The Story Geeks blogger Anthony Holdier responds with an additional perspective to the same topic discussed in this week’s podcast – Iron Man’s character journey in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Want to share your own take? Join the conversation in The Story Geeks Facebook group!
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As you rank MCU characters, where does Iron Man fit in?
Some of you already know I’m a philosophy graduate student; what you probably don’t know is that I have…conflicting opinions about Rene Descartes (bear with me for a second). On one hand, I kind of hate almost everything that he said, did, and defended – I think he was wrong in most of his assumptions and I think that a lot of European philosophy wasted a century (or more) responding to erroneous dichotomies that he made up; on the other, I can’t help but admit that Descartes was an absolutely brilliant thinker, without whom the entire story of Western philosophy would be significantly different (and, arguably, quite worse).
To me, Tony Stark is the Descartes of the MCU.
I’ll flesh this out throughout the rest of my blog post, but the bottom line for me is twofold:
1) For a variety of reasons, I’ve never really felt a big connection with Tony, but…
2) I cannot imagine the MCU (which I love to a fault) without Tony being exactly who he is.
Walking through his journey movie by movie, how would you sum up the guiding themes for Tony Stark?
Two words: “Legacy repair.”
Tony starts off as a self-absorbed playboy who, over the course of nine films (if we’re being generous), has learned how to genuinely care for others. I know that, to put it that way, grossly underplays the significance of his arc (or, really, arcs), but I’m going for a summary here!
Across the Phase One, Tony’s – to be blunt – a jerk. He gets away with it because he’s funny and clever (“genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” that he is) and, ultimately, he ends up doing the right thing in each film – but it’s really not until his face-to-face with Loki in The Avengers that he starts to show that he’s thinking of himself as a part of something bigger (with the weight and responsibility that comes along with it).
Phase Two sees Tony wrestling with that weight, through his personal relationship with Pepper, his professional relationship with his company, and through the fallout of his near-death experience that defeated the Chitauri (as well as his mind-melting at the hands of the Scarlet Witch) that affected his psychic relationship with himself. By the time with get to Avengers: Age of Ultron, it’s not surprising that he’s started to buckle under the pressure – but it also means that we start to see him relying on his teammates all the more.
Which is why Phase Three becomes all about Tony – even when he’s appearing in Captain America: Civil War or Spider-Man: Homecoming, his character development often drives more of the plot than any other character (save for the various title roles, but…even then, that’s not always the case). When we leave Tony at the end of Avengers: Infinity War, he has spent nine movies learning how to care about other people…only to literally have them all crumble in his arms.
Needless to say, I’m interested to see what happens next.
Tony triumphantly takes control of his own destiny in the first Iron Man film. From that point on, as the Avengers develop and he faces bigger threats, that control seems to increasingly slip away. How do you think that affects him both positively and negatively?
At first, Tony is a guy who is completely walled off from the world; what we’ve been watching is his maturation into someone who is actually involved with the people around him. At first, he’s clearly doing it just for his own glory (why else would he reveal his identity at the end of his first film?), but – just think of the famous line he tells Peter about how “if you’re nothing without the suit, then you shouldn’t have it” – he’s come to appreciate how empty that sort of life was.
Of course, the more you open yourself up to the beautiful things in life, the more vulnerable you make yourself to the ugliness; which is one more reason why Peter’s death in Infinity War was completely heart-rending.
In “Iron Man 3,” Tony finally undergoes surgery to remove the shrapnel from his chest, thus taking away his reliance on the arc reactor. Do you think this adds to or detracts from his character?
Well, it doesn’t really seem to have affected his ability to be Iron Man (despite the film’s indication that it would). So, I’m going to say…neither? Because it seems more like people just kind of forgot about it.
Nearly any character in the MCU could be considered a part of Tony’s supporting cast. Who do you think has impacted him the most and how so?
My first impulse was to say “Peter,” but I think that might be because I was just thinking about Infinity War again. You could make an argument for that (as the master-apprentice relationship is indeed important), but part of me wants to say that “Pepper” is a better answer – especially given her position as his motivation in several movies.
However, the answer I’m going to go with…is Howard Stark. So much of Tony’s development has either been in contrast to or as a consequence of his relationship with his father. The braggadocio we see when introduced to him is clearly connected with the rocky upbringing he had across from (and often apart from) his dad, both in trying to impress (and surpass) Howard to earn his attention and love. Lots of characters have helped to shape Tony along the way, but none so fundamentally as his father.
Why is it so hard for Tony to give up being Iron Man, even for Pepper Potts?
Tony is so bad at being good, I think that his recognition of the Iron Man persona as an opportunity to be a better person makes it particularly attractive to him. That is to say, since he’s learning how (in a not-very-exaggerated-sense) to be a human being who actually cares about other human beings, and because it’s initially through the Iron Man suit that he is able to do that, it makes sense that he would fear losing that ability to be good if he give up the suit that he could be good in.
Of course, that brings us back to the lesson that he eventually learns (and passes on to Peter): “if you’re nothing without the suit….”
What is your opinion of Tony as a leader? What are the differences between him and other natural leaders in the MCU such as Steve Rogers, Nick Fury, Black Panther, and Peter Quill?
Of each of those, Tony is the only one who really wanted to be a leader – especially a public leader. He loved the attention and acclaim (the fans asking for his autographs). Steve and T’Challa are motivated more by duty, Fury has no desire for attention, and Quill…well, it’s not really clear that Quill thinks ahead far enough to actually be a leader in anything more than a pragmatic sense. In contrast, Tony explicitly wanted to be in charge (that’s one of the repeating elements of his conflicts with other characters in Phase One, especially).
That’s why his reaction to finding out the dirty side of responsibility (that it’s on your head when things go badly, for example) hits him with such a shock in Phase Two and throughout Phase Three (especially after Ultron). Tony initially treats leadership like a game – until he sees how his selfishness causes manifest harm to others, at which point he over-corrects to the mistakes that led to the Battle of Sokovia and the Accords that follow in its wake.
How do you feel about the choice to make Tony a mentor to Peter Parker?
That’s a decision that only works because of the extreme character development Tony’s gone through in the films leading up to SM:H. Really, it’s a way to demonstrate how significantly far Tony’s come from the person who was ambushed in Afghanistan.
And it totally works! Of all the shifts that Tony has gone through over the course of the MCU, that one is probably my favorite, both because it’s a smart move (from a story-telling perspective) and because RDJ and Tom Holland play off each other so very well.
When we last saw Tony in the MCU, he was stranded on Titan after losing to Thanos and watching his fellow heroes turn to ash. After everything he’s been through, what do you think is running through his mind in that moment?
I genuinely think that the second-smartest** human in the galaxy – the guy whose brain is constantly piecing together scientific breakthroughs and witty one-liners – is absolutely broken at the end of Infinity War – to a degree that we really have never seen. He’s numb.
Tony’s absolute hopelessness in the moment following Peter’s death is palpable; for perhaps the first time in his life, he has absolutely no idea what to do.
As we look forward to “Avengers: Endgame,” what do you think is in store for Tony Stark?
I do NOT think that Tony’s going to die (that honor will go to Cap, though that’s another conversation).
What I’m not sure about is how much Tony will be hurt before the end of Endgame. Acommon threadline to his story has been the physical toll that Iron Man has taken on him and I could see that coming to a head with some sort of career-ending injury. It seems extremely likely that someone is going to need to Snap the Infinity Gauntlet again and that could be Tony (though I still think the ever-self-sacrificial-Captain-America is more likely for that role), but we’ll just have to wait and see. Although, there is that completely hilarious fan-theory about Tony’s left arm floating around online…
The details remain to be seen, of course, but I fully expect Tony to get his happy ending (of one sort or another) with Pepper and their kid; that is to say, Tony will truly succeed in a way that Howard never did – not by making tons of money or brilliant inventions, but by loving his family.
After all this time, he’s earned it.
**Oh – and Tony’s the “second-smartest” human because Shuri’s clearly number one (though…spoiler alert…I guess he is the smartest one after the Snap? We’ll see how long that one lasts in Endgame, though!).