Iron Man recently celebrated its 500th issue with an extra-length story that serves as a great single story, a remarkable character study of Tony Stark that returns to a common theme of Iron Man's adventures: Stark's fear of the technology he creates falling into the wrong hands and doing more harm than good. What makes this book notable is that it shows just how far ahead Tony is willing and able to plan in order to respond to those fears if they're ever realized. And it shows the extremes he'll go to, the things and people he'll sacrifice in the name of it.

If you haven't picked up Invincible Iron Man #500 yet, you should; it serves as a great singular story, a remarkable character study of Tony Stark, and a well-constructed epic that weaves together present and future narratives. Writer Matt Fraction continues to use Stark, his friends, and his enemies to full effect, crafting moments of humor, drama, action and emotional payoff over the course of fifty-six pages. A team of artists join Fraction, with series regular Salvador Larroca and colorist Frank D'Armata taking the present day story while the art/color combos of Nathan Fox and Javier Rodriguez, Carmine Di Giandomenico and Matthew Wilson, and Kano handling one of the three separate threads of the future story. It all combines impressively, making this a book to pick up even if you haven't been steadily following the series. Which you will probably be tempted strongly to do once you put this down.

As the issue opens in the present day, Tony is tracking down Peter Parker in order to solve a mystery regarding the weapon he was developing back when Parker worked for him, which he can no longer remember due to his memory wipe. Their discoveries lead to Iron Man, with an unasked-for assist by Spider-Man, stopping a group of anti-high technology anarcho-terrorists from building Stark's weapon. There are a few nods to Stilt-Man, the villain Fraction memorably killed off during his Punisher run, that serve up more than a few laughs. But the story itself takes up few pages compared with the bulk of the issue, a connected piece taking place in the year 2052.

If Marvel comics have taught me anything it's that the future is an awful place to be where everything will be much, much worse than it is now. See Days of Future Past. Or Old Man Logan. Or Jason Aaron's recent Deathlok arc from Wolverine: Weapon X. Or the upcoming Age of X. And now the future setting of Invincible Iron Man 500 can be added to that list.

It's a post-apocalyptic wasteland where human survivors have been hunted to near extermination by robots and cyborgs in the service of the Mandarin. Tony's son and granddaughter are each part of opposing sides in the conflict, while Tony himself suffers from his past defeats and tries to find a way to save the world again.

For whatever reason I'm often impressed by stories like this one that take a well known comic character and present something that's a potential ending to their story, as in Old Man Logan or Kingdom Come. Comics often reset to the status quo, or something close enough to it, at the end of a storyline. And the paths that characters take can often deliver them back to the general area of a starting point.

By telling a story that suggests a possible final resolution, there's the opportunity to show a more meaningful path for the character. And here the creative team manages to have the best of both worlds, showing a potential ending to Tony Stark's story that's significant has something powerful to say about who the character is, and flows naturally from his history, in the hands of Fraction and everyone else who contributed to Iron Man's story before him. It's a daring choice, but it's well done.

The art for the three future storylines is uniformly great, with Kano's story about Stark's granddaughter most effectively conveying a gritty, harsh future that serves as a backdrop for a conflict taking place on a massive scale. Di Giandomenico and Wilson show off a more technologically advanced sector of the dystopian future in their story, but still keep the tone consistent with the other two works. It rounds out an all-around great effort in a way that makes me willing to forgive them for making me watch an elderly Mandarin take part in an orgy.

Finally, Larocca and D'Armata's art for the present timeline piece holds up to the same high quality the book's been hitting, and its more realistic portrayals do create a nice contrast with the more stylized art styles of the future sections. My one pet peeve, that I would prefer to be able to look at Tony Stark and not hear his lines in my head as if they're delivered by the actor who played Sawyer on Lost, stands. But that's a minor complaint for an overall visually impressive book created by an elite team of artists.

I expect there may be some complaints targeted at the nature of the story's structure. I'm sure there will be people worrying about the connotations of a post-apocalyptic future ruled by the Mandarin appearing on the pages of an in-continuity book. To anyone with those concerns, I'm going to advise taking it easy. Don't start constructing counter-arguments in your head about how all the other heroes couldn't have let that happen. Don't take the story literally. Instead, just view it as an examination of Tony, of how dedicated he is, of how clever he is, and of what he's able to survive.

Something else to take away from the big five-oh... -oh is excitement for the future of Fraction's run on the title. So far the two major appearances for the Mandarin have come in the Invincible Iron Man annual and now here in issue 500. In the first case it was a solo story with no interaction with Tony whatsoever, in this case it happens far in the future.

We've yet to see any present day confrontations between Iron Man and Mandarin whatsoever, and yet still Fraction has been able to establish the character as a big deal and as a deadly serious threat. With the Mandarin popping up again in the present at the end of the previous issue, I can't wait to see where the series goes from here.

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