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Drunk Iron Man fighting Machine Man? Drunk Iron Man fighting Machine Man. – Iron Man #168

October 2, 2012

The Iron Man movie franchise, which now is so established it seems like a given, a money-making no-brainer that only the dullest of Hollywood execs would fail to greenlight, was long-gestating. The potential screen adaptation of Tony Stark and his armor-clad adventures went through any number of permutations over the decade leading up to the actual greenlight, with names like Quentin Tarantino and Tom Cruise bandied about at points along the road. There was one constant about all those variations and the fan anticipation around them, though, and that was that they’d have to — HAVE TO — do “Demon in a Bottle” at some point. If not in the first movie, then within the first two minutes of a sequel, Stark would have to be disheveled and drunk, slurring his words as he tries in vain to tuck in his shirt. The most famous storyline of the Iron Man mythos would have to be shoehorned in no matter what.

There was a problem with this line of thinking. A movie is a movie, and a comic book series is a comic book series. They’re different animals. “Demon” didn’t play out overnight, but had stops and starts, which it made it so much more powerful. It was like real life in that regard, with Stark not becoming a railroad-car-hopping hobo overnight, but spiralling downward slowly over the course of time. Once again — LIKE REAL LIFE. Cinema can of course handle such an arc, but it’s not as long a form. There wouldn’t be as much room for the story to breathe. And, most importantly, for the crippling alcoholism of an industrial magnate to be given full vent, the whole, you know, IRON MAN part of the story would have to take a back seat. You think the Ang Lee Hulk (which I admittedly liked quite a bit) had audiences squirming in their seats? Wait until hour two of the Stark sad-fest rolled around. GET BACK IN THE GODDAMN ARMOR AND DO WHAT WE’RE PAYING YOU TO DO.

And it’s not so much Stark’s initial descent that offers the most dramatic power, but the relapse, which would be even harder to put in one two-hour+ film. But comics? They can handle it quite nicely. And that brings us to our topic of discussion for today, which finds Tony deep in the throes of a hellacious relapse, one that will eventually see him lose his company to arch-foe Obidiah Stane.

But what makes this one comic truly special? He fights Machine Man, baby, that’s what.

A few words about Mr. Man… The character has a special place in my heart, primarily because he was in one of the earliest comic books that I ever had as a kid, from a three-pack of Incredible Hulk comics bought in a dusty general store in the early 1980s. In it he fought the Green Goliath (he  apparently has a habit of crossing popular heroes) and the story had one of the most striking Hulk scenes I’ve ever seen in my life. While battling, the Hulk grabbed the sod that he and Machine Man were fighting on, and, like a rug, pulled it out from underneath his foe. That still ranks as one of the greatest moves I’ve ever seen the big guy pull off (as long as you don’t worry too much about the physics and agronomy involved), and Machine Man basks in the reflective glow for having been a part of it. So not only is he a great Jack Kirby creation with a classic Pinocchio obsession with understanding humanity, but he has this feather in his cap. A charmed life.

Of course here he gets his arm ripped off, so it ain’t all that charmed.

This issue (Script: Denny “Black Turtleneck” O’Neil, Pencils: Luke McDonnell, Inks: Steve Mitchell) is right a the beginning of Stark’s rock bottom, a nadir that he’d only triumphantly overcome in issue 200 when he donned the new silver armor. How low is this trough? Here he is, passed out drunk in his office, a tableau complete with a spilled liquor bottle:

When you wake up next to pools of things, you have a problem. (I suppose that wet spot could be barf he projectiled across his desk, but it just doesn’t look chunky enough. BARF TALK.)

Like any good drunk, Stark thinks he can pull himself together in a few minutes with some cold water and a jolt of black coffee. But he has one other ace in the head-clearing hole, one unique to his double life. He thinks slapping on the armor, his hard outer shell in an emotional as well as a physical sense, will make everything all right. Not only does it not, BUT PUTTING ON A HIGH-POWERED WEAPON IS PERHAPS THE WORST THING THAT COULD BE DONE:

This takes “Do not operate heavy machinery…” warnings to the next level. And potential DWIs.

But before we get to any more of this ugliness — ENTER MACHINE MAN, who’s stealing Stilt-Man’s gimmick while scaring the living bejeezus out of a secretary:

Oh, come right in why don’t you.

As you may have picked up, Mac is on the Stark International grounds in search of Iron Man, who he thinks might be a kindred android spirit, one he might be able to compare notes with in his relentless Lieutenant Commander Data quest to be more human. But he’s in for a rude awakening when his quarry walks through the door:

Piss-drunk and paranoid Tony thinks Machine Man is one of Obidiah Stane’s henchmen. Oops. What follows is a drunken Quiet Man brawl across the company campus, with Tony slurring his words (many “lissens” on display), endangering mortals (swinging a steel girder like a baseball bat and nearly decapitating some suit) and making poor Machine Man fight him and try to save lives at the same time. He even manages to completely ruin a complex multi-million-dollar project in his angry drunk rampage:

(Son… is cut off “sonics,” in case you’re wondering.)

Finally Machine Man, who’s still under the impression that he’s fighting a machine, if forced to use a Vulcanish mind meld on Iron Man, and it’s only then that he realizes what he’s up against:

He saves Tony from the freefall (much like Hulk in Avengers, now that I think of it), and then beats a hasty retreat. Here we have a dash of his postgame ruminations, complete with a GRATUITOUS CARDINAL CAMEO:

Stark comes to, perhaps having urinated in his suit, perhaps not, and returns home to change. If you’ve ever wanted to know whether Tony Stark wears boxers or briefs, now the story can be told:

This downer of a story ends on an even bigger downer:

No bother at all.

This issue is one of the stones on the path of Tony Stark’s long battle with the bottle, but it’s a significant one. The fight with the well-intentioned Machine Man represents his darkest hour, when he’s no longer able to reason, to think clearly, and hence becomes just the kind of armored menace that he so often battled. He’s an unaimed missile with Rebel Yell (okay, something a little pricier) on his breath. Would anyone really be all that depressed about Jim Rhodes climbing into that suit with carnage like this? Anyone? Bueller?

You also have to recognize that O’Neil’s deft script hits notes that wouldn’t be possible in a Hollywood blockbuster. Think back to the drunk Iron Man/Rhodes fight in Iron Man 2, which had armored friends pounding each other (rather harmlessly) all through Stark’s (ridiculously desirable) oceanfront mansion. Even if we admit that there was a different emotional baggage because of the friendship between the two combatants, the hooha was over before it began and Stark was soon enough sober and back on his feet. Did that have much impact, beyond the craters left in the floorboards? Could it really compare to this, where there’s no happy ending — for another month, at least — and Tony Stark ends his day slinking off to the nearest liquor store?

That Malibu dustup and the Samuel L. Jackson/Nick Fury pep talk that followed it are probably going to be the extent of the “Demon” presence in the movies. If there’s any point to this post, it’s that that’s not such a bad thing, because comics like this, which are part of that storyline’s sad reprise, are so much better. Throw in poor Machine Man finding out that the “broken” robot he’s battling is actually a “broken” man, and you have a level of pathos that’s hard to replicate.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 3, 2012 2:18 pm

    excellent observation discerning the relative strengths of the genres – long may they discern! I have – after the initial excitement of seeing ‘comic’ action in live action – often been disappointed that there usually isn’t anything else to the film afterwards; even when they get into the character they are recreating a storyline fro the comics which, as you have shown, is just not transferable. I too liked Ang Lee’s Hulk because the whole father/abuse line was a neat cinematic insight (actually, was it, I stopped reading Hulk after ’75?). You have to do different in films. I would love for someone creative to do a Dr Strange film where nothing weird is shown and everything happens (actually it’s a pity that Ingmar Bergman has died, he’d have made an interesting Dr Strange) (or even an Antonioni Dr Strange) …

  2. October 3, 2012 6:07 pm

    Well said, sir.

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