Dark Ages’ Steampunk Iron Man Makes No Sense

WARNING: The following contains major spoilers for Dark Ages #6, available now from Marvel.

Marvel has always leaned into the production of alternate Earth storylines without that take place in a limited series format. From the original Secret Wars to the second, these storylines have been immensely popular as well as productive. Some characters conceived in these far flung dimensions, where the butterfly effect has taken hold and birthed truly unique circumstances around familiar faces, have become mainstays in the Prime Earth continuity. This would include Dark Beast, Miles Morales and the original Venom.

Dark Ages has a simple premise executed with stunning artwork and well crafted world-building. Essentially, what would the Marvel Universe look like if the lights were turned off, forever? It also plays with the question of what the modern convenience of electricity is worth since it pits the heroes in a predicament where they are assured annihilation if they ever did somehow achieve their goal, though it seems impossible to do so. Instead they adapt and build something from the ashes of dead electrons that they can be proud of in the most idealistic fashion. However incorporating a cog and coal powered Iron Man suit pushes the boundaries of that paradigm without supplying a reasonable sense of a how and why that feels necessary.

Iron Woman Pepper Potts Dark Ages 4

Dark Ages, written by Tom Taylor, artwork by Iban Coello and colored by Brian Reber features the aftermath of a brutal awakening at the center of the Earth. An artificial intelligence with Galactus level power called the Unmaker has been sleeping in the Earth's core since it was a bubbling primordial rock and has recently gone back online. Its emergence would crack the world like an egg and so a carefully selected team of Earth's mightiest were sent to defeat the gargantuan automaton. Vision, the Scarlet Witch, the Invisible Woman, the Thing and Doctor Strange were sent but only the Invisible Woman would survive. The Unmaker was not destroyed but he was rendered inert due to Strange, with his dying breath, opening a portal to a giant neutron star that emitted an electro magnetic pulse. He died almost immediately after crafting it and so it remained open, saturating the planet in that deadening emission.

Seven years passed and those who survived the fall of civilization set their hearts and minds to building a new one. The innovations of super genius academia were able to innovate alternative methods for refrigeration, lighting and the various means and modes of mass production. Chemiluminescence was achieved through synthetic activations capable of supplying power at exponentially efficient rates. Tony Stark learned alchemy and used his skills to continue crafting Iron Man armor, only now it was a bulky contraption harnessed with leather straps, powered by a furnace the size of a commercial oven and belching plumes of thick smoke from its exhaust.

Even with the most innovative science and pseudo science, the concept of Iron Man armor is predicated on electricity in some form or another. While there were some interesting surprises, like Spider-Man's web shooters, that did not function after the portal yawned open Stark's tech seems rooted to the concept of electrical current in some iteration. The monstrous heft of the armor alone implies that there are mechanisms in place designed to replace the modalities that once made the exoskeleton sleeker. That suggests cumbersome joint levers, hydraulic systems and simple gears that would take up that much space and at the same time burn up combustible fuel.

As a point of comparison, Spider-Man's non electric web shooters required its own backpack exhaust that burned hot with every string of webbing he and his daughter let fly and that was simply to propel viscous threads of sticky goop toward a target within a specified range. The Iron Man suit not only has to confer mobility but it also has powerful flamethrowers capable of scorching possessive symbiotes off of their hosts. Even with the application of whatever inspired coolant systems the combined intellect of Earth's finest minds could create it seems like a flawed set of purpose to outfit a clanky suit of plates toward that purpose. The book could of course explain it all away with a few panels of dialogue documenting how and why the feat was accomplished, but it deigns to do so.

Instead of making the case as to why the armor should or could exist in the world as it is, it simply appears on the page as rote obligation because of how integral the idea of Iron Man is to expansive Marvel storytelling as opposed to supporting his presence with a cursory understanding of the underlying mechanics. Doom is alive and well, and an admirer of Stark's work, and magic is also still very potent. If the armor were buoyed in some way by eldritch means and Iron Man had become some type of technomancer in addition to an alchemist then that would have been an interesting take on the character and opened up other potential mystical avenues for others.

However the conceit of the books are the reinvention of the world through the means that were available and attained only through the application of knowledge. Alchemy in this sense is treated as an intellectual pursuit and not a realm of charlatan quackery, but even then the idea of it is hard to justify. Storm has to push aircraft carriers across the ocean with her mastery of the weather, draining her considerable power. The Coast Guard consists of Ant-Man riding a dragon but Tony Stark, and Pepper Potts by extension, have found out a way to localize flight and movement through burning fuel in an efficient way that allows a suit of armor to walk, fly and burn whatever stands in its way? Given the world in which it resides it simply feels forced and nonsensical, settling for a cool aesthetic without devoting much weight behind the concept.

Dark Ages #6 is written by Tom Taylor and illustrated by Iban Coello. The final issue of the limited series is now on sale from Marvel.

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