The Story Geeks blogger Ashley Pauls 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!
As you rank MCU characters, where does Iron Man fit in?
Iron Man is actually my favorite MCU character! His origin story is my favorite MCU film, and Robert Downey Jr. is my favorite actor. (As you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m a big fan.)
There are a number of things I really like about Iron Man/Tony Stark. I love his snarky quips and confident attitude (although yes, to be fair, sometimes he is OVERconfident, and this gets him into trouble). I love the look of the Iron Man suit itself and how Tony has upgraded the technology over the years.
Tony is super smart but also flawed, and I appreciate that the films don’t try to pretend that he’s perfect. Sometimes he even crosses over into anti-hero territory.
He’s not necessarily the best role model that you could pick out of the MCU, but he is a fascinating character. Also, Robert Downey Jr. is the perfect fit for this role and brings so much charisma to the MCU. In fact, I would argue that the MCU wouldn’t have succeeded initially without RDJ.
Walking through his journey movie by movie, how would you sum up the guiding themes for Tony Stark?
Tony is the very first “Avenger” that we saw on screen, all the way back in 2008, and it’s been interesting to watch the character develop over the past 10+ years. In the first “Iron Man,” Tony is pretty self-absorbed, arrogant, and entitled.
When he’s taken hostage and has to face his own mortality, he starts to question his previous lifestyle and the decisions that he’s made. He begins thinking about the wants and needs of others (rather than just his own), and he’s driven by a desire to leave a better legacy than simply “ridiculously wealthy playboy.”
I love redemption arcs in fiction, and it’s powerful to see stories about characters who actually grow to become better people. That’s not to say Tony never makes another mistake. He has a hand in creating Ultron, and he and Cap’s ideological differences tear the Avengers apart in “Civil War.” (Side note: I think Tony was more in the right than Cap was in “Civil War,” but that’s probably another Story Geeks discussion for another time!)
Regardless of that, Tony is actively trying to do the right thing now, and in “Infinity War” we witness that he is willing to selflessly sacrifice his own life to save the universe.
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?
Tony feels most comfortable when he knows all the details, has a plan in mind, and can take control of the situation. Of course in practice, real life is often messy and rarely offers a simple, linear path that perfectly follows our pre-made plans.
One of the interesting things about Tony is that, like Batman (his sort-of counterpart in the DC universe), he has no superpowers. As the threats the Avengers have to face level up, he has to keep inventing new technology in order to remain relevant. He’s at a disadvantage compared to heroes like Thor and Doctor Strange, who can draw on supernatural powers.
Tony feels that stress and that pressure keenly — whether he admits that or not. He can’t just invent a way to get rid of powerful villains like Thanos, but he still feels a responsibility to keep addressing these intergalactic threats. Because of that responsibility, he takes risks like traveling to Titan to face Thanos in person.
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?
I actually don’t know that I can answer either way, because this plot point was just kinda glossed over in later films. After Tony makes this choice at the end of “Iron Man 3,” we jump right into “Age of Ultron, which has a number of character/story issues that I won’t get into here.
I don’t remember Tony’s decision to remove the shrapnel being addressed that much on screen, which is a shame because this could have/should have been a huge rite of passage for him. The shrapnel in his chest is a major part of his origin story and evolution in “Iron Man,” but in “Iron Man 3” he supposedly grows beyond that past.
Unfortunately, it’s too late to go back and address that now, especially since the arc reactor returned in “Infinity War.”
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?
So many of the characters have played a role in Tony’s story arc, but I’d argue that the three most important are his father, Pepper Potts, and Captain America.
Tony’s relationship with his father is complicated, to say the least. Tony’s bad behavior in his younger years is, at least in part, a reaction to his father’s strictness/apparent aloofness. His rebellion is a cover for his emotional pain.
Tony desperately wanted to feel loved by his father, to know that Howard Stark was truly proud of him. However, even though Howard accomplished great things on behalf of S.H.I.E.L.D., he maybe wasn’t the best father. Tony desperately wants to be a better man than his father, and this drives his character development throughout the films.
Pepper provides a reality check for Tony. She sees through his facade and challenges him to become a better man. She also won’t tolerate his nonsense. Tony and Pepper are probably my favorite couple in the MCU, and I’m still hoping they’ll get a happy ending.
Finally, Captain America is, in so many ways, Tony’s opposite, and this really comes to the forefront in “Civil War,” when they find themselves on different sides of the Sokovia Accords debate. Tony feels betrayed by Cap, and Cap feels he cannot compromise on what he believes to be right.
I hope we get some closure between these two characters in “Endgame,” and that we can see them as friends again before their stories wrap up.
Why is it so hard for Tony to give up being Iron Man, even for Pepper Potts?
“Iron Man” is such a key part of who Tony is that I think he’d feel lost without the suit. That’s probably why he decided to suit up again so quickly after apparently blowing up his suits at the end of “Iron Man 3” (“Age of Ultron” should have done more to address that plot twist, but I promise, I’ll stop complaining about that movie).
The Iron Man suit is a symbol of how Tony has changed and become a better person; the old version of Tony cared mostly about himself, but Iron Man cares about protecting others and saving the world.
He can’t let go of that part of his identity, or his feelings of responsibility. This goes back to his desire for control; even though there are other heroes who could take up his work if he decides to retire, he’s afraid to hand over that responsibility.
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?
I feel like Tony Stark and Peter Quill have more in common with each other than they do with the other three from that list. Captain America, Nick Fury, and Black Panther all have a certain sense of nobility and tend to follow traditional rules and/or authority structures that have been passed down to them, either via S.H.I.E.L.D. or Wakandan tradition (although they are willing to deviate from those rules if they feel compelled by their consciences).
Tony and Peter like to make up their own rules and challenge the system, and they definitely like to be seen as rebels, even though family/friendship is still very important to them.
Cap is probably the best leader for the Avengers (although I can definitely see Captain Marvel taking the reins in the future). Tony has some character flaws that sometimes make him a questionable leader, but again, those flaws also make him an interesting character.
How do you feel about the choice to make Tony a mentor to Peter Parker?
It was great to see Tony show up in “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” and it was a lot of fun to watch Robert Downey Jr. interacting with Tom Holland.
Yet on a deeper storytelling level, Tony’s mentorship of Peter is an important part of his character evolution. Tony feels responsible for Peter’s fate as a superhero after giving him the Spider-Man suit in “Civil War,” and he wants to be a better mentor to Peter than his own father was to him. It’s yet another sign that Tony is “growing up” and thinking about what kind of legacy he wants to leave.
Peter’s death in “Infinity War” is really going to mess with Tony in “Endgame,” and the scene where he (hopefully!) reunites with Peter is going to be incredibly emotional.
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?
At the end of “Infinity War,” Tony is devastated. I don’t think he even knows how to process what has happened. He loses everyone he came to Titan with, and he and Nebula are left alone to try to survive a dangerous trip back home.
It’s not Tony’s fault that he failed; Thanos was too powerful an opponent, and Tony fought bravely. Still, he has to be feeling so much regret and grief in this moment. All his fears have come true, and he doesn’t know how to fix everything that’s happened.
It’s a heartbreakingly relatable moment, because we’ve all had times where we’ve felt like we failed our families and friends, and we don’t know how to make things right again.
As we look forward to “Avengers: Endgame,” what do you think is in store for Tony Stark?
While I’ve come up with a few theories, I honestly don’t know how Tony Stark’s story is going to end. I don’t think the Russo Brothers would be cruel enough to tease a happy ending with Pepper and then kill Tony off in “Endgame,” yet I could see them coming up with a tragic scenario that involves Tony and Cap coming together to sacrifice themselves to save everyone else.
My ideal ending for Tony is that he gets to play a key role in defeating Thanos and then is able to finally find peace. He hangs up his Iron Man armor for good and decides to become a consultant for the Avengers and a more involved mentor for Peter. Maybe he can pop up for a cameo in the MCU every now and then.
All good stories must eventually come to an end, and Tony has had a great character arc. My hope is that when we look back from “Iron Man” to “Endgame,” we’ll be able to see a complete and satisfying character journey for Tony.