I was ambivalent when I heard about the plot of Iron Man 3. Actually, at this point the plot is just speculation, but there are rumors that Iron Man 3 will incorporate the plot of Extremis, a famous series of Iron Man comic books by Warren Ellis.
Extremis is a brilliantly written story. But to me, it was another step in superheroes loosing their humanity. In Extremis, Tony Stark goes through a medical process that actually fuses the Iron Man suit to his body. He’s now able to control it with his mind.
To me this crosses a line, making the hero less human and more freak. The reason why Batman and the Marvel Comic heroes of the 1960s, both of which have now become blockbuster film franchises, resonate so deeply with audience is that the heroes are both iconic and human. Batman has no special powers. Spider-Man is a poor student who gets colds, even while battling super villains. Daredevil is actually blind.
These characters moved me so deeply when I was growing up, and do so now, because the symbolized the importance of the virtues, even if you are superhuman. Peter Parker, aka the Amazing Spider-Man, is a science nerd who used creativity to create his web-shooters. Reed Richards, the head of the Fantastic Four, is always emphasizing not only scientific knowledge but perseverance to defeat the FF’s menagerie of enemies. I still remember Fantastic Four #200, when Doctor Doom became enraged, and more than a little stunned, when Richards, having apparently run out of options, keep fighting. “Not while their is breath in my body!” Richards cried.
The artwork of the early Marvel comics reflected this humanity. Artist like John Romita (Spider-Man), Gene Colan (Daredevil), Don Heck (the Avengers), and of course Jack “King” Kirby (pretty much everything) rendered the heroes as human beings who just happened to have special powers. As Les Daniels notes in his history of Marvel, the point of having the heroes wear skin tight costumes was not to evoke otherness, but so the artists could draw “the human form in action.” These were classic depictions that went back to the Greeks.
It was in the 1980s that heroes began to lose their humanity. A gifted young artist named Todd McFarlane was hired to draw both Spider-Man and Batman. McFarlane’s hyper-detailed lines, contorted limbs and “spaghetti webbing” made Spidey look more spider than man. His Batman sometimes seemed to be nothing but a bunch of black angles. Even Frank Miller, whose work on Batman and Daredevil revolutionized those books, had an artistic style that was blocky and lacked grace.
And now, in the wake of the digital revolution, there is Iron Man 3 and Extremis. Adi Granov’s artwork is hyper clean and could even pass for classical. And Warren Ellis’ story is incredibly literate. Yet when Iron Man is no longer a man stepping into a suit, but is the suit itself, it becomes harder for us mortals to empathize. They aren’t extensions of us, people with advantages who nonetheless need to uses certain virtues to keep their sanity and put down the bad guys. They become freaks.