As the world holds its collective breath waiting for Iron Man 3, it’s easy to forget that Tony Stark was just a minor part of Marvel’s publishing plans less than a decade ago. This all changed with Warren Ellis and Adi Granov’s Iron Man: Extremis (collecting Iron Man: Volume 4, 1-6). A careful reading of Extremis reveals a masterfully crafted comic that breathed new life into a character, but it also reveals clues about the direction Iron Man 3 will take.
It’s hard to believe, but with two solo movies and the Avengers film becoming such worldwide pop culture phenomenons, that just eight years ago, Iron Man was the star of a floundering monthly comic. When the Joe Quesada era began at Marvel, the editor-in-chief had spearheaded successful directions for Spider-Man, X-Men, Daredevil, and the Hulk, but success eluded the Avengers’ family of characters, particularly Iron Man. Under Quesada, creators on Iron Man came and went. Runs by Frank Tieri, John Jackson Miller and comics legend Mike Grell failed to boost sales. It seemed no one could find the right voice or direction for Tony Stark.
Meanwhile, something exciting was happening in the pages of The Ultimates, where Mark Millar portrayed Tony Stark as a brash industrialist who felt that the present wasn’t good enough. Stark was determined to drag the world kicking and screaming into the future. This modern take on Stark, unattached to decades of complex continuity, compelled a new breed of readers. The “main” Tony Stark was hampered by years of aborted directions and horrific editorial decisions. For example, who can forget teenage Tony Stark? The pre-Quesada brain trust at Marvel thought it was a good idea to turn Tony Stark evil and replace him with his teenage self from the past. Then they shunted him off into a new universe and removed from mainstream Marvel in the pages of Heroes Reborn.
When writer Kurt Busiek took over the book upon Stark’s return to the Marvel Universe, no explanation was given to what happened to teen Tony and it was never mentioned again. The damage was done. Many readers jumped ship with teen Tony and never came back, causing Iron Man sales to plummet. Things looked bleak, and it was hard to believe that Iron Man would, in just a few short years, kick off the inconceivably successful Marvel movie universe. Iron Man was a forgotten and abused character, abandoned by fans because of questionable creative directions…until Extremis.
Warren Ellis was already a popular writer on such titles as Transmetropolitan, but was relatively unproven when it came to superheroes. What Ellis ended up creating became the template for the film’s Tony Stark. Ellis’ Stark was a brash and brazen futurist who reveled in his own genius, and wanted the world to follow him because he knew that his path of genius would save the world. Ellis turned Tony Stark into a postmodern DaVinci (with a little Bill Gates and James Bond thrown in for good measure), and he abandoned all of the tired tropes that were dragging Iron Man down the sales abyss. When Hollywood came calling, it was Ellis and Granov’s template that was used to deliver Iron Man to mass audiences. What’s more, Extremis is where the visual look for the cinematic Iron Man was born. Adi Granov was called in to design the suit for the first Iron Man film, which mirrored Granov’s artistic style in other, less direct ways as well. If Iron Man 3 brings the frenetic pace of Granov’s Extremis fight scenes to life, fans are in for their third treat since the Marvel Cinematic Universe began.
At its heart, Extremis is a cautionary tale that warns against the abuse of advanced technology, but also warning that society will stagnate if humankind is afraid to use it. It looks like Iron Man 3 is drawing heavily on characters and plot elements from Extremis. Both Aldrich Killian and Maya Hansen will be in the film. Hansen is a former flame of Tony’s who invented the Extremis process and Killian was the scientist who stole Extremis and sold it to a domestic terrorist group. In the comic, a right-wing nutcase named Mallen underwent the Extremis process was the book’s main antagonist. Mallen does not seem to be in the film, but the Extremis process (by which a body perfects and heals itself through nanotechnology and develops offensive and biological weaponry like flame breath and super strength) seems to provide the central threat. The main idea of the comic, which appears to extend to the film, is that Iron Man is an external power source, a super weapon that a man wears, while Extremis is an internal weapon that a man becomes. While Mallen was the book’s only real antagonist, the Mandarin and his terrorist organization, the Ten Rings, look to be the ones trying to get their hands on Extremis in Iron Man 3.
While the villains may be vastly different, it is not hard to imagine that tonally and thematically the film will match the book. It’s not a stretch to say that Extremis was the first appearance of the “modern” Tony Stark. Extremis was the first comic to move Iron Man’s origin away from Southeast Asia and the conflict of the Cold War and into the modern war on terror in Afghanistan, an idea that was adapted directly into the first Iron Man film. It was the first comic to shine a spotlight on the idea of Stark as a futurist, and essentially has Tony Stark invent the iPhone years before the device hit the market. Ellis, a literary futurist himself, has his finger on the pulse of developing tech and was able to insert his personal knowledge into Stark’s narrative. Most importantly, the brash, assertive, egotistical Stark that audiences grew to love in the films was basically forged here. The influence of Iron Man: Extremis continues to be seen on the big screen, and fans who want to see where the Marvel films got much of their inspiration should start here!