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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Road to Hell... Iron-Man or Londo Mollari or How JMS Dropped the Ball

(Warning, the following contains many many spoilers about current Marvel events and the television show Babylon 5)

A discussion with Tavella in the comments section of this post has got me thinking as to why I find JMS's portrayal of Iron Man so disappointing.

See, I know that it's Mark Millar and Paul Jenkins that started the whole Tony-as-a-monster thing, but oddly I'm not as annoyed with them. Mostly because I tend to find both writers to be more sensationalistic than insightful with regards to character portrayals. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, given the right vehicle, but it does get in the way when it comes to portraying moral shades of gray.

Fortunately, most of the writers of the Marvel Universe have stepped up. I personally don't think we were ever meant to believe the "right side" won Civil War. Heck, even Tony and Reed never seemed to take in account the idea that they could possibly win. We weren't supposed to come out of Civil War feeling satisfied, I think, but with a genuine sense of "Oh shit, what does this mean for everyone now?"

The general post-Civil War portrayal of Tony Stark to me isn't saying that "being monstrous is good". It's saying that "sometimes human beings do terrible things because they genuinely believe it's the right thing to do." That is not the same as condoning an action. There's a reason that people say "The road to hell is paved with good intentions" after all. And very few historical atrocities came about because someone was actively TRYING to be evil.

Admittedly, Tony's story was that of an antagonist. A villain. His story isn't much different from Magneto's, in a sense. (Depending on Magneto's writer.) A man who believed and acted and was WRONG. A man who let himself do terrible things. What keeps Tony a protagonist (NOT a hero, he hasn't earned that right again yet) is that he understands this. In his own series, in Cap's series, in Fallen Son, and so on, Tony is a man who understands he is damned by his own actions.

(I'm not really going into WWH or Mighty Avengers, because I really do think that editorial intervention has fallen down on the job with regards to keeping everyone on the same page with regard to the character.)

Which is, essentially, why I think Cap had to die. (And why I think he'll be back sooner than most other folk predict.) He's the sacrifice. The embodiment of all the mistakes Tony has made. Tony is a character that deals with numbers, a businessman. For someone accustomed to working with numbers, it can be easy to forget that there are human lives behind them. Tony is a character that I could easily see trying to rationalize his mistakes as "the gains outweigh the loss".

Of course, as long as he'd think that way, he'd be irredeemable.

Cap's death though ruins that. Not because of their friendship, alone, but because Steve wasn't a war casualty. Goliath, for all he was a friend, was a death that could be rationalized: The war was vital to save lives, Goliath gave his life for what he believed. His death isn't meaningless. I hope he would understand and forgive me.

Steve's death wasn't in war. It wasn't in battle. Steve didn't give his life for what he believed. He was murdered. In cold blood. On the footsteps of the courthouse where Tony had put him. His death can't be added into the gains v. losses column, because the war was already over. It was meaningless. He's not a martyr at all. There was no cause.

It's kind of interesting that Steve's role in all this is a traditionally feminine one. Men are traditionally the martyrs, people who died fighting for their beliefs. Very active roles, even in death. Women and children are traditionally sacrifices, passive victims of tragedy. Their deaths are symbolic of corruption, of good ideals turned bad. They didn't choose to die. They didn't die for their beliefs. They just...died. (There are female martyrs, but most are cast in very male-oriented warrior-type roles, like Jeanne D'Arc. Quieter female martyrs tend to be less glamorized in literature.)

Steve's death illuminates Tony's sins like nothing else could. His resurrection, therefore, will probably come about as a symbolic redemption, "coincidently" coinciding with the point that Tony has earned the right to be a (flawed) hero again.

He'll probably have to save him from Bucky Barnes in the process, symbolic of Tony's transcendance of his sin. (Oooh, remind me to do the Bucky-as-symbolizing-sins-of-the-past post too).

Admittedly, who knows how satisfying Tony's redemption will actually be (it'll depend on the writer, for me), but that's I think where they're going with this.

Straczynski's writing in all this though really annoys me. Even if they AREN'T going in the direction I think they are, he's still far too good of a writer to need to resort to making Tony into a Snidely Whiplash character, regardless of how he feels about the character himself.

See, as I said, I give a pass to Millar and Jenkins because I don't think their talents lie in this sort of complicated moral quagmire. But Straczynski not only is a talented writer who excels at this sort of story. He's written it!

Babylon 5 was a brilliant piece of work, in my opinion (well, the fifth season was kind of weak, I think, and the tv movies probably went a bit overboard) and there's no character more complex than Ambassador Londo Mollari.

Londo was self-centered, shallow, scheming, lecherous, manipulative, immature, power-mongering and corrupt. His conduct was as far from the ideal ambassador as you could get. Early on, before the Shadow metaplot had grown past the first initial seeds, Londo was largely a foil for the other Ambassadors: wise and benevolent Delenn, noble and honorable G'kar, enigmatic Kosh. He was comic relief.

There was always something that kept him from being completely cartoonish though. A flicker of genuine "human" concern and fondness for his poor put-upon aide Vir, a large sense of humor and his own measure of charm. And he very genuinely loved his people and sought to serve them (while gaining power and influence in the prospect).

It was his relationship with G'Kar that first allowed Londo to show depth. G'Kar's people were greatly wronged by the Centauri (Londo's people) and the two had a very vicious rivalry. This of course led to the inevitable "rivals must work together to survive" during a plot where a plague or poison or something (my memory is shaky) was released on the station. Londo, pragmatic, urged teamwork, but to his shock and dismay, G'Kar was actually willing to die if it meant that Londo would die with him. The horror and realization didn't abate just because they were ultimately rescued.

Londo's choices end up making him a pivotal character soon enough. When the evil Shadows come, Londo and his people ally with them. Londo himself enters into what amounts to a Faustian bargain with the Shadows' representative Morden (admittedly, Londo is unwitting of this), each time getting exactly what he wants, though it comes with a price each time. And each time, Londo gives in, though his conscience does twang periodically.

There is a point that is indicative of Londo's fall (or that of his race), when Ambassador Kosh (whose race is the antithesis of the Shadows) emerges from his exo-suit to save the Captain from death, each race is in breathless awe. In his true form, the Ambassador resembles to each being something different (to the human Captain, and thus to the audience, he strongly resembled an angelic figure) but religiously significance.

Londo however quietly confesses that when his colleagues each had a religious experience of their own, he saw nothing.

Londo is ultimately redeemed by his actions in a number of ways. In order to save his people, he ends up assassinating their insane emperor, winding up in a position of power that he once would have wanted. When the Vorlons (Kosh's race) threaten his planet to seek his death, he implores his aide to kill him. (Circumstances intervened). Much later, as Emperor, Londo would ultimately engage in truly heroic self-sacrifice to save his friends and his people.

Londo is fascinating, because he's sometimes a monster. But because he's also human (metaphorically speaking). During his rivalry with G'Kar, he was often the more understandable of the two, despite his and his people's misdeeds. His actions were almost never truly maliciously intended, but that was part of what made them so monstrous. A fact that was never glossed over. However the audience never lost the sense that Londo was a three-dimensional being.

If Straczynski could write Londo, he could write Iron Man. An Iron Man that makes one ache in understanding, if not sympathy, even as he sends himself further down the spiral.

The fact that he has not done so, that he's resorted to a one-dimensional caricature is something I pin entirely on him. Sure, Iron Man's fall was clumsily written. Sure Millar and Jenkins dropped the ball.

But Iron Man isn't just some character that Millar and Jenkins created to perform a specific role in the plot. He's a character with decades of genuine heroism behind him. He's a good character, a complex character, the epitome of the flawed human being, and has been so for many many years before Londo Mollari was ever more than a gleam in JMS's eye. And fan-entitlement or not, he and his fans deserve more respect than they've been given.

JMS is more than capable of salvaging the mess that is Tony Stark. He has tremendous talent when he wants to use it, he could add so much clout to the other writers' interpretations, leaving the Jenkins and Millar travesty as a soon-to-be forgotten anomaly in the history of a strong, complex and appealingly flawed character.

Instead we get a cartoon so one-dimensional that it's not even worth seeing Thor pummel him into the ground. What's the point? He's not even *there*.

Maybe next time, JMS.


  • At August 29, 2007 2:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I kind of feel like Jenkins is just following JMS's lead on Tony, because he is capable of the nuances the situation should have. His Norman Osborn is by far my favorite. He got the insanity and conflicted nature of Gobbo perfectly, not to mention a great showing for Peter Parker as well. He had a lengthy Hellblazer run that was supposed to be pretty good, too.

    I mean, his Goblin was kind of obviously a villain, but he wasn't a mustache twirler beyond what he had to be.

    JMS, though, there is no excuse for.

  • At August 29, 2007 2:49 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    You're probably right. I admit, my experience with Jenkins is limited to Wolverine Origins (I THINK that's him...) and Frontline. Neither of which are a showcase for complexity.

    You know, I honestly think JMS could have just completely uprooted season 3-4 Londo (when his conscience really starts kicking in) and just renamed him Tony and while it wouldn't be a terribly good fit, it'd be a damn sight better than what we GOT.


  • At August 29, 2007 3:08 AM, Blogger LurkerWithout said…

    I was part of the vast hordes that cheer at the mere THOUGHT of IronDickery Tony getting pounded into goo. Hell, Hulk smashing him was truly great. Lessened by the whole torture of him and anyone who dares stand up to Hulk now of course. But now it just feels like a cynical ploy to sell books...

    I can see Joey Q and his posse trying to think of how to boost sales. And then realizing that most people HATE IronMan now. So hey lets push him getting the snot knocked out of him...

    Now I look for the more subtle disdain shown Tony by 2nd and 3rd tier characters. Nova in his book. Brother freaking Voodoo in New Avengers. And Talisman's total ownage on Tony and Carol in the otherwise excreble Omega Flight. The lack of respect shown towards him says more to me story-wise than all the Hulk smashing or Thor bitch slap...

    Also as to JMS' Thor, I think his decision to drop the pseudo-Shakespearan speech patterns is another misstep. That angry rant against Tony? Would have been pure awesome with some Thous and Darest and what not...

  • At August 29, 2007 4:40 AM, Blogger tavella said…

    What it comes down to is: you think that Millar is kidding when he says that Tony is the biggest hero in the MU, that Quesada and the rest of editorial are joking when they say that Tony was totally right, that Steve was wrong, that Tony shouldn't face any consequences for Goliath or anything else because he didn't do anything wrong.

    I don't; I think they mean it.

    Look at Frontline; it was structured as conversion narrative, where Sally, foolish liberal, saw the light. Cap, after a war where children were attacked with rocket launchers and heroes were put in hell, is allowed only the weakest of 2nd amendment platitudes to defend himself, and is portrayed as cringing and ashamed. You are meant to see him as hopelessly out of touch and kind of pathetic. It's just that Jenkins is not a good enough writer to realize that repurposing a Michael Moore rant directed at yuppies doesn't really work when used against someone whose life has been service since he was a teenager.

    And you think that they are aiming for redemption with Tony; and I don't think so. Redemption requires someone admitting they were wrong; I think Marvel intends vindication, where everyone *else* realizes that they were wrong, and Tony was right all long you fuckers, and is the big hero.

  • At August 29, 2007 6:06 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    I'm not going to argue with your interpretation, since we both have as much chance as the other of being right at this moment.

    I will point out that

    a) creators have and will lie in interviews.

    b) Millar's a very straightforward writer, in general, with good and bad clearly delineated.

    c) One can actually agree with Sally's rant without believing the pro-regs are right.

    I think it was a horribly sloppy written rant, but I gathered the point as being: Cap's fighting the issue based on high ideals of justice while losing touch with the people that he's fighting for.

    Most people were pro-reg. Most were afraid. They're people who've been terrorized by supervillains and battle damage and heroic efforts that backfired.

    And that's true. Cap WASN'T thinking about the people as much as what's abstractly right and wrong. It doesn't make him wrong, but it does, kind of, make her right.

    d) a character can express an opinion that her writer does not agree with.

    e) a WRITER's opinion is not necessarily shared by the editorial side either.

    f) Tony and Reed have already admitted that they have done horrible things for good reasons, while still rationalizing them away (McDuffie's F4, Confessions)

    g) Rationalizations are symptomatic of denial. A person truly confident in their actions doesn't use them.

    h) Steve is dead. It's still the one loss that Tony can't rationalize away at all. Elements of a redemptive arc can already be glimpsed through Confessions and Fallen Son into Captain America.

    i) Emotional development does not need to necessarily be spelled out in dialogue to be interpreted into the text.

    j) A redemptive arc is kind of pointless if the characters are already redeemed. (Thus if the characters were already acknowledging their follies, sans rationalization there would be no point to a redemption arc)

    k) Even if I am completely wrong in all of my predictions, it does not excuse JMS's outright caricaturation of a character regardless of what Millar and Jenkins did.

    JMS can and has written characters whose behavior and politics he clearly seems to find deplorable and given them both dignity and humanity. He didn't here.

  • At August 29, 2007 7:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Don't forget how JMS dropped the ball on Reed Richards too: according to JMS, Reed's uncle got blacklisted by McCarthy, and Reed didn't want the same thing to happen to him. Talk about cowardice. Talk about newly-found cowardice -- from a man whose superhero career started when he stole a government rocketship.

    They had to call in McDuffie to give Reed a more plausible explanation. (And the guy delivered -- even made Tony Stark seem more plausible in the process too.)

    And as to Sally Floyd ... she completely missed the point. It's because of people like Captain America that the Marvel Universe version of the United States is just peaceable enough to have YouTube, NASCAR, beanie babies, and whatever other cultural effluvia she was making vapid noises about. No, Cap has never been to NASCAR ... well excuse the hell out of him for spending his weekends defeating an endless succession of the Red Skull's Sleeper robots.

  • At August 29, 2007 9:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I don't see how the way JMS's Iron-man is diffrent then the rest of the MU Iron-man.
    sure when tony is alone or with friends he has shown concern over his actions, but when he interacts with unregistered super-humans he has consistantly shown the exact same attitude of "you either with us or I will take you down".
    of the top of my head instances that he did it to people include: ares (mighty avengers), the new avengers (new avengers), nova (nova), the new warriors (new warriors) and war-machine did it to cloud9 under his orders (avengers the intiative).
    overall tony's actions in the thor preview are completly in line with his actions in the other books.

  • At August 29, 2007 11:13 AM, Blogger tavella said…

    And, what Elad said. In a handful of books where they show IM alone or in internal thoughts, there's been angsting, but in public he's been nearly constantly totally arrogant. I think the fake funeral in Fallen Son was one of the few where he showed anything else (and given that it was, y'know, fake and he was happily lying to Steve's actual friends, you do wonder how much of that was performance for the public.)

  • At August 29, 2007 12:19 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    That's actually kind of my point Tavella (and Elad), the outward expression might be the same arrogance.

    But the internal emotions expressed (and I'm not thinking of the funeral so much as the quiet arctic element at the end. He never needed to fill Hank and Jan in that Arlington wasn't real. This would speak to his emotional sincerity).

    But the expression of his inward emotions is part of the key to how differently he's portrayed.

    Also, while the character has threatened lives of people opposed to him in quite a few books, the actual execution of the threat tends to read differently.

    There's a reason I'm criticizing the JMS portrayal as "cartoonish". My issue isn't in what he does, but in how JMS writes him doing it: the dialogue and the staging choices. So far in every JMS Iron Man appearance (not just the Thor preview: though that is pretty exemplary of the amateurish and sloppy execution in my opinion), I've found him to be abnormally over the top in his villainy above and beyond that of most of his other writers. (Excepting Millar and Jenkins.)

    Which is particularly disappointing because unlike Millar and Jenkins, I *know* that he can do a lot better, WITHOUT ever needing to justify or show approval of Tony's actions.

    At the top of his game, I think JMS could write a version of Tony Stark that could become the quintessential modern Tony Stark period: admittedly deplorable in action but also human, conflicted and complex. If he did so, to the level of ability he's shown elsewhere, I'd imagine the majority of writers would follow his lead.

    That he resorts to the cartoonishness used by many other writers and even, to me, exacerbates it, is thus even more sad.

    Your mileage may vary, but this is my perception of what I've read.

  • At August 29, 2007 12:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Daniel Way is on Wolverine Origins, and yeah, that isn't good.

    If you want a real good look-see at what Jenkins is best at, look for the last issue of Spectacular Spider-Man, issue 28 or so. It's just a done-in-one Spidey story during winter at Uncle Ben's grave with art by Mark Buckingham. It's excellent.

  • At August 29, 2007 12:46 PM, Blogger kalinara said…


    Thanks! I'm not sure where I got the impression it was Jenkins. :-)

    Goodness that was bad. :-)

    And thanks for the rec, I'll have to give it a shot.

  • At August 29, 2007 4:20 PM, Blogger CalvinPitt said…

    Kalinara, Paul Jenkins wrote a mini-series called Wolverine: Origin (no 's' on the end) a few years back, which explained who he was and what his family was like, and apparently his fascination with redheads, and Sabretooth's grudge with him. It's not bad.

    Regarding Stark/JMS, yeah, JMS is overdoing it, but I'm very much happy to see Iron Man get crushed whenever possible. As much as I enjoyed Nova's casual verbal abuse of Stark, a part of me would still have really enjoyed seeing Nova take Tony apart.

    I get that Stark is conflicted, but to me, that just says he shouldn't have done what he did, and he knows it on some level. He chose the law over his friends, and now some of them are dead, and some of them are fugitives, and Tony, what? Feels bad about it? I just can't bring myself to feel anything other than that he deserves whatever misery gets rained upon his head. A more well-rounded portrayal would be fine, but I can't say I think it would ultimately affect my feelings towards the character.

    That being said, I still won't actually buy Thor #3.

  • At August 29, 2007 5:08 PM, Blogger Unknown said…

    JMS cannot write marvel comics. this is a plain fact. He's been doing "really fucking evil Tony" for over a year now.

  • At August 29, 2007 5:26 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Calvin: Ohhh, that's where I got confused.

    I didn't much like that one either, honestly. Some very strange ideas in that...

    Though in fairness, I don't remember much by way of writing ability.

    Mike: *nod*, it's really sad, but I've never really found JMS's non-original owned work very appealing.

    He should do more original stuff. :-)

  • At August 30, 2007 2:07 AM, Blogger Marc Burkhardt said…

    JMS isn't the greatest comic-book writer in the world - I'm still not to crazy about Spidey's newly mystic origin and Sin's Past.

    However, to somewhat defend his portrayal of Tony, IM knows he's at a disadvantage with Thor. After all, the armored avenger helped build a Clorbot that went on a murdering spree ...

    I think he was trying the "best defense is a good offense" approach by getting in Thor's face right from the start - forgetting, of course, that NOBODY gets in Thor's face.

    Oh, and as for the tacky Katrina reference, it totally reminded me of the (in)famous "you help the green people and the blue people, but what about the black people" scene from GL.

    In a hamfisted way, JMS is trying to contrast the "piddly in the larger scheme of things" concerns of Super-Hero Registration against a true, and ignored, tragedy on homeland soil.

    Not a bad idea, but it doesn't really work.

  • At August 30, 2007 10:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    "Straczynski's writing in all this though really annoys me. Even if they AREN'T going in the direction I think they are, he's still far too good of a writer to need to resort to making Tony into a Snidely Whiplash character, regardless of how he feels about the character himself."

    JMS is the most overblown writer to work in comics in decades. The dealbreaker for me was his retroactive sluttifying of Gwen Stacy, now supposedly the mother of Norman Osborn's children. No amount of spin from Marvel or JMS apologists can ever, ever explain or justify that abomination of a story.

  • At August 30, 2007 11:30 AM, Blogger Scott said…

    See, to me it just seems like JMS is the only other writer taking Jenkins' stuff seriously.

    "Let's see, Paul established that Tony is pretty clearly guilty of insider trading, murder for hire using Osborn, and treason by trying to foment a conflict with Atlantis. He'd have to be a pretty major dick to do all that, so that's how I'll write him..."

  • At August 30, 2007 12:10 PM, Blogger Matt Worzala said…

    I've been lurking for a while, but I really liked this post, so I thought I'd stop in.

    I think you hit it right on the head about Cap being the ultimate price that Tony had to pay and serving down the road as a catalyst for change in Tony's character.

    Tony, if I remember correctly (and I might not) has always needed to be SHOWN the error of his ways in order to grasp them. This is a man that made a lot of his fortune selling landmines and things of that nature. It wasn't until he actually saw the harm they were causing (and was almost killed by one of them himself) that he realized he was doing a big thing badly.

    A morally ambigious Tony Stark is fine by me, but he should be more complex than black-hat-mustache-twirling evil.



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