal of elements with other Cold War era creations that reflect the tensions of military hardware  and progress as they do even in the many Mecha series over the decades in Japan.

The genre started with Mitsuteru Yokoyama’s 1956 manga Tetsujin 28-go (which was later animated in 1963 and released abroad as Gigantor to my childhood delight). While debatable, as the robot was controlled by remote instead of a cockpit in the machine it is not as if we haven’t seen both in early Iron Man comics.  After that the genre was largely defined by the more fantastical by Go Nagai’s Mazinger Z, his most famous creation, as not only the first successful Super Robot anime series, but also the pioneer of the genre staples like robots being piloted by the hero from within a cockpit.  In one sense the fantastical aspect itself replicated the whole of the superhero genre, which in coming later to Japan ordinates the superhero to science differently than it did in the Us and else where. Consider just the different histories with atomic power and one can see how the genre priorities could be arranged differently.

Anime itself has certain staples which appear in this series as a breath of fresh air to those unfamiliar with japanese action animation.  The inclusion of characters like reporter Nanami Ota and Stark subsidiary scientist Dr. Chika Tanaka play off the traditional character of Tony Stark as the cheeky and somewhat arrogant playboy genius in ways that include sexuality rather than deny it as in so much of our animation.  As types though the characters of Ota and Tanaka are extremes.  Plucky but naive novice reporter Ota gives the audience and Tony someone to connect with while being knowing.  She is the cute one of the pair that is often accompanied by the aloof and seemingly cold cypher in the pubescent male dialectic understanding of women.  Here she is played by Tanaka who is not amused by Tony’s attempts at banter to engage her interest.

Voice actor Adrian Pasdar (yes of Heroes, Castle… fame) does a good cross of Robert Downey Jr. and the more subdued Tonys in the media over the years by taking the manic down at least two or three notches to likable levels while keeping a bit of the sleazy.  The rest of the voices are right in step with anime cliché at this point and add to the very distinct quality that this is our Tony visiting Japan.  Which is what the story basically is.

Tony as Iron Man is a publicly known fact at the start of this series and is just now expanding into the japanese markets with the acquisition of Lab 23 which will be leading the production a new arc power station and showcase the Iron Man Dio, a new prototype armor, that will replace him when he soon retires. In the first episode however, the Dio goes out of control and it is up to Tony as Iron Man to stop it along with an organization, introduced here, producing a number of tech baddies called the Zodiac and later revealed as an offshoot of Marvel Comic’s A.I.M.  It dovetails with much of Iron Man continuity so that anyone who is either reading the comics or seen the movie can walk in a see much the same character. It only makes the usual departure over the origin of Iron Man giving us yet another rendition of his capture by some sort of Warlord and escape with the help of another.  The arc of the series is getting the arc reactor to working levels for Japan’s benefit and free of the saboteurs.

There is in words much to love about this series as an adult Tony Stark taking on new threats each week in action that ranks up there with many a cartoon that is already on TV.  It might not be breaking any ground visually or even in story but as a fusion it is quite successful.  Produced by stalwart japanese animation company Madhouse it might even be considered a lesser work for anime buffs.  Certainly the fight sequences are abrupt and somewhat predictable and just as a matter of comparison the Armored Adventures is far more detailed and for me exciting.  Madhouse has been around for quite sometime and produced various levels of work over the now decades of its existence.  So it sort begs the question of why hasn’t something like this show happened about ten years ago already?

Much of the answer for that lies with Marvel getting its house in order and the legacy of its own animation company effort.  The fact this is overdue should not prevent one from checking it out and even enjoying it as I have.  With the comic in the hands of Fraction still it is a great way to trill to some classic Iron Man and tie into a universe at the same time.

Adrian Pasdar – Tony Stark / Iron Man
Laura Bailey – Dr. Chika Tanaka
Eden Riegel – Nanami Ota
Travis Willingham - Captain Nagato Sakurai
Kyle Hebert – Yinsen / Iron Man Dio
Neil Kaplan – Minister of Defense Kuroda/Rasetsu
Cindy Robinson – Pepper Potts
Milo Ventimiglia – Wolverine
Daran Norris – Editor Nomura/TokyoJournal
Ben Diskin - Ichiro Masuda

Iron Man 2.0 #7.1 – War Machine vs. Palmer Addley

The point one initiative at Marvel was intended to be fresh jumping-on point for readers but at this point it seems to have been more for the benefit of the writers to straighten out their title and we they have planned. No better example could be the done by Nick Spencer whose starting duties at Marvel have been this War Machine and Secret Avengers. It would be fair to say that both were derailed by the recent Fear Itself arc which has taken up half of his time on the Iron Man 2.0 and issue #7.1 does a fine job of finally putting the book back on track. If you have been reading my other reviews you know that I already think well of his work and approach to this multiple failed character as a solo title.  Nick Spencer’s best issue of Iron Man 2.0 to date, and one that finally begins to show the potential of the series.

Spencer works to summarize the events of the first four issues while gearing up the next stage of the conflict. And Marvel it seems is also trying to make of for it too by publishing this week an issue called:

Collecting IRON MAN 2.0 #1-3…. more info

Even without it, the recapping of  material is handled well enough, and the character banter prevents the exposition from feeling too unnatural or heavy-handed. Spencer is able to find a bit of time to highlight all of Rhodey’s personal relationships in the series, from Tony Stark to Suzi Endo to his trio of military minions. In fact even at the shortened 20 pages of $2.99 book it seems like he is burning them off with filler panels as much as doing character work.  The final pages, Spencer finally gets the new  armor in action and in Paris, France which has so far nothing to do with the Invincible Iron Man‘s recent adventures there.

With only one artist doing the art we have none of shifts in tones that prior issues provided. While Kano was one of my favored artists of the three ( his figure and face work go in two different directions as the faces get too much and the bodies in space and action get too little. Then again he is tasked with by the writer to almost no dialogue and telling the story is competently told. His action sequences flow well if lacking umph and pow. Kano’s handling of the armor and tech designs is a little less impressive, but the new War Machine design lends itself to heavy caricature rather than glitter so it’s not the 2.0 armor that looks bad but the robots being fought coming off worse.

Spencer knows that his real knack is a tight character sequence and the scripts work up from this and they benefit from visuals to back it up. The story here sputters to an almost abrupt conclusion in the final two pages, as if it has almost given us too much and needs to save itself for the next issue. Regardless, this point one reads as nearly essential to getting back on board of Iron Man 2.0 and living up to its initial promise.