The Fifth Color | The Iron Man you think you know
Kieron Gillen had to remind me to be angry. I read through my comics stash for the week, feeling very proud of myself and then went on about my day, wondering what I was going to be writing for you, Dear Reader (hi, Mom!). Then I browse through Twitter to see this posted by the writer: “You know, after yesterday with Iron Man 17 and YA11, I’d have expected my @s to be worse, but people are being really nice. Thanks!”
Being really nice? Why shouldn’t they? What should I be mad at?! Nothing happened that was all that shocking in Young Avengers, as long as you know who Loki is and that Loki: Agent of Asgard is debuting in February, so it’s just putting two and two together. That couldn’t be the reason for torches and pitchforks. Then I remembered Iron Man #17 and still felt no need to reach for my oil-soaked rags and farming tools. There’s a twist to be sure, and a fairly large change to Tony Stark’s tried and true origin, but is the cover right? Is this really “The shocking conclusion that will change the world of Iron Man forever”?
Not exactly. Read on and find out why!
WARNING: Oh yeah, big spoilers for the current run on Iron Man! Huge, massive spoilers. Click no further if you haven’t read Iron Man #17! But if you have (or simply love spoilers), please do read on!
Iron Man #17 ends “The Secret Origin of Tony Stark” arc of Gillen’s Marvel NOW! run, bringing him one year into the title. The story started with a rogue alien android called 451 (either a Bradbury reference or some missed connection with Machine Man) who came to Earth and got himself all up inside Stark’s birth, history and destiny. My first clue this was going to chafe continuity fans was the revelation that 451 approached Howard and Maria Stark before Tony was born; we find out when a secret recording is revealed with a young Howard Stark talking to Tony from beyond while sitting next to this mysterious cosmic automaton. Right away, boom! Retcon time! Things got even more itchy when 451 is said to have manipulated Tony’s DNA so that not only could his parents conceive a child, but that child would grow up to be a technological genius. Marvel’s most self-made man now has, for all intents and purposes, superpowers, abilities granted to him by outside forces. It was time to reach for the aloe lotion when it turns out that 451’s big plan was to genetically bond the Stark child to a massive set of armor called the Godkiller. 451 needed Stark to be the only coded pilot of a nuclear deterrent for Earth. So basically, everything is a lie, right down to Stark’s proclivities for powered armor. Everything down to his DNA has been coded for this new other purpose, which undermines his essential origin.
And yet, this isn’t the part people might be upset about. For you see, 451’s plan completely failed as Tony Stark was unable to pilot the Godkiller armor and all that work was for nothing. 451 essentially killed himself in failure, the Godkiller armor was sent to a distant somewhere else to never fall into the wrong hands and Tony Stark escaped the whole situation. The day was saved and yet there was still more story coming. Here is where I thought, as a smarky reader of comics, that the story would erase itself; somehow, 451’s new origin for Tony would turn out to be all a lie and we’d be back to normal. It’s happened plenty of times before, and it seemed completely out of bounds for any of this odd little fairy tale to be true and survive the arc it had been hatched in.
Iron Man #17 says that it was … and wasn’t at the same time. This much is true: Tony Stark was not the robot’s Chosen One. His brother was. Howard and Maria’s first child was born from 451’s machinations, but would never be able to breathe without medical assistance. Howard Stark, in order to fix what he figured was a kill switch embedded into their child’s DNA, did a little genetic tampering of his own, and their son paid the price for it. However, if 451 found out that their experiment had gone awry, they might lose that child entirely, so they needed a second child. ‘Decoy’ is such a strong word, but yeah. Our hero Tony Stark was adopted to save the life of a brother he never knew about. That brother had been hidden away in hospice care and raised in secrecy. Tony tracks him down and finds that, as the actual robot Chosen One, he’s sickly, unable to speak, but brilliant and is ready to aid his brother to help the world. This new Stark’s name? Arno.
Does this really change the world of Iron Man forever? Not really. Just until another writer comes along who doesn’t want to use this new twist. Heck, even Gillen could write himself out of this new NOW!; there are plenty of outs built into this story. Iron Man readers might know of another Arno Stark who’s tangled with Tony in the past; the name could have been chosen for a reason. And, of course, who is still trusting this robot to have been telling the truth? Time and tales will tell how long this all will last. Does this new status quo to Tony Stark fundamentally ruin the character? Change, no. Challenge, yes. In a brilliant last-page idea, Gillen actually takes the time to explain to his readers why this change occurred and what it means for him to take this character forward. It’s a nice cushion to the ‘What did I just read?’ feeling at the end of the issue, bringing it back to challenging Iron Man’s ego, bruise that, then watch him build himself back from the ground up. While Tony might be the most flawed top-tier hero Marvel has, he’s also the most resilient and that’s what we keep coming back for. This is a crazy curve ball indeed, but there’s no doubt Iron Man will prevail.
Could the lack of gnashing teeth at the author and editor mean we as comic fans have grown up a little? That we understand how stories work and that endless serialization means change is inevitable as much as returning to that constant that made us pick the book up in the first place? That you simply can’t ruin a character so entrenched in popular culture? Man, I’d like to say that with the utmost certainty, but I really have to thank Robert Downey Jr. for this one. The MCU Iron Man is more well known at this point than his comic counterpart. What happens in the comics now is so far off from phasing the Iron Man the masses know it’s almost inconsequential. Recast Iron Man for the movies and we riot for sure, but this change is simply too complex to ever hit the movie screens.
So is the internet split in twain by Tony Stark’s new mysterious parentage? Nah. Gillen will continue to write thoughtful, challenging stories that entertain and make us think along with him. Robert Downey Jr. is still Robert Downey Jr. We’re OK. I mean, it’s not like Gillen killed any characters …