When I bought Superior Iron Man #1 earlier this month, I was expecting big personalities, high-tech action and a lot of fun. I was planning on picking up maybe the first two or three issues to see what was going on, but ultimately dropping it in favour of something more worthwhile (like I dropped the new Thor after just one issue). I was certainly not expecting to read a book that would engage with a big issue in the Western world head on, that would grip me for the story and the ideas alone, whether or not there were big, action packed scenes (there were actually surprisingly few of these). But this is exactly what I found: a comic willing to engage with society in a real, powerful way.
Maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised. After all, one of the things that the Ironman stories have been known for is their depiction of Tony Stark’s struggle with alcoholism. Tony Stark was one of the first in a new brand of heroes to emerge after the likes of DC’s Justice League and Marvel’s Fantastic Four: flawed and vulnerable, though not in a sob-story way. This is a character who has been used in the past to make statements and tackle real issues, so actually, this new brand of Ironman follows its predecessors quite faithfully.
The issue that comes to the fore immediately in #1 is that of the concept of buying and selling beauty. Through his free to download Extremis app, Iron Man is able to make everyone in San Francisco into their ideal selves: smarter, healthier, and more ‘beautiful’. For a short time it’s free; Stark* looks like a philanthropist and as a reader you know something fishy’s going on, but aside from the questionable morals of saying everyone needs to look more beautiful, there’s not too much to complain about.
The catch comes when the app switches to paid. If you want to stay beautiful you have to pay $99 a day. The ramifications of this are immediate. Tony Stark’s goal is revealed – profit – and there is an underclass created almost instantly as those who can’t afford to look beautiful become victimised by those who can.
It’s a clever, though not especially subtle, satire on what’s actually going on in the world today. We may not be able to buy our ideal selves, but company’s make money off telling us that we need to buy their products – be it clothes, make up or accessories – in order to look beautiful. We are fed idealised images to make sure that we know we’re not perfect and then simultaneously told to strive for that perfection. The reality is that the whole thing is an illusion driven by profit.
Also, the underclass division might not be so obvious to many people in Britain, but it’s one of the concepts driving, for example, school uniforms. The majority of schools wear uniforms partly so that monetary distinctions between pupils aren’t evident on the basis that if divisions were evident, they’d be used as a reason for discrimination. Even if we say the clothes that people wear and the way they look don’t matter to us, how many of us don’t actually make snap judgements on people’s class and even moral worth based on what they wear? We may not be beating each other up, but there’s conflict all the same.
Being a superhero comic, however, this can’t be the end of the story. If it was left like this, we’d see Ironman earning shedloads whilst San Francisco destroys itself. Instead, Daredevil comes into play. He’s cast as Iron Man’s antithesis: tight on cash, selfless, tech-free, lonely and, most importantly for the comic, he has an ‘imperfection’ that he struggles with: blindness. Matt Murdoch’s Daredevil is a character that has always struggled with insecurity, and yet he’s brought in to tackle Stark head-on.
I’m only on issue 2, so as of yet there hasn’t been a resolution to the Ironman vs Daredevil showdown, but the complexities of it are already intriguing. What if Ironman could offer Daredevil the perfect body? It also throws up the question of how we see perfection. Iron Man spins it that Daredevil’s blindness is an insurmountable flaw, and yet fans of the character will know that what characterises Daredevil is his ability to fearlessly push on and strengthen himself no matter what setbacks he has.
In this, Daredevil is the symbol of real humans and simultaneously the possibility of real freedom. He is a man who struggles with himself, but he’s also a man who, if he can defeat Iron Man, also stands for the idea that you don’t need artificial, consumable beauty in order to succeed. As a clash of symbols, Ironman against Daredevil is fascinating.
So what I found in Superior Iron Man is a book taking a long, hard look at society, satirising and warping it to make a point, but also offering a symbol of hope alongside it. I found a popular book willing to take on the consumerist narrative of fashion companies and challenge it by presenting an alternative. Ultimately, I found a book that I enjoyed reading and also challenged me, and I’m looking forward to issue 3 to see where it goes.
*Although he’s always been a bit ego-driven, Tony Stark is acting particularly badly now after his personality was inverted in the wake of Marvel’s Axis event. He sees his ‘awakening’ as a chance to be a superior version of himself.