The first member of The Ultimates to get spun-off into his own book, the ultimate version of Iron Man is also the only one to get his own miniseries (and he even supported another miniseries, Ultimate Human, last summer and has a new one, Ultimate Armour Wars, this year). Here we have all the ingredients for a great superhero saga – Andy Kubert as artist on the first six issues and Orson Scott Card as a writer – but it just doesn’t come together quite as well as it should. Though Card posits some interesting theries behind the psychology of Marvel’s current poster-boy, he doesn’t really deliver anything of interest on the story front, and really suffers from attempting to write rebellous teenage characters and somehow feeling required to craft his observations into something resembling a cookie-cutter superhero plot.
Iron Man is so hot right now. John Favreau’s successful film adaptation has cemented the character in popular consciousness at least for the moment. It seems like he is the logical member of the impressive Ultimates ensemble to support his own series (seen as Millar has defined Captain America and Thor so well and somehow I don’t see Hank Pym being offered his own series). And attaching the A-list author of Ender’s Game to the project should only guarantee the success, right?
From the start, despite his long-term partnership with Marvel, Card doesn’t seem particularly interested in writing a superhero story. He’s been candid about that, and it’s fine – I quite enjoyed the first of the two miniseries, where Card attempts to give a pseudo-pychological examination of the metal-clad hero. Why does he built an iron suit? What’s the point? Card goes back to the drawing board on these, scratching most of the character’s backstory and removing most of the recognisable elements. He’s a teenager. There’s no prison camp and no heart injury.
And he’s a medical freak. That’s perhaps the most interesting addition that Card proposes, using the freedom of new continuity to suggest that the abundance of nerves in Stark’s body make any physical contact extremely painful. The iron suit is really an iron shell to protect him. I’ll concede it’s an interesting idea – as is giving the character super healing, as if he were Wolverine – but not necessarily one that answers all the questions. It’s a little on-the-nose.
Card seems intent not present his Tony Stark as a hero. And there lies the fault of the two miniseries, as read together. Card clearly doesn’t want to write a superhero epic with gunfights and explosions and witty one-liners, but – by the second half of the collection – that’s what he’s doing (in all but name). The volume features a ridiculous overarching conspiracy which is conveniently used to give us all manner of impressive sequences, but ends up so convoluted and massive that it is ridiculously unweildy, particularly given the narrative simplicty that Card offered in the first half. The second half is just a mess.
The first half is stronger, but only slightly. It is structured as a series of random events from Tony Stark’s life – each issue covering a particular period or insight. And most of these are at least interesting (some are admittedly cliché or redundant). Here at the end of the first volume, however, Card seems obliged to offer some big sort of payoff – to present us with the Iron Man, rather than his young alter ego. The series is, after all, called Ultimate Iron Man and not Ultimate Tony Stark. So we get quite a messy sequence in which a relatively unexplained giant suit tackles some terrorists – whey! terrorists! go-to badguys! – trying to blow up the building.
Card has a solid idea of what he wants to do, at least for the first few issues – he wants to focus on Tony. Explain his upbringing. Explain how he met Rhodey. Look at the role his father played in his life. But then – and I honestly get the impression this shift was not necessarily Card’s idea, but may have come from up-on-high – he suddenly makes it an action serious populated with all manner of supporting characters who share various names with traditional Iron Man villains. Of course, they are just names (for most of them), so there’s very little point to include them if you are going to change the story so radically.
The most interesting omission is the exploration of why Tony becomes a hero. Yes, Mark Millar offered us an explanation in The Ultimates that he has a brain tumour that will kill him, so he wants to do something with his life. But Card isn’t really too bothered at all with that here. Yes, Stark is motivated primarily by clearing his father’s name, but he also volunteers to take down terrorist cells and so on – something vaguely heroic. Yet we get no insight. We barely even get any hint that he cares about anybody except his friends and family. There’s really nothing here which speaks to the hero he is or will become - and no effort to tie the story into Millar’s take on the character either, which is quite noticeable given the on-going attempt to keep the Ultimate series anchored together in their own continuity.
Card is good with the setup and the early ideas, but he isn’t a strong writer of dialogue, at least for the younger characters. The younger Stane, in particular is painful to read, and Tony is just a little bit more charming. There’s nothing quite as terrible as Mark Millar’s attempted cool speak on Ultimate X-Men, but it is quite noticeable when reading through the collection.
The art is a mixed bag. The art by Andy Kubert on the first run is as impressive as ever, but I really disliked Pasqual Ferry. It actually looks like terrible computer-generated stuff with odd colouring thrown into the mix. Even though the story took a messy and cliché turn in the final issue of the second collection, I found myself much more appreciative of Leonardo Manco.
Being honest, there’s not really much here to recommend this collection. There are some interesting ideas contained within the first volume, but Card seems to discard them relatively swiftly for conspiracy-heavy muddled plotting and a few heavy-handed action sequences.