“Superior Iron Man”: The Never-Ending Duality of Tony Stark

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Spoiler Alert!

Existentialist (n)

1.) An individual who believes or represents the idea that existence is uncertain chaos and it is they who must fight a constant inner struggle concerning morality and assume ultimate responsibility for acts of free will without ever knowing what is truly good, bad, right, or wrong.

2.) Tony flippin’ Stark.

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Ever since his first appearance in “Tales of Suspense” issue 39, Tony Stark has been his own worst enemy. Whether it is alcoholism, hubris, narcissism or ever a road paved with good intentions, he operates in the unique gray area between hero and ironic villain. In his story arcs, if something bad happens, it is usually his fault (indirect or otherwise). If something good happens, it is either because he fixed the problem he caused or turned the problem into a solution, rendering whatever progress he made a hollow victory. Either way, the golden avenger is rarely the innocent and classical hero that tends to grace the comics world. Tony Stark is as much a hero as he is a villain.

“Superior Iron Man” splits his dual personality even more so. Literally.

The basic plotline is that Tony (the events of “Avengers and X-Man: Axis” left his personality slightly altered) is abusing the Extremis serum for both personal pleasure and gain. The serum has now been made public, for an outrageous price. Anyone who can afford the daily dose lives a more physically attractive life, but at the expense of their morality. In a nutshell, Tony is slowly changing the city of San Francisco to reflect his own avaricious personality and lifestyle. The class system becomes more violently pronounced as even well behaved citizens turn to crime to pay for the serum and beat up those who can’t afford it. Without question, Tony is the villain of the arc, reverting back to his more dangerous characteristics as a substance abuser and amoral businessman. But at the same time he is also the hero in cahoots with Pepper Potts, just not in the way you think. While it is not unusual for storylines to follow Tony’s battles with himself, these situations are usually metaphors for character development…not a literal description.

In “Superior Iron Man”, however, the readers get to watch as a backed up AI copy of a younger Tony Stark, operating within an old version of the armor, attempts to overthrow his newer, ‘superior’ counterpart.

Can it even count as existentialism if the two halves of his personality are literally at each other’s throats?

The story arc is solid, following a variety of characters as they interact with Superior Tony from Pepper and Daredevil to the Teen Abomination.

Pepper sees Tony for what he has become: the worst possible version of himself. For most of this story, she focuses her energy on a contingency plan to take him down. In her usual way, Pepper takes on the role of the lion tamer to Tony’s lion, trying to keep him corralled until she can effectively disarm him and revert him back to the Iron Man we know and love without causing harm to anyone else. This arc is actually a great Pepper story, as she is the true (albeit, not only) hero, willing to recognize the situation for what it is, and Tony for what he has turned into. Though the situation is obviously painful to her, right down to the personal level, she remains ever stalwart, even donning the armor herself in the epic finale.

Working with Pepper throughout the early issues is Daredevil, who considers the entire situation to be fairly black and white: Tony is a bad guy who needs to be dispatched. He plays a key role in both confronting Tony and revealing the full depth of the Extremis business plan. But even he is not out of Ultimate Tony’s manipulative reach, when he unwillingly becomes a consumer of Stark’s latest product.

Teen Abomination plays the role of Tony’s bodyguard throughout the series because he sees Tony as the only possible hope for being human again. Tony, however, constantly jokes about the kid’s current state and refers to him as “monster” rather than his actual name. It is hard not to feel sympathy for the little Abomination, because while the readers will see him as an interesting subplot, especially in his relationship to Pepper, they will also watch as Tony treats him as anything but a person.

Finally, the original Tony sees his other as the culmination of everything he tried so hard not to be. The way these two interact is amazing. Aside from the fight scenes, when the story slows down and just lets them talk, it is hard not to see one in the other. Whereas normal ‘hero-gone-bad’ arcs depend on some form of mind control, this storyline actually admits that, even though he is being influenced by both a slightly altered personality (and possibly a lot of alcohol), Superior Tony and Original Tony are in fact the same person, just on divergent paths. Each version is a plausible extension of his character, which makes Superior Tony all the more frightening. Original Tony spends most of the arc working with Pepper to try to take himself down, utterly horrified by the idea that he both has and had the potential to become someone as borderline evil as Superior Tony.

Though the story of Tony battling himself is nothing new, “Superior Iron Man” takes the identity crisis to a new extreme. The readers get to see both sides of the coin that is Tony Stark, and follow along as his personalities duke it out. Personally, I was angered by the series, but by the time I finished, I realized my anger had nothing to do with the story itself. I was angry at my favorite character, because after all he has accomplished since his first appearance, he is still as susceptible to his own flaws as he was then. Tony’s addictive, greedy and uncaring personality is still as present as his loving, kind and responsible one. For me, it was like watching an addict who has made so much progress fall off the wagon, just in a far more sinister way. Superior Tony is both in control and out of control at the same time, giving in to his darkest urges and directing them against the people he cares about without any qualms.

That being said, this series was a great read. Frightening, dark, disheartening at times, it explored the dual nature of Iron Man’s personality in a way I was not expecting. It had me nearly crying over my favorite Shellhead as I watched every one of his worst traits bubble to the surface and consume the man he had once been. By the dramatic finale, I realized that it didn’t matter which Stark won, because the fact that Ultimate Tony could even exist was the point of the series. There was no mind control, no cliché red-glowing eyes representing a loss of willpower, no super villain puppet master manipulating his actions: Superior Tony is Tony, just as much as his original self is. The series opened by explaining that Tony’s worst fear was that someone would hijack his mind and use it against the things and people he loved. He probably never dreamed that someone would be his own darker side. Despite all his strengths, Tony is still, and may always be, a prisoner to his weaknesses. Unfortunately for him, and everyone else, those personal faults make him more dangerous than any bad guy.

If you want to see how it all comes to an end, pick up “Superior Iron Man” and strap in for the most literal interpretation of ‘existentialist’ you’re ever gonna see.

 

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