BY CHAD GREENE
Copyright is held by the author.
SHE WAS out of the picture. So was he, for the most part.
Right at the start of our first FaceTime session, before I had a chance to really look Charlie in the eyes, he tilted down the screen of his laptop to point the camera at —
“An action figure?” I asked.
“Technically,” Charlie replied, “it’s a LEGO buildable figure.”
He held the action figure — sorry, buildable figure — with his left hand. Onto an anonymous frame of gray and black components, he had snapped plates of red and gold. The latter almost matched the metal of the wedding band on his ring finger. I had never really looked at my brother’s ring before. It had been my sister-in-law Heidi’s we were supposed to inspect. Like most men’s, his was simply a plain band of gold. Gold, like the facemask of the otherwise red helmeted head of the figure —
“Of Iron Man?”
“Of Iron Man. LEGO has three of these sets in its Marvel Super Heroes line: Captain America, The Hulk, and Iron Man. Guess you could say these buildable figures give a new meaning to the phrase ‘Avengers Assemble!’” Charlie laughed.
I didn’t. “Huh?”
“I assembled these LEGOs into an Avenger.”
Apparently, this was supposed to be some sort of a hint. I imagined he was winking. But, because of the camera angle, I couldn’t see the top half of Charlie’s face. With the tip of his nose at the edge of the frame, all that was visible were the characteristically clean-shaven cheeks and chin. Below that, the customary collared shirt and knotted necktie he wore for his job as a newspaper reporter. Except for the toy in his hand, my usually serious sibling looked — as always — all business. — and the blank look upon it.
“In the comics, ‘Avengers Assemble!’ is the battle cry of the Avengers — the team of superheroes that Captain America, The Hulk, and Iron Man are members of,” he explained.
“Superhero wasn’t my favourite flavour of comics,” I reminded him.
“Right, right. It’s just that Heidi always dismisses things like this as ‘boy stuff,’ so I sort of save them for the times when you and I talk . . . ,” he trailed off.
“Where is Heidi?”
“She’s been travelling a lot lately. For professional development. She met some friends on the conference circuit. One of them is always emailing her — I mean, them — whenever he hears about another one.” He thought about that for a moment before observing, “Haven’t heard from her yet today.”
“As I admitted last time, I’m no expert on the Avengers, in general, or on Iron Man, in particular,” I said at the start of our second FaceTime session. “From what I can recall, though, he wasn’t so . . . sharp.”
Charlie stopped tugging at his wedding ring with the thumb and forefinger of his right hand — pulling it off, pushing it on, pulling it off, pushing it on — and used those two digits to instead adjust the tension in Iron Man’s wrists. The twin swords in the superhero’s hands — silver and smooth in front, red and serrated in back — pointed even more directly toward the camera.
“At first, I followed the directions that came with the set,” Charlie said. “But then . . . well, the only offensive weapons that out-of-the-box suit of armour had built into it were the unibeam in its chest plate and the repulsor rays in its gauntlets. Those seemed sufficient to deal with threats at least an arm’s length away, but then I wondered, ‘Well, what if the threat to the man inside the armor was close — so close, he could basically embrace it? What if his energy levels were low, too low to push the threat away with those electromagnetic charges?’”
“So . . . swords?”
“Swords, as a start. But that isn’t all.” With the forefinger on his right hand, Charlie first pointed out jagged golden blades curving out of Iron Man’s forearms. Then, he flipped some sort of switch on his hero’s back, and two additional arms erupted out of his shoulders — arms ending in gigantic claws.
“Wouldn’t those . . . things hold the threat against his chest?”
“Why would he want to hold something so dangerous so close?” I asked.
With his left hand, Charlie turned the figure of Iron Man toward his face. As in our first FaceTime session, the camera angle allowed a view of only the bottom half of his face. With his right hand, he rubbed the uncharacteristic stubble that bristled out of his cheeks and chin. The customary collared shirt was still there, but for the first time in my memory he wasn’t wearing a necktie — knotted or otherwise. He had slipped from business to business casual. “To let the sharp edges do their work,” he answered.
“And where did you get all those sharp edges?”
“I just started driving around from toy store to toy store, buying compatible buildable-figure sets to scrounge spare parts from.”
“Oh, I’ve had plenty of free time lately, what with Heidi always out of town.” He sighed. “She left again last night — for Florida, this time. Swear she packed more swim suits than business suits.”
“Speaking of sharp edges, there isn’t a razor blade built into the current incarnation of Iron Man? How’s Heidi going to feel about all that stubble when she gets back?”
“When she gets back?” Charlie scoffed. “If she comes back, she’s going to hate it.”
Those sharp edges were replaced by bulky bulwarks between our second and our third FaceTime sessions. Clearly, the focus of Charlie’s strategy had shifted from offence to defence — from armaments to armor.
Instead of those silver-and-red swords, Iron Man now wielded twin golden shields — one of which hid most of Charlie’s left hand. Above those shields bulged shoulders supplemented with surplus crimson crenellations that crowned a chest that had literally tripled in size. Although, as prescribed by its prefix, there was still only one unibeam at its centre, that was now framed by two additional torsos — one tapering toward the figure’s left shoulder; the other, toward its right.
From what I could discern of Charlie behind the figure in the foreground of the frame, his profile looked similarly filled out. The sharp, sparse stubble had transformed into a soft, thick beard. Folds of fabric — the hood of his casual sweatshirt — made his neck look wider and his shoulders look broader.
“Why not the Hulk, then?” I asked.
“What?” Charlie sounded distracted — almost startled that I had broken the less-than-comfortable silence.
“You said LEGO also has a buildable figure of the Hulk, right? And —”
“And Captain America. That’s right.”
“So, why Iron Man?”
“I suppose it’s . . . it’s that the character could just as easily be called Irony Man. Because, the armour looks like the greatest threats to the man inside are external. And his colourful confrontations with those external threats — those ridiculous supervillains — are the principle appeal of his story to people who only look at the surface level. But the deeper reader understands that the greatest threat to the man is internal — remembers that the primary purpose of the original Iron Man armour, of its essential electromagnetism, was to protect Tony Stark from an internal threat. He had been ambushed. Wounded. Something sharp was about to pierce his heart. A piece of shrapnel from a landmine explosion. The armour was a life-support system, its magnetic magic meant to temporarily stop the shrapnel’s deadly descent toward his heart.
“So, why Iron Man?” Charlie echoed my question.
With his right hand, he pushed the shield in Iron Man’s left hand out of the frame, revealing his own naked ring finger — a band of un-tanned skin where a band of gold had been before.
“Because,” Charlie choked out, “as Tony Stark reveals in the last line of the first Iron Man movie, ‘I am Iron Man.’”