Patrick: Let’s talk about Office Space. It’s a modern comedy classic, and while that Superman-3-inspired conflict is introduced far to late to be in any way meaningful, there are so many great gags and characters that buoy the movie. Plus, it introduced so many phrases into the lexicon — how would we even express ourselves in 2014 without “pieces of flare” or “no talent ass-clown?” But I’ve always had one gripe with Office Space: I always hated that Peter’s attitude change stemmed from something as ridiculous as a hypnotherapy mishap. Rather than giving Peter to agency over his own inciting action, the movie absolves him of any responsibility for what follows. Think about how much more meaningful it would be if Peter decided “fuck it, I don’t care any more” on his own. I find myself wishing the same was true of Superior Iron Man, which throws a bunch of interesting ideas at the wall but refused to let Tony Stark actually be responsible for his own actions.
Spinning out of the event I’m not reading, this title presents us with a new, “more selfish and devious” take on Tony. I suppose the mechanism by which this is achieved doesn’t matter all that much, suffice to say that it came to Tony externally. The first issue keeps those personality alterations pretty close to the vest, at first suggesting that Tony’s just up to his old tricks. One of those old tricks? Booze.
This is a classic Stark vice, but it’s important piece of misdirection. I really like having Pepper Potts come in as something of an audience surrogate. She’s quick to anger over the more morally dubious developments in Tony’s life over the last… however long it’s been. Perhaps “morally dubious” is a little too severely worded. None of this — not the partying, not the Iron Man drone, not even the Extremis app — really falls outside the established characteristics for this character. Tony’s sort of a dick, and while we grumble about it, that’s all part and parcel with Iron Man.
The issue’s not done with misdirection just yet either. We pop back out to the streets to see some unintended consequences of giving everyone with access to a smartphone Extremis. It creates a pronounced class war between those newly rejuvenated and those that can’t afford phones in the first place. At least, that’s what it does in one specific instance. There’s nothing to suggest that Extremis is making people more aggressive, just more entitled. I’m not convinced that that small posse of pretty people wouldn’t have tried to beat up a homeless lady without Tony’s app, but it’s at least the first hint that there’s a bigger idea at play than “Tony is a jerk.” We can revise up to “Tony is a careless jerk.” Before the audience really has an opportunity to digest that, however, the rug is re-pulled out from under us, as everyone’s free Extremis trial period comes to a close.
Turns out that Tony’s not just a careless jerk, he’s willfully predatory, sowing the seeds of addiction and then reaping them at the poverty-ensuring rate of $100 a day. This is a genuinely fascinating idea, and one that I don’t see portrayed in fiction all that often. There’s a fine line between smart business practices and predatory business practices. So much of selling a product successfully relies on mankind’s unhealthy predilection toward obsessive behaviors — you needn’t look further than your own comic shops to see evidence of this. Comics aren’t profitable because they’re a widely distributed and widely consumed medium, they’re profitable because they’re habit-forming, and anyone that’s taken up the hobby at some point has a “I spent how much on comics this week?” moment. I don’t mean to single out comics here — sugar, tobacco, alcohol, lotteries, free-to-play games and countless others are much, much worse. With the recent exceptions of South Park and Last Week Tonight, and now Superior Iron Man, the shady motivations behind these practices have gone largely unexplored in popular fiction.
Still, it would have been nice if we could somehow believe that this is a choice that Tony’s making and not just the result of some AXIS-related brainwashing. I’m all for Tony being the villain or faux-villain of his own series — that’s one of the things I loved about the Superior Spider-Man series, from which this series gets its name — but it just doesn’t feel earned. At least with Otto Octavius in Spider-Man’s body, we have two known entities that we have to reconcile with each other. Here, it’s just a magically different Tony Stark.
Mark, how do you feel about this title? I’d like to have faith in Tom Taylor to take this series to interesting places, but it could just be starting at too much of a deficit for me to really get invested. I’m also not sure how to feel about Yildiray Cinar’s artwork, which seems to favor sexy simplicity over making any particular statement. On one hand, that’s thematically consistent with the piece, but on the other, it doesn’t make for the most compelling read — even when two superheroes team up against the Teen Abomination.
Mark: I finished my first read-through of Superior Iron Man 1 feeling pretty down on the whole thing. Like you, Patrick, I’m a little put off that all of this is predicated on something that happened to Tony Stark versus him making a choice. It takes away from the promised “more selfish and devious” play on his character since we’re basically being told upfront “this isn’t really Tony, it’s Tony’s evil doppelganger.” That’s a lot less interesting narratively, because now all the good guys need to do is figure out how to flip the switch.
And this is nit picky, but Extremis 3.0 makes no sense at all. A “techno-virus” distributed via phone app that changes the physical properties of your body? I’m willing to give a lot over to comic book pseudo-science, but huh? How would that even begin to work?
But the idea of Extremis being a pay-to-play app that preys on the addiction of its users is an interesting one. To continue with your earlier point, Patrick, I have a friend who works for a large mobile game development company, and her company’s games are only profitable thanks to “whales”– users who subsidize the games for people who don’t make in-app purchases. Only 20% of users will use real money to buy something in-game, but those 20% make up 80% of the company’s profits. These are the users who are spending upwards of $20,000 a year on dressing their virtual pets in fancy virtual duds. While it’s possible that these “whales” are secret millionaires, my guess it that they’re mostly average people who have formed an addiction and are spending money they can ill-afford to burn on digital capes for Sergeant Fluffles. Extremis is Virtual Princess Pets dialed up to 11. The promise of physical perfection and health? Once having a taste I can see how it’d be hard to let go.
One thing setting Superior Iron Man apart from Superior Spider-Man (in a not super positive way) is that even at his best Tony Stark is kind of a dick. Otto Octavius taking over Peter Parker’s body is a pretty big change. Tony Stark being more of a dick than usual is quite a bit less compelling.
On the creative side, Cinar’s art leaves me pretty indifferent. The simplicity doesn’t seem like a conscious thematic choice. It’s certainly not bad, and is completely serviceable, but not much more than that. Perhaps we can chalk any thematic resonance up to a serendipitous marriage of artist and title.
I did think it was funny that when the group of pretties beat up on homeless lady, homeless lady is drawn just as attractive as her aggressor. She’s just dirtier, and has slightly worse teeth.
I also laughed that the sound effect for her getting kicked in the face is “SOCK,” (which I generally associate with punches) and in the panel the guy is wearing loafers sans socks. I like to think this was a purposeful choice on somebody’s part.
In the end there are enough interesting ideas floating around Superior Iron Man for me to keep reading, at least for a while, to see how things progress. And here’s a possibility: what if Tony Stark is the straight up villain of this series? With Avengers NOW!, of which Superior Iron Man is a part, we’ve seen a number of characters take up a new mantle (the mysterious new Thor, Sam Wilson becoming Captain America) — could we see the same for Iron Man?
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?