Nearly 11 years ago – the summer of 2008 to be exact – I was living in Boston and had no strong feelings about comic book characters, thank you very much. It was sweltering that year and I had developed a habit of ducking into the movies to enjoy air conditioning, which is how I found myself wandering into Iron Man. I had no real expectations beyond a fun action flick and I certainly didn’t anticipate imprinting on Tony Stark. But that’s exactly what happened. Over a decade and eight Tony-heavy movies later and I’m an insufferably proud member of #TeamIronMan. He’s my genius billionaire playboy philanthropist and goddammit do I love him.
Aside from being a horrifically precise scientific rendering of My Type, Tony is the heart and soul of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s no accident that his face is always given a place of prominence in the Marvel opening credits; he’s practically the personification of superhero movies writ large. Tony is flashy and fun and loud and loves being a hero. When you dig in a little bit, what you find is one of – if not the – strongest character arcs of any cinematic superhero, regardless of what side of the Marvel/DC fight you stand on. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the same can be said of the man who brings Tony to life. This is the role that brought Robert Downey Jr. back to us and he’ll never forget it; in return, he’s Marvel’s dutiful, snarky, loving Godfather (or Bobfather), welcoming new cast members into the fold with open arms and inviting them to his home for early Black Panther screenings. Yes, really. Hell, his identity is so intrinsically linked to Iron Man that Robert Downey Jr. LITERALLY answers to Tony.
But nothing gold (and red) can stay. I was convinced I’d lose him in Infinity War, but my man made it through. For now. So as the OG Avengers meet their Endgame, please join me in an appreciation for the road Tony Stark has walked (and flown. and blown up.) these past eleven years.
“I had become part of a system that is comfortable with zero accountability.”
When we first meet Tony Stark, he’s… well he’s a nightmare person. Don’t get me wrong; I still love the hell out of him. But it’s against my better judgement because honestly he’s insufferable. Tony inherited everything from his equally obnoxious father Howard, which means he’s been rich as sin for his entire life. He has no regard for responsibility, he’s a cad, he’s dripping in privilege and his ego is through the roof. Still, if Tony Stark wasn’t every bit as brilliant as his dad, he wouldn’t have sped through MIT or been made CEO of Stark Industries at the wise old age of 21; and he certainly wouldn’t have been a threat to Obadiah Stane. It’s Obadiah who pulls the plot strings, landing Tony in Afghanistan and playing the part of the Big Bad. But before any of that goes down, Tony’s proud to be the face of the world’s largest weapons manufacturer.
Indeed, even before the cave, and before the suit, Tony cares a whole hell of a lot about legacy. When reporter Christine Everhart confronts Tony about his war profiteering, he’s immediately defensive of his father and the work they’ve both done under the Stark name: “My old man had a philosophy. Peace means having a bigger stick than the other guy….Tell me: do you plan to report on the millions we’ve saved by advancing medical technology? Or kept from starving with our intelicrops? All those breakthroughs – military funding.” The one thing Tony has cared about his entire life, even before he becomes Iron Man, is the quality of the products that bear his name. He insists they’ve done good work at Stark Industries, not just regardless of their focus on weaponry – but because of it. What he puts out into the world MATTERS to him. However, at this stage it matters because he wants to protect his father’s name – not his own.
To say that Tony has an ego is an understatement. But below the surface of his ego, there’s a void: a complete lack of identity and no sense of self-esteem. (That’ll happen when your father spends all his time telling you about how his greatest creation was some guy called Captain America… but more on that later.) Rhodes calls him out for it even while they enjoy a ridiculously tacky private jet: “You don’t respect yourself, so I know you don’t respect me.” As is the case with all the best throw-away lines, it speaks a real truth about his character. Tony has no respect for himself as an individual. All he has is his family name, along with blind faith in the structure that’s kept that name in place. It’s why he’s so utterly shocked when he sees his own weapons in the hands of the terrorists holding him captive: “Those’re my guns, how did they get my guns??”
Tony runs hot. He moves on instinct, goes with his gut, makes split-second decisions and sticks with them even if they change everything in his life all at once. Shutting down the weapons manufacturing division of Stark Industries wasn’t just the right call; it was the only call he could possibly make. The weapons division was responsible for unquestionably terrible things, and the moment Tony knows what that really looks like, he can’t hesitate. Not when his family name is on the line. (“I don’t want a body count to be our only legacy… it’s my name on the side of the building.”) Ironically given Tony’s struggles in later years, Obadiah gets the board of directors to believe that Tony has PTSD from his two months in captivity and so Stark weaponry remains until Obadiah’s fall. But there’s no going back now that Tony can see past his previous naivete. It’s the betrayal of his family name that turns Tony Stark into Iron Man. He can’t let that injustice stand – so he flies off to fix it.
And so we’ve got our hero: and our hero finally has a sense of self. In one of the most defining scenes in the MCU, Tony can’t stop himself from telling the truth about his identity as Iron Man at a press conference. Of COURSE he can’t. Yeah, he loves the attention, and he loves the shine of being a superhero. (“That would be outlandish and… uh… fantastic.”) It all plays right into his penchant for grandiosity and identity hinging on public performance. But that’s not what it’s all about. He can’t keep quiet about his identity because he’s too relieved to finally have one. Iron Man isn’t something that was handed to him because of his name. It’s something he built, something he fought for. And it’s something he promised Yinsen he wouldn’t waste.
“Iron Man Yes. Tony Stark not recommended.”
If you thought Tony was focused on legacy in Iron Man, rewatch his first scene in Iron Man 2 and then come back to me. Yes, Tony has his own identity now. But that doesn’t mean he’s going to disregard his family name. Quite the opposite; he leans the hell in, recreating Stark Expo in the same well-worn location of Flushing, Queens. As soon as he’s done with a little grandstanding (okay, a lot of grandstanding – it is still Tony Stark we’re talking about) he makes his intentions clear:
“It’s not about me. It’s not about you. It’s not even about us; it’s about legacy. It’s about what we choose to leave behind for future generations, and that’s why for the next year and for the first time since 1974 the best and brightest men and women of nations and corporations the world over will pool their resources, share their collective vision, and leave behind a brighter future.”
In case the point isn’t obvious enough, he throws to a video Howard himself recorded for a Stark Expo decades previously. Hey, I never claimed my fave was subtle.
He’s also very much not okay. The legacy fixation has been kicked into high gear because Tony spends all of Iron Man 2 thinking he’s dying. The very thing that gave him an identity, that kept him alive, is now slowly killing him, increasing his blood toxicity past a point of no return. So he doubles down, negotiating peace treaties, flying around the globe in times of crisis, putting his affairs in order, making Pepper CEO of Stark Industries, donating his belongings. And while he’s at it, he starts blowing up the already short list of people invested in his private life. Tony insists every step of the way that he doesn’t need a sidekick; Rhodes and Happy can’t get close, and Fury knows it’s not even worth trying. (“No, see I remember, you do everything yourself. How’s that working out for you?”) Not even Pepper knows the truth about the price of the arc reactor buried in his chest.
The one figure that he’s stuck with, for good or for ill, is his dad. Howard Stark looms large over Iron Man 2; it’s his connection to Ivan Vanko’s own father Anton that serves as the main crux of the plot. When Fury shows up to deliver Howard’s old SHIELD research in the hopes that it’ll help Tony figure out a way to solve his health crisis, he speaks of a father not much like the one Tony remembers. Casting being what it is, Howard Stark has a dual portrayal. The young, fun-loving, Tony-esque Howard is played by Dominic Cooper. That’s the Howard Peggy Carter knew, the Howard that flipped the switch to turn Steve Rogers into Captain America. It’s nearly impossible to picture him as Tony describes: “He was cold, he was calculating, he never told me he loved me, he never even told me he liked me.” And then there’s John Slattery, the imposing, difficult, distant Howard that Tony always has in his mind’s eye. It’s easier, somehow, to picture that version of Howard keeping his son at an arm’s length, telling young Tony over and over again that his greatest achievement had nothing to do with him or Stark Industries and instead went by the name Captain America – setting Tony and Cap up for an inevitable clash later down the line. That’s the version of Howard that Justin Hammer trots out at the Senate Armed Services Committee: “a father to us all, and to the military industrial age…he was a lion.”
Between the physical betrayal of the arc reactor and the emotional trauma of his relationship with Howard (not to mention the blow to his confidence that Ivan so deftly triggered), Tony is in a fragile state. He’s equally steadfast in his refusal to confront any of the traumas he’s facing. So is it any wonder, given all of that, given his deteriorating health and his history of disregard for his own wellbeing, that Tony spends most of the movie actively self-destructing? For as much as Tony wants to be well-remembered, as deeply as he cares about his family legacy and as proud as he is of all the good works he’s completed since building his first suit of iron, he still doesn’t truly care about himself. Of course he kicks out the Stark Industries racecar driver so he can jump in and drive. What’s the worst that could happen? He crashes and burns? He’s gonna do that anyway. As hard as it is to watch him throw himself that disastrous birthday party, the one that nearly ends him and Pepper before they begin – and worse, could have killed everyone in attendance after he ends up black-out drunk IN the Iron Man suit – it makes total sense. (Really, though, that scene is ugly. Watching it hurts every fiber of my being.) Tony thinks it will be his last birthday on earth. Why should he care if he humiliates himself? It’s much easier to keep Pepper and Rhodes away if they no longer want anything to do with him. Besides, Iron Man has done everything possible to help the Stark legacy. So if Tony goes down in a drunken, explosive stupor, what difference could it make?
Ultimately, as always, Tony’s scientific curiosity saves him. There was no way he wouldn’t dig into his dad’s old belongings, and just as Fury suspected, Howard’s research held the key to Tony’s salvation. Not only medically, but spiritually. Tony finally hears his father speak kindly of him, assuring him that he is every bit as much a point of pride to Howard as Steve Rogers was. Once he’s healed, and for the first time since his press conference, Tony has both a sense of self AND a secure outlook on the future. Suddenly other people don’t seem so bad. Tony and Pepper finally start a for-real relationship. Rhodey becomes the War Machine, fighting side by side with his best friend. Now as for that super secret boy band…
“We’re sorta like a team.”
Heading into The Avengers, Tony’s the healthiest he’s ever been. Physically, the damage from the arc reactor is healed. Mentally, he’s steady. Content. He and Pepper are happily building a home at Stark Tower, and while Tony acts put out at Agent Coulson’s recruitment efforts, the reality is he’s thrilled. All he wants right now is to be a part of a team. Tony was genuinely hurt when Natasha wouldn’t recommend him for the Avengers Initiative. She was right – he wasn’t ready then – but he is ready now. He immediately offers up Stark Tower as a base for the crew, bonds with Banner (#SCIENCEBROS FOREVER) and makes every effort to be a team player. (“Am I the only one who did the reading?”)
Still, it’s not in his nature to just go where a person in authority tells him to go. He puts his faith in a small number of deserving people – not systems or boards. Not anymore. Tony’s the first one to ask questions about Fury’s true motivations and he doesn’t hesitate to call SHIELD out for making morally debatable decisions. (“A nuclear deterrent. ‘Cause that always calms things right down.”) The old Tony Stark would have been on board with SHIELD’s plan immediately. Hell, he’d have constructed the Tesseract weaponry himself. But right now, Tony’s priority is keeping his loved ones – AND his new friends – safe. Plus, Tony Stark has a real idealistic streak to him; he always has. Once he really trusts someone, his default position permanently shifts. It’s why Tony knows Bruce will come back and join the fighting after Loki opens up a hole in the space above Stark Tower. At the end of the day, Tony believes in the Avengers, even if he questions the figure that put them in place.
Steve, though…. Steve’s a tough one. The seeds of discontent are sewn between these two men from the start. This isn’t to say that Tony doesn’t trust Cap. He does. Howard always trusted Cap, and so Tony would never disregard him. But Steve will always be the main representation of his father’s lost affection. That’s a tough hill to climb, even if Steve wasn’t also set against Tony from the get-go. At least Tony has a reason to side eye Cap: Cap’s only true argument against Tony (from my extremely biased pov) is that he doesn’t like Stark’s style. Throughout The Avengers, Steve is constantly telling Tony that he’s unwilling to make sacrifices, that he’s all flash and no substance. He’s dead wrong. Tony Stark has more heart than he knows what to do with. When the chips are down and there’s truly no other way out, he will never hesitate to make a sacrifice.
Which brings us to the wormhole, and the nuclear weapon headed towards New York to ensure the destruction of Loki’s forces. The first person Fury tells about the nuke is Tony. And Tony knows exactly what needs to be done. The wormhole has to be destroyed, the city has to be saved, and my man doesn’t even blink. This isn’t a superficial sacrifice made out of desperation or self-destruction. Tony flies the warhead away from New York because that’s the only way to keep it far away from Pepper, from Rhodey, from Bruce, from all of the Avengers. It’s the only way to make sure whatever was on the other side of that wormhole can’t get back in to threaten everyone and everything he loves. He does what has to be done for his team.
“Nothing’s been the same since New York.”
And goddammit does that have a price. I know Iron Man 3 gets a lot of shit. A TINY bit of it, I’ll admit, is warranted. (How GREAT would it have been if the evil genius behind the Mandarin was a woman, as was originally planned? SO GREAT.) But at the end of the day, Iron Man 3 is one of my favorite superhero movies in the canon because of how it treats Tony in the aftermath of the Battle of New York. My dear, darling Tony Stark spends the entire film battling PTSD, serious insomnia and a newly developed anxiety disorder. It’s grounded, it’s apt, it’s human and it’s brilliant. After what he saw on the other side of that wormhole, Tony has no idea how to go back to his normal life, to a “normal” level of threat. Confronting the cosmos can be vast and unthinkable from the safety of the here and now; Tony had to confront them while fighting for the lives of every single human on earth, and with zero mental preparation. It’s not an exaggeration to say that he’s never the same.
“You experience things and then they’re over and you still can’t explain ‘em? Gods, aliens, other dimensions? I’m just a man in a can. The only reason I haven’t cracked up is probably because you moved in, which is great. I love you and I’m lucky. But honey, I can’t sleep. You go to bed, I come down here, I do what I know. Threat is imminent, and I have to protect the one thing I can’t live without. And that’s you.”
For the first half of Iron Man 3, Tony is an absolute emotional wreck. He’s not sleeping. He’s having regular anxiety attacks, triggered by children’s drawings and any mention of the state of New York. Pepper and Rhodey know he’s a mess but are at a loss for how to help; alternating instead between ignoring that anything’s wrong and asking how many hours Tony’s slept the night before. Remember, this is a man who is fundamentally incapable of asking for help. He specializes in pushing people away. (Which, by the by, makes it pretty fucking brutal that the narration of this entire film is Tony finally opening up and asking Banner to support him while Banner LITERALLY naps.) Instead of reaching out, he works. Constantly. Tony hides out in the basement, building suit after suit after suit, trying desperately to exert control over the incontrolable. If he can build just one more suit, make just one more improvement, then he might be able to protect Pepper. He might be able to save his friends. He might be able to save himself.
Except nothing in that basement is safe to tinker with after 72 straight waking hours. So he starts to slip, accidentally calling a suit mid-nightmare, barely able to stop it from attacking Pepper. His judgement slips too, and in a haze of pain and defensiveness he takes the bait of a journalist, landing right back in pre-Avengers self destruct mode, broadcasting a direct threat to the Mandarin across the world and including his home address for kicks. It’s all terrifying and sad and horrible and it leaves Tony more vulnerable than he’s been since the day Ivan Vanko walked out onto the racetrack and rattled his confidence to the core.
Which is fitting, really. Because if Whiplash was the personification of Howard’s skeletons coming back to haunt Stark Industries, Killian is Tony’s. Aldrich Killian is practically a Tony Stark clone flipped upside down; he’s got the same ego, the same genius, the same drive. But Aldrich Killian thrives in anonymity. He’s a puppet master, rarely getting his own hands dirty, forged in solitude and vengeance. His creation, Extremis, is the darkest possible embodiment of the chaos Tony used to leave in his wake: a worst-case scenario for biological weapons manufacturing. Precisely the kind of thing that would have made Obadiah chomp at the bit.
And the suit…oh, the suit. I’ve talked a lot in these first four sections about Tony and his interaction with – and separation from – the Iron Man suits. That interplay, that dependency, that identification rides right to the core of Iron Man 3. It’s both fundamental and complex. Tony’s suits aren’t just a symbol (a la Batman) but they also aren’t intrinsic to his physical body (a la Banner). They’re both. They’re the best of his creativity and the worst of his cockiness. They quite literally pull him up from the bottom of the Pacific ocean and they can’t save him when JARVIS crashes. When Tony decides to blow every single Iron Man suit, he’s offering his creations a clean slate – and when he finally removes his arc reactor, he’s offering one to himself. It’s as clear a turning point for Tony as flying into the wormhole. From here on out, the suits are a tool. They’re still a vital part of him, but he doesn’t rely on them to justify his existence. Separating himself from his creation allows Tony to decide when – and if – to engage with it.
And it allows his creation to decide when – and if – to engage with him.
“Peace in our time.”
Iron Man 3 and Avengers: Age of Ultron practically bookend Phase Two of the MCU’s Infinity Saga. (The only thing that gets in the way is Ant-Man, about which I will refrain from being snarky.) I point this out not to get into the nitty gritty of Marvel’s release schedule but to say that the Tony Stark we find at the tail end of Phase Two represents a marked difference from the man who sustained Phase One. The external threat in New York and the internal decision to blow all his suits and start anew have pushed Tony to a new level of emotional maturity. He still carries the weight of the wormhole – and he always will – but he’s grown into a slightly distant elder statesman. He’s brash, yet settled. His identity as Iron Man is less codependent and more intentional. His self destruction has faded, along with his steadfast refusal to let anyone in. His party days are over, traded for nights in with Pepper or the occasional celebration with the rest of the team at Avengers Tower. The tower’s rebrand alone says so much about where Tony is mentally at this stage in the game; this is no longer about his name on the side of a building. It’s about something bigger.
Letting people in has consequences. Don’t get me wrong; being part of a community is part of what makes us human, and I love that Tony has found people he trusts enough to really open up and lean into himself. But Tony isn’t used to caring for people in this way. It’s taken dire, unimaginable threats to wrench Tony’s heart open to Rhodey, to Pepper, to Happy, to Bruce, to Cap. And now, Tony can’t bear the thought of anything happening to a hair on a single one of their heads. This kind of protection and concern is precisely why he kept his heart guarded for so long – lest he lose his family all over again. So it makes a sort of sense for him to suddenly, desperately, want out. He and Pepper have been through hell and back; he dreams of settling down with a nice lab somewhere and never being called on to avenge ever again.
All Tony wants at this stage is to be made redundant, absolved of his duty of care. (“Your clunky metal suits are going to be left in the dust.” “Well that is exactly the plan.”) But the only way he can allow himself to pull back from his suits of iron is to create one around entire world. Otherwise he’ll continue to be haunted by inescapable, unbeatable threat. That fear is just under the surface, and even without Wanda’s mental manipulation, I think Tony would have landed in the same place. He and Bruce had already been discussing Ultron for who knows how long; it couldn’t have been far off. Same goes for the contents of his nightmare, which I’m nearly positive Tony would have had all on his own if he hadn’t already. Still, it’s hard to say that the creation of Ultron seemed like a good idea at the time. Because it just didn’t. It seemed rash, poorly thought out, foolhardy, very very dangerous. And yet. Tony can’t think of another way to guarantee the protection of his loved ones. He can’t see another way to end the mission. If the planet is unguarded, left to its own devices, it will mean potential for mortal injury. It will mean his fellow Avengers dead, with no one but himself to blame. It will mean his failure. The only solution is to construct a world where that failure is an impossibility.
Ultron is a weird, flawed villain, but he goes straight to the heart of Tony’s most tangible fears. Indeed, Ultron’s first move is to tear down the one thing Tony has known even longer than his suits. Destroying JARVIS is a direct assault – and it goes largely unnoticed by the same family he’s working to protect. Banner is the only one who, upon seeing JARVIS ripped to shreds, looks at Tony with a real understanding of what this loss means to him. So yes, it’s strange that Tony laughs when Thor and Cap are livid and dismayed at what he’s done. But he’s deep in mourning, and from where he stands, his entire point has just been proven right.
Even worse, perhaps, than the realization of his deepest fears is the understanding of precisely what they mean. Nick Fury is one of the only people who could really register the impact of Tony thinking that Wanda’s vision “wasn’t a nightmare, it was my legacy.” Fury knows what legacy meant to both the Stark men. He’s painfully aware of Tony’s history of self destruction. He knows the very worst part for Tony isn’t even that everyone had died; it was that he hadn’t gone down too. That he had survived, alone, with his guilt and his loneliness and his misery, after finally finding a family with Pepper and Rhodey and Happy and all of the Avengers. After being confronted with all of that, is it any wonder Tony goes back to the scientific drawing board with Banner, insisting they try again?
Which brings us to Vision. Wanda almost has a point when she says “Ultron can’t tell the difference between destroying the world and saving it. Where do you think he gets that?” This could have easily been another case of Tony thinking he was offering salvation and instead creating the very opposite. This, too, could have gone horribly wrong. But with Vision, Tony puts his faith not in a stranger’s formula or alien tech. He trusts the intent behind Helen’s cradle, and above all, he trusts JARVIS. Tony has put his life in JARVIS’ hands time and time and time again. It always pays off. Vision is the better angel of Tony’s nature, and he rids the world of the first, flawed attempt at Stark AI. Vision himself becomes Tony’s suit of armor around the world. And so, after establishing the Avengers facility upstate and setting the new recruits up with everything they could possibly need, Tony retires. For now.
“If we can’t accept limitations, if we’re boundaryless, we’re no better than the bad guys.”
I want to take a beat before we go too deep into Captain America: Civil War and think about where we started. Think about that billionaire, genius, playboy philanthropist, cocky as all get out, burying the need for any emotional evolution in explosions and iron suits. Believing without question that his father had no respect for him, that he shouldn’t have any respect for himself. Self destructing at every turn.
Then think about this man, standing in front of a room of MIT seniors, reliving his last moments with his parents and talking about “all the things I did to avoid processing my grief.” THEN think about the fact that he’s doing this in the immediate aftermath of Pepper, arguably the only partner he’s ever truly loved, leaving him. The personal growth is astronomical. (And yes, technically he tells Cap that he and Pepper breaking up was no one’s fault. There is just no way he’d leave her. And that he doesn’t even blame himself and kick off a destructive binge? Again I say: the personal growth is astronomical.)
With every step Tony Stark has taken since he left that cave all those years ago, he’s become more and more emotionally vulnerable. He’s wide open by the time he’s confronted with a named casualty of Sokovia: Charlie Spencer, a young computer engineer who took a summer off to build sustainable housing. His reasoning behind signing the Sokovia Accords isn’t motivated by Charlie’s memory alone. It isn’t even the fear of creating another Ultron. It’s everything all at once. Tony is as haunted by the wormhole as he is bone tired from all the fighting. He knows this cycle is never going to stop. And the never ending fights mean never ending casualties. It’s not as simple as Tony wanting to avoid responsibility for those countless deaths in Sokovia and across the world. Rather, I think he’s questioning his own judgement. Tony knows the dangers will just keep coming. He’s scared and tired and wants to do anything he can to keep his little ragtag avenging family safe in the face of that hellscape hovering over the Earth.
Civil War promotions really leaned in to the whole #TeamCap #TeamIronMan thing. Hell, I even referenced it in my intro. Tony and Steve have always disagreed, always snipped at each other. Tony has always resented Steve’s relationship with Howard. And he’s always swallowed his pride and had Steve’s back anyway. So how notable, how poetic, that Tony goes back into his dad’s archives to offer Steve the pens used to sign the Atlantic Charter. Those pens have a fascinating historical bent to them, and I encourage you to do a little light reading on the subject, but I’m more moved by the fact that Tony is finally in a good enough place emotionally to hand Steve a belonging of his father’s and use it as a sign of good will. As a sign of family – blood and otherwise. So while the question of the Sokovia Accords looms large over Civil War, for me, it’s just not what this is about. Because for all of Tony’s posturing, his actions are always in support of Steve and the rest of the team. And Steve’s are always in support of Bucky. That’s the impasse.
Most of the internal Avengers fight sequences don’t have a lot of bite. There’s a weight to Wanda’s escape, and to Vision quite literally drawing a line in the sand. But shit doesn’t get real until Rhodey goes down. Vision’s friendly fire has serious consequences, and yet again, one of Tony’s few lifelines is compromised. He could so easily blame himself – and Natasha does just that. Except her accusation that Tony has let his ego override the situation just doesn’t hold water. The SECOND Tony finds out that Bucky was set up – that there’s hope to bring Steve back around – he jumps on it. A man whose ego had taken control over a dire situation would never be able to walk into the physical evidence of his own wrongdoing, take shit (rightfully) from his captive friends, and keep his cover. Hell, Iron Man 2 era Tony would have gone in guns blazing, screaming his newly right opinion, insisting everyone applaud his efforts. Instead, Tony’s thoughtful, measured, laser focused on finding a way to help his friend.
Which just makes Cap’s betrayal more upsetting. I love Steve Rogers, I swear I do. And I understand why he does what he does. But let’s not mince words. This is a betrayal. Tony has known, all his life, how much Howard loved Steve. How much faith he put in Captain America. And even when Tony was actively angry at Howard’s memory, he has honored that faith. He’s fought side by side with Cap, in honor of his father and in honor of his own friendship. So to know that Steve could let Howard and Maria Stark go unavenged? That Steve Rogers, the picture of justice and good faith, didn’t even tell their son what really happened? It’s heartbreaking. And that doesn’t even take into account the fact that the killer was Bucky. So yes, the resulting fight is brutal and hard to watch. And yes, it’s petty of Tony to scream at Steve that his own shield doesn’t belong to him. But it’s one of the only tangible connections Tony has left to Howard. For Steve to walk out, leaving Tony bloodied on the floor, holding a shield crafted by a man who had the utmost faith in him in one arm while cradling that man’s killer in the other? It’s viscerally painful.
Steve and Tony don’t end Civil War as friends. They barely end it speaking. The bond is frayed almost beyond repair; but these men still have each other’s backs. It’s in their blood. Steve properly apologizes, promising he’ll be there if Tony needs him. And Tony mutes the line when the Secretary calls to reign in the security breach that Tony knows full well is Steve. The accords be damned.
“I’m just trying to break the cycle of shame.”
It’s only now, with his emotional barriers worn down and his childhood traumas confronted, that Tony could even consider embracing a mentee. Someone who reminds him so deeply of himself. Someone who’s whip-smart, science-ie, with a good heart. Someone who, at 14, radiates the kind of integrity Tony himself could only embrace well into his 30’s.
In Peter Parker, Tony sees not only himself, but everything he could have been had his own childhood been healthier. And in Tony, Peter sees a hero. A man who’s walked the walk for years, who’s known in equal measure for his brains and his fearlessness. Someone who may have even saved his very young life during an attack on Stark Expo all those years ago. Suffice it to say Tony and Peter’s bond is instantaneous, with Peter’s teenage exuberance practically bouncing off the walls whenever he’s in Tony’s presence. He never calls Tony anything other than Mr. Stark, even when the recipient of that honorific is wearing a literal kitten shirt. (Please humor me this very necessary aside while I reiterate: my fave is out here wearing a blazer and a TSHIRT WITH KITTENS ON IT. Without a hint of irony. He’s not trying to be cool or funny. He has nothing to prove. He just loves kittens. And I love him. Thank you for your time.)
Tony’s protective impulses with regards to Peter are equally immediate. He taps Peter out of the Civil War battle before things get too rough and lays out ground rules for keeping the Spider-Man suit as soon as they get home safely: “Don’t do anything I would do. And definitely don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. There’s a little grey area in there and that’s where you operate.”
All Tony wants for Peter is the opportunity to take things slow. Not to dive in head-first like Tony had to, not to immediately set to work wrestling demons bigger than himself. The “training wheels protocol” and “baby monitor” tracking systems are hilarious and endearing, but they speak to a real paternal instinct. Except Peter is a teenager and a superhero in his own right. That’s just not how things go.
Peter spends the majority of Spider-Man: Homecoming thinking that Tony isn’t listening. It’s only natural. Sure, he calls in his daily reports to Happy, skipping out on Ned and the decathlon team in case the Stark Internship comes a-calling. But he wants to dive in for real, training wheel protocols be damned, and he doesn’t think he’s getting anything back from Stark Industries for his service. Meanwhile, though, Tony is more plugged in to Peter’s daily life than even the audience expects. No detail escapes his attention. Tony knows every single word of Peter’s daily reports, from the grandmother who gave Peter a churro to the precise week that he dropped band. When Tony says “my dad never really gave me a lot of support, I’m just trying to break the cycle of shame” he means every word. The way Tony’s eyes zero in when he realizes that Peter has been lying to him and has, in fact, followed the Vulture is ferocious. Because not only has Tony been listening to everything Peter had to say: he’s acted on every single tip.
Tony and Peter are so similar in so many ways. It’s what makes their mentor/mentee relationship so ideal – and so infuriating for Tony. After all, who knows better than Tony Stark the danger of connecting your identity too closely with the suit that gives you your name? It’s a lesson Tony suffered through all the way back in Iron Man 3, holled up in a Tennessee garage. And Peter learns it, too. Alone, trapped under a pile of rubble, without any Stark tech to his name, Peter Parker takes a deep breath, channels his childhood hero and breaks free.
It’s so fitting for Peter to do his mentor one better after checking off such an important lesson so early in his superhero life. The moment Happy delivers Peter to the new Avengers facility upstate, Tony is giddy with pride. It’s all arm punches and “give me a minute with the kid” and “sorry I took your suit…actually it turns out it was the perfect kind of tough love moment you needed, right, to urge you on!” He can be forgiven, then, for regressing just a little and setting up a big, brash, over-the-top press conference where he imagines Peter will want to do the exact same stylish superhero announcement that Tony did all those years ago. (Listen, it’s still Tony Stark we’re talking about.) But Peter is every inch the more evolved version of himself that Tony hoped he would be. Peter knows he’s not ready. That this isn’t the time. So he turns Tony down. And Tony is the perfect vision of his more evolved self too – he accepts Peter’s decision without question. It’s more than Howard could have done.
Oh, and did I mention he and Pepper reconciled and use that giant press conference to get engaged?
“My only curse is you.”
Which brings us, at long last, to Infinity War. To a Tony Stark who’s overcome personal barriers he never even would have admitted existed all those years ago. In just his first five minutes on screen, Tony rattles off signifiers of his growth like they’re nothing at all – and still, somehow, like he fully understands that this is more than he ever could have hoped for. This is a man who’s put in the work. He’s the most relaxed, the most self assured, the most in love we’ve ever seen him. He’s ready for a committed relationship with Pepper; he’s even thinking about a kid of their own. None of this would have been possible without all the efforts he’s put in along the way to face his demons.
And he’d never have confronted those demons without becoming Iron Man. The new arc reactor seems like a step back, and in a small way, it is. It signifies Tony’s refusal to give up the fight. He needs the arc reactor and the suit it contains at the ready not because it’s the core of his identity, but because he’s accepting the world as it will always be. There will always be threats. He will always need to fight them. And right now, he’ll need to fight them on his own. Tony’s no longer living in a world where the Avenger family has his back on the regular. Gone are the days when he could walk into an accord signing with barely any defense mechanism at the ready. While the weight of that loss would have always sat heavy on his heart, he was ready to move on. He’d always be at the ready to jump into action, but only willing to do so if absolutely necessary. Dr. Strange’s appearance does not require that action. But Bruce’s does.
Tony’s face when he first sets eyes on Bruce Banner – for the first time since they parted ways for Ultron’s last stand – says it all. The original Avengers are Tony’s family. Bruce Banner certainly is – and Steve Rogers is too. Tony and Steve may not be on speaking terms, but Tony has kept that flip phone with him at all times for a reason. He knows that when the time comes, he’ll have to be the one to make the call. And when Bruce tells Tony that Thanos is the one who set Loki on the path to attack New York, the die is cast. Thanos is the ultimate threat Tony’s suit of iron around the world was meant to avoid. Regardless of the state of the Avengers (“Broke up? Like a band, like the Beatles?”), there’s no way Tony would let this fight go.
Still, it all happens so fast. Before Tony can comprehend what’s happening, before he has even a moment to consider his actions, Tony lands himself on the Maw’s ship, chasing Dr. Strange’s attackers without a second thought. Because wherever Strange is being taken, Thanos will be too. Waiting to attack the planet Tony has given everything to defend. It’s the same instinct that led Tony to fly into the wormhole all those years ago. There’s just nowhere else he could imagine being. And thus…there’s nowhere else Peter Parker could imagine being either.
It’s easy to say that Peter Parker was the son Tony was hoping for at the beginning of Infinity War. And maybe, in a way, he was. But honestly, it doesn’t matter. The emotional truth is the same. From the moment Peter Parker shows himself onboard that ship, this becomes Tony’s living nightmare. He’s so deeply terrified by the choice Peter has made to join him on this one-way ticket. And still, Tony is steadfast. He doesn’t act out, doesn’t rage at the dying of the light. Instead he leans into every opportunity to mentor Peter, testing him out as they rescue Strange, quite literally knighting him as an Avenger. Even as Stephen Strange joins the ranks of those foolishly holding to the belief that Tony is all ego and no substance, Tony is there to protect and defend him. He’s even there try to talk Peter Quill down when the time comes. This dedication, this refusal to let the people around him see him scared lest they crack themselves, this leadership and bravery and honor? This is the ultimate proof that Tony Stark has a heart.
In video games, particularly RPG’s, there’s a thing called a boss fight. It can only come after the hero has fought countless battles, gained powers they never could have imagined, leveled up to a marked degree of mastery and experience. It takes everything they’ve learned until now to even try to engage. Thanos is the boss fight for all of the Avengers. But particularly, I think, he’s the boss fight for Tony. Tony is the only Avenger to which Thanos grants a real level of respect. And more importantly, Thanos is the personification of the battles Tony Stark has put himself through, time and time again, in a desperate attempt to protect the people he loves. Without confronting his self destruction, without healing the traumas from his childhood, without coming to terms with Howard and Steve Rogers, without creating Ultron and Vision, without loving Peter Parker and Pepper Potts, without allowing the Avengers to be his family, Tony Stark could never have stood on Titan and fought Thanos alone.
And yes, he fails. Our heroes fail. Tony’s nightmare comes to pass, and it’s more horrible than even he could have imagined. But no matter what happens next, I’m proud of him. I’m proud of the story he’s told, and the battles he’s fought, and the people he’s loved. He is Earth’s best defender. And I hope he makes it home.