Of all of the Marvel pantheon, Iron Man has enjoyed the greatest upswing in fortunes over the 21st Century – before 2005’s Extremis, the Tony Stark-led mega-crossovers that began with 2004’s Avengers Disassembled and reaching a dramatic height with Civil War and Dark Reign, and of course 2008’s first Iron Man movie, ol’ Shell Head was largely a B-list character best buried in an ensemble like Marvel’s very own Aquaman.
A core member of the Avengers who could be relied upon to drink heavily and have medical problems, his solo career was defined by a rogues’ gallery of other people in armour, and classic storylines that revolved around either getting suits of armour back, drinking heavily and medical problems, his reinvention was glorious. Extremis set a whole new origin story, tone and status quo for the character that buried him deep in the conflicted American psyche post-9/11.
While Captain America represented the moral absolutism of American intervention in the wake of Pearl Harbour, Tony Stark represented the moral ambiguity of American intervention in the way of the World Trade Centre – the cynicism, the self-reflection, the conspiracy theories, the cover-ups, and the fear of a government in thrall to intelligence agencies and a powerful Military Industrial Complex.
Stark has never been more relevant as a character, and the last eight or ten years have been a charmed one of heady techno-thrillers and Michael Crichton conspiracies. Clearly the pace couldn’t be sustained.
It’s a shame that while Marvel Comics’ fun-filled, spitballing Marvel NOW! initiative has revitalised a number of moribund characters and lines in precisely the way that DC Comics’ New 52 didn’t, the momentum that kept Iron Man going from Warren Ellis and Adi Granov’s gamechanging Extremis through Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca’s lengthy run on Invincible Iron Man has finally begun to stumble breathlessly in the hands of fan favourite Marvel scribe Kieron Gillen (Young Avengers, Journey Into Mystery) and the capable Greg Land (Uncanny X-Men).
Picking up a few lingering threads from the Ellis/Granov arc – perhaps to tie in with Iron Man 3 by bringing up Maya Hansen and the Extremis enhancile – Believe revisits the old Armour Wars Iron Man cliché of Tony Stark looking for things and punching variations on a theme – only with Extremis instead of older Iron Man suits. In short, it’s two things we’ve seen rather a lot of in Iron Man comics, the first over the last decade, and the second for the two decades that preceded it.
Collecting the first five issues of the relaunched (but not rebooted) Invincible Iron Man, ‘Believe’ is a blandly disjointed affair that reaches an early zenith when Stark is forced to fight a group of Arthurian idiots with Extremis AND knock off armour of their own. With a low bar in terms of ideas and storytelling set pretty early, it’s no wonder it continues limply along those lines.
It’s tough to level any blame at Gillen, who is simultaneously doing breathtaking work on the sublimly five star Young Avengers, or the serviceable Land, but it’s an indictment of just how much of this territory has been strip-mined already. Much like the dark, gritty and emotionally stunted Batman of the post-Miller era, Iron Man clearly needs a fresh paradigm.
Marvel NOW! didn’t reboot Iron Man. Perhaps it should have done.