Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Aura of Superiority: Superior Iron Man #1

The following is my review of Superior Iron Man #1, which was posted on PopMatters.com.

What does it mean to be a superior hero? It’s a question that didn’t evoke any controversial answers until recently. It used to be a pretty simple process. Gauging the superiority of a hero was dependent on the response to the question, “How much like Superman is the hero in question?” Then, the Superior Spider-Man came along and the whole concept of superiority became a lot more complicated. Now, in order to be superior, it’s also necessary to be an egotistical jerk to some extent. The Superior Spider-Man raised this brand of superiority to an art form. Now Iron Man is poised to make it its own sub-genre.

The concept of superiority is rapidly changing in an era where nobody expects superheroes to be boy scouts anymore. In fact, it has gotten to the point where the Boy Scout heroes are considered the freaks in that could never be believably portrayed by Robert Downy Jr. For some reason, superiority takes a certain degree of flaws and personality disorders. I don’t know if this constitutes a new meaning for the word or denotes the need for a new word entirely, but the context was certainly there for Superior Spider-Man. Now, thanks to the events of Avengers and X-men: AXIS, it’s there in Superior Iron Man #1.

The whole premise for this new “superior” version of Iron Man is built around two concepts. The first is the tried and true method of working smart and not hard. From the earliest days of human civilization, people realized how much they hated picking food one-by-one and trying to strangle a deer with their bare hands. Naturally, creating better tools allowed them to work more efficiently to get what they want. The second part of that concept involves appealing to the sensibilities behind every successful Victoria’s Secret ad ever made. A superior hero doesn’t just save lives. A superior hero finds a way to make them better, sexier, and healthier.

It’s a concept that, on the surface, shouldn’t be so revolutionary. What good is saving the lives of the innocent if those lives don’t considerably improve? That’s like giving CPR to a deer that’s in the process of bleeding to death. Well Tony Stark noticed that no other hero has dared to try that and since he happens to be the resident billionaire/tech genius, he decides to take a stab at it. And he does it in the most shallow, self-indulgent way possible.

First, he unleashes a new version of Extremis. He doesn’t ask permission or stop to think that this might backfire on him in some horrible way. Then, he grants everybody a free app that allows them to use Extremis to make themselves beautiful, healthy, and sexy. Now everybody has the ability to look like every heavily Photoshopped model to ever appear on Cosmos. It certainly doesn’t exude the merits of a hero. It exudes the merits of every makeup commercial to ever air and Kanye West album ever made. It certainly doesn’t come off as the actions of a hero. Yet somehow, Tony Stark is able to carry it out in a way that feels both superior and awesome.

This bold new experiment isn’t just an exercise in realizing the false promises of every beauty product ever advertised. It represents an entirely new approach to being Iron Man. Tony Stark was already as respected and admired as any billionaire/superhero/Avenger could be. For most peoples’ ego, that’s more than enough. But Tony Stark needed more. By giving the people of San Francisco access to this incredible technology, he endeared himself to these people the same way anyone giving out free doughnuts would endear themselves to Homer Simpson. It creates an environment where he’s more than just a hero. He’s something that is superior in every sense of the word.

This new approach to being Iron Man still leaves room for typical Iron Man duties. When a wholly unoriginal gamma-powered villain named Teen Abomination comes along, Iron Man still deals with it like he usually would. He just does it with more style now. He doesn’t need to get his hands dirty. He can send a remote-controlled Iron Man suit into the field to do his work for him while he sips cocktails and hooks up with beautiful women. He’s like a Navy Seal and Hugh Hefner all rolled into one.

Tony Stark has every reason to call himself superior. But with superiority comes critics, as anyone who ever tried to make a well-reasoned argument on a message board knows. Pepper Potts tries to be the voice of reason for this new superior Tony Stark. The problem is that none of the arguments she makes carry much weight. She derides him for not sharing the app with more people and not considering the consequences. It may leave some to wonder if she would’ve made the same argument to whoever invented breast implants. Her perspective lacks depth whereas Tony Stark’s perspective lacks accountability.

That’s not to say her arguments are completely without merit. Some of the consequences Pepper warns of do manifest, albeit in a somewhat predictable way. But it’s Tony Stark himself who essentially vindicates Pepper’s concerns when he reveals a huge catch to this gift he’s given San Francisco. That catch, like the fine print of a user agreement on an iPhone, is that this wonderful gift is not free. Tony Stark is still a businessman and he’s basically treating Extremis like Candy Crush. He’s given the people a free trial. Now he’s going to see how badly people want to keep playing his game.

In the end, what makes Iron Man so superior in Superior Iron Man #1 has nothing to do with how he conducts himself as a hero. He’s still doing heroic deeds in protecting people from gamma-powered threats. He’s also being a good businessman, giving people a product he knows they want and charging for it in ways that would make Ayan Rand blush. It’s a superiority that’s built on a mix of cunning and ambition. He’s not just content with saving the day. He wants to make the days that come more enjoyable for the people he saves. He’s just not going to do it for free anymore. Like anyone who ever bought a cheap cell phone, Tony Stark understands that superiority in any form comes at a price.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

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