Or – “Explain To Me Once More Why *HE’S* Not Also In Jail?”

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So, the Civil War is over, and the new Marvel Universe has begun, a world where the old guard superhumans (original Avengers, the core Fantastic Four, Ms. Marvel and others of a ‘lawful neutral’ bent) are now creating an initiative that will keep all new superheroes within government specifications, creating a rank-and-file led by one of the oldest and most respected heroes of them all. The problem is, all the “trustworthy” heroes who work for the government currently would have been drummed out of service at one point or another had the initiative existed when they started out. Look at the lineup of the Mighty Avengers: an ethically challenged former alcoholic whose system is currently under the control of a computer virus; his strongman suffering from multiple-personality disorder; Wonder Man, convicted of embezzlement, working for the government under the threat of prosecution for tax fraud; Ms. Marvel, another whose mental status is shaky, with a history of alcohol abuse and personality disorder; and the list goes on. Why do they get carte blanche to operate as they do? This book shows the reason why, and it’s almost as disturbing as the setup for the new Thunderbolts from an ethical and philosophical standpoint…

im1.jpgWhatever else you say about this issue, it’s got a pretty snazzy cover (at least the version that I bought, which was marked “Variant”), with a competent Jim Steranko pastiche, and an interesting placement of Maria Hill. On the original cover, the person standing in that spot is Contessa Valentina Allegra De Fontaine, notable for being Nick’s main squeeze, and cute in a catsuit. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but putting Maria there could be a hint that Tony has more than just collegiate interest in Ms. Hill. In any case, Iron Man has taken over control of SHIELD from the easily manipulated Maria, and has returned a bit of Fury-esque individuality to the office of Director. Problem is, Nick’s history as a soldier and espionage agent allowed him to deal with the military and covert ops types who populate most of SHIELD’s upper echelon, whereas Tony’s grandstanding superhero/CEO celebrity attitude has rankled some of his new partners, notably Timothy “Dum Dum” Dugan, Fury’s long-time right hand man.

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Dum Dum is a soldier, bred and born, and it might also be noted that the man is nearly 100 years old, no joke. He has a sense of decorum and a belief in the chain of command, and recent events have shown that Stark will subordinate both when it suits him. Case in point: a recent operation in Sydney, Australia, against a minor terrorist cell called “Jemaah Islamiyah,” which is explained as Indonesian, but with a name that gives a vague sort of Arabic feel, shorthand for villainous terror agent since 2001. Dum Dum arrives (in flashback) on the bridge of the helicarrier, watching a clear video feed of the sect seizing control of the Opera House, and asks how they’re getting their feed. “Stark Tech airborne nanocameras, sir. We released them through the air ducts 40 minutes ago…” Dum Dum is impressed and disturbed to see how quickly SHIELD has become Big Brother, but wonders where the heck the director *IS*, as he’s not on the bridge to run the op. Tony’s current whereabouts? Thunderbirds are GO!

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Why, he’s leading the assault team, proving that he has no idea how to be a general, but instead needs to be the center of every operation. This is exactly the reason why SHIELD collapsed in the wake of Nick’s Secret War debacle: Only the director knew for sure what was actually going on, and when he left, tons of idiots decided to play by THEIR own rules. And can you imagine the gall involved in coloring SHIELD agents (who have always worn blue and silver) in your own colors? Geez, Tony, ego trip much? Thanks to Starktech armor attachments, Alpha Team quickly secures the site with no casualties among the hostages, but unfortunately, one of the terrorists manages to activate a bomb. Jack Bauer calls Chloe for backup and then we cut to commercial… PEEP! PEEP! PEEP! PEEP! PEEP! PEEP! Yeah, there’s a lot of ’24’ riffing in this issue. Actually, Tony does make a Bauer-esque maneuver, putting himself at great risk…

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I-Man kicks in the afterburners, heading for a Stark International deep sea vessel harbored off the coast, and sticking the bomb in their decompression chamber, blowing it up harmlessly to anything but his own checkbook. Hearing this story, the secretary only sees an unmitigated success, but Dum Dum sees it as a failure: No one person should be intrinsic to an operations’ success. Without Iron Man on the scene, thousands would have died horribly, and because Tony knew he was going to be on site, he didn’t even worry about the details. Dugan believes that this is a complete undermining of command, and turns SHIELD from capable military agency into “Iron Man’s Amazing friends.” It’s actually a good point, even if Dum Dum’s secondary complaints ring a bit like an old man shaking his fist at ‘those rotten kids.’

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Heh. “Casual Friday.” That slays me, for some reason. Not so much the obvious stunt-casting of Timothy Dalton as Stark. I’ve railed against this every time I recap Thunderbolts, so I’ll save it after this one name-check: Is it so difficult to use a real person’s face to EVOKE the character you want, instead of lightboxing photo-reference? As Fury before him, Tony also brought trusted agents and advisors with him, including his goofy hippy sidekick, Sal Kennedy, left over from previous issues of this book. Sal is a one-note character who always reminds me of Mark Meadows from the “Wild Cards” books, but without the guileless charm. Sal and Dum Dum are destined to clash from day one, especially on the issue of SHIELD agents bringing their kids aboard the carrier…

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“Go with the flow.” Okay, keeping in mind the supreme confidence of Tony Stark, how quickly can we get a bunch of unruly kids aboard a helicopter in case of emergency? What if the carrier is attacked in port? But the secretary of defense doesn’t see the problem. Iron Man is making changes, but the bottom line is being met (probably by Tony personally footing the bill for some things, which isn’t really playing fair with the budgets) and nobody has any complaints about him, other than Dum Dum. Tony’s other advisor, Maya Hansen, is apparently responsible for his recent upgrade to superhuman mental abilities OUTSIDE of the armor, and wants him to let her study and upgrade the Extremis virus in his system.

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That casts an unfortunate light back on Tony’s actions, implying that his pre-Civil War manipulations were due to a lack of humanity caused by the Extremis in his body. While I don’t hate this point, I don’t think it’s a good place for the story to go. Essentially, we’re saying that Stark wasn’t in his right mind when he did all of this (which may get him off the hook for his more fascist maneuvers in the writer’s mind, but just comes across as a gutless retcon to me), and by saying that, we’re once again saying that the entire Registration Act/Civil War carnage and strife was the equivalent of a bad hair day, and needn’t have happened at all. If you’re going to change the status quo like this, you HAVE TO COMMIT TO IT. Either Tony is cold enough to do the things he did, or he isn’t, but different writers shouldn’t be able to put a different enough spin on things that you only get the whole story by reading all the tie-ins, or worse, get answers that don’t jibe. Rant ends.

Back on the helicarrier, Tony and his assembled staff try to figure out the underlying pattern in Jemaah Islamiyah’s actions. They’ve gotten an upgrade in training, in weapons, in resources, and Sal points out that they must have a “sugar daddy.” Maria Hill tells him to shut up, and goes all emo, until Tony shuts ’em both up, and asks Dum Dum what he thinks. Dugan, amazingly, agrees with Sal, pointing out that not only have they gotten an upgrade, they’ve got better leadership, and it all seems to date back to the sects leader visiting China three months ago. A flashback shows us what they don’t know, a clandestine meeting between that leader and Chinese nationals. He blackmails his way into their secret prison cells, to find something that may chill the blood of an old-school Iron Fan…

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Uh oh. A mystical Chinese guy, whose hands are conspicuously hidden? Hmm… what rhymes with Tandarin? And if this is who I think it is, isn’t he dead? Not that that’s stopped anybody recently, I suppose. Unfortunately, Dugan and the Secretary don’t know any of this information, and how badly if portends for SHIELD’s future. Dugan tenders his resignation, believing that he has nothing to offer Stark, and isn’t going to sit and watch Nick’s legacy turn into “casual Fridays” and superhero antics. The secretary has other ideas…

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Ooh, that seems ominous. I kind of enjoyed some of the bravado of this issue, especially the moment where Dugan and Kennedy agreed in the obligatory “Star Trek briefing room” sequence. What bothers me is the underlying fascistic echoes of it all: a lone strongman, behind the wheel of the most powerful organization in the world, perfectly willing to bend the rules to support what he believes to be the greater good. It’s a distillation of the worst of Iron Man’s character, bent through the prism of Civil War, a re-imagining of the man who quit building weapons out of moral integrity into a man who will use whatever means necessary to build a better world. He’s taking some of the weaknesses of the Fury cult of personality out of SHIELD, but only replacing them with his own cult of personality, and Tony, unfortunately, has a bigger ego.

The essential thrust of story is mean-spirited, the use of Dum Dum as a foil (equating his irritation at losing his officer’s club of poker and cigars with his real, rational, and important worries about Tony’s grandstanding) rings a bit false. This is a man who’s been with SHIELD since the beginning, he’s seen the worst of it all, including five or six different carrier crashes and two different collapses of the entire agency. He’s not just some old fossil who’s miffed ’cause he can’t drink bourbon in a leather chair anymore, and Tony Stark himself is coming across in pure Mary Sue territory, so far ahead of the curve that his actions are less revelation than contrivance. It’s a promising start, with some interesting bits, but the overall effect of the art is muddy, and the effect of the story is a disturbing moral relativism. If Doctor Doom were doing all this, (and it’s not that difficult to transpose the two armored geniuses right now) it’d be termed pure villainy, The Avengers would dive in like the divine sword of justice, and all heck would break loose. This effect drags the score down a bit, to 2 stars. We’ll see where it all goes from here.

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The Author

Matthew Peterson

Matthew Peterson

Once upon a time, there was a young nerd from the Midwest, who loved Matter-Eater Lad and the McKenzie Brothers... If pop culture were a maze, Matthew would be the Minotaur at its center. Were it a mall, he'd be the Food Court. Were it a parking lot, he’d be the distant Cart Corral where the weird kids gather to smoke, but that’s not important right now... Matthew enjoys body surfing (so long as the bodies are fresh), writing in the third person, and dark-eyed women. Amongst his weaponry are such diverse elements as: Fear! Surprise! Ruthless efficiency! An almost fanatical devotion to pop culture!

And a nice red uniform.

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8 Comments

  1. March 13, 2007 at 4:23 pm — Reply

    Matt – those aren’t gold-and-red SHIELD agents. If you notice, they’re kind of translucent? That’s various stages of Tony changing into Iron Man via Extremis, all put into one panel that engulfs several timeframes so as to save time.

    But if I’m wrong, I like the idea. It makes sense if everyone on your side is the same colour…and there might’ve been a bigger objection to colouring IM in Blue & White, what with that whole ‘Steve Rogers’ Amazon conspiracy.

  2. March 13, 2007 at 4:39 pm — Reply

    19.8 Mill eh? Could the number 198 be Marvel’s own number 23…?

  3. March 14, 2007 at 6:28 am — Reply

    Those are the guys who go with him on the mission, and can be seen in other panels of the issue wearing those armor-like attachments. I think the weird translucent effect is the equivalent of the old speed-lines to indicate that they’ve just parachuted off the ship.

    And the 198 thing is interesting, we should watch for it in other situations, and see if there’s a conspiracy.

  4. Andrew McDonald
    March 18, 2007 at 2:49 pm — Reply

    Dear Matthew Peterson
    I loved that they used Jemaah Islamiyah cause in Australia there as bad as Al-Qaeda is for America. Also with the S.H.E.L.D agents wearing red and gold well who cares its Iron Man standard colour and if it saves more lives them wearing it then thats awesome. My oppinion of Dum Dum is that learning of his long time workings with Nick Fury it obvious that he dose not want to work with IM cause he dosnt like the changes but how boring would the story be if he was holding hands with IM all issue this conflict is great! . And i would’nt say that extremis had to do with IM being cold or not over the civil war cause he was just doin what the people and the government demanded of him. Anyway weather you diss-agree or agree with 1 or all my comments i say in the end what is a story without the drama. [-_-] = Iron Man or lego man lol.

  5. March 18, 2007 at 6:45 pm — Reply

    Mmm… I agree that the conflict between Dum Dum and Tony is necessary to make the transition important. My point about Tony changing the agents armor colors is simply a question of “Why?” What possible purpose would you have (other than vanity) to change the agents field uniforms your first week in the job?

    Iron Man actually said in dialogue that he felt that it took the events of Civil War to return him to his humanity after the Extremis virus. By no means am I saying that this isn’t a valid characterization point, it just bothers me that it’s being made AFTER the fact, and that Tony’s actions aren’t really in keeping with his previous characterization, or really that apropos to the situation. To put it in terms my step-father would’ve understood, he was hunting for rabbits with a cruise missile.

  6. Andrew McDonald
    March 18, 2007 at 9:12 pm — Reply

    If i understand you i agree that Tony went overboard in arresting the Anti-registration heroes but also diss-agree for in this situation the rabbits are fighting back and i say bring on the cruise missles. I thought and i reckon that Tony did’nt change the armor colors but had some left over from a previos weapons deal and decided to give them to the S.H.I.E.L.D agents cause they look very much like the armour in IRON MAN Vol.3 No.75 when Tony shows a demonstration of some body armor for soldiers so maybe its a one off thing because i dont reckon they will be that color in future conflict theres no camo . Or perhaps red and gold is alot cheaper for him over the years maybe hes getting a good deal from his paint supplier lol.

  7. March 20, 2007 at 5:36 pm — Reply

    I’m more thinking its like in one of those old Civil Wars where both sides had the same uniform, but then differentiated by, I dunno, placing a flower in their lapel. Or something. So what IM is doing is making sure everyone knows they’re SHIELD agents by having them all the same colour – and, as has been previously noted in ‘Amazing Spider-Man’, Stark isn’t really happy with working with other colours than those he knows.

  8. Dane
    March 25, 2007 at 11:33 am — Reply

    This does make for an interesting development for the Marvel Universe, what with Annihilus on his way to town, so to speak. My prediction: Annihilus shows up and he wreaks more havoc than Civil War and Infinite Crisis (pardon the mixed universes) combined; both sides of the Civil War get back together again and fight him off, resulting in massive casualties; somebody or several somebodies (in all likelihood a few major characters backed up by underused characters whose trademarks are about to expire) will sacrifice themselves for the good of the many; unlikely allies and miraculously resurrected dead folk will show up to buy time for the heroes by kicking ass on Annihilus’ underbosses; and Annihilus will finally be defeated–or at least his current incarnation–and then there will be a reconciliation between many on the Pro- and Anti-Registration factions, perhaps even a blanket amnesty and presidential pardon for those who served above and beyond the call of duty.

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