When Stan Lee and his various collaborators laid ground work for the Marvel Universe over 50 years ago, they also created a massive conflict; the battle of the super scientists. The clash between those who would use the fantastic inventions of the Marvel Universe to create and those who use them to conquer and destroy has spawned many memorable enmities including Reed Richards vs. Doctor Doom, Spider-Man vs. Doctor Octopus, and Iron Man vs. the Mandarin.
In the current "Long Way Down" story arc of writer Matt Fraction and artist Salvador Larroca's "The Invincible Iron Man" series, the war between Tony Stark and his scientific arch enemy has escalated and exploded onto a global stage. CBR News spoke with Fraction about the state of the war and the various combatants that have been drawn into it.
The latest clash between the Mandarin and Iron Man is the result of years of planning by the Mandarin -- if not decades. During that time the Master of the ten Makluan Rings recruited many allies and pawns, chief among them some of Tony Stark's other enemies: Ezekiel Stane, Stane's girlfriend and the Mandarin's daughter Sasha Hammer, and Sasha's mother Justine. Mandarin and his allies then used their wealth and influence to recruit and upgrade an army of Iron Man's classic villains and exploit a recent moment of weakness by Tony Stark that saw him fall off the wagon of sobriety during the "Fear Itself" story line.
The Mandarin's various attacks have all been extremely vicious and calculated. That's partly due to the villain's cruel nature and partly due to the similarities and differences between him and Tony Stark.
"I don't know if the Mandarin would really allow himself to articulate it, but I think he sees Tony and himself as twins. I think he feels they are reflections of each other," Fraction explained. "Their origin stories are similar. Their lives led them to these caves and they emerged changed and saved by technology. Stark went one way and became a real, true person in the eyes of the world. Whereas what Mandarin found in his cave somehow warped and perverted him even further.
"As a writer you inherit decades worth of history and stories, but those patterns and symmetries are the kinds of stuff you look for," Fraction continued. "The Mandarin is basically Tony's opposite number. He's the Joker to Tony's Batman; or the Green Goblin to his Spidey. There's a reason that Mandarin resonates in particular regardless of how well or embarrassingly he's been handled in the past. So it's complicated, but they both recognize in one another a certain reflectiveness."
When "Long Way Down" began in "Invincible Iron Man" #516 Tony Stark went on the offensive against the Mandarin. His primary move was to publicly abandon the Iron Man identity and secretly ask for a little help from his friends. In issue #518, on sale now, a new version of the Iron Man armor piloted by Tony's friend James "Rhodey" Rhodes appeared and attacked a group of Mandarin backed Somali pirates and their chief enforcer, the armored villain known as Firepower. The pirates and Firepower were completely unprepared for Rhodey's attack and were soundly vanquished. However, that doesn't mean the tide is turning in Stark's war against the Mandarin.
"I think nobody expects to win a chess match without sacrificing some pieces," Fraction explained. "What you're seeing are battles within a larger war. Steps will be taken forward and steps will be taken back, but Mandarin's plan has a grand sweep and a grand design and it remains on course. This is a full-scale war fought on an incredibly intimate scale."
Rhodey's role in "Invincible Iron Man" has been growing ever since "Demon," the arc that preceded "Long Way Down" and fired the opening shots in the latest Iron Man-Mandarin war. Now that he's piloting the new Iron Man armor Rhodey is set to play the biggest role he's ever played in Fraction's four-year run on "Invincible Iron Man," and the writer couldn't be happier.
"For one reason or the other I haven't really been allowed to write Rhodey very much. He always shows up, but then there's always been another requirement for him somewhere that meant he couldn't be in this book. Tony and Rhodey have a great Butch and Sundance style relationship and that's something I've wanted to write for like 50 issues. I've barely gotten a chance to explore that relationship so I'm trying very quickly to make up for lost time," Fraction remarked. "Plus Rhodey has an entirely different vibe and attitude than Tony, which is nice to write. We're at this point in our master story line for the series where the audience is now kind of on the same page as Tony. We know what Tony knows and what Rhodey knows, and the world that we're watching knows something else. So we're actually ahead of the game in a couple of instances, which is another fun place to be, especially with the two of them."
Rhodey isn't the only supporting player that got a chance to shine in "Invincible Iron Man" #518. Readers of the issue also got to see Bethany Cabe, Tony's friend and the head of security at his company Stark Resilient, go one on one against the villain known as the Spymaster.
"As you saw in the issue Bethany is very dangerous and extremely capable at her job. I think the problem with her since her recent return to the book is Tony hasn't been letting her do her job. He's got issues with control and asking for help so he has this head of a security that hasn't been provided with all the information she needed to do her job," Fraction said. "So Bethany is another case of being able to put a face on Tony's problems, the real world, and and the villain's plot. It's having someone standing in front of Tony saying, 'Hey. You fucked this up.' She can show him how things are done; how actual healthy human beings tackle their problems. Tony can’t compartmentalize everything no matter how hard he tries.
"She's supposed to be his chief of security; his Worf if you will. Because any infringement upon Tony, Iron Man, or Resilient reflects flaws in Tony," Fraction continued. "Tony is not fond of feeding her all the information, though. So we the reader and Pepper have known for a long time that there's a mole within Stark Resilient. Bethany found out very recently and shortly after that she found herself in a physical confrontation with Spymaster."
Bethany encountered the Spymaster as he was rampaging through the offices of Stark Resilient, something the covert corporate raider isn't really known for. "In the next couple of months you're going to see what was really going on with Spymaster. Basically he's lost his mind and what we're seeing here with this sort of one man assault on Resilient was never what he was supposed to do. This wasn't his job. He's lost it and kind of gone rogue. He's stuck between his mission at Resilient, his relationship with Tim, and his bosses at Hammer industries and what they tasked him to do. I basically wanted to tell a story about a deep cover operative who loses it. This is what we're seeing now. We'll see more of Spymaster and why he went off the reservation like this. But the short version is -- he fell in love."
"Invincible Iron Man" #518 saw another psychologically unhinged villain emerge to perhaps complicate Mandarin's plans, Lieutenant Doug Johnson III, the original pilot of the Detroit Steel battle armor. During the "Fear Itself" story line Johnson fought the villainous Grey Gargoyle who had been turned into the powerful avatar of a destructive god. The battle ended with Johnson turned to stone and the world believed him dead. Johnson did not perish, though. He survived his encounter with the Grey Gargoyle and in issue #518 he went after the person who took his place as the public face of the Detroit Steel armor, Sasha Hammer.
"I don't know that whatever was wrong with him was fixed when he was 'put back together again' after 'Fear Itself.' He and his suit are linked on a spiritual level from his perspective. When he doesn't have his suit he's not anything. So he wants to be at one with it again He's a mad man at this point whose goal is to be the one true Detroit Steel," Fraction explained. "Not to get too writerly, but in a story about dark twins like Stark and the Mandarin, Tony and Rhodey, Sasha and Justine -- we're seeing echoes and patterns throughout in characters like Spymaster and Detroit Steel, both operatives of the bad guys and both sort of fraying in different ways and lashing out against the broad scope and death and darkness of this plan that Mandarin, Stane, and Hammer have been cooking for so very, very long."
The final pages of "Invincible Iron Man" #518 saw a third wild card emerge as Ezekiel Stane freed himself from Mandarin's control. When the Mandarin originally offered Stane the chance to join forces the young villain eagerly accepted, but Stane soon discovered that by joining forces with the Mandarin he had become completely subservient to the villain. In "Invincible Iron Man" #517 he began secretly working on a way to break the Mandarin's hold over him and on the last page of #518 a seemingly freed Stane broke into the villain's office and declared his independence.
"Zeke wants to kill both Tony Stark and the Mandarin, but going into issue #519 his immediate priority is the Mandarin. This gem thing, that you see in the issue, his father used to wear it. I don't know how deep your Iron Man history goes, but when Obadiah Stane first showed up he was almost this David Bowie-style villain. He wore a fur lined cape, was shirtless, and had this gem in the middle of his forehead," Fraction remarked. "So I had this idea that his father put it inside of him as a child, after that child had disappointed him. So Zeke was bullied, controlled and manipulated by his father, and now the Mandarin has been toying with him. The fact that he's basically been manipulated by someone his entire life is really where we're at right now. At this point Zeke is quite possibly the most dangerous man in the world. He's become completely unhinged at the end of #518."
The impact of Stane, Detroit Steel, and Spymaster on the larger Mandarin versus Iron Man conflict will become clear as "Long Way Down" moves towards its conclusion in "Invincible Iron Man" #520, on sale July 4. "Everything is kind of out in the open by the end of #520. Then the next story line is called 'The Future' and it's about, um, what comes next," Fraction stated. "If I'm doing my job properly the end of issue #520 will be a gasp out loud moment. We're now deep into this covert war between Stark and Mandarin. Things are at a full boil and what comes next will hopefully pay off in spades for both long and short term readers of the book as Tony fights at long last his greatest, most devious nemesis."
Some time between the end of "Long Way Down" and the beginning of "The Future" Tony Stark will become a prisoner of the Mandarin, which means readers will get to see a lot more of the villain's base of operations, Mandarin City. "You'll get a better feel for the city and what happens there," Fraction said. "It's a weird, industrial city that is somehow independent of China and everything else. It's a place designed to manufacture Mandarin's dreams of empire."
Readers will also get a chance to see how well defended the Mandarin's industrialized megalopolis is because Tony Stark's friends aren't about to take his imprisonment lying down. During "The Future" a new team of armored heroes will gather together to try and liberate Stark from the Mandarin's clutches. Fraction couldn't say much about the team or the plot of "The Future" because it's the third and final act in the massive war against the Mandarin, something his entire run has been building toward.
"The group that gathers to rescue Tony isn't an official revival of the Iron Legion team that appeared in 'Iron Man' #300," Fraction said. "If you're a long time Iron Man reader you'll hopefully appreciate the smile and the nod to it, but it's never quite articulated or specific.
"I know the solicits have mentioned some things about the group and what they'll encounter, but I would prefer people discover that stuff when they read the book. We're at a point where if you're enjoying the series you should stop reading the solicits," Fraction continued. "I've managed to avoid every 'Prometheus' trailer and viral video since the first one. I had a realization that I want to go and enjoy this where I feel like I've already seen like two thirds of the new Batman movie. I feel like there's no surprises left in that. So if you're a fan of this series, my advice is to stay clear of the solicitations and go into this as clean as you can. We've been heading toward this story since issue #1. As the month's go on and this story progresses my ultimate goal is to give readers an epic Tony versus Mandarin battle that's fought on a global stage."
"Invincible Iron Man" #519 by Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca goes on sale June 20.