Iron Man has always been a character better suited to defining character arcs than to defining runs – which is arguably odd, when considered with most iconic characters. When we talk about Daredevil, for example, we talk about Frank Miller and Brian Michael Bendis; when we talk about the X-Men, we talk about Chris Claremont; when we talk about the Green Lantern, we talk about Geoff Johns. On the other hand, when we talk about Iron Man, we talk about Armour Wars or Demon in a Bottle or Extremis. Perhaps that’s a strength when releasing a big budget blockbuster like Iron Man 2 – it’s easy to flood the market with reprints of six or seven issue storylines, rather than having to deal with huge chunks of narrative. It’s also perhaps the reason that this particular miniseries – essentially a modernised continuity-light retelling of a classic story – seems like such a great idea. It’s ridiculous to suggest a retelling of an iconic writer’s tenure, but remaking a single iconic story seems much more reasonable and more than a bit smart – surely it’s a great way to bring readers into step with arguably the most popular comic book character in the world right now?
For those unfamiliar with Iron Man’s comic book history, Armour Wars was an arc which saw Tony attempting to contain the dissemination of his hardware through the criminal underworld. It was a wonderful exploration of the heart of the character – a former arms manufacture now in the business of exporting peace – and one which undoubtedly (and admittedly) influenced the John Favreau’s Iron Man sequel. Marvel has, in the last decade, attempted to make comic books more accessible by launching what they call an “Ultimate” line. The notion is that these stories should offer readers these iconic characters free from the burden of half-a-century of backstory. The goal was to take these established concepts and start them from scratch again. So they are the perfect vehicle for modernising characters, particularly in light of big screen franchises – so Ultimate Spider-Man accompanied Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, Ultimate X-Men was effectively a companion to Bryan Singer’s X-Men.
So here we are. Marvel drafted in Warren Ellis, the author of the last ultimate Iron Man miniseries (Ultimate Hulk vs. Iron Man) and writer of perhaps the most recent classic Iron Man story in the pantheon (Extremis), to offer a new and up-to-date telling of the tale. Unfortunately, despite all the beautiful promise contained in the four-issue miniseries, it ultimate (ha!) ends ups being more than a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, at four issues (just about one hundred pages), the miniseries feels… well, insubstantial. Tony breezes from one encounter to another with relative ease. There’s no time to stop and consider the implications or what it all means, because… well, there simply isn’t time.
That isn’t to say that the series’ failings are entirely out of Ellis’ control. Let’s face it – the story is an analogy for proliferation, and Iron Man more than any other mainstream hero is the perfect vehicle for that theme. However, what proliferation meant when the original arc was written – and that was major players on the world scene given access to these new destructive technologies – is hugely different from what proliferation means today – the placing of the power to shape worlds in the hands of unstable and untraceable individuals. Ellis tells his story like it’s a play-by-play account of the original, and never really offers any sort of update for today’s geopolitical climate. It’s a shame, because Matt Fraction’s opening arc on The Invincible Iron Man hinted at the potential for an exploration of this theme.
Instead, this all feels rather… “safe” to be honest. Ellis is renowned as a fan of high concepts, but plays it relatively straight here – until the last four pages of the story, which end up condensing too much zaniness into too small a place (particularly when what came before was played relatively straight). The only place where Ellis seems to be allowing himself to fly is with the characterisation of Tony himself. It seems to be a recurring theme in the stories I’ve read, writers being good with Tony, but no good at telling stories with him.
Ellis is very comfortable with playing this version of Tony as a vaguely amoral futurist. Note that I said “amoral”, instead of “immoral”. This is a Stark who wants to get his stolen technology back to “save the world — and most especially — my reputation and credit rating”. One gets the sense that prioritising his own affairs over the safety of innocent lives is only barely a joke. This is a Tony who cynically hopes to make millions of dollars off a podcast of his trip through the graveyard that is New York while cracking bad taste jokes and mourning the loss of Tiffany’s more than the loss of life. Quite simply, Ellis isn’t afraid to make the character more than a bit of a jerk – he slowly murders one of the men involved with the theft even after he’s been told what he needed to know, for example. Still, Ellis hints at a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders who is trying his best (and not always succeeding) at making the world a better place. Some of his speech comes across as very… well, British (he uses phrases like “old girl” and “a hair more careful than normal”), but most of the time his voice is dead-on, calling to mind Robert Downey Jnr.
It’s hard not to be a bit disppointed with this miniseries. In fact, it’s very hard not to be quite a bit disappointed with this collection. Ellis is a more than capable writer, and the pencils from Steve Kurth compliment his work, but there’s simply not much here. The story is too bland and paint-by-numbers to work as a straight-forward retelling of the original. Equally there aren’t enough fascinating high concepts around to make the story particularly interesting, which is a shame – Ellis does hint at some grand ideas (like iMan or the last few pages of the final book), but they aren’t delivered nearly consistently enough over the course of the miniseries.
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