Today, Patrick and Drew are discussing International Iron Man 2, originally released April 27th, 2016.
Patrick: We hear a lot of grumbling about the ubiquity of original stories in superhero fiction. Hell, I do a bunch of it myself. Aside from the fact that we’ve basically seen them all before, one of the reasons these stories feel so unsatisfying is because there’s a huge leap in logic from traumatizing inciting event to costumed superheroics. A young Bruce Wayne sees his parents gunned down, and the only gaps between that and Batman that we ever need filled in are those that answer how he become such a physical bad-ass. But obsessions, passions and pathologies don’t develop in an instant — they grow over a lifetime. International Iron Man 2 explores more of what makes Tony Stark tick in those small, measured moments between dramatic reveals, even as Tony himself searches for answer he knows will be unsatisfying.
Unlike the previous issue, we start this one in the past. I don’t know about you guys, but I had almost forgotten that there was a present-day battle being waged between Tony and Cassandra. That actually appears to be what writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Alex Maleev are going for — the first couple of pages sit in a quiet mystery. And the few words Tony does utter in those first two pages only serve to reveal that his detective work can only tell us what things aren’t.
This ends up being a pretty good primer for Tony’s perspective throughout this part of the story — we can’t really rely on him to figure any of this out for us. On the next page, he pauses in front of a family portrait, and takes a second look at an even-younger Cassandra posing with her mother. It’s a stirring moment, but one that Tony doesn’t comment on. Mind you, at this point, we’ve already been trained to draw our own conclusions about this situation.
Once Tony stumbles downstairs, we start to get a bare-bones explanation of where he is — in Mrs. Gillespe’s kitchen. She’s been drinking and there’s a gun on the table, so the character is already affecting two of Tony’s defining characteristics. But, this is not the “I am Iron Man” Tony Stark we’re dealing with here; this is a kid. He stares — wide eyed and slack jawed — at her gun, and tries to politely refuse a drink. That’s when Mrs. Gillespe starts asking the more inane origin-story questions: “Why are you so brave, to do what you did?” Tony doesn’t offer an answer, but Maleev gives us a quick flashback to the night before: a vision of the Hydra gunman pulling the trigger. We saw the scene in the previous issue, but now it’s bathed in red.
Are we witnessing the groundwork for some of that origin story laid right here? Maybe, but Mrs. Gillespe goes on to talk about her own childhood growing up on the streets of Sofia, Bulgaria, even going so far as to credit her upbringing for teaching her how to fight. That’s not an inciting event — it’s an inciting life. Which is actually what I think we’re getting out of International Iron Man.
Back in the present, a defeated Tony tries to big-time Cassandra, but, y’know, she’s the villain, so she can out-big-time him by threatening his loved ones. But Tony is on a mission, and he asks one more time about his biological father. That leads me to the most interesting panel in the issue;
Tony’s still trying to solve his origin story mystery. I love that Cassandra, who presumably has the information, tells him that he’s better off not knowing and Tony agrees, but pursues it anyway. That’s the plague of the secret origin in a nutshell, isn’t it? We’re probably better off not knowing the minutiae of how our favorite superheroes came to be the way they are, but we always want to know anyway.
Howard Stark seemed to have a pretty cut-and-dried perspective on the whole thing: the Gillespes are spies, taking advantage of Tony’s youthful ignorance. And the present day action sorta supports this idea, but you know what doesn’t? Tony’s uncommented-upon experience in the house in Spain. Remember, he pauses at a family portrait, and sees evidence of real people living a real life. And, man, Drew, I don’t know about you, but those scenes on the balcony overlooking so idyllic Spanish lake sure feel real reading them. Maybe I’m just being lured into the Honey Pot like our boy Stark. So what do you think? Is this an origin story, or an anti-origin story?
Drew: Patrick, I think your point about superhero origin stories effectively destroys that distinction. Superman’s origin, as told in Action Comics 1 mostly focused on explaining why he has powers, but origin stories (including Superman’s) have gotten steadily more complex since then. Batman’s focused more on his desire to fight crime, while Spider-Man’s gave more or less equal weight to both elements. Follow that trajectory to today, and you have characters whose origins are almost indistinguishable from their identities (like, say, Kamala Khan). Iron Man’s creation in the early ’60s places him pretty firmly in the middle of that spectrum, such that his origin (at least as it has been understood for the last 50+ years) can be summed up in a pithy little paragraph on the title page. But, as you suggest, Patrick, this series seems poised to complicate that understanding.
“Retcon” has enough negative connotations that I hesitate to brand this series as trading in it, even if the continuity is decidedly retroactive. Perhaps its better to embrace these flashbacks as a prequel of sorts to the origin we’re all duly familiar with. Of course, prequels bring their own landscape of pitfalls, by their very nature approaching the line of offering too much information. Patton Oswalt has a great bit about the Star Wars prequels, arguing that George Lucas took it back too far — that nobody needs to see the “little boy who was very sad” to appreciate the badass that is Darth Vader. I’ve always been more irked by the inclusion of other characters’ origins in those prequels. Is this the story of where Darth Vader came from, or of where C-3PO came from? Is this detailing how Anakin Skywalker went from Obi-Wan’s “good friend” to bitter enemy, or offering some motive for Boba Fett that seems unnecessary given his job description of “bounty hunter”? I appreciate that a story can be about more than one thing, but the nods to these familiar characters are downright distracting. I guess what I’m getting at is: what part of the Tony Stark that we know is this story explicating?
Patrick, I think your identification of the gun and the liquor as “defining characteristics” are strong ones, but they’re not handled in ways I’m totally comfortable with. In particular, the hints of Tony’s alcoholism come across with all of the winking and nudging subtlety of C-3PO’s appearance in Phantom Menace, only the subject matter makes that winking and nudging feel totally inappropriate. There’s certainly room to explore Tony’s addiction in future issues, but it’s hit so glancingly here, it comes off almost as glib — “that fateful drink” and the rest is history.
But I suspect that this isn’t really the story of Tony’s addiction, anyway. The much bigger thread left dangling is the origin of Tony’s “instincts,” which apparently took over during the shootout. Mrs. Gillespie wonders how a pampered son of a billionaire would develop such instincts, which I suspect may be one of the central questions of this series. Unfortunately, that question suggests some kind of Jason Bourne-esque training (or genetic programming) that gives him his instincts and bravery, which would utterly undermine his eventual moral awakening in the origin story as we know it — this wasn’t a genius finally applying his skills for the good of humanity, but a made-to-order hero finally embracing his destiny.
But again, this series still has time to surprise me. Even so, I’m not sure I can be anything but disappointed in a story that suggests Tony’s parentage is important. Either it is important, which adds some kind of bizarre genetic hitch in Tony’s self-made hero persona, or it isn’t important, and the whole premise is a red-herring. I suppose there’s a third option, where it’s unimportant genetically, but important emotionally (say, if it really was Victor Von Doom), but then that remaining question of Tony’s instincts seems out-of-place. Maybe Howard gave him some kind of subliminal self-defence training? I’m not sure what that would mean. I like the idea that all of these things have an origin somewhere, but I’m not sure I like the idea that that “somewhere” is a discrete story that can be pointed at as “the origin” of anything.
I know this reads like a list of criticisms, but there’s actually a lot to love in this issue. Alex Maleev’s gritty brushwork is as evocative as ever (and a surprisingly good fit for this story), and Bendis has a great handle on Tony’s voice. Still, the thesis of this series isn’t entirely clear, and the present-day action is about as low-stakes as it gets (if the biggest penalty Tony faces is losing one of his seemingly infinite supply of suits, it’s not exactly a threat). I’m still open to being hooked, but it hasn’t happened yet.
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