It all began with Tony Stark. Literally. On May 2nd 2008, Iron Man premiered and the Marvel Cinematic Universe was born, reigniting the career of Robert Downey Jr. in the process. A decade later, with the 10 Year Anniversary of the MCU on the horizon, let’s look back on the Journey of Tony Stark.
Disclaimer: This piece was written before the release of Avengers: Infinity War and contains no spoilers… except for the ones for previous films. There are a tonne of those.
Since its inception there has been no escaping Robert Downey Jr.’s omnipresence in the MCU. For better or worse, he has been positioned front and centre over the last ten years as their biggest (and far and away most expensive) star, dominating poster after poster and commanding the most overall screen time, at over 5 hours. Likewise he has been their chief marketing talisman, a Comic-Con god who is every bit the spokesman for the brand as Kevin Feige.
For Marvel, it was a no-brainer, as Downey was their only real butts-in-seats attraction for a long time. To this day people place Iron Man at the top of their list of favourite Marvel films. No marketing consultant on earth would have told them to put anybody else at the front of their ambitious push to conquer the film industry.
But for many, it’s all gotten a bit much. Everything revolves around Tony Stark, just as the character would like it. We have been served up healthy portions of this beloved performance again and again to the point we might just be ready to raise a hand and say ‘that’s enough.’ Heading into Infinity War – a film that was speculated to kill off some of the more seasoned cast – many (including our own Mike Thomas) asserted that Tony ‘needed to die.’
Yet for every complaint about Tony being shoved down our throats, his character development is the most prominent through-line amidst a sea of winks and nods and more subtle continuations of stories.
Second Disclaimer: Stories about white dudes who slowly learn how not to be assholes need to stop. Now. It’s unfortunate that the ripest fruit of the labours of an unheralded shared universe is another one of these stories. But it is what it is, and if we’re going to celebrate the ten year anniversary, then there’s no getting around an analysis of it.
Iron Man – Ego
We meet Tony Stark as a genius billionaire playboy, but definitely not yet a philanthropist. He revels in selling weapons of mass destruction, delivering an eye rolling speech about “how America does it”. He takes selfies with soldiers and tells tales of sleeping with centrefolds. He’s rude to Christine Everhart, a reporter who chastises him for his lack of morality, but manages to take her home anyway, the latest in a LONG line of conquests.
His circle of friends extends to Pepper Potts, his personal assistant, Obadiah Stane, his business partner, Happy Hogan, his chauffeur, and Colonel Rhodes, a military liaison. That genuinely appears to be it. Three employees and a business contact. An orphaned only child with immense wealth, a genius IQ, no friends and a propensity for one night stands. In short: an asshole.
In theory, Tony has his wake-up moment in a cave in Afghanistan when he is captured by terrorists and tasked with building one of his weapons for them, creating the first version of the Iron Man suit to escape. But it took a situation as extreme as being a hostage for him to realise what most decent people already know: war is bad. Sure, he pulls his company out of the arms trade, but he doesn’t go and kill terrorists as Iron Man because he wants to help combat evil, he does it because these particular terrorists are using his weapons to attack the village of his dead cellmate. Tony’s brand of nobility is a selfish one, steeped entirely in his own experiences with no sense of true altruism.
Advised by SHIELD to publicly deny that he is Iron Man, he instead does the exact opposite because he thinks somebody used the word hero (they did not), liking the sound of this so much that he boldly declares “I am Iron Man”, failing to realise there’s a big difference between saying you’re a good person and actually being one.
Amidst this tiny journey from an arrogant womanising asshole who sells weapons of war to an arrogant womanising asshole who no longer sells weapons of war, sparks begin to fly between Tony and Pepper. His admission that he has nobody else is at once romantic and pitiable. But it remains a dangling plot thread, as he can’t stray too far from douchebaggery.
Iron Man 2 – Legacy
For the first time, Tony is forced to come to terms with his own mortality thanks to some pesky palladium poisoning. Unmarried, childless and with a history of warmongering, he is quietly desperate to redefine his legacy. As Whiplash puts it:
“Like all guilty men, you try to rewrite your history, to forget all the lives the Stark family has destroyed.” – Ivan Vanko
He re-opens the Stark Expo, the brainchild of his father, who despite ostensibly behaving exactly like Tony, is remembered more fondly, a clear attempt to tap into his father’s secret to success. He boasts that he has successfully privatised world peace and denies a request to share his tech with the government, declaring nobody is capable of replicating his inventions, desperate to establish that Iron Man is uniquely his – a brilliant gift to the world.
Tony isn’t just dying, he is dying alone. But his response to the former exacerbates the latter, alienating Pepper and Rhodey with his attempts to cope with his fear of death manifesting as reckless racing in Monaco and a drunken incident at his birthday party. When he tries to make amends, strawberries in hand, he is met with general boredom more than anything, because he is the forty-something-year-old man that cried wolf.
His feelings for Pepper are genuine, but because of his complete lack of emotional maturity, he can only bring himself to impulsively ask her to run away with him or sleazily hit on her while intoxicated. But he of course fixes himself, saves the day and gets the girl, because Tony has to win. Always.
Rhodey’s decision to choose his superiors over his friend by confiscating one of the Iron Man suits ends up giving Tony an occasional sidekick in War Machine, a forerunner to working with others. This opportunity would have come a lot sooner, but he fails his evaluation by Black Widow for inclusion in The Avengers Initiative, because let’s not forget, Tony is still not a virtuous individual. He simply responds to threats in front of his own face.
The Avengers – Sacrifice
Despite failing said evaluation, Stark is brought in to help SHIELD when their genius of choice, Erik Selvig, is captured. Tony doesn’t help for the sake of helping, but because he cannot resist the puzzle of unravelling Selvig’s complex research, revelling in the idea of being a desirable commodity due to his unique genius.
In doing so he is brought face to face with the most influential person in his journey: Captain America.
Steve Rogers is nothing like Tony, with a strong moral compass that governs his every action. The two clash immediately, with Tony going as far as to call him useless, clearly irritated by the level of reverence with which everyone treats Cap. Even Howard Stark “never shut up” about Rogers, but was frosty toward his own son. Tony feels he deserves this reverence instead because “everything special about [Steve] came out of a bottle.” He reels off a list of positive attributes, and brags about being “the only name in clean energy” failing to see that all of these things lose their effect when used as boasts. He has a smart-ass answer to every cutting question about who he is without his miraculous armour. It is NOT a good start to a friendship.
However during the Battle of New York, Tony is uncharacteristically compliant when Steve assumes command and assigns him a role, not because of Cap’s extensive battlefield experience, but because for the first time he is completely out of his element; Tony’s unflappable confidence stems from decades of asserting mastery over the laws of physics, becoming an expert in multiple fields, a peerless problem solver who can finish advanced formulae while drunk. It’s all terribly impressive. But it is also very much rooted in traditional scientific understanding, and so when faced with an impossible alien army with technology well beyond his own pouring through a rift in the sky he is stunned into relative silence… by his standards.
Much like it took an extreme situation for Tony to start his journey toward heroism, it takes drifting alone in deep space to affect his most significant character development to date; With no time to “just cut the wire” he is forced to steer a nuclear missile up through the rift. In doing so he accepts that he is unlikely to make it back and tries to call Pepper, but is denied the goodbye Steve got from Peggy when he made a similar sacrifice play. Good people get good things.
Of course Tony survives because he has to win. Always. He tumbles back through the opening and into the arms of The Hulk, in who Tony has found his first new friend. The Science Bros drive off into the sunset together, launching a fleet of fanfics in the process.
Iron Man 3 – Progress
Tony’s brief sojourn into space proved to be a lot more than a flashy set piece in a summer blockbuster. In one of the better examples of consequence in the MCU, Tony is haunted by the experience of drifting alone in darkness, suffering from insomnia and panic attacks. His two previous brushes with death evoked minor changes, but he overcame both of those with his mind, and space was an entirely different animal, one that he only survived through luck.
This vulnerability shook Tony and pointed his greatest strength – his brilliant, obsessive mind – in a harmful direction. He forgoes sleep and spending time with Pepper in favour of building dozens of new Iron Man suits. He is blind to the fact that the measures he takes to protect “the one thing [he] can’t live without” are the very thing that threaten to push her away. The Iron Man armour had always protected him from every conceivable threat, but then he encountered inconceivable threats and it was back to the drawing board.
He pioneers technology that lets him remotely control his suit, which not only allows him to retreat deeper into his workshop without having to come upstairs for such trivialities as human contact, but also plants the seed that will later grow into Ultron.
But when Happy barely survives an attack from The Mandarin, Tony reverts straight back to his most impulsive and arrogant, publicly challenging the terrorist and giving out his address on television, which naturally brings danger right to his and Pepper’s doorstep. For as far as he’s come it does not take much to send him back to square one.
Tony ends up stranded in the snow, cut off from his wealth and allies. His armour is out of power, and JARVIS is offline. Completely alone and assumed dead, he is finally forced to address Cap’s questions about who he is without the suit, unravelling the mystery of Extremis and cobbling together some low-tech (relatively speaking) weapons in order to assault The Mandarin’s compound. He does these things not as Iron Man, but as Tony Stark.
He is helped in this endeavour by a young boy with an aptitude for engineering and father issues. The two bond, though Tony’s sage wisdom included “Dad’s leave, no need to be a pussy about it” and leaving the boy alone in the cold after he asserts that they are connected. While his ongoing struggle with Legacy has by no means transformed him into a parent, he ultimately provides Harley with a treasure trove of tech as a thank you, a forerunner to his later mentorship of a slightly more prominent youngster.
Aldrich Killian is another Stark wannabe, transforming himself from a squirmy, limping scientist with bad hair into a handsome millionaire at the head of a tech company. It is interesting that Tony is not able to defeat Killian due to his Extremis enhancements – an advantage inadvertently given to him by Tony in the first place. Instead, it is Pepper who wins the day, after briefly being thought dead. Tony’s initial response to the death of the woman he loves is one of anger, but when his attempts to defeat Killian fail, he is only able to offer a despondent “whatever” when faced with his own doom.
Tony’s futility and Pepper’s apparent death may be directly linked, because we later see her being cured of the Extremis process, something previously established as impossible. Only the brilliant Tony Stark could help.
Pepper isn’t the only one to go under the knife though, as Tony finally has the shrapnel in his heart removed and in the process eliminates his need for the Arc Reactor. Until now audiences weren’t aware that was even an option, and while this is most likely the result of inconsistent writing, one could read the development as Tony being too afraid to try before now, as the scene is accompanied by a monologue about change.
“I guess I’d say my armor, it was never a distraction or a hobby, it was a cocoon. And now, I’m a changed man. You can take away my house, all my tricks and toys. One thing you can’t take away…I am Iron Man”
Shane Black originally wrote it as ‘I am Tony Stark’, a far better final line, demonstrating that he no longer needs to hide behind his suits, going as far as to destroy them. Alas, rewrites.
Avengers: Age of Ultron – Obsession
As we saw in Iron Man 3, it only takes a small push to get Tony to do something extreme. His obsessive personality means that ideas fester in his head, and his intelligence and wealth allow him to take drastic measures. His next small push comes from Wanda Maximoff, who uses her mind control abilities to implant a nightmarish vision of The Avengers on another planet, dead, as the giant creatures that attacked New York swarm toward Earth.
The key difference between this and the dream sequences that the others experience is that Tony has no idea Wanda (or anyone else) was responsible. After all, he’s already privately suffering from potential PTSD after The Avengers, so having a nightmare loosely related to that trauma wouldn’t seem out of the ordinary. Because of this, Tony puts into motion one of the worst things he has ever done: The creation of Ultron.
It began with a small fleet of rudimentary remote controlled Iron Man suits, referred to as the Iron Legion, deployed for crowd control during missions, but after recovering Loki’s sceptre and analysing it with Bruce, Tony takes things a giant leap further. The sceptre contains the Mind Stone, which Tony uses to bring to life the peacekeeping AI he has designed, the aforementioned Ultron.
Banner, with a vague sense of morality, makes a number of valid points, but Tony’s trauma is too strong a motivator for him to be denied:
Bruce: So you’re going for artificial intelligence and you don’t want to tell the team.
Tony: We don’t have time for a city hall debate…. I see a suit of armor around the world.
Bruce: Sounds like a cold world, Tony.
Tony: I’ve seen colder.
What Tony is aiming for is inarguably good. He wants peace. He wants to keep himself and his loved ones out of the line of fire. He wants them all to get to go home. All good things. But the flippant manner in which he dismisses the council of his teammates – not subordinates, teammates – reveals that for all his change, he still trusts nobody’s judgement but his own. He still doesn’t feel that the rules apply to him. Heck, he laughs when the team confront him, showing his emotional dissonance.
Furthermore, it would seem Tony’s previous breakthrough about dependence on the suits was instead a shift in focus, as he continues to obsess over a solution that may simply not exist.
Naturally, Ultron gains sentience and threatens the earth with extinction, carrying with him a great deal of Tony’s personality, quoting and thinking like him, while motivated to prove himself superior. Ultron isn’t evil because of a glitch or an Infinity Stone, he is evil because he is the child of Tony Stark, inheriting his pragmatic power and amoral arrogance. Tony’s latest attempt at a Legacy, “Peace in our time” is twisted by Ultron into something sinister.
The Avengers win the day and Tony helps save the world because he has to win, always.
Captain America: Civil War – Villainy
Having stepped away from active duty, Tony has returned to the idea of Legacy, exhibiting new technology that allows a user to relive their memories, demonstrating it with the last time he saw his parents alive. He offers a massive grant to the students of MIT to empower them, an example of his attempts to be a good person without being Iron Man. Take note, Bruce Wayne.
But then comes another small push.
Confronted by a woman who lost her son in the battle with Ultron, Tony shows more guilt than we have ever seen from him previously. Remember, he laughed when The Avengers found out he had created Ultron. So when Secretary of Defence Thaddeus Ross presents the Sokovia Accords to the team, demanding they answer to a governing body, Tony Stark, the man with the least respect for authority of any of them, is the most vocal supporter, acquiescing to somebody for perhaps the first time in his adult life.
It’s not an altogether poor decision, after all, refusing to listen to others led to Ulton and pretty much every negative thing that has happened to him. He’s created a lot of collateral damage. But it’s a case of too far in the other direction, as he doesn’t just reluctantly agree, he becomes the spearhead of the government movement, Ross’ attack dog, who is willing to fight and imprison his friends for the sake of what he has decided is the best course of action. It’s perfect for him, as the responsibility that comes with superheroism is shifted to somebody else, taking him back to the Consultant role he balked at before.
Interestingly, he uses Pepper as the justification for his decision:
“A few years ago I almost lost her, so I trashed all my suits. Then we had to mop up Hydra and then Ultron. My fault. And then, and then, and then, I never stopped, because the truth is I don’t wanna stop. I don’t wanna lose her. I thought maybe the Accords could split the difference.”
Steve and Tony’s ever-present friction escalates further than ever, with disagreements about right and wrong, both steadfast in their diametrically opposed beliefs, forcing their allies to choose between them. People get hurt. People go to prison. But things don’t get really ugly until it is revealed that a brainwashed Bucky Barnes murdered his parents.
Tony is entirely consumed by his rage, viciously attacking Steve in an attempt to get to Bucky. While Bucky’s level of culpability for actions committed under brainwashing is debatable, Tony does not even entertain this discussion, stating “I don’t care, he killed my mom.” This comment is also pretty telling about his relationship with his father, by the by.
It’s uncomfortable viewing, especially after the two made amends moments before the revelation, and the MCU’s two strongest wills are expressed to a shockingly violent conclusion. Cap, the better person, wins. Tony doesn’t get to this time. Bitterly, he demands Steve return the shield that his father created. Steve, always the bigger man, complies without hesitation.
While an argument could be made for Tony as a villain before now, there is no debate that he is the antagonist of this film. He put Wanda on house arrest. He recruited a child to win a fight with his friends… who he helped imprison. He tried to kill Captain freakin’ America!
Spider-Man: Homecoming – Teaching
There was no better way to give Spider-Man the official MCU stamp of approval than with a heavily marketed appearance from their most popular character. It was also the most organic way to bridge the narrative gap, as Tony was the one to bring Peter into the fold in Civil War, designing his suit and giving him a taste of the big leagues.
Throughout the film, Tony resists the role of mentor, keeping Peter at arm’s length by using Happy as a go-between, all the while keeping tabs on the fledgling hero’s escapades. We are led to dislike the two adults for ignoring Peter, only for both of them to repeat information back to him such as a lie about band practice. That they read his texts and did not respond may be worse, but there is a legitimate level of caring for his safety.
Likewise, Tony rescues Peter on two occasions and gives him a lecture based on the lessons he learned in Iron Man 3 about not depending on his suit. It’s not about the gadgetry and abilities, it’s about the strength of character. It’s about being Steve Rogers, the kid from Brooklyn, not a super soldier holding an unbreakable shield.
When Peter ultimately saves a Stark plane (fitted with stealth technology suggested by Harley in Iron Man 3 but dismissed by Tony at the time), Tony is thankful, offering him the spot on The Avengers he had long coveted. Peter turns the opportunity down, leaving Tony with very few direct allies, but with a much greater achievement: Mentoring someone who idolised him like Harley wanted. Empowering a young mind like he wanted with the M.I.T. students. For the first time, he paid it forward, and assisted in the journey of a hero destined to surpass all others. Tony finally has an undeniable positive in his Legacy.
To cap it all off, he proposes to Pepper Potts, with his experiences from Civil War and mentorship of Peter apparently having had enough of a positive impact on his personality that she took him back. Tony Stark, the man who couldn’t commit to a single thing, entered into the biggest commitment possible. Sure, he still flirts with Aunt May, but that’s more about messing with Peter and cutely nodding at the former relationship between Downey and Marissa Tomei.
No MCU character has undergone more character development than Tony Stark. While he has remained the world’s cockiest man, his status quo from the start of Iron Man to the end of Spider-Man: Homecoming is radically different. He started out as a friendless, completely self-involved merchant of war and ended up the world’s most famous superhero, devoted to positive causes such as clean energy and student funding and most radically of all, he is engaged to be married. He even made a handful of friends along the way, though he appears to have lost most of them due to the double-edged sword that is his obsessive mind.
Undoubtedly, the belief that he alone is capable of fixing every problem, is a ludicrously arrogant one. His attempts to do so led to the rise of Justin Hammer’s Iron Man knockoffs, Whiplash, Extremis, The Mandarin and Ultron. He helped build The Avengers and then completely tore them apart.
But his mind also led to advances in energy solutions, the reduction of terrorism, the creation of a new element and for The Avengers to operate on the level they did. He cured Pepper and prevented Sokovia from destroying the planet, both apparently impossible tasks. He empowered a generation of new geniuses, including Harley Keener and Peter Parker. In an extinction level scenario, there are few people who wouldn’t ask Tony to contribute to the solution.
The greatest failing in the story of Tony Stark’s journey is a lack of consequences, particularly where it pertains to Ultron and The Twins. While the team initially take him to task for creating Ultron, all finger pointing has dissolved long before the film’s end, and apparently taking himself off the team was all that was needed in terms of a punishment. He owns up to what he did in an honest exchange with Steve in Civil War, but no wider-scale mea culpa ever comes.
Perhaps more disappointingly, the origin stories of Wanda and Pietro Maximoff are entirely tied into Tony’s past as a weapons manufacturer. They waited for him to kill them for two days. Wanda’s eyes glow red with rage at the mention of his name. So you’d think Marvel could have found a moment somewhere for the two to directly interact after becoming teammates. Some lip service attempt at burying the hatchet. Instead they barely share scenes and he escalated the situation by placing her on house arrest, labelling her a weapon of mass destruction, again, without real consequence to him.
Marvel needed Robert Downey Jr. and Tony Stark when they started out. He was necessary for their growth. But over time, he has turned into more of a plot device, advancing the stories of other characters and making way for new stars, all the while developing his character. With any luck, similar long-term character work can be achieved with the likes of Spider-Man, Black Panther, Captain Marvel and a pantheon of heroes they are yet to unveil.
Ben & Matt have a tonne of MCU content on the site and still to come, including:
A preview podcast on Avengers: Infinity War with the help of Superhero Pantheon.
A big list of MCU related lists.
Ben & Matt’s Marvellous Journey Episode 18: Black Panther.
Ben will be writing a thankfully much shorter piece about Captain America tomorrow.
Ben & Matt’s Marvellous Journey Episode 19: MCU Ten Year Anniversary drops Wednesday with the final All-Marvel List coming Thursday and finally Ben & Matt’s Marvellous Journey Episode 20: Avengers: Infinity War on Friday.
If the whole superhero thing isn’t your bag then please check out From Broadcast Depth, a podcast all about the cultural phenomenon that was LOST, presented by Kevin Ford & Ben Lundy. If nothing else, they’re not Ben & Matt.