The Marvel Cinematic Universe (hereby referred to as the MCU) has been a major part of American culture, and the theater worldwide for over a decade now. The ingenious interweaving of movie franchises created an entertainment experience that combined the spectacle of a movie with the addictiveness of television. When you reach the end of a film, you have to keep watching to see what’s next. It also doesn’t hurt that the movies have mostly been brilliant, averaging around an 84% on Rotten Tomatoes. That’s not quite an A, but if you come up to bat 21 times in a row and walk out with a statistic like that, you’re doing pretty well for yourself.
And all of this has been built upon the shoulders of Tony Stark. I hear you loud and clear; “What about Captain America?” and a small portion of you, “What about Thor?” Don’t get me wrong…part of what makes the MCU so great is that it’s built upon the shoulders of many, many, strong characters and personalities, to a much greater extent than your average series. However, at the end of the day there is always a singular A-1, push-come-to-shove main character that a story follows, and for this series that man is Tony Stark. He started it all in 2008, and throughout the years he has been the de-facto lead. You could make a solid case that it’s Captain America, the fact that you could is why I love these movies so much. But I think Tony Stark proves to be a more constant presence.
So when we look at Tony, what has his journey been? What’s the main story thread we’ve been following for the past 11 years, all culminating tomorrow in “Avengers: EndGame” ? The plot in question has been deceptively complex, and deals with a lot of principles that Tony holds close that guides every decision he makes, stemming all the way back to 2008’s “Iron Man.”
When we meet Tony Stark, he is living up to the now cliche moniker of a genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist. You know the story, Stark survives a terrorist attack and kidnapping at the hands of his own company’s weapons, then creates the Iron Man suit to heroically escape and change his life forever. This is not only the origin of Iron Man…it’s the origin of Tony Stark as we know him today. This is the event that effectively puts into motion and shapes the character arc that we’ve followed all the way to “Avengers: EndGame.” Not only does Tony go through a near-death experience, he discovers that his fortune has been built on the deaths of innocent people. He always figured that he made weapons, but he made them for the good guys so they could stop the bad guys. But all the while, unbeknownst to him, Stark Industries had been selling to anyone and everyone. In his own words he had “become a part of a system that is uncomfortable with zero accountability.” This idea drives Stark through every decision he makes during the course of these films. How does he protect those that he loves? And how can he be absolutely sure that he’s doing the right thing?
“I saw young Americans killed by the very weapons I created to defend them and protect them, and I saw that I had become part of a system that is comfortable with zero accountability.” – Tony Stark, Iron Man, 2008.
Iron Man 2 doesn’t build off of these ideas too heavily, and has the least to do with our overall story. The film itself was mostly to coast and bide time as we waited for The Avengers; but there are still gems to be found. Between Hammer Tech, The US Government, and Ivan…people are still trying to use Tony’s technology for evil. But the main focus is on Tony Stark making the transition from selfish, irresponsible, narcissistic genius with a handful of good ideas; to being a true hero. We see Tony’s self-destructive habits at play here more than any other entry in the MCU. He drives away Pepper, Roadie… basically anyone who cares about him. By the end of the film though, he’s starting to realize his character defects and grow past them, just in time to team up with everyone in 2012’s “The Avengers.”
“My body literally cannot handle the stress, I never know if you’re gonna kill yourself, or wreck the whole company…I quit.” – Pepper Potts.
—– ‘You deserve better, you’ve taken such good care of me, I was in a tough spot and you got me through it.” – Tony Stark, Iron Man 2, 2010.
This is where the story of the MCU seems to truly open up. For the first time in history, the main characters of 4 different films were colliding to show that they were part of a bigger world. For Tony, this became a major part of his journey going forward. This wasn’t just about him being the biggest, baddest, crime fighter in town anymore. He wasn’t just dealing with people who were after his tech. He lived in a world of Hulk, chitauri, and Thor. He saw beings from other worlds invade his home, cause mass destruction, and in the process…he almost died.
“You’re missing the point, there’s no throne. There is no version of this where you come out on top. Maybe your army comes, and maybe it’s too much for us, but it’s all on you. Because if we can’t protect the Earth you can be damn well sure we’ll avenge it.” – Tony Stark, The Avengers, 2012.
The trauma and character development that these events would create were left mostly untouched in The Avengers, as we would see them begin to unfurl during Iron Man 3. Tony begins having night terrors and panic attacks. He can’t get what happened in New York out of his mind, and as such becomes obsessed with the safety of his loved ones. Namely, one Pepper Potts, the only woman he’s ever loved. How does he keep the Earth safe? How does he keep Pepper safe? The trouble is, he feels he can’t protect the things he cares about without being Iron Man, and Pepper feels he can’t love her the way he truly needs to as long as he is Iron Man. This leads him to give up the moniker and remove the arc reactor. The trouble is, this doesn’t last for long, and soon he’s right back at it again…still being driven mad at the thought of the Earth being in danger, still looking for solutions that seem put himself in harm’s way and alienate people.
“You experience things, and then they’re over and you still can’t explain them? Gods, aliens, other dimensions, I’m just a man in can. — the threat is imminent, and I have to protect the one thing that I can’t live without…that’s you. (Pepper)” – Tony Stark, Iron Man 3, 2013.
This fear reaches a fever pitch in Age of Ultron. Seeing all of the threats in the universe, and not knowing how to handle it, Tony is scrambling to find an answer. He convinces himself that a legion of super robots with AI would be a perfect, unbiased, police force…but this plan goes horribly awry and Stark creates Ultron. This is the moment that a lot of people point to when they explain why they don’t like Tony, especially in regards to Civil War, and I’ll admit, it certainly wasn’t his finest hour. But I would argue that while this was an asinine mistake, it was one rooted in a story that is incredibly relatable. It was more relatable than what the other characters were going through at this time. When he discovered Stark Industries was dealing to terrorists, he began to realize that humans can’t be trusted to do the right thing. When he faced the chitauri he discovered that there are so many threats in this universe that he can’t even begin to fathom. Every time he tried to stop them as Iron Man, he ended up alienating his loved ones, and risking his life by facing things beyond him. He was the first to say it, this was his EndGame, a safety net that allowed everyone to go home and live a normal life. Ironically, like we would come to see with Thanos, Stark was blinded by his own fears and struggles.
“Banner and I were doing research, that would end the team. Isn’t that the mission? Isn’t that the why we fight? So we can end the fight, so we get to go home?” – Tony Stark, Age of Ultron, 2015.
All of these principles are put to the test against Captain America’s own contrasting values, when the two face off in Civil War. After Ultron and subsequent smaller missions, significant damage has been done by The Avengers in their efforts to save others. Buildings demolished, lives lost, destruction left behind them in their wake. Because of this, the United Nations call for an agreement called the Sokovia Accords. Under this plan, The Avengers would be directed by the United Nations, rather than operating independently. Tony Stark supported this decision, Steve Rogers did not, and thus conflict is born. It’s easy to empathize with why Tony would support the accords so heavily. He knows what a system with no accountability is like, he saw it with Stark Industries. One of his major driving forces was that he wouldn’t hand over the Iron Man tech because he didn’t trust anyone to use it, but now he was questioning if he could even trust himself to use it…so being put in check sounded like a welcome solution. A lot of people gave him flack for pushing for this so hard even though Ultron was his fault, but I feel like those people fail to see how big it was of him. Not only did he admit he was wrong, he looked for a solution to his mistakes. Regardless, because of this conflict, The Avengers would split up.
“There’s no decision making process here. We need to be put in check, whatever form that takes, I’m game. If we can’t accept limitations, we’re boundary-less, we’re no better than the bad guys.” – Tony Stark, Civil War, 2016.
Tony has one more pit stop on his way to the Infinity War. After recruiting Peter Parker in the fight against Captain America, Tony continues to be a sort of father figure to him. He sees Peter put himself in danger when he doesn’t have to, and it concerns him. You could say that Tony sees a lot of himself in Peter. As Peter is constantly risking himself and scaring his loved ones for the greater good. You can tell that Tony is terrified that Peter will become just like him, caring more about his alter ego than the people who care about him, and he just wants him to enjoy being a kid.
“What if someone had died tonight? Different story, right? ‘Cause that’s on you. (Peter) And if you died? I think that’s on me.” – Tony Stark, Spiderman: Homecoming, 2017.
Then everything began to wrap up last year in “The Avengers: Infinity War.” There’s so much action in this flick, that there’s less room for character development, but that doesn’t stop Marvel from beginning to weave some satisfying conclusions to the stories we’ve been following. For Tony, the main things are his parallels to Thanos. They both saw disaster unfurl before their eyes, they both became obsessed with stopping it, and in their pursuit of a solution, they took things way too far. Thanos handles his mission with an even greater level of obsession, and no inkling of regret, hence why he’s a villain and Iron Man is a hero…but the connections are still there. While we see their similarities, we also end up seeing their differences. Thanos was willing to sacrifice his own daughter to see his ideas to fruition, while Tony was haunted by the idea of losing Peter who he thought of like a son in order to accomplish his. All of this is brought to a boil when Peter dissipates in Tony’s arms following the snap of Thanos’ fingers.
“You know me?” – Tony Stark.
“I do. You’re not the only one cursed with knowledge.” – Thanos, Infinity War, 2018.
So now you see the story of Tony Stark before you. Kevin Feige and company have managed to use recurring themes and elements throughout these flicks to paint journeys not just within each film, but from 2008 all the way till now. What’s more impressive is that these themes are consistent and cohesive, rather than a collection of mini-arcs. What’s even more impressive than that, is that they have done this for nearly every character they’ve touched, and used each of these stories that have never ceased to tell a grander story involving all of the characters. This masterful accomplishment has created an action series that doesn’t just wow and impress, it causes you to get lost in the world they’ve made. So what now? How will Tony’s arc end? Will we get a satisfying conclusion to his struggles with protection, integrity, and accountability? I guess we’ll have to watch the EndGame and find out.