Note: contains SPOILERS for Marvel’s Secret Empire.
After the tragic climax to Civil War II, Tony Stark was left hovering on the brink of death. Of course, even in a coma, Tony is still larger than life, becoming one of the first major Marvel characters to “evolve” into an artificial intelligence version of himself. In doing so, he also sort-of circumvented the traditional comic book character death trope that often plagues major events. Even without his physical form, though, Tony doesn't show any signs of skipping a beat. Or does he?
Even in his new holographic format, problems from his past still haunt him. One of Stark's oldest problems, which stretches back the iconic ‘70s “Demon in a Bottle” story arc – starting in Iron Man #127, when his faithful butler Jarvis resigns over his drunken abuse. In Secret Empire #1, we discover that even the algorithms which make up Tony Stark’s personality contain some of the same flaws.
The Uprising That Happens in Vegas...
If Secret Empire has made one thing clear, it’s that everyone’s favorite heroes are up a muddy creek minus any means of propulsion. Captain America and his Hydra cronies used the element of surprise to catch the shaken yet ever-cocky superhero community completely off guard. Rogers and his united supervillain front managed their foes by hacking into Vision, mind-controlling powerful Scarlet Witch, trapping Captain Marvel in outer space, and stranding scores of superheroes in a Darkhold dimension around New York City, forcing their remaining enemies into hiding or capitulation.
Still, a tiny pocket of resistance reformed, consisting of one-time Avengers, Champions, and assorted refugees from the fascist fallout, who for the moment are safetly tucked inside an old Fantastic Four bunker in Las Vegas. Here Black Widow and Hawkeye regroup and rebuild, plotting their next moves. The only problem is, the younger revolutionary set have a different modus operandi – namely, they’re a little impulsive and not content to bide their time, when people in trouble. As a result, they attract a little too much attention, with their antics going viral on YouTube before Hydra censors shut things down.
On the other hand, by scooping up would-be Patriot legacy, Rayshaun Lucus, they also retrieved a hacked flash drive stuffed full of secret Hydra info, one which cost Rick Jones his life. Now, all they have to do is convince their resident software whiz, known as “the drunk,” to access it in a timely manner.
Tony Stark Falls Off the Digital Wagon?
Undeniably, it’s been a rough year for Tony Stark. As if falling into a coma and losing his physical form wasn't enough, he also lost the physical part of his ideological war against Captain Marvel. Fighting a fascist threat is tough enough minus a body, without the threat coming from one of his best friends, Steve Rogers. Even in AI form, Tony finds himself falling back on a few crutches, hence his nickname "the drunk" – a moniker he isn't fond of.
When young Rayshaun stands before the once-mighty Iron Man, Tony's face is haggard, gaunt, and covered with stubble. Seeing as he's a made up of hardened light and zeroes and ones, his personality matrix should, theoretically, keep his physical appearance groomed and in tiptop shape. Hence, his scraggly appearance is either result of a conscious desire to appear disheveled or an hiccup in his digital coding. As bizarre as it is to think of a computer program with a drinking problem, Tony behaves much like the surly drunk he was back in the day. So why happened?
By his own admission, he can't drink since he's a hologram, so he call his condition a "code-based modification of my behavioral modifiers." He also claims to be "handling it" but clearly isn't. On top of that, this isn't his first behavioral tic since his inception. Prior to Secret Empire, his concern over the safety of his protégé, Riri Williams (or Ironheart), manifested with a creepy, Skynet vibe. The battle against his former compatriot can’t be easy on him, especially after Tony nearly kicked-off a totalitarian regime of his own in Civil War, and then gave his life fighting against yet another one in Civil War II. Events of late, as well as the internal and external pressures of fighting for his digital and other physical lives are clearly forcing out the glitches in his programming.
When Rayshaun asks why he isn't frantically deciphering the vital information, which could "fix Captain America" and "win the war," Tony explains that the last few missions he's launched resulted in nothing but loss of life. Clearly his fears of further death are forcing Iron Man to second guess his coding, as well as his own makeup. It's also possible his AI personality is experiencing some form of psychosis, in addition to the manifested alcoholism. As bizarre as a robot drunk is (hat-tip to Bender from Futurama), Tony’s reliance on binary intoxicants is almost understandable.
There’s Always Hope
Secret Empire #1 and the Free Comic Book Day offering close with our heroes facing an Empire Strikes Back-style crux. The bad guys are better equipped and prepared, and the good guys are suffering for it. Hydra’s heavy artillery is pounding Las Vegas, and it’s only a matter of time before Tony, CG-buzz or otherwise, Hawkeye, Black Widow, and the rest of the rebels are either captured or forced to retreat deeper into the woodwork. But, much like every good event has its “Han Solo frozen in carbonite” moment, Secret Empire ought to also have its Return of the Jedi-like “the shield is down” moment.
Tony Stark beat his alcoholism once, and he can do it again – there must be a digital chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous by now, right? Carol and company will get out of their space jam, and the ever-resourceful Doctor Strange will break through the Darkhold lock-down eventually. Before long, our heroes will have their “Uprising.” It may not be pretty; it may challenge every member of the remnant superhero community, but it will happen. But will it arrive too late to tear down the fascist wall that Captain America has built around the Marvel Universe? Only time, and future issues, will tell.
Secret Empire #1 and the Free Comic Book Day issue are currently available.