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Avengers Disassembled: Iron Man – Turf War (Review/Retrospective)

It’s probably true that in comics, like in any other medium, you have a preference towards the stories that brought you into that medium. While I think Marvel was doing some truly exceptional stuff during the early part of the 2000s, like Morrison’s New X-Men or Waid’s Fantastic Four or Garth Ennis’ Marvel Knights: Punisher, I think that the Avengers line of books were all struggling to find a direction. While I have some issues with the clunky crossover- and tie-in-reliant nature of the period, I do think that there was a lot more energy for the Avengers-related titles after Brian Michael Bendis’ Avengers Disassembled. Ed Brubaker’s Captain America and J. Michael Straczynski’s Thor can stand alongside the best interpretations of the characters, with Matt Fraction’s later Invincible Iron Man run also standing as a classic Iron Man run.

These Disassembled tie-in issues offer a pretty solid indication of where Marvel’s Avengers comic book line was just before the crossover, and most of them seemed to be in very serious trouble. There are two arcs from The Invincible Iron Man collected here, from two very different teams, and neither seems to know exactly what it is doing.

Iron Man decompressed?

I’ll concede that the status quo for Tony Stark at this point in his series was at least interesting. Quite a few Marvel comics had been trying to make sense of the rapidly-changing geopolitical climate in the wake of the September 11th attacks. John Nay Rieber launched a volume Captain America that saw the star-spangled Avenger trying to make sense of a radically different world, for example. Meanwhile, in The Invincible Iron Man, Tony Stark was made Secretary of Defense (nicknamed “the Iron Secretary”) and given a job defining and shaping American foreign policy.

It seems like an interesting position for the character, to be honest. Many of Tony’s strongest stories, like Armour Wars, are based around the idea of Tony as an independent entrepreneur defending his brand against those who would encroach on it. He seemed as uncomfortable with the government usurping his technology as he was with any power-mad megalomaniacal supervillain. Stark was always a superhero defined by his own rigid independence and his reluctance to be constrained by authority, putting him in sharp contrast with most of the heroes around him.

Still got some kinks to Iron out…

Indeed, that’s what made the central reversal at the core of Civil War so fascinating – Captain America objecting to the idea that moral authority needed some measure of state sanction while Tony embraced pragmatic infringements on his own independence that he never would have otherwise allowed. While the execution was certainly disappointing, the concept was compelling: Stark realising that change was coming, and opting to sacrifice his own independence (and that of others) in order to steer and influence that wave of change.

So the notion of independent Tony Stark, a superhero who plays by his own rules, suddenly finding himself in government is an interesting twist on the character. Similarly, it sets up an interesting conflict over the nature of the superhero. Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns had brought a level of psychological and political complexity to the genre that had been absent previously. Writers were no longer able to skirt around issues of moral authority and political responsibility. It was all fine for billionaire Tony Stark to fly around beating up strange people with silly names, but what was he actively doing to make the world a better place?

Takin’ out the trash…

Making Tony Stark Secretary of Defense would seem to be a way to address this issue. Finally Tony could do some actual good that didn’t involve simply responding to random acts of crime. Writer John Jackson Miller hints at the possible repercussions that this could have, as we’re witness to Tony radically altering the US military’s weapons and tactics. “It’s all part of the plan, Senators,” he informs his guests. “First, make U.S. soldiers invulnerable in the field — then increasingly shift our force complement to include non-lethal means.”

Imagine how different the world might look if the US military applied Tony’s technological advances to protecting their own and minimising battlefield casualties. Would that spark a superhero arms race? Would it lead to United Nations censure? Would it make the U.S. President more or less willing to deploy troops to global trouble spots? Would it create friction with other major geopolitical players? Whatever the result, there’s no doubt that the world would look quite different after even a single term in office. And therein lies the problem.

Methinks they doth protest too much…

Due to the nature of Marvel’s shared universe, Tony Stark can’t radically change anything. He can’t provoke conflict with China, he can’t instantly win the conflicts in the Middle East. The moment that Tony Stark’s technological inventions are allowed to credibly affect the comic book world in which he inhabits, the Marvel Universe ceases to reflect reality. This would have serious implications for the marketability of the heroes in question, as the company would worry about alienating potential readers, the assumption being that readers want to read about a world which looks like their own.

As a result, Tony Stark as Secretary of Defense is a lame duck plot line. Miller tries to put the best spin on it, explaining Tony’s ineffectiveness in the story itself. He laments, “I’m always running off to some crisis before I can get any real work done.” Miller hints at the political reality that few politicians are actually able to affect genuine change, itself a potent idea that might counterbalance the problems with this story thread, it’s never really pushed. Instead we’re told that Tony’s too busy being Iron Man to be a proper member of government. It’s a copout, which serves to give us the same old tired Iron Man plots where Tony fights giant robots. That is much less interesting than the idea of Tony facing up to his obligation to make the world a better place in a more tangible fashion.

Not quite a blast…

Similarly, the political nature of the Avengers Mansion comes up, as Miller mentions that the Mansion is now on international soil. Again, there’s an interesting story to be told here about how the team are the world’s mightiest heroes, rather than some arm of the American establishment. There’s a shrewd story to be told about how the heroes must decide what makes right – if they aren’t sanctioned by U.S. legal authority, then what dictates their actions? – but, again, that story is short-changed for more mundane stuff. There’s the same jurisdiction friction we’ve come to expect in stories like this, but nothing of substance.

Oh, and there’s an entire subplot about the trash collection at the Mansion. Because that’s the most interesting plot direction you can take with the decision to cede from the United States. As the lack of trash collection causes a problem, Jarvis explains that this is to be expected in an international organisation. “That’s the rub, sir. Even U.N. plaza has to make special arrangements for the services we take for granted. It’s got its own police force, its own post office… even its own stamps!” I’m sure that’s true, but it’s hard to think of a compelling story about U.N. postage stamps.

Facing up to his responsibilities…

It reminds me of the more awkwardly inward-looking moments in Kurt Busiek’s Avengers run where the team would get overly caught up on the bureaucratic workings of their organistion – worrying about quorum and electing a chairperson. That does not make for an exciting or engaging story, because it’s just pointless bureaucratic melodraam. That said, there is a nice moment with Jarvis training staff during an assault on the mansion. “This sort of thing happens,” he explains as the building shakes. “The china, gentlemen, look to the china.”

There are hints of the political fallout from the decision to leave the United States, but in the most bland fashion. A bunch of protestors amass outside, waving placards and making stupid anti-U.N. statements. “You’re Kofi Annan’s private army, right here in the middle of occupied Manhattan!” Look, I’m sure there are people in the real world who believe that about the U.N. building – but they’re crazy. There are also people who believe the world is flat and that dogs can’t look up. That doesn’t mean they should be the primary foils of comic book stories. It’s infuriating, because there’s an actual interesting story to tell here, it’s just that Miller has missed the mark completely.

Keeping one eye on his job…

If anything, Iron Man stands as proof that Avengers Disassembled was a necessary shot in the arm to a tired superhero publishing line.

Check out our look at the Avengers: Disassembled tie-ins:

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