Tony Stark is the Merchant of Death. It’s a slanderous nickname tossed his way early on in Marvel Studios’ audacious product launch, but it’s a label that forever stains his character. From his introduction to Avengers: Infinity War, Tony Stark is an incredibly flawed human creature chasing heroism. He can upgrade his armor all he wants; he seems genuinely incapable of shedding past shames for nobility. For all his triumphs over Iron Mongers and Ultrons, Stark is ultimately the villainous engine driving the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
He is the aphorism “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” come to life. Violence and oppression are bad, so he’ll just drop into foreign soil, blow some shit up, and dust his hands of the whole dirty business. He then has the condescending balls to act on the world’s behalf because he sees his superior intellect as his own get-out-of-jail-free card. He simply knows what’s best for you. His IQ score proves it. What a strange and absolutely brilliant character to hang your franchise upon. While we’ve often cried foul on Marvel’s villain problem, the MCU’s greatest threat has been there since act 1, scene 1.
Originally, I was unimpressed with Iron Man. In 2008, I couldn’t shut up about Christopher Nolan’s painfully serious The Dark Knight. It’s a masterpiece. You’ll only find its detractors within the smuggest corners of the Internet. To this day you’ll find it at the top of most Best Superhero Movies lists. It’s a big “No Duh.” Jon Favreau’s origin story was more of a mystifying creation. Who the hell cares about Tony Stark? At the time, Marvel Comics barely did. He stole a little bit of the spotlight with Mark Millar’s Civil War and Brian Michael Bendis’ New Avengers, but his own book sold a fraction compared to the top tier titles whose cinematic rights were long gone to other studios. Then comes the Zathura director with just another origin story. Little did I know that this simple superhero venture would be the cornerstone for an epic endeavor.
Eleven years in the making, Avengers: Endgame looms on the horizon. The MCU finally promises to deliver on Thanos’ death-courting grimace first glimpsed during the mid-credits tag of The Avengers and returned in the traumatic final shot of Avengers: Infinity War. Having pulled themselves out of bankruptcy, thanks in large part to the successful leasing of IPs like X-Men and Spider-Man, true-blue fanboy Kevin Feige put his faith in the characters Marvel still retained and re-introduced the concept of serialized storytelling to the cinematic landscape. “The Avengers Initiative” was a bold proclamation that I straight-up did not believe would succeed until I was jumping from my seat during Hulk’s smashing rampage through the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier in 2012. Decades of Howard the Ducks and Punisher retreads fooled me into thinking that these properties were impossible to translate.
While some may now curse Marvel Studios for unleashing the beast that is the cinematic shared universe, I am still in awe of all they have accomplished. What Marvel does better than any other pretender studio is to recognize the delight of the source material they own. They do not apologize for their spandex. They understand that we schedule our Wednesdays around their comic book releases because their melodramas are rich with character. The devastating blue light in the sky has an allure, but we’re even more intrigued by how that destructive force will affect the awkward romance between Tony and Pepper. Favreau’s Iron Man asks us to invest our hearts as much as we would in whatever Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan romcom fodder. As the Cosmic Cube turns, these Superhero Soaps can be as valid as any other form of drama if they’re creators believe it to be so.
Ultimately, we don’t love Iron Man because one CGI shellhead crushes another CGI shellhead. We’re here to watch a barely functioning alcoholic get his act together, and reach for that valor his daddy championed through Captain America bedtime stories. Iron Man is a hero born out of guilt. His emotional origin is assigned within the first five minutes of the film. When his ride in the Funvee erupts into fiery explosions, he tumbles from his safe passage and stares directly at a rocket-propelled grenade brandishing his name. He manufactured the shrapnel drilling down into his heart. He owes his pain to his wealth and his willful ignorance.
Like most successful asshole industrialists, Stark paid no mind of where his munitions landed until they literally penetrated his body. Held hostage inside a cave, surrounded by terrorists carrying his weapons and a doctor whose family was murdered by those arms, Stark’s Grinch heart grows three sizes that day. Adapting his good doctor’s designs, and applying the comic-booky science of the arc reactor, Tony Stark sets about righting his wrongs as The Invincible Iron Man.
But does he? He certainly gets his own ass out of that cave thanks to his big brain and Dr. Yinsen’s willing sacrifice since his narrative function has ceased to be relevant. Back on Planet America, after having it his way with some delicious Burger King product placement (how else do you keep those armors in the air?), Stark announces his change of heart via the only platform his ego understands – the press conference. No one believes him, and with good reason. Before captivity his life amounted to nothing more than flavor-of-the-week get-rich invention, forgetting the names of bedded Maxim cover models, and harassing the attractive help.
The innovation of Iron Man only amounts in that escalation problem touted by Commissioner Gordon during the final moments of Batman Begins. Stark’s Mark III armor will not only lead to Mark 47 and beyond, but it will also result in Obadiah Stane’s Iron Monger, the Age of Ultron, and a royal rumble between his super friends. As Stane spits back in his face during their climactic CG bout, “you were trying to rid the world of weapons, and you gave it the best one ever.” Stark can’t help himself. He’s always digging; it might not only be his grave but The Avengers’ as well.
Tony Stark is a vigilante motivated by fear, not altruism. No other actor could pull off that dark side drive like Robert Downey Jr. Only he could make a floundering, toxic billionaire with delusions of spandex into a likable scallywag. Downey has crafted a lifetime charming us with his faults, easing us away from scandals with a wink and a smile. He understands Stark better than most of us ever could. He’s a rapscallion who dreams of redemption. We’ll settle for minute progressions as long as he makes us laugh.
As much as we want to believe in the treachery of Stane and Thanos, Stark’s own “I Am Iron Man” public announcement reveals a truly insidious ego. He can’t hide behind a cover story. Stark has to be out front in the parade, proudly demonstrating his genius with each blast of his repulsors. Here’s world peace, you’re welcome. Now genuflect.
Did Nick Fury honestly know what he was getting when he crept into Stark’s Malibu estate with a request? He was probably more interested in stockpiling armors like he was Hydra’s energy weapons. Heck, his Avengers are less of a global emergency response team as they are just one more weapon from Tony Stark’s arsenal, and his declaration to the universe that they were ready for global combat is the inevitable dinner bell we will finally hear answered with Infinity War.
Every heroic act achieved by The Avengers has also resulted in tremendous collateral damage. High-fives for rooting out that iron mongering corporate saboteur, nevermind the freeway rampage, that poor dude ripped from his motorcycle or the carload of psychologically scarred children. Tony Stark did his best, and probably better than most of us would have achieved. His failures are what we relate to as an audience. The stumbles are as much the appeal as the victories.
What Iron Man Contributes to the MCU:
- The Avengers Initiative – “You think you’re the only superhero in the world?” With just 32 seconds of last-minute screen time, Samuel L. Jackson steps from the pages of The Ultimates and erupts an orgasmic wave of geeky glee. Impossible childhood dreams made true.
- Jarvis – Reinterpreting the comic book butler into the snarky, know-it-all A.I. that coordinates all of Stark’s needs from healthy smoothies to flight control was a staggering upgrade. The fact that Paul Bettany’s roguish voice would be made flesh in subsequent films is all the more delightful.
- Pepper Potts – Cary Grant needs His Girl Friday. The will they/won’t they sitcom strategy was pleasantly maintained for a couple of films, and Gwyneth Paltrow goes a long way in helping the audience find empathy for Stark.
- Happy Hogan – It’s been interesting watching Happy’s career grow within Stark Industries as Jon Favreau’s behind-the-scenes involvement has dwindled. From chauffeur to head of security to Peter Parker’s penpal, Happy Hogan has been one of the more agreeable flavors of the franchise.
- Yinsen – The good man Tony Stark may never be. He appears again during the introduction of Iron Man 3 as a nice reminder of what a tremendous scumbag Tony Stark was before their encounter in the cave.
- Daddy Issues – No matter which actor is playing Howard Stark (Gerard Sanders, John Slattery, or Dominic Cooper), his specter never quite dissipates. Tony is always chasing Howard’s shadow, and it becomes all the more haunting when his war buddy Captain America eventually thaws out.
What Iron Man Withholds from the MCU:
- The Ten Rings – Ok, so yes, they do technically return for Iron Man 3, but their ultimate revelation, while purposefully anti-climactic, certainly frustrated fans eager to see some diabolical wizardry.
- The Stark Industry Board Members – Once Obadiah Stane is vaporized within the arc reactor, apparently, so are the rest of the Board Members. Despite Pepper’s flirtations as CEO, from Iron Man 2 on, Tony Stark appears to be the sole mind behind his corporation.
- Hotrods – I guess once he has his armors to tinker on, Stark no longer needs to bother with sparkplugs and carbonators.
- Terrence Howard – You can stay Rhodey, but not so fast Terrence. Was he pushed out by Robert Downey Jr. or did he simply demand too much money? The answer doesn’t matter. Don Cheadle’s interpretation of the character is now our War Machine, and I am more than pleased with the recasting.
The Invincible Iron Man, Vol. 6 by Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca – While a lot of folks will steer you towards Warren Ellis and Adi Granov’s Extremis, I believe the follow-up team of Fraction and Larroca to be the superior Iron Man creators. The series launched alongside the 2008 film and featured cinematic favorites like Pepper Potts, War Machine, and Black Widow, as well as treacherous appearances from Norman Osborne, M.O.D.O.K., and Detroit Steel. It’s wild with comic book concepts but grounds the characters with recognizable emotions. Just like the best of the MCU. You may not identify every reference within, but you also don’t need several decades worth of knowledge to jump on board.