Retconvention: Metal Men
by Michael Hutchison
Assistant Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the Marc Campbell edited issues of Fanzing. Because those old issues have been removed due to the recent revamp of the site, we'll be re-presenting them over the course of the next few issues.
Have you ever seen a sequel to a great movie that was so awful it ruined your taste for the first one? And I don't just mean endless retreads which destroy the uniqueness of the first film, such as Rocky V or Lethal Weapon 3 or Die Harder. I mean a film which utterly destroys the concept to the point that you can never look at the original in the same light. I see lots of hands raised. Are we all thinking of Highlander 2? I thought so. ("Aliens from the planet Zeist" indeed!)
Now you know how I felt after reading the 1993 Metal Men mini-series ("From the team that killed Superman" as the tagline read). With a script by Mike Carlin, art by Dan Jurgens and a foil-embossed first issue cover (finally, an appropriate cover enhancement!), I was all set to enjoy it. The Metal Men were a favorite team of mine (you'll find out why next month) and seemed ripe for a comeback. John Byrne had laid the groundwork for the series in two wonderful issues of Action Comics, in which he'd proved that the team had life in it if only they could be handled properly.
In four short issues, Mike Carlin not only contradicted much of the team's history but ruined many of their driving concepts.
The Metal Men, as originally conceived, were robotic creations of the brilliant Dr. Will Magnus. Inventor of the "responsometer", a device which allowed robots to mimic emotions, feel pain and behave like humans, his team of six shape-changing robots quickly became a fighting force, defending Earth from many alien and robotic menaces.
Magnus, over time, began to regret giving them personalities, especially once they began taking their character traits from their respective metals. Gold was the de-facto leader of the team, rallying them as a team and often arguing with Magnus. Tin took shape as a small, stuttering robot, his self-image hurt by the commonness and perceived weakness of tin (actually, tin is a very strong metal). Lead was rather thick and stupid. Mercury was a hot-head with a big mouth. Iron was okay, being strong and dependable and often very quiet. Platinum, however...the only female member of the Metal Men, "Tina" became attracted to Will Magnus, behaving like a smitten kitten and throwing herself at him. For years, his pleas to her to stop her amorous displays fell on deaf metal ears.
The Metal Men defied Magnus many times, leaving the safety of the Magnus Industries compound to fight the menace du jour. Sometimes, the villains were other Magnus creations, such as the Gas Gang, the Inheritor or his second Metal Men team (Silver, Cobalt, Osmium, Zinc, Gallium and "Iridia") which he created as replacements for the originals.
Tin, feeling lonely and inadequate, ordered a do-it-yourself robot and created a robotic girlfriend. He constantly called her "Beautiful", although the rest of the team referred to her as Nameless. She was Tin's longtime sweetheart, then she mysteriously vanished without any further mention. Years later, (in Brave and the Bold #187, the immortal "What Ever Happened to What'sername?") it was revealed that Magnus had erased the team's memory of her. Nameless returned and was "alloyed" (married) to Tin for about twenty seconds. Then she was blown up by a Missile Man. Seriously.
Magnus, during the period that Tin and Nameless were a couple, also created a team of five mates for the Metal Men, four women of matching metals and a Platinum Man for Tina. The couples argued, and this team ended up dying, swallowed up by lava in a convenient rip in the Earth.
Over time, the Metal Men developed the self-reliance and self-respect to stand up to Magnus and his mind games. As his possessions, they were denied basic civil rights, yet they were creatures capable of independent thought. They began to speak of their needs and their desire for their own independence. After years of pressure and frustration, Magnus went mad and embarked on a quest to destroy the Metal Men. The MM went undercover, posing as humans for several years. Magnus ultimately regained his sanity and things returned to normal. The Metal Men even declared their freedom as "citizens of the world" at the UN.
Recently, Magnus began spending time in Sub-Basement 12 and would never allow the Metal Men in there. He also refused to rebuild Tin after he was destroyed in a fight with Chemo. The Metal Men began to wonder, "What's in Sub-Basement 12?"
The Metal Men had actually been ret-conned before the term came into common usage. Originally, they had been conceived as robots made of their respective metals, with bolts, gears, circuits and wiring...yet they could somehow shapeshift. As time progressed, it became obvious that the Metal Men couldn't be traditional robots.
John Byrne's two Metal Men stories in Action Comics made some sensible changes. First, it was revealed that the Metal Men were actually liquid metal polymers (this was years before Terminator 2, by the way). Their responsometers were also re-envisioned; now, they were microscopic devices which contained all of the information necessary to give the polymer the properties of the intended metal. While a microscopic device holding all of the data to run a human-like robot may seem far-fetched, it was the only way to explain how the Metal Men could be crushed, stretched into wire or pounded into a thin film and still function.
This was the situation leading up to the Metal Men mini-series. What's in Sub-Basement 12? It could have been anything. And when Sub-Basement 12 was destroyed, the Metal Men discovered what had been in it: their real bodies. Their human bodies.
According to Mike Carlin's mini-series, the Metal Men were actually inventions of Mike Magnus. Mike was a dedicated scientist who spent too much time with his inventions and not enough time with his wife, Sharon. Sharon turned to Mike's brother, Will, for comfort. Will and Sharon also worked at Magnus industries, although Will wasn't nearly as driven as Mike. Sharon was the inventor of the responsometer. (Oddly, the device is now bigger than a casaba melon and the robots are solid metal; thus, both of Byrne's changes were ignored) The Metal Men robots were incapable of functioning, so Mike used a ray device to transfer his consciousness to the Gold robot. ("Mike Gold", get it?) When the robot went haywire from the pain, it shattered the protective glass and Sharon, two other scientists, a janitor and a pizza-delivery guy were also absorbed into robots by the ray device. Only Will escaped. He used the responsometers to subdue their human consciousnesses, then dragged the bodies to Sub-Basement 12. The Metal Men never knew that they were once human, and Magnus spent the next 13 years trying to rejoin them to their bodies.
The mini-series concluded with Gold destroyed forever by a Missile Man (Dang those pesky Missile Men! They keep killing spouses!) and Will becoming "Fictitious Indestructible Metal" Man (Will got his head blown clean off, by the way). In the end, Sharon/Platinum became Will/Veridium's lover; apparently, her feelings for Mike/Gold had ended long before, so she only needed a few minutes of mourning.
Now, before I begin my nit-picking, I should point out that this was probably a great series to the casual observer and any new readers. Carlin put together a decent story, and in many ways the "once human" origin explained (or at least added depth to) some of Magnus' past actions, such as his resistance to Tina's flirting (she was his brother's wife) and his frustration when they placed themselves in explosive situations that my have destroyed their souls forever.
And in many more ways, it didn't work.
If Magnus-type robots can only operate if inhabited by human souls, how do you explain Nameless, the Metal Women, the Platinum Man, the Second Metal Men Team, the Gas Gang, the Inheritor and any of Will Magnus' other inventions who seemed just as lifelike as the Metal Men? For that matter, why would he build robotic mates? And how does the human Tin feel about once marrying a robot?
If the Metal Men were really the souls of his friends, Will Magnus would have behaved very differently than he did in the original comics. He treated the Metal Men as toys or possessions. He threatened to remove their emotions or turn them off completely. He tried to destroy them (okay, he was insane, so we'll forget that). Most importantly, he had been the one who usually sent them into the dangerous situations which reduced them to scrap.
According to the Zero Hour timeline, the Metal Men were created 13 years ago. Iron's kids would be much older and I doubt that the pizzeria where Lead once worked would remember him. In the meantime, the human bodies of the Metal Men would have aged and probably died (unless they were in stasis).
But these are all the minor quibbles of a continuity-driven nitpicker. The main problem with the revised origin is that it adds little to their characters while removing many of the driving forces behind the series.
Gone is the Metal Men's drive for robotic rights and respect. Gone is their ability to throw themselves into battle with the knowledge that they can probably be rebuilt (this is no doubt intentional). Gone is their robot-mentality, allowing them to look at life differently from us humans. Gone is the fun!!!
The "trapped in an inhuman body" origin was pounded into the ground decades before by the Hulk, the Thing, Metamorpho and any number of other characters. There's no new territory to explore there. By killing off their human bodies in the same issue that introduced the concept, the possibility of stories exploring the restoration of their souls to their bodies is nil. (Too bad they weren't included in Underworld Unleashed) There was no point to the idea, no place to go with the concept. They have human souls...and that's it. The Metal Men now have angst for angst's sake. Where do we go from here?
is Editor-In-Chief of Fanzing.com. He is the world's biggest Elongated Man fan
and runs the only EM fan site.
He lives in Rochester, MN.
All characters are DC Comics
This piece is © 2002 by Michael Hutchison.
Fanzing is not associated with DC Comics.
All DC Comics characters, trademarks and images (where used) are DC Comics, Inc.
DC characters are used here in fan art and fiction in accordance with their generous "fair use" policies.
Fanzing site version 7.4