Tony Stark is a character who’s supposed to be all about progress and looking toward the future, but there’s one aspect of his character that’s always seemed a little incongruous: He’s a weapons manufacturer. Part of this is necessary for the redemptive arc that makes him a hero—he’s a war profiteer who comes to grips with the effect he has on the world, and decides to take responsibility for it. But he’s also a futurist, celebrated for being one of the most brilliant minds in the Marvel Universe. Stark’s superpower is his genius, and his history in arms manufacturing informs the way he develops technological solutions. But it’s big. It’s corporate. It’s very out of touch.
Superior Iron Man, however, paints a Tony Stark who’s decidedly different—and relevant.
Superior Iron Man #1 spins out of a few big events in the Marvel Universe. As a result of the Avengers/X-Men crossover story AXIS, (which just crossed its midpoint this week as well, with #5), a psychic event has caused the personalities of several Marvel characters to invert. Selfless characters like Captain America behave selfishly, while villains like Carnage start acting heroically. For Tony Stark, the change was especially drastic—not only has he reverted to the sort of narcissistic and careless person reminiscent of the first Iron Man film, but he’s also moved to San Francisco, kicked sobriety, and taken to using his genius in an astonishing, grossly unethical way—one that’s a clear commentary on the dark power of Silicon Valley.
Spoilers from here on out.
Written by Tom Taylor, with art by Yildiray Cinar, Superior takes place immediately after AXIS #4, in which Tony unveiled his latest invention: Extremis 3.0. While previous versions of Extremis were described as an “enhancile” that effectively made people superhumans, this iteration alters physiology, making you beautiful, fit, and perfect—all you have to do is download a free smartphone app. Tony makes this free to the entire city of San Francisco, and its effects are instantaneous—those with the app, enamored with the supermodel versions of themselves, throw a 24-hour party, reveling in their newfound perfection.
This brings him in direct conflict with his longtime confidant and partner Pepper Potts, who brings up the inherent irresponsibility of such a move, and the consequences they have. She accuses Stark of creating both a “master race” and an “instant underclass” in one fell swoop.
That Superior is set in San Francisco is no accident.
For years now, the Bay Area has been a battleground, a case study in the way tech culture can brush up against and come into conflict with the livelihood and economy of a city. Effectively a mecca for both small startups and tech giants, San Francisco is a case study in the ways the tech-minded few can completely upset a delicate social balance—and not always for the better. In some ways, it’s now widely considered both a suburb of and guinea pig for Silicon Valley. The employees of booming tech companies, flush with cash, rebuild the city in their own image—squeezing out anyone who can’t afford the rents they drive up, instituting their own buses that interfere with public transit, and actively taking advantage of those who aren’t one of them.
An “instant underclass,” if you will.
One of the things that makes superhero stories great is the way they can take very real anxieties and concerns and blow them into proportions larger than life. You can’t punch most of your problems—in fact, many of our biggest challenges are challenges because there’s little clarity or direction towards what we can actually do about them. In a superhero story, challenges are met with some sort of action—there’s a fight to win, a machine to build, or a puzzle to solve.
The problems that are deeply entrenched in tech culture aren’t limited to San Francisco, of course. “Disruption” is the word the scene swears by, and disruption has no boundaries. Disruption can be great! Netflix is pretty disruptive, and Netflix is also pretty great. But it can also be irresponsible, and downright unethical—ride-sharing service Uber has gotten a lot of bad press over this as of late.
At the end of Superior Iron Man #1, the catch to Extremis rears its ugly head. Tony isn’t running a charity. Extremis wears off, and everyone returns to their natural, less-glamourous selves—unless they pay $100 a day for the privilege of being their “best” selves.
And there’s the rub. Tech is great. It’ll make your life better, give you a fast lane through life, and make the rules not applicable to you—if you can afford it.
Sucks to be everyone else.