And we’re back to Friday. The regular weekend theme columns will be a little shook up this week: I’m going to see Prometheus in the morning, so I might not be able to fit in my documentary once that’s been written up. It depends on how many beers I go out for afterwards! But for now, here’s a nice wee cartoon for you.
Far too much gold spandex.
In an abandoned slaughterhouse in Texas, two men inject another with a mysterious substance. He screams in agony, falling into a coma as his body seemingly begins to mutate. Meanwhile, a renowned scientist and researcher commits suicide, leaving a note apologising for letting the Extremis get out. His associate Maya Hansen calls her old friend Tony Stark to ask for his help, neither of them knowing the twists and turns their lives will soon take. Hilarity ensues.
If you have kids that came up to you after watching the big screen versions of Iron Man or The Avengers and said “yeah, those were good I suppose, but what they really needed was more exploding heads” then worry no more because I have got just the thing! Released in 2010 under the Marvel Knights banner, this is a ‘motion comic’ adaptation of the six-part book of the same name from 2006 written by Warren Ellis. The book was fairly revolutionary at the time, being as it was the first major retcon of Iron Man’s* origin story since his creation. A lot of elements from this book – from the Afghanistan capture to the look of the Mk. III itself – would eventually find their way into Jon Favreau’s first movie, which went into production not long after Extremis was published. In fact, the book’s artist Adi Granov was drafted in to design the movie version of the armour (amongst other elements) and received a producer credit for his troubles. The book has been so universally well-received that the main plotline is reportedly the basis for the upcoming Iron Man 3, directed by Shane Black, which started shooting just this week. That was 28 May 2012 for those of you reading this in the future…
The motion comic style of animation is being used more and more over the last few years. In case you don’t know, it basically involves taking the artwork directly from the book and animating only key elements within each frame, leaving the majority static. It’s a very stylised way of working that strips out all the fancy distractions you can sometimes get with animation leaving only the strength of the original art and the voice performances. Because of their very nature, motion comics also tend to be almost entirely faithful to the source material.
For anyone who only knows this character by way of Robert Downey Jr., let me give you a little background: nobody knows that Tony is Iron Man. The cover story suggested by The Mighty Coulson at the end of the first film – that the guy in the suit is an anonymous bodyguard working for Stark Industries – is the accepted truth in the books. As well as this minor nugget, pen-and-ink Tony is a much more brooding and introspective figure than movie Tony. By the time of this story in particular, he has been Iron Man for quite a few years and he has been through a lot. It is an interesting foreshadow of where movie Tony might end up. This difference is best exemplified in one scene right at the start of the animation, where Tony is being interviewed by an anti-war documentarian. The filmmaker (based on and even resembling real-life journalist and anti-war activist John Pilger) tries to goad Tony by talking about his past as a weapons designer and arms dealer only for Tony to admit that he feels more guilt about the failure of his humanitarian efforts to improve the world in any real way. As Iron Man, Tony has actually killed quite a lot of people; it is clear this weighs on his soul.
What Ellis then does in this story is to strip Tony of his emotional safety net – there’s no Jarvis, no Rhodey, even Pepper is absent – and put him up against a new enemy so powerful that he is almost killed. In this weakened state, he decides it is time for Iron Man’s next upgrade. His old flame Maya Hansen has been working with Dr. Aldrich Killian to create Extremis: an advancement of the Super Soldier serum that consists of a nanotech solution injected into the brain. This solution basically rewrites the body’s own internal blueprint in whatever way you tell it to, giving the subject all kinds of abilities. Tony has himself injected with a dose that will heal his injuries and enable him to control the Iron Man suit directly from his central nervous system, as well as getting a new under-suit made of the nanotech itself that will be stored inside his body and will emerge and assemble itself by thought command. I think you’ll agree, this is some freaky shit. Unfortunately, there also appear to a side effect of enhanced aggression that does not bode well for the future.
While the book has had a lasting impact on the character of Tony Stark/Iron Man, it is quite small in scope itself. There are only really three main characters – Stark, Hansen and the antagonist Mallen – and when animated, the running time is barely an hour. Strictly speaking, it is more of a mini-series than a single movie. Netflix has it broken into three 20 minute episodes, each equivalent to two issues of the six-issue book. It has some interesting things to say about Stark and some intriguing implications about his future, but taken in isolation I found it came up a bit short. This story is just one chapter in the life of Iron Man; you need to keep finding out what comes next to be able to appreciate it fully.
I will say this though: I was already looking forward to Black’s Iron Man 3, but this has whetted my appetite just that bit more. As I mentioned earlier, it has been confirmed that elements from Extremis will be integrated into the feature film. Killian and Hansen will be in there for a start (played by Guy Pearce and Rebecca Hall respectively) but the film will also include Pepper, Rhodes and apparently The Mandarin – Iron Man’s Lex Luthor. One thing Shane Black will almost certainly change is the violence in this story. If this was shot live action as is, it would be a guaranteed R rating. People get incinerated, heads get popped like overripe tomatoes, at one point Iron Man blasts a whole right through a guy’s chest with his repulsor. Despite my initial assumptions, this is not a kids’ film, although those of a certain disposition will love it.
I don’t usually embed clips into these columns, but I thought I would make an exception in this case. The style of these motion comics is so striking that I just really wanted to show it off a little.
*I keep typing Iron Nan since I’m not really looking at the keyboard, and now I can’t help thinking who freaking awesome that story would be: 83-year-old Gladys Stark is fed up of the constant noise from her neighbours while she’s trying to watch her soaps. Forced to the end of her patience, she dons the hi-tech armour built by her grandson Tony and leaps into action. Armed with rocket-propelled knitting needles and a rolled-up copy of Women’s Weekly, she becomes the masked superhero IRON NAN!