(Welcome to Comics Rewind, a weekly column devoted to discovering – or re-discovering – great comics published some time in the past. Here you will find looks back at comics published in every era, from the Golden Age to the Modern Age, as well as retrospectives on the work of important comics writers, lists of “essential” comics, and evaluations of important works, as well as works worthy of a second look or a wider audience. Enjoy!)
If you follow superhero movie news at all, you’ve no doubt heard the title Iron Man: Extremis thrown around in the last few weeks in reference to Marvel’s forthcoming third Iron Man flick. The plot seems to be shaping up to bear a great similarity to the comic that Warren Ellis and Adi Granov launched Iron Man Volume 4 with for Marvel, and though we don’t yet know just how expansive the adaptation will be, we do know that the concept at the heart of Extremis is exceptionally intriguing. My interest in Extremis pre-dates the Iron Man 3 news because, as faithful readers (all seven of you) will note, I have an unhealthy obsession with Ellis’ work. But now that this movie is taking shape around this comic, it seems appropriate to look back at Extremis itself, and note that not only is it one of the best Iron Man stories ever told, but that it’s already left its mark on the movies.
Ellis took a reboot approach to the character when he wrote Extremis, reading as little of the Iron Man back-issues as possible and crafting an entirely new origin story for the character, which just happens to be the same origin story you see in the beginning of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man. When Extremis opens, Tony Stark is a billionaire industrialist best known for his massive U. S. government weapons contracts. He’s called out for the destructive nature of his products, and though he claims he’s been trying all along to use the weapons money as funding for better, more peaceful products that will actually improve the world, he has nothing to show for it. Tony Stark wants to change the world, and so far all he’s done is help reduce parts of it to rubble.
The world is still unaware that Tony Stark is Iron Man as Extremis begins, but the threats are growing greater, and it’s becoming harder and harder for Stark to keep his superhero secret under wraps. In Texas, a serum has been stolen from a pharmaceutical company and injected into the body of a terrorist, who undergoes a rapid and dramatic physical change. When he recovers from the process, the terrorist – known only as “Mallen” – has frightening superhuman abilities. One of the designers of the serum – a biological reprogramming agent known as “Extremis” – is an old friend of Stark’s, and as these two threads collide it becomes clear that Iron Man will have to do more than fight his hardest to survive. He’ll have to evolve.
As he does every time he turns to telling superhero stories, Warren Ellis refuses to adhere to the predictable patterns of the genre. Yes, there’s a clear and present supervillain, and our hero has to overcome him, and yes there’s a big knock-down, drag-out fight that wraps it all up. And yes, it’s Iron Man and he’s got his armor and his repulsors and that’s just eternally cool. But Extremis isn’t about a battle between Iron Man and some souped-up freak (though it is, believe me, a hell of a battle). Like the classic “Demon in a Bottle” story before it, it’s about Tony Stark battling himself. He’s one of the few people on the face of the Earth gifted with the power to change the world in some profound, irreversible way, and he hasn’t done it. He’s Iron Man, but what has Iron Man done that will leave a lasting impression? What is Iron Man doing for the future? Warren Ellis – comics’ eternal futurist – answers these questions like no other Iron Man writer ever has, and the themes he introduced are still echoing down the Iron Man comics years later (read Matt Fraction’s excellent volume 5 run to see what I mean).
Granov’s art is also still echoing through the Iron Man universe. His work was a big influence on the look of the film version of the Iron Man armor, and I hope that continues to be the case as we move into the third film. It’s not quite a photorealistic look, but it has the character of a kind of living painting. Rarely have scenes of violence in a comic looked so beautiful, and scenes of simple dialogue so compelling.
With any luck we’ll see an Iron Man 3 that harvests all that’s great about Extremis – its futurist themes, its frustrated and determined Tony Stark and its high-tech mastery – and pours them into a cinematic mold that could be among the best films Marvel’s ever done. For now, go read this comic. Even if you’re not a fan of Iron Man, go read this comic. Any time Warren Ellis goes superhero, we get a wonderful treat, but here he outdid himself.