One of the MCU’s most impressive traits is how it continually develops and reinvents its own characters. This is fitting as the whole thing was born from a story of reinvention – 2008’s Iron Man. In Iron Man: The Evolution of a Hero, I’m taking a look at Tony Stark’s journey throughout the MCU, how he changed as a character, and how he changed the cinematic universe.
Which focuses on Tony Stark seeing how he can help the world in much better ways than simply making weapons… and the MCU (and Tony Stark’s) journey of reinvention starts there and keeps going through several movies
Tony Stark probably has one of the most complex and detailed character arcs ever put into film – which is of course helped out massively by the fact that he features in so many movies, AND is expertly portrayed by a man born to play the role
In the first movie Tony goes from an entitled, self-obsessed, and self-righteous weapons designer to a, admittedly still self-righteous (but in a very different way), superhero who takes personal responsibility for not only everything he and his company has been doing, but going into Iron Man 2, world peace.
In the second movie, Tony takes a step back, and the MCU gets as close as it dared to the iconic Demon in a Bottle storyline (which in the comics shows Tony’s troubles with alcoholism). In the movie Tony has kind of returned to form as the entitled self-obsessed Tony, it’s just now he’s ensured world peace and is adamant no one else can manage to replicate his technology.
On the other side, the Palladium poisoning is making him more reckless than ever, and shows a version of Tony using the suit irresponsibly, as he thinks he’s going to die soon.
This is important to Tony’s growth, and the character he will grow into – at this point, the idea of death, is making Tony act out, drive his own car at the Monaco Grand Prix, drunkenly pissing his pants in the suit.
By the end of the movie, he solves the palladium poisoning, thanks to some very convenient intervention from Nick Fury who helps Tony rediscover a new element his dad had found.
But even at the end, I’d argue his character hasn’t really gotten where he needs to be as a hero yet, he’s just back to being less reckless as he’s no longer dying – but character-wise he didn’t really grow too much from midway through the first movie.
Avengers is where I’d argue his next huge growth comes in – yes he’s still full of himself, but why wouldn’t he be (he’s a genius, billionaire, playboy and philanthropist)
But the key here is that Tony saves the day, and all of New York, accepting that it probably means he will die. Earlier in the movie, Captain America says that Tony is selfish and isn’t the one to make the sacrifice play when lives are on the line.
But by the end of the movie, Tony proves Cap wrong – or, maybe takes on board what he said – or maybe somewhere between the two? Whichever way it is, by the end of the movie he shows he’s ready to die to help and protect others.
This contrasts with Tony from Iron Man 2, where again the idea of his pending death made him act out, make mistakes, and become overly confident – like Tony Stark needs fewer inhibitions.
And so going into Iron Man 3, which I’d argue may be the most development Tony has in a single movie, Tony is the man who would sacrifice himself for the greater good. He and everyone else knows it now too.
And yet he is haunted by his near-death experience/actually dying for a little while. In the third movie, he uses his suits as a crutch, is obsessed with making them, and he’s shutting himself off from Pepper, and Rhodey.
But by the end, Tony realises that he is Iron Man regardless of having a suit or not and that whether or not he has an infinite amount (and what must be billions of dollars worth) of suits or just some makeshift weapons he made from Christmas decorations and parts from a hardware store, he is still the hero we saw at the end of Avengers – the man ready to make the sacrifice play, risk himself, to save the day (and Pepper).
Moving into Avengers: Age of Ultron, which although it’s probably the weakest Avengers movie, I’d argue is one of the most important for Tony Stark’s character ark.
Going from his fears and his sort of PTSD in Iron Man 3, Tony has moved on from creating loads of suits for individual purposes and instead has made the Iron Legion. A series of automated robot Iron Man suits to do his world-saving bidding.
But that’s just a part of his plan, Ultron, as Tony puts it is supposed to be “a suit of armour around the world” which is his ultimate goal.
This is perhaps best shown where, even with the failure of Ultron, he still believes in the idea, which leads to Vision – and you know he’s taking a risk for sure – but with Vision, he was kinda right – right?
This movie more than any other, shows Tony’s story as kind of a different side to the Spider-Man, “with great power comes great responsibility” – In Spider-Man’s case, he does everything he can with his limited resources, whereas Tony has the same idea – except he has literally unlimited resources and money, so there is no limit to how much responsibility he feels he has.
Some other interesting parts of his journey in Age of Ultron are that he very openly points out that Cap is the leader, he just pays for everything. And even in the end, he appears to be leaving the team totally – believing in the idea of the Avengers, just knowing he can help the world in other ways, in my opinion, the logical extension of where his story ends in Iron Man 3.
Moving into Civil War, which like Ultron does so much for Tony’s character – to again showcase how much he has changed from the carefree playboy we met at the beginning of Iron Man.
Tony’s life starts out in a very different place in Civil War, one of the biggest hits being that he and Pepper have broken up – as he explains to Cap later in the film thanks to his obsession with Iron Man, and helping people he couldn’t make it work – and hopes that the Sokovia Accords could “split the difference”
But the real instigator for Tony’s arc in Civil War is the guilt trip he gets early on for killing innocent people during Sokovia – which wouldn’t have happened if he didn’t create Ultron, so he’s doubly responsible right?
Without diving into the whole Civil War argument, which is definitely a separate video. Tony and Cap’s arguments are more similar than you might think, especially when taking into account their character arcs so far…
This guilt trip doesn’t really do anything new for Tony, it just reinforces his issue with taking responsibility for his actions and collateral damage that was central to the first Iron Man movie, and has defined his character ever since…
Miriam Spencer hits him with the “they say there’s a correlation between generosity and guilt” line right after he funds all of the MIT projects. She also reiterates Cap’s line from the first Avengers movie that Tony fights for himself rather than to actually help people.
Tony’s Civil War storyline revolves around the idea that he has maybe lost sight of his original mission, in taking responsibility and helping where he can – bringing it back to the idea of him having to act as he has the means to.
Where it gets interesting in Civil War is that logic, having to act and help where he can, that has shown up over and over again, is actually Captain America’s argument in Civil War.
So there’s definitely something to be said for the guilt trip pushing Tony in the wrong direction.
The movie also takes Tony’s character in a few new directions by diving further into his parental issues with his holographic therapy session.
This dovetails into the Bucky revelation, which in the end helps show how similar Tony and Cap are in Civil War. Not only has Tony’s arc revolved around the idea of being able to act where you can, but he lets his personal emotions get in the way of what he should be doing, similar to how Cap’s feelings for Bucky dictate his actions throughout as well.
Like Tony and Cap’s argument being two sides of the same argument, the introduction of Spider-Man, who literally says if you have the power to act and you don’t then it’s your fault – again Cap’s argument, and kinda Tony’s.
The movie ends with Tony moving back into the Avengers compound, showing he needs some company and how much he’s changing.
All in all Civil War is the perfect blend of two key elements of Tony’s arc so far, his struggle comes from thinking he should be able to help and act when he needs to like we’ve seen with creating Ultron, – which is Cap’s argument in Civil War, being to help people when you feel you should – and yet Tony also believes in accountability, and taking responsibility for his actions, which has been clear from the first Iron Man movie – which is his argument in the movie.
Spider-Man: Homecoming then does a great job of showing how much Tony has grown as a hero, and a person. He takes much of his own lessons from Iron Man 3, where he learned that he was Iron Man with or without the suit, and puts that on Peter Parker
Now whether he is a good father figure, or maybe more accurately, the Uncle Ben surrogate, is more debatable, as you know, almost all of the problems that crop up in the movie come from Tony and Happy not telling Peter what they’re doing.
Tony says he called the FBI to help, but if he’d have just called Peter back and said, yeah great work, we’re sorting it – it might have stopped Peter doing a bunch of stuff he shouldn’t. But Tony is still learning and has only had Howard as a father figure role model.
The more parental role Tony takes on in Spider-Man Homecoming, which with a very brief and surprise cameo at the end shows that he and Pepper are back together, continues into Avengers: Infinity War – where the very first scene shows him trying (in a very Tony Stark Way) to tell Pepper he wants to have kids.
Her argument is that he’s created the nanotech chest piece and that he’s not ready to stop being Iron Man. He says the chest piece is to protect them both, but before the conversation can get any further Doctor Strange and Bruce Banner interrupt with news of Thanos’ impending invasion…
Jumping forward a little, Tony finds himself on the alien ship with Ebony Maw, a captured Doctor Strange and Peter Parker (although he doesn’t know Peter is there yet).
This brings what Pepper was saying into the forefront of Tony’s mind and perhaps makes him realise that he really can’t stop himself from being the hero. His annoyance that Peter is still on the ship also continues that protective thread from Homecoming.
But where a more interesting development or at least continuation for Tony, comes in, is where he decides to let the ship stay on course, convincing Doctor Strange and Peter to go to Thanos, take him by surprise, and to defeat him away from Earth.
There is a sense of selflessness and practicality here, but also a classic Tony Stark-ism of thinking he can beat Thanos. As well as wanting to conquer that fear of something else, something bigger, coming that he has had since the first Avengers movie.
After Thanos’ snap, and seeing Peter Parker die in front of him (in many ways his worst fear), Tony accepts his own death onboard the Milano alongside Nebula.
But with his return to Earth, after some peace could have been made with Cap, he makes it clear he blames Captain America for not being there… and he brings up the Suit of Armour around the world argument he had for creating Ultron, which in his defence could have really helped.
But realistically even if the Avengers were all cool with each other, the speed with which Tony was brought to Bleecker Street and then ended up in space, not much different could have happened surely… And yet this emotional, childish acting out is clearly not all about Cap or the other Avengers, Tony is annoyed with his own failure… the first thing he says when he gets back is that he lost Peter.
Then when the movie, very very slowly jumps forward five years.
Tony, is a totally different person, well kind of. He’s clearly still the Tony we all know and love, but now he’s a loving father, who clearly has a great relationship with both his daughter and Pepper.
Even when Cap, Black Widow and Ant-Man show up, he makes it clear that he can’t lose what he has gained and doesn’t want to help them – although he is happy to see them.
Where Cap wants a second chance for everyone, Tony makes it clear that he has already had his, and won’t give it up for anything.
And yet what gives him the push to at least think about the possibility is a picture of Peter Parker, again reinforcing not just how much he cares about helping everyone, but Peter specifically, something which could have been further reinforced by having his own daughter.
After solving time travel extremely quickly – Pepper says that stopping Tony from helping everyone he can is one of her biggest failures. This scene beautifully encapsulates not just Tony and Pepper’s relationship, but who Tony has become over the course of the MCU – he can help people, and as Pepper points out, can’t rest until he does.
He returns to the Avengers facility, and gives Cap back the Shield, showing that he is ready to make peace, and perhaps again showing that their Civil War argument was just two sides of the same coin – the guilt Tony felt about accountability and hurting people has now gone as he believes he could have helped if something like Ultron was in place – and just like Cap in Civil war, he is now at a point where he can’t stop himself from helping.. regardless of any accountability.
After the time heist planning, Cap and Tony trust each other enough to go back to 1970 together after getting the Tesseract in 2012 doesn’t go according to plan.
The trip to SHIELD HQ in 1970 leads to some important scenes for both of them… Where Cap sees Peggy and is reminded of everything he has lost, Tony meets his dad just before Tony is born, and gets to see how far he has come, AND make peace with his father.
Howard even helps Tony come to terms with who he is, as he also points out that he has never managed to balance the greater good of the world and his personal life – just like Tony.
This is the final push Tony needs to complete his hero’s journey – which as we all know ends with the second iconic “I Am Iron Man” scene.
Ultimately Tony not only succeeds in bringing everyone back from the snap and stopping Thanos, but he sacrifices himself to do it.
In the first Avengers movie, Cap says to Tony that he isn’t the one to make a sacrifice play and that he only fights for selfish reasons – but Tony has proven time and again that, that isn’t true.
Tony has shown that he is Iron Man with or without the suit, and can’t stop himself from helping others, and even if he can’t help, that won’t stop him from trying – the idea of with great power comes great responsibility – once again shines through Tony’s entire arc, leading to an on-screen hero with an amazing character arc across nine films, brought to life by an incredible portrayal from Robert Downey Jr.
He is, and always will be Iron Man
And we love him 3000.
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