For decades, the Invincible Iron Man has been a character defined through constant cycles of self-destruction and reinvention, rising above the problems of today to look towards tomorrow. But what becomes of this hero when he is confronted with an ever-darkening future? How will he reckon with the impossible choices he’s made? And how much of himself will he lose along the way?
In 2006, Marvel Comics released Civil War, an event that fractured the superhero community and forever changed the trajectory of its characters. Brought to life through writer Mark Millar and artist Steve McNiven, Civil War is still seen as one of the most polarizing comics ever made, drawing from real-world tragedies and events while doing very little to comment on them in an insightful way. While the event was (and is) still maligned by many, its aftermath saw a number of major shifts within the Marvel Universe, namely the death of Captain America, the founding of the “Fifty-State Initiative,” and Iron Man’s ascension as the head of the global intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s this era, largely penned by the father-and-son writing team of Charles and Daniel Knauf, that would take the armored avenger into some of the darkest stories of his history, warping a hopeful icon of the future into a man tormented by the darker world that he helped build.
Primarily known for their work in television, the Knaufs arrived at Marvel with a definitive plan for their favorite character, building on the new status quo of 2005’s Extremis while grounding Iron Man through a focus on present-day politics and international espionage. Staying on for 21 issues between 2006 and 2008, the Knaufs’ tenure on the character was short but incredibly impactful, putting decades’ worth of storytelling under a new lens, and building a legacy that would haunt the character for years to come.
THE LONG WAY DOWN
Nowadays, the genius billionaire playboy philanthropist Tony Stark is a household name, thanks in a large part to Robert Downey Jr.’s depiction in the mega-franchise that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, Iron Man is also a character with a varied, complex history, one intrinsically tied to America’s relationship with science fiction. Debuting at the height of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, Iron Man began as a pretty shameless propaganda icon; an embodiment of the “superiority” of western innovation. While Stark’s background as a billionaire industrialist would remain the same, the underlying tone and scope of his adventures would change over the decades, with more high-concept fantastical adventures through the ‘70’s, a focus on recovery and reinvention through the ‘80’s, and a whole bunch of weirdness in the 90’s. I’m not gonna talk about it. It’s bad.
Each era is distinct in its subject matter, but they all serve the same underlying message: that technology is a form of empowerment, giving us the tools to better ourselves and the world at large. While this approach would continue up through Kurt Busiek and Sean Chen’s seminal run on the character, America’s relationship to superheroes, technology, and authority figures would start to shift in the early 2000’s, with the hero steadily taking on the themes and aspects of this newer, more frightful age. While Extremis effectively made Iron Man a post-human superhero, later stories (including 2006’s New Avengers and The Inevitable) would explore the real effects of this change, moving Stark away from his superhero roots to combat all manner of threats from the information age.
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This friction between the old and new world of superheroes could come to a head in Civil War, with Iron Man’s support of the Superhuman Registration Act turning him on his fellow heroes, and leading to his ascendance as the new head of S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s within this new status quo that the Knaufs’ entire run takes place, setting Iron Man’s elevated status against his own inner doubts to cast a new light on everything that’s unfolded over the past decade and beyond.
“Stark is not like Bruce Wayne. You can’t just put your finger on some external event that created him,” muses Daniel Knauf. “It’s a lot of things– his sense of alienation, his guilt and frustration at man’s unerring tendency to war, his substance abuse, his intelligence.
I think the problem with Tony is he likes to think if he can just take a step forward he’ll leave all that behind him. That’s his greatest strength as sort of a futurist and inventor…but it’s also his biggest weakness. You don’t come away unscathed from a situation like ‘Civil War’ or the loss of so many friends. All those incidents, losses and tragedies are nipping at his heels.”
If Civil War was the ham-fisted exploration of national tragedy, muddling its message and focusing on the spectacle of its destruction, the Knaufs’ run on Iron Man does the exact opposite, using the event’s aftermath to explore the transformation of the armored avenger as both a character with decades of history, and a symbol of the culture that shaped him.
WITH IRON HANDS
The biggest change in the Knaufs’ approach to Iron Man is the more realistic perspective they give to the hero and his surroundings. Since its foundation, the Marvel Universe has always been seen as a heightened version of “the world outside your window,” with its creators using characters and concepts to explore real-world issues through a colorful, fantastic lens. Grittier takes on superheroes were pretty much standard in the 2000’s, but rather than using it to ground their hero, the Knaufs would use their hybrid-realist approach to give a bigger weight to the commentary behind their story. Iron Man has always acted as a conduit for our relationship to technology in a given age, and through the Knaufs’ murky spy epic, he is transformed into a frightful reflection of a post-crisis America: a hero robbed of his humanity through his reliance on the weapons of war.
These elements of sci-fi and spycraft have been with the character since his beginnings. This isn’t even the first time he’s worked alongside S.H.I.E.L.D. But by using the fear and paranoia of the War on Terror, the Knaufs are able to shift the commentary behind the title from an aspirational fantasy to a darker cautionary tale, subverting the character’s pro-military origins and interrogating how far the hero (and the country he represents) have really come in half a century. The majority of these stories are brought to life through penciller Roberto De La Torre, whose shadowy, ultra-detailed lines show the emotional weight behind Stark’s mission, coupled with a color palette that’s slowly overcome with shades of deep red and gold (courtesy of Dean White, Edgar Tadeo, and Joel Seguin) to show the hero slowly being consumed by his alter ego. It’s a subtle but chilling twist on the character’s identity: once seen as a means of moving beyond his past mistakes, the Iron Man has become what Stark hates most about himself: the face of a military-industrial machine built to keep the peace through fear.
The writers waste no time in exploring this new status quo for the character. In place of fights with lone supervillains like the Titanium Man or the Living Laser, Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. opens with Stark and his organization pursuing augmented terrorists on a global scale. The book’s opening issues have a very procedural tone, steering clear of political commentary in favor of giving time to Stark and the military hierarchy he’s a part of. At first glance, the book’s presentation even gives it a bit of a pro-initiative (and by extension, pro-patriot-act) slant, but this starts to change over the course of the series, using Stark and his allies’ actions to critique America’s history of shady military intervention. Each encounter only heightens the paranoia within S.H.I.E.L.D., prompting Stark to run illegal operations to chase down leads, and keep an uneasy alliance with doctor Maya Hansen to suppress her work on Extremis. It’s a paranoia rooted in real-world tragedy as well as the character’s history. While it’s no secret that Civil War’s story drew heavily from the September 11th terror attacks and the rise of the Patriot Act, the Knaufs use Stark’s development as a character to make the comparison more personal, mirroring the hero’s past traumas and desire for control with America’s own militarization in the 2000’s, and repeatedly calling this shift into question.
Iron Man has always been a character defined through his flaws, but the book’s relentless approach, coupled with marvel’s onslaught of ongoing events, use these flaws to completely tear the hero apart as he digs himself deeper with each mistake. Stark’s personal feelings for Maya blind him to her betrayal, an attempt to pacify the Hulk leads to his return as “the world-breaker,” corruption inside The Initiative leads to the death of a young hero, and Extremis, the enhancile that re-invented Iron Man, is transformed into a biological weapon that leads to the deaths of Stark’s friends.
Through these innumerable consequences, Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. becomes the ultimate meditation on self-destruction and science fiction, channeling our fear of the future into Iron Man and giving him the means to confront the mistakes he’s made head-on.
“He’s deeply flawed. And the roots of those flaws are complex and internal, which is how things are generally in real-life,” Knauf states.
“He built this suit to protect him from the world, and in doing so he built a prison, which is very interesting to me. It’s a trap a lot of people fall into: the more they try to protect themselves from the world, the more escape-proof a prison they build for themselves. I liked the thematic potential of that.”
If the run’s first half explores a hero corrupted by the system he’s trying to reform, its latter half sees Iron Man brought face-to-face with that very corruption. stripped of his Extremis powers by S.H.I.E.L.D. and plagued by visions of the people he’s failed (long story), Stark begins to uncover the links between the Initiative, the government, and the global conspiracy they’ve been hunting, all orchestrated by one of his oldest enemies…and unfortunately, this is where the book’s commentary starts to fall apart a little.
While most of the run acts as an examination of America’s part in the war on terror, the reveal of long-time villain The Mandarin as puppet master is a baffling choice, especially given the character’s reliance on “foreign enemy” tropes from Iron Man’s pro-military origins. Paired with the hero’s temporary ousting from S.H.I.E.L.D. the story’s climax might come off as a little cheap, letting Stark resume his old heroics without facing any lasting consequences. Of course Marvel’s world has never been a direct copy of the real world, but a heightened version of it, with creators exploring larger societal issues through simpler battles of good vs evil. Some nuance is bound to be lost in the translation. Still, given how much of the run builds itself on Iron Man accepting the weight of his mistakes, transplanting all of his guilt onto a convenient bad guy feels kind of like cheating.
It’s also possible that this is all in the service of a larger message that got lost in the shuffle between creators. While the Knaufs would leave the title on a high note with issue #28, the book’s final arc under Stuart Moore is spent walking back this victory, with Stark meditating on the human cost of the world he helped build. Once the symbol of an aspirational future, Stark has been transformed into something alien and unrecognizable; a hero who’s traded his humanity for the illusion of safety. The villains of tomorrow are gone for now, but the legacy of what was lost to beat them will haunt the hero forever.
SALVAGING A FALLEN HERO
Despite the massive impact it had on Iron Man and the Marvel Universe at large, the legacy behind Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. is complicated to say the least. The run was largely denounced as character assassination during and after its initial release, with readers assuming the book’s story continued the angle of Civil War, which tried (and failed) to argue in favor of Iron Man’s proto-fascist regime. A lot of this can be attributed to an unwillingness to fully commit to the political commentary present in the stories, with the Knaufs downplaying real-world parallels in favor of a more sympathetic take on the character. Of course, saying something isn’t political doesn’t actually make it so.
All art is a product of the culture and perspectives of its time, and by shifting Iron man from another sci-fi adventurer into the icon of a broken nation, the story becomes a commentary on how acting out of fear can have lasting consequences on the individual and the world at large. Subsequent creators would continue to build on this commentary through developments like Norman Osborn’s Dark Reign, with supervillains taking over S.H.I.E.L.D. and using Stark’s resources to terrorize his fellow heroes, something that still plagues the character today. It’s fitting that these events all tie back to a character defined through cycles of destruction and reinvention, giving the people who grew up in this climate the means to process the fear and prejudice of the time, while envisioning a path forward.
While not well-received in its day, Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. demonstrates the importance and weight of a character like Iron Man, elevating him into the symbol of a conflicted and war-torn America before paving the way to a more traditional redemption arc under Matt Fraction. We can’t move ourselves or our heroes forward without confronting our failures, no matter how large. This process can be painful. But it’s through this pain that we can finally start the long road to recovery…and make ourselves and our future into something worth fighting for again.