Iron Man – A Review

“Making of a Hero”
“One Man’s Legacy”

“Peace. I love peace. I’d be out of a job with peace.” –Tony

From the previews alone, you had a sense that Iron Man was going to be a different sort of comic book adaptation. The cast alone told me that the creators were playing for keeps: Robert Downey, Jr. (Tony Stark/Iron Man), Terrence Howard (Jim Rhodes). Gwyneth Paltrow (Virginia “Pepper” Potts). Jeff Bridges (Obadiah Stane/Iron Monger). Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury–stay through the ending credits). Directed by Jon Favreau (Hogan). Even if you had no sense for who this super hero was, there was an inherent intrigue about this movie.

Tony Stark is a different sort of potential superhero. Visionary, genius, handsome, billionaire, winner of the lottery of life, he’s a modern day Renaissance man and playboy, the kind of man who has a deployable stripper pole in his private plane. Though there have been other millionaire super-heroes (Batman, Green Arrow, Blue Beetle – how else can they afford all of those cool toys), Tony Stark is truly a man who “has everything and nothing”: no core, no substance, and no one to share his life with. He battles his demons from budding alcoholism to living in the shadow of his father to the specter of corporate greed to his inability to develop meaningful relationships (he’s so narcissistic that whether he’s talking to a model or the technology around him, he’s really just talking to himself).

During a trip to Afghanistan to demonstrate his latest high tech weapons for sale, he’s captured by terrorists and mortally wounded in the process. His method of escape sets the stage for his alter ego.

Even in the comic book, the character of Tony Stark always struck me as a little one note and smarmy and the producers cast the right guy to play him. The story of Stark’s fall and redemption curiously echoes the tale of the actor portraying him, Robert Downey, Jr. He has wrestled with his own share of personal demons and finds himself on a comeback from the professional and personal brink. Despite being fast talking, glib, slick, and rehearsed, Downey, Jr makes these qualities charming, but also manages to humanizes the character.

“It’s an imperfect world, but it’s the only one we’ve got.” –Tony

The typical (super) hero origin story arc follows a simple trajectory: the first half of the movie is spent establishing the everyman (think Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man, Bruce Banner in the Hulk or Matt Murdock in Daredevil) with the second half of the movie spent in big budget effects proving that said man can climb walls, smash big things, or kung fu his way through armies of men (to the point where there’s no point in asking if so-and-so can play the hero, such as the endless Batman debates, but rather can they play the alter ego).

Like all great heroes, Tony Stark has an epiphany moment, that time when he re-evaluates his life. As the leading designer and dealer of weapons, the bulk of his father’s fortune, the empire he inherited and expanded, was built on war profiteering. Selling the sticks in a “he who has the biggest sticks keeps the peace” world, the movie quickly becomes a commentary on how easily “our” sticks fall into the hands we wouldn’t want. No supervillains per se, but rather facing off against corporate greed and terrorism, from all of the double dealing (passing around sticks).

“I shouldn’t be alive unless it’s for a reason.” –Tony

All heroes need a crossroads, or end of self, moment: when he looks in the mirror and realizes that he isn’t where he was meant to be, not doing what he was meant to do, not living how he was meant to live. Tony’s brush with death forces him to not only re-evaluate his life’s purpose and direction, but also to contemplate what his legacy will be.

“There is the next mission and nothing else.” –Tony

The movie, quite literally, is about the making of a hero. Like Batman Begins, it is more about the journey to establish the path of the new hero than a typical “spandex” string of fight scenes masquerading as a plot (see Spider-Man 3). First, the hero has to realize the system we are trapped in: the “empire,” with its values and its control and order, this social and governmental impotence easily steered by corruption and greed. Next the hero has to figure out their identity. What it means to be human, in his case, what it means to be Tony Stark. Then the hero has to define their mission, in his case, what it means to be Iron Man. At this point, the hero’s life becomes one of continual mission as they hones their gifts and work with their strengths and talents to fulfill that mission.

Tony: “Thank you for saving me.”
Yinsen (Shaun Toub): “Don’t waste your life.”

Funny and taut, Iron Man moves at a good clip, slickly re-telling his origin. It’s not the kind of super hero movie one might expect, especially if you’re thinking all there is to it is putting on the costume and getting to iron butt kicking. The move is both modern and relevant (and full of nerd moments: Jarvis, the X-Men’s Blackbird reference, S.H.I.E.L.D., the terrorist group calling itself the “ten rings” a la the Mandarin, not to mention the after the credits allusion).

I’m going to have to revisit my top ten favorite comic book adaptations list, though I’ll probably wait until the end of the summer considering that Wanted, The Dark Night, The Incredible Hulk, and Hellboy 2 are all coming out.

Ultimate Human – A Review

“Redemption Story”

Written by: Warren Ellis
Art by: Cary Nord
Published by: Marvel Comics

Bruce Banner (the Hulk) and Tony Stark (Iron Man) are the “two halves of the push to post-humanity.” Both brilliant scientist, yet one has a lifetime mired in failure as much as the other has had success. So, in Ultimate Human, Bruce Banner has come to Tony Stark in the hopes of finding a cure for his condition. Warren Ellis begins to do for the Ultimate version of the Hulk what Peter David did for the mainline version of him – explore what truly makes him the Hulk, psychologically and physically.

“I’ve been sick my whole life and had to fight for everything I ever wanted. And never got it. Never.” –Bruce Banner

Like Bruce Banner, part of us realize that we live in a “failure condition.” We largely sleepwalk through life, wondering what’s it all about, why we are here, what we’re supposed to do and be. The idea reminded me of the book New Way to be Human by Charlie Peacock and how we all begin with a Story, a Story that God steps into. The story has four major arcs:

Creation – The story of all that is right and good about people and the world. We were created in His image, related to God, in right relationship with Him, under His rule and agenda. We were his servant-representatives in the world, responsible for one another and stewards of creation. Made for community and unbroken relationships, we were also created not only with intelligence, but also with a free will to choose.

Fall – The story of what went wrong, what is wrong, with them. With our ability to choose, we were intolerant of mystery and the gaps in our knowledge. So we sought our own way, disconnecting ourselves from the rhythm of life set out by God, becoming alienated not only from each other, but God and creation. This turning away from God to your own assumption of living life is the very definition of sin.

“Save me.” –Bruce Banner

Redemption – The story of the mission to restore. God unfolds His relational Word, in conversation, in Laws, in history, and, ultimately, in Christ. He seeks to rescue His people and usher in His kingdom, a new way of living.
New Creation – The story of the completion of that mission. One day we’ll see the end goal of perfection, of new heavens and new earth. That is the hope in which we live.

So being the ultimate human begins with repentance, exchanging your old way of life for a new way. One where we know the story and then live out the mission, centering around one simple idea: “”Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40).

Being the ultimate human is to participate in the story, embracing all aspects of life, but living with the goal of loving everyone and everything with holiness and imagination. It should impact how we work, how we play, and how we relate to one another; finding our redemptive mission in continuing the work He began to reconcile all of creation to Him.

Warren Ellis is great at playing in other people’s sandboxes. He respects the characters and fleshes them out even as he explores them in dark turns. The ultimate versions of these traditional heroes allows him to play with his full palette of science fiction tricks and jargon. The art mirrors the cinematic style that Ellis worked with during his run on The Authority, except this time it comes at the hands of a very capable Cary Nord. The book, like much of Marvel’s comic line these days, has the heady aroma of marketing opportunism (look for the trade paperback of this mini-series to come out in time for both the Iron Man and Hulk 2 movies), but Ellis keeps the story both interesting and relevant to the rest of the Ultimate universe.

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Ultimate Iron Man II – A Review

“Tech Run Amuck”

Written by: Orson Scott Card
Art by: Pasqual Ferry
Published by: Marvel Comics

Iron Man has never been one of those characters that especially appealed to me. He was a (drunk) rich guy in a tech suit and was rarely written in an interesting way. Most times, the character was only as interesting as his supporting characters. With Ultimate Iron Man II we have a darker take on the Tony Stark character.

For starters, this is a much more sci-fi take on Iron Man: Tony Stark’s mother infected herself, and her then fetus son, with a regenerative virus that turns every body cell into a neural cell capable of new growth. So his limbs can regrow and his brain is essentially distributed through his whole body. Plus, he has nanotech armor technology, the armor is a thin layer on top of the wearer’s skin, which allows him to control the Iron Man suit.

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Under Orson Scott Card’s writing, we get to intricately explore the relationship between Tony and his father Howard. He weaves a tapestry of constant pressure and expectation as Tony has to live in the great man’s shadow with the burden of carrying on legacy. He attempts to both follow the example of his father while learning from his mistakes. It’s a delicate balance that can either free you to further greatness or it can spiral you into madness/self-destruction (and we see which way Tony is heading with his increasing dependence on alcohol).

Mostly, the part of the story that intrigues me most is Tony Stark as a government munitions developer. He has always been a part of the morally murky world of weapon design, essentially profiting from war, yet rarely has this aspect of his character been as relevant as it is these days. And that dark, cynical tone has crept into both the Marvel as well as Ultimate Universe depictions of the character.

“Look, it was a lesson you needed to learn. You’re not stupid, you’re just young.” –Howard Stark

As human beings, we are hard-wired for relationships. We are relational creatures gifted with many of the ease of lifestyle that technology affords. Yet we face the constant danger of being isolated by that very same technology. Counter intuitive though it may seem, considering how instantly reachable we are now (with our cell phones and text messaging; always plugged in to instant message, check e-mail or surf the web). Blackberries, iPods, Game Boys – our lives have accelerated and we’ve become over-stimulated. Technology can become our armor against the world.

At the same time, we interact with the world in new ways. Form online communities (multi-player games and message boards), have virtual relationships (chat rooms), and we can communicate with those thousands of miles from us as if they were around the corner.

Technology is what you make of it, as we try to find meaning and make sense of our increasingly postmodern world. We are less socially connected, our social networks being tethers of 1s and 0s. We will still and always have a need for the real over the virtual. We still need a human connection.

Orson Scott Card keeps Ultimate Iron Man II light with plenty of witty banter. The art is serviceable, but I’m not a fan of Pasqual Ferry’s panel construction. Each panel focused so tightly on the person in the foreground, with little to no details in the background, it was like looking at a series of cameo photos. Still, overall, the story has a lot going on inside it, with layers of political and corporate intrigue. It will be interesting watching the story develop over time.

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