Iron Man is at his most compelling when Tony Stark hates himself. It is his most important character trait. After his near death experience, Tony Stark looked at the life he led, the things he accomplished, and hated what he saw. Deeply and fully. That is what compelled him to become Iron Man. The best Iron Man stories, on the comics page and on screen, recognize and build from that place.
Everything else: the arrogance, the smart remarks, the attempts to control everything, it stems from this foundational hatred.
Tony Stark is not, fundamentally, an altruistic man, though he knows he should be. He hates that it does not come naturally to him.
Writer Christopher Cantwell beautifully explores this self-loathing and in doing so, tells one of the most compelling and human Iron Man stories of all time. In the Books of Korvac, the epic nearly 2-year story that accounts for the bulk of his run, Cantwell crafts a definitive Iron Man story without aping the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Robert Downey, Jr’s performance.
Instead, Cantwell’s Iron Man is an unabashedly broad, high concept superhero tale where Iron Man merges with cosmic power that gives him near omnipotent power. It uses superhero iconagraphy and cosmic scope to dramatize Tony’s inner turmoil in the way the best superhero stories reflect the human condition through grandiose action.
Like the Warren Ellis/Adi Granov Extremis storyline that defined much of what makes modern Iron Man, Cantwell is joined for most of the run by an artist who renders with a humanist depth and realism. Spanish artist Cafu is of a similar mold to Granov, imbuing depth and realism to the technology and architecture of Tony Stark’s world. But where Extremis was concerned with putting Iron Man in a realistic 21st Century context, Cafu takes that same verisimilitude and propels Iron Man far beyond Earth. Cafu’s artistic sensibility, his precision use of light and shadow, is critical to keep Tony Stark’s all-too-human concerns front and center. Frank D’Armata’s colors complement Cafu’s pencils and rendering, giving the Iron Man suit a sleek but whethered sheen.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Tony spends the early portion of this run in a subconscious slide toward his death. Being Iron Man has become his addictive escape. He is dealing with the emotional fallout of Dan Slott’s run on the book, which saw Tony’s body rebuilt through cloning and his mind restored through a computer backup. He’s left to ponder existential questions of life and death.
Tony looks inside for an answer and sees nothing within himself, as made literal in his hallucination aboard Galactus the World Eater’s worldship, Taa II, where he absorbs the all-powerful Power Cosmic. As his body absorbs and merges with the Power Cosmic, he sees visions of himself. Alone. Unnoticed. Crying in an opulent house, his father and family nowhere to be found. This is ultimately what Tony sees when he looks in the mirror. Not a hero. Not a friend. Just a boy, desperate to be noticed and without love.
The perception of people, frustrated with his failures and ungrateful for his heroism, becomes Tony’s only metric to measure himself.
In response, Tony castigates himself in a self-humbling journey to “reconnect” with the common man. An egotistical bravado that he can somehow learn through performative actions the secrets of lesser men.
In walks Patsy Walker, the superhero known as Hellcat. Patsy points out early on that Tony is newly obsessed with how people perceive him and his actions.
“This new humility you’ve got going on? It’s still your ego in different clothes.”
The inclusion of Patsy, one of Marvel’s most human characters, pulls Tony down to Earth. Her openness to talking about her frailties and mental health issues draws Tony to be honest with his own.
By the time they face the threat of old Avengers foe Michael Korvac, Iron Man is at a crossroads. He sees his only value as dying in battle to save others. Patsy warns him that this deathwish is not altruism but an escape from self-loathing. She knows that temptation all-too-well.
God is a Verb
Iron Man’s foil and the primary antagonist throughout this run is Michael Korvac. Originally from a future where an alien race known as the Badoon conquered humanity, Korvac sold out his human allies for a position in the alien’s military. The Badoon quickly turned on Korvac and eventually punished and tortured him. They removed his lower half and converted him into a cyborg. He later traveled to the past and absorbed the Power Cosmic, making him nearly omnipotent. His abuse of that power in his misguided attempt to save humanity put him at odds with the Avengers. During their battle, he killed all of the heroes before returning them to life and destroying himself in grief.
At the start of Cantwell’s run, Korvac is revived in an android body by a mysterious group of scientists. He quickly escapes and seeks out the power to regain his former godly status. As a first act, Korvac poses as a scientist to garner funding from Stark for his research into harvesting the energy from lightning.
Korvac introduces himself to Tony as Teilhard Fuller, a mashup of two 20th century science-minded philosophers. The first, Teilhard De Chardin, a Jesuit priest and scientist nearly excommunicated from the Catholic Church because of his scientific research and rejected by scientists because of his spiritual conception of physics. De Chardin believed the cosmos were working not toward a destructive entropy but to a full spiritual unity. In his book, The Phenomenon of Man, he wrote,
However convergent it be, evolution cannot attain to fulfilment on earth except through a point of dissociation. With this we are introduced to a fantastic and inevitable event which now begins to take shape in our perspective, the event which comes nearer with every day that passes: the end of all life on our globe, the death of the planet, the ultimate phase of the phenomenon of man.
In his Catholic thinking, this implies a turning toward a higher power. Evolution was a movement toward fulfillment of God and creation.
The second name in Korvac’s alias references R. Buckminster Fuller, who, like De Chardin, believed society was marching toward a utopic fulfillment. He believed that society had reached a point where the accumulation of knowledge and resources extracted from the earth, had attained a critical level. He posited that competition for necessities had become unnecessary and cooperation was the optimum survival strategy. He declared: “selfishness is unnecessary and hence-forth unrationalizable … War is obsolete.” Though Fuller’s futurist bent was more in the area of sociology, both philosophers envisioned a utopia of equality.
The names are no coincidence. Korvac seeks to attain godhood to enact his utopian ideals. Individual consciousness would be eradicated, physical differences eliminated. It is, for the Neon Genesis Evangelion fans out there, a version of its Human Instrumentality. Utopia via the death of the individual. Cosmic, universal peace. Under one man’s vision. Without self.
Naturally, Tony Stark rejects this idea outright. Cease to be Tony Stark? Out of the question. Even for all his faults and self-loathing, Tony believes himself to be among humanity’s greatest.
The Drink or the Dream?
One of Tony’s great faults is his addictive proclitivities, which manifests in both substance abuse and obsessive behavior. He has become addicted to self sacrifice and risky behavior. His obsessive need to take Korvac alone results in being severely beaten and nearly killed.
It is enough to make him realize he cannot go it alone. Iron Man gathers a ragtag group of heroes who dub themselves his “Space Friends.” Gargoyle, Misty Knight, Scarlet Spider, Frog-Man, Hellcat, and War Machine, travel through space with Iron Man to stop Korvac.
After his first disastrous encounter with Korvac, Tony’s allies, under his direction, fuse Tony with his armor to keep him alive. To deal with the pain he has a controlled morphine drip installed into his armor. Tony knows it is a desperate measure that could prove disastrous. But his need to prevail over Korvac, to prove his heroism, drives him beyond anything else.
It is a compromise of one of his most sacred vows.
The drink … or the dream? In this moment, I remember that question. Something I asked myself a long time ago. Something I still have to ask myself time and again. I am an addict. I know that. I know what these drugs could do to me. But I’ll die right now without them. My blood-brain barrier has been damaged… The drink…or the dream? The drink…for the dream?
As he is fused to his technology he compromises his sobriety and thus his humanity. It is a step that draws him even closer to Korvac, himself a fusion of man and machine.
Tony awakes from his cyborg operation newly convicted. The fear and doubt replaced with resolute, obsessive purpose that closes him off from his allies.
“I am alive. I am angry. I am no longer apologizing for anything. Not my machines. Not my decisions. Not my deeds. I am going to win this fight.”
The clarity of mission drives him to view his new allies not as friends but tools. While they joined Iron Man to save the universe, they had no intention of being his soldiers.
While things get contentious, Iron Man is abruptly teleported off the ship. He arrives on a mysterious planet, where a group of stranded beings from across the universe have formed a cooperative society. The only catch? They are terrorized by seemingly random attacks from giant Ultimo robots, native biosynthetic organisms. The threat is omnipresent but ultimately seems to bind the disparate beings into a tight-knit community. Tony eventually discovers that this community is led by his old enemy Stilt Man, which naturally leads to the requisit superhero fisticuffs.
Ultimately, Tony is won over. On this stranded planet, Tony is forced to rely not on Iron Man but Tony Stark. He comes to see the world as a chance to restart.
As Stilt Man summarizes:
“Everyone here lost everything. People. Purpose. But also…responsibilities. Not just to others, but also to some…version of ourselves we believed necessary.”
Tony begins to embrace this simple life, even as the morphine drip becomes a crutch. In a psychic conversation with Hellcat (who rediscovered her psychic powers earlier in the run) he explains his new sense of peace. If he has to sacrifice himself on this world, defeating the Ultimos for good and preserving this paradise, it would be a good death. More noble than a great battle to save Earth where the public would always doubt if he acted from altruism or for recognition.
Hellcat is glad Tony has found a kind of peace. Stripped of all of the wealth and celebrity, Iron Man cannot be driven by headlines.
“Before everything else, you have to be Iron Man. Here you’re just the guy I knew was underneath the entire time. The selfless one. A hero. And a friend.”
“A hero and a friend, I like that.”
The stranded planet’s utopian society is revealed to be a lie. The Ultimos are not a force of nature but have been intentionally programmed by Stilt Man to attack the town at regular intervals in order to bind them to common purpose.
Stilt Man’s hubris, like Korvac’s, makes him believe he can create a perfect society if people just operated under his control. He needed to prove that he could be a leader and, more importantly, that he could create something good.
Tony chafes as much at the artificiality of Stilt Man’s world as the human toll. And sees too much of himself in Stilt Man’s delusion.
Stilt Man’s mission is no different than Korvac’s, a picture in microcosm of the greater universal conflict Iron Man has been fighting. The same arrogance and temptation to prove one’s human worth. It is the same conflict within Tony.
Iron Man falls into the same patterns and temptations when he later absorbs the Power Cosmic to stop Korvac’s ascendance. The godly power allows him to reshape the world into his image and set things how he believes they could be.
The Iron God
In the first issue, Iron Man fights an old enemy and destroys one of the last copies of the Gutenberg Bible in existence. It is a destruction of an old conception of God.
Cantwell’s Iron Man is awash in spiritual themes, from his refrences to Teilhard de Chardin, to quotes from various gospels. It is not a question of religion versus science. But rather, the danger of a religious view of science. The destructive conception that one man with the right math and a big enough brain can fix everything.
The last few issues see Tony ascend to godhood aboard Taa II along with Korvac. When they emerge on the other side, their battle rages across the universe. Both men utterly convinced of their righteousness and worthiness to wield omnipotent power.
Ultimately, the battle of gods is interrupted by the arrival of The Living Tribunal, creation’s avatar of balance itself, along with every other abstract entity in the cosmos that represents a facet of reality. They capture Korvac for the threat he poses to existence itself. They let Iron Man go free.
The Books of Korvac seemingly closed, Iron Man turns his attention back home.
Believing his purpose just and his ideas infallible, Tony proceeds to reshape the world despite the protestations of his allies in the Avengers and the Space Friends. His first act, to show the promise of his ideas, is to share his genius intellect with all the people of New York.
His alternative to Korvac’s forced unity is to overcome the barriers of small mindedness that stand in the way of his grand solutions.
In effect, he turns everyone else into him, too, because who wouldn’t want to be Tony Stark?
When he gives his intellect to everyone in New York, he doesn’t see it as stripping away choice. It is a gift to grant others a better way of living.
Of course, the irony is that Tony Stark also hates himself. By using his godly powers to extend his mind, he inflicts his own misery upon others.
It is a striking allegory of extreme depressive episodes and the addictive experience. The absence of self-love radiates outward, tearing down those around him.
When the Space Friends confront Tony, the Iron God kills them all in horrific fashion with the wave of his hands. Their deaths do not register on his conscience until he approaches Patsy. Patsy Walker, the tether to his humanity for the last few months, drags the Iron God down to Earth once again.
“I guess it’s my turn huh? At least I’ll go out a hero. And a friend.”
The words break through Tony’s delusions. Reminded of the brief glimpse of the man on the stranded planet, he stops in his tracks and breaks down in tears.
Patsy transports them into Tony’s mindscape where Tony reflects on his misdeeds. He could bring everyone back, make them forget everything. It would be easy to make it like their deaths never happened. But once again, Patsy anchors him. “But it did happen. You did this.” Tony operating under the assumption there were no consequences to his actions, like he was a god even before he ascended, has long been the root of his destructive tendencies.
Pretense stripped, in the vulnerable space of his own mind, Tony admits that it was fear that drove him and put him at odds with friends and allies. Fear that they were standing in the way, not of heroism, but of his chance to make his life worth something. Being Iron Man allowed his better angels a vehicle for doing good even as the man inside became emptier.
Every grand attempt to make things right ended in disaster because Tony Stark was still there, no matter what good Iron Man accomplished.
Patsy encourages Tony to bring those he killed back, but make them remember what he had done so he could not run away from it and forget. Only by accepting his failures could he move on from them. Tony brings back those he killed and apologizes. As they watch, he relinquishes the power cosmic. An addiction overcome.
Like any addiction, there is consequence and withdrawal. His friends walk away without a word, leaving Tony alone. As he walks through Central Park, no longer all-powerful, the delayed symptoms of his morphine withdrawl hits all at once and he collapses. He knows his death will come.
But as he passes out an escaped Korvac returns. He announces his new plan. Universal balance through universal annihilation.
Expecting a fight, Korvac is thrown off by Tony’s weakness and hallucinatory rambling. Instead of killing his hated enemy, Korvac falters back. A vulnerable Tony asks Korvac, “When was the last time you were a human being?” Korvac explained that in his time humanity was slaughtered. “But not you,” Tony pointed out. What did he do to survive? What deal did he make?
It threw Korvac into a rage. Stark mocked him. “Just know that this is how you had to beat me….This has been your thing since the beginning. You were smart but you always needed more. A security blanket. Protective alien masters. Android body. The world’s electricity. Cosmic power. You always had to have an ace… How long have you been scared to lose?”
The words were pointed at Korvac but they were just as much a curse upon himself. He thought that if he had just one more advantage he would finally fill the emptiness, overcome the fear of his own ignonimous existence. But even control over reality itself didn’t fix anything. He understood Korvac’s temptation now.
Tony challenged Korvac. “Stop hiding. Be a #&%#ing man for once in your life. Try it. Or are you too scared?”
Korvac relinquished the power, just as Tony did. He wanted the satisfaction of killing Stark with his bear hands. As he beat his hated enemy bloody, he demanded to know why Stark wasn’t fighting back. He admitted he was dying even if Korvac didn’t kill him.
Tony beaten and bruised at his feet, Korvac looked at his bloodied hands and up into the night sky, where the remains of his Power Cosmic streaked past. Suddenly, the meaninglessness of his vendetta, the delusions of cosmic mastery, were clear.
The final moments of the Books of Korvac are a powerful emotional payoff to this deceptively deep and introspective look at Tony Stark that uses the full tapestry of the Marvel Universe as allegory for Tony’s demons. Korvac lifts Tony and carries him to a hospital in a series of silent panels. Cafu draws Korvac with a succession of emotions ranging from confusion, to anger, to sorrow, and, ultimately, a crushing emptiness.
After leaving Tony at the hospital, Korvac turns around and climbs a ladder to the top of a building. For a moment he looks out at the horizon. He steps forward, and is gone.
Months later, Tony is driven to a rehab center by Patsy. Because of his relationships, he is able to accept his failures and weaknesses and work to heal them, even as Korvac succumbs.
Everything that Iron Man went through, the reality warping, the super villains and space travel, it all acted to literalize the human struggle of addiction and depression. This has always been the greatest potential for superhero storytelling, to make grand the personal battles we all face. Tony’s inner conflict is reflected in the external battle with Korvac, magnified a thousand fold.
In the story’s final moment, Tony reads a letter of support.
Just thinking of you. You can do this.
Tony smiles and looks out the window. He realizes at last that the world is not the empty, lonely place he remembered it being.
Ultimately, the solution to his self-hatred was not to become a god, or to fix everything to his liking. It was always about being a hero.
And, most importantly, a friend.