There’s a funny thing about the future. It always happens.
Whether hopeful sci-fi or dystopian nightmare, future fiction never quite seems to put “tomorrow” far enough out. When it gets here, it’s not so much about flying cars or barbaric road warriors spraying chrome on their teeth. More like Tinder and same-day Amazon delivery.
So when the Iron Man of the year 2020 first appeared in an obscure Machine Man limited series in 1984 (interesting chronal coincidence there), created by Tom DeFalco and Herb Trimpe, the eponymous year was only four decades away. Weirdly, Arno Stark, Tony’s cousin in an alternate future, wore armor more reminiscent of retro steampunk than the sleek and smooth technologies most creators envision for what’s to come. Seriously, what’s with those shoulder gears?
One hopes Dan Slott didn’t decide to write Iron Man 2020: Robot Revolution just to answer that question. But being the deep repository of Marvel continuity that he is, Slott goes ahead and does it anyway, and you have to know Machine Man and Sunset Bain, Arno’s employer in the original story, would be involved in this six-issue limited event series that spun out of his Tony Stark: Iron Man ongoing.
Which makes reading the newly-published collected edition a little confusing if you haven’t been following the main run, but really, it might be more so if you have. Ultron, a main recent antagonist of Tony’s AI consciousness (necessitated in a roundabout way by the events of Civil War II), isn’t even mentioned, and Machine Man, the supposed driving force of the robot rebellion, is presented in more of lackey’s role.
I use “lackey” fully knowing its villainous connotations, because Slott playfully blurs the distinction between which Stark is “good” or “bad” in Robot Revolution, particularly in the beginning. AI-Tony is just fighting for AI rights (while attacking construction sites), but all Arno wants is to fulfill his destiny and save the world (by enslaving all of Earth’s robots under his rule).
Which is in stark (sorry) contrast to Arno’s original depiction. When Brian Michael Bendis brought the character to the main Marvel universe in his own Iron Man series a few years ago, it was as Tony’s brother, leading to the controversial revelation that, despite the family mustache resemblance, Tony is actually adopted. This Arno was supposedly genetically engineered by a rogue Rigellian Recorder to prepare the Earth for an extinction-level threat from space. Slott weaves all this into the prophecy that Arno, his minions, and his Godkiller armor would stop that threat when it arrives in 2020.
So, uh, the question of robot rights isn’t exactly the main thrust of this story, even though it was sort of advertised that way. There are flashes of headier discussion in the first issue, but those quickly give way to quips and gags about the Chuck E. Cheese animatron coming to life. Frank discussions of AI’s place in society this ain’t.
But it is a swashbuckling cavalcade of superstars and seldom-seen characters, in true Slott style, including Mad Thinker creations Quasimodo and the Awesome Android, and a strangely foul-mouthed H.E.R.B.I.E. The tonal shifts throughout Robot Revolution coalesce when (spoiler, but probably not really) Tony gets his body back, which kind of falls flat as a moment, but sets up a truly satisfying finale that makes everyone come out looking good.
Pete Woods seems like an odd choice of artist at first, and the first issue or two of Robot Revolution does look a little off-kilter, but when the missiles start flying and Tony’s new, literally brilliant armor is introduced, you’ll think he was born to illustrate exosuit battles. Woods handles the subdued-yet-vibrant colors himself, except for on issue #4 when he gets a little help from his daughter Celeste.
Speaking of single issues, it’s probably worth pointing out how striking Woods’ covers for the series are, each one included in the collection. They’re minimalist and still engaging, more in line with how most creators tend to envision the future.
Iron Man 2020: Robot Revolution is a comic of its time, in more ways than one. Of course it had to happen this year, but the pandemic delays definitely hurt its momentum, causing the book to kind of fly under the radar below Empyre and the looming X of Swords. It’s not, well, revolutionary, but it is a fun romp that flirts with some bigger issues and ultimately sticks the landing, which seems rarer than it should be in recent times.