Though it was a place he didn’t know much, he still went there without thought–to face an opponent he was confident he could defeat even though he didn’t really understand him. He fought bravely for noble reasons, but it didn’t matter how well armed he was, it didn’t matter how strong he was, and it didn’t matter why he was there: it wasn’t enough to save Peter Parker or anyone else.
The parallels between his arc in the movie and the modern day history of the United States aren’t hard to see, nor are they surprising or new. Because while we like to think Captain America represents his country, Iron Man has always been the member of the MCU who embodies the best–and worst–of who we truly are as a nation. But that’s not a bad thing.
Tony Stark has been the soul of the MCU throughout. The entire franchise was built on his Iron back, after the unexpected, massive success of the first movie. Without Robert Downey Jr. turning a relatively unknown character into a megastar even non-comic book readers know as much as Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man, it’s unlikely Marvel would be the world wide phenomenon it is; there would be no Infinity War without him.
His presence within this shared universe has been the most important of any character from a storytelling standpoint too. The entire Stark family hangs over everything that happens, with Tony’s role permeating everything, frequently influencing what other characters do (relying on his tech or leadership), to how they think (signing the Accords, who they side with and fight against), and who they look to guidance from in times of crisis. Even in the movies he doesn’t show up in, he’s still present.
And despite being a genius billionaire who has more in common with Elon Musk than any of us, he has connected with audiences because he represents who we are as a nation more than any other character. He’s a loud, brash, powerful asshole who tends to cause problems even when he’s trying to do the right thing. He’s simultaneously smug and insecure, he’s ashamed of his past but not sure he can ever fully atone for it, half the world sees him as a source of hope and the other sees him as a symbol of what is wrong, and he’s really freaking strong. Tony Stark is basically America. Captain America, the idealistic kid from Brooklyn is who we like to think we are, but Iron Man is who we really are. A rich, flawed, willing-to-fight powerful machine who causes as many issues as he solves.
It makes sense this iteration of Iron Man has proven so popular over the last decade, beyond just how good Robert Downey Jr. has been in the role. That’s because this Tony Stark–the one who suffers from PTSD after an unimaginable attack on New York City left him feeling vulnerable, who is terrified about it happening again so he keeps building bigger and stronger weapons to prevent that, who keeps fighting battles before they happen, who keeps making new enemies in the process, who has sacrificed some of his freedom to his country in the name of “safety”–has represented who we have become in a post 9/11 world. The Sokovia Accords are the MCU’s Patriot Act, which Tony was eager to sign no matter the cost because he thought it would keep his worst fears (his vision from Age of Ultron) from becoming a reality. It wasn’t the best choice, and he knew that, but it was pragmatic and easier. What’s a little freedom against the lives of millions? That’s why seeing Tony is like seeing ourselves, only without having to face our own choices.
“Every time someone tries to win a war before it starts, innocent people die. Every time,” Captain America warned Tony in Age of Ultron. That’s because Steve Rogers has always been the idealist of the Avengers, and why he has always done a better job representing the best idea of ourselves. In WWII he sacrificed himself for his country, and when Loki and Ultron came he fought bravely, ever the dutiful soldier. But when his country lost its way and asked him to sign the Accords he stayed true to himself. He and Tony entirely switched places from where they were in the first Avengers, when Captain America was following orders and Tony was thinking for himself. But after seeing the attack on New York, Tony lost a piece of himself while Cap stood tall. Tony looked around and saw what was, and that’s why he was willing to give up so much for an elusive idea of safety, while Cap only saw what should be.
Tony wasn’t wrong, but he wasn’t right. Unfortunately, just like we don’t always learn the right lessons, Tony still doesn’t understand Cap’s warning about fighting a war before it starts. He can’t see past that wormhole in the sky and what he almost lost. That’s why when we meet him at the start of Infinity War, he has an all new nanobot suit on his chest. He’s ready to fight at a moment’s notice. He’s armed so he can keep his family safe, even though it puts them at risk just as much, maybe even more. However, just like the biggest army in the world can’t guarantee your safety, we sadly see the world’s strongest suit can’t either.
In Infinity War, Cap is still who we want to be–guided by principles, unwavering in his convictions, coming to the rescue of his friends, refusing to sacrifice Vision–and Iron Man is still who we really are: an imperfect machine trying to do the right thing without thinking it through; someone who simultaneously shapes his entire world while also constantly being shaped by it, in both good ways and bad.
But we don’t have to feel badly about who we are when we look at Tony Stark, because there is hope in his story. When he started he was powerful, greedy, destructive, and prideful–a selfish force without a moral compass. And even though he’s still full of himself, doesn’t always think before he acts, and doesn’t always learn the right lessons, he no longer puts himself before others. Because he’s driven by a selfless desire to be a force of good. Unfortunately, his demons mean his good intentions can result in an Ultron, or his rushing off to Titan without thinking it through completely.
Doctor Strange knows something no one else does, because he saw the only future where they beat Thanos. It turns out the only way to do that involved saving the life of Tony Stark. Just like only we can decide what path we will continue on, good or bad, whatever hope remains for the Avengers and the world depends on where Tony Stark goes from here.
That’s as it should be, because he’s the soul of the MCU and always has been. And while we always need a Captain America to remind us of who we should strive to be, we always need an Iron Man to show us who we really are, all the good and all the bad. Because that’s the only way we can get better.
What do you think? Does Iron Man truly represent us? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.
Images: Marvel Studios