There is a delicate balance in new ongoing series for big, tentpole characters. On the one hand, you can’t bog down new readers with heavy-handed reliance on continuity (no matter how recent), but you likewise can’t ignore it completely without making the shared fabric of the universe unstable, fragile. A lot of work has been put into the series that preceded yours, and the character has had very major events that must shape them and inform their decisions.
There comes a point, however, when a character’s history becomes untenable, so clunky that it becomes a barricade to new readers in itself.
The big three Avengers have recently hit that point; to jump into Jason Aaron’s Thor run in the middle required major homework in the form of previous volumes, miniseries, major crossovers. Captain America, even under the deft hand of Ta-Nehisi Coates, can only just step out from under the Hydra shadow.
Tony Stark is, maybe, the most haunted by previous stories; it seems like Tony still had the specters of two separate Civil Wars dragging his adventures down, let alone the endless series of changes concerning his corporation, financial status, and whether or not he is dead, comatose, an AI or mind-wiped. All of that noise makes the character hard to see properly and muddies up the central concept.
Christopher Cantwell and Cafu’s present run of Iron Man, while ever-so-slightly tinged by Tony’s most recent death, attempts to wipe away all of that clutter, giving a semi-fresh slate. Location is shifted, supporting cast is dropped and repopulated. Tony steps away from his business and all previous concerns in an effort to find himself.
None of that is particularly novel for a reimagining of a character. Where Iron Man strays from the norm, however, is in its interesting approach to maintaining continuity. Rather than bucking it completely, the series almost aggressively insists on it. . . but only makes classic, decades-past continuity relevant. It occasionally makes use of the editorial footnote, but the issues those direct readers to are more likely issues like 1978’s Avengers #176 than contemporary titles.
Tony’s play pals are golden oldies — he hangs with Patsy Walker and fights the Unicorn and Blizzard; our big-bad is foundational-but-forgotten Korvac. None of which means the story is anything but modern: Korvac might be an old-school android, but he’s new-school psychotic, building himself a creepy supervillain cult based around his god complex; Patsy is actively dealing with trauma that, while based on events from 1994, are discussed—however briefly—with a 2021 understanding(ish) of psychology. The stakes—the universe, of course—are as bombastic as an old Korvac story, but with emotional nuance and modern sensibility.
There are moments that steer a bit too deeply into ‘tortured hero’ territory, but these moments never pull us out of the experience. Further, they’re counter-balanced by enough character-honest levity that it never feels like wallowing. An enjoyment of the four-color, goofy and/or forgotten nature of the Marvel Universe history is also keeping things afloat, even if it sometimes feels like Tony is dunking pretty hard on characters who don’t deserve it.
All in all, the five issues of Iron Man collected in Big Iron are a great start for a reboot that breathes air back into the character, gives us a complicated Tony (but not a too-complicated Tony), and gears up for what promises to be an epic (but, thankfully, a contained) story. The volume seems to offer up a series that might just establish a new, cleaner Iron Man, one not besmirched by twenty years of drama, convoluted resurrections, and bad politics.
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