The Evolution of Tony Stark in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

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Spoilers for Avengers: Age of Ultron ahead. For the purposes of this discussion, we are speaking strictly of MCU Tony Stark, not his comic book predecessor.

“Big man in a suit of armor,” taunted Steve Rogers in The Avengers. “Take that away and what are you?” From Iron Man 3 to Avengers: Age of Ultron, Tony Stark’s Phase Two character arc was exclusively devoted to exploring the multi-faceted answer to that question. With next year’s Captain America: Civil War set to place him firmly in an antagonistic role within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Phase Three’s Tony Stark is a very different man from the one who first built himself a mechanical heart in Iron Man. Four films later, having continually reconstructed himself out of the scraps of his psyche, Tony — who once turned his body into a weapon to atone for making weapons — has now shed that iron cocoon entirely, and aims to build a suit of armor around the entire world instead.

Critics of Tony Stark commonly cast him as an egotistical, self-obsessed narcissist who cares about no one but himself — in the wake of five films demonstrating unwavering devotion and respect for those close to him and clear, consistent willingness to endanger himself for the protection of others, that interpretation is misconceived at best and willfully disingenuous at worst. Is Tony arrogant and hubristic and riddled with a multitude of other personal character defects? Absolutely. But an inability to see past his defensive ‘cocky asshole’ persona misses the bulk of Tony’s characterization: he wears more than one type of armor. Moreover, the innate conflict of a selfish, unethical person actively choosing to be selfless and ethical in ways that don’t necessarily come naturally (being in possession of a “moral psychology”, as Tony calls it) is a large part of what makes him so compelling as both a self-constructed hero and a well-intentioned villain. Tony may not always do the right thing, but at this point he genuinely believes he’s doing what’s right.

Which brings us to the creation of Ultron, a direct descendant of Tony’s traumatic near-death experience in The Avengers and the subsequent fallout in Iron Man 3. The former had him literally flying into the abyss and witnessing the full scope of Earth’s near-annihilation in a visual, visceral way that none of his teammates did (only Tony saw the full extent of the extraterrestrial army gathering on the other side of the wormhole), while the latter had him suffering the aftershocks: anxiety attacks at mention of the wormhole or the hypothetical return of the aliens beyond it, the vulnerability of PTSD in general (something we’ve never before seen a superhero explicitly struggle with onscreen), recalibrating his view of the world to accommodate the existence of gods and monsters, and being stripped of his suits — his creations, his distractions, his armor, the dissociated pieces of himself — in order to prove that he’s not just “a man in a can” now that the can is no longer enough.

Both are significant paradigm shifts for Tony, whose decision to remove the shrapnel from his chest at the end of Iron Man 3 is as much a deliberate claiming of agency (he wasn’t forced onto this path by what was done to him in the cave, but rather actively chose to become Iron Man — a choice he has now fully made peace with) as destroying the existing suits that he no longer needs to rely on, secure in the knowledge that he can always create more.

Tony’s ability to destroy has always been matched by his compulsion to create: he is both The Merchant of Death and The Mechanic, a futurist genius whose restive brain won’t stay still, driven by the urge to go harder, higher, and farther than anyone has gone before. And like Icarus — that mythological son of an inventor who flew too close to the sun — Tony is hurdling fast toward the inevitability of having gone too hard, too high, too far. He has rebuilt himself several times over, and he isn’t about to stop building: the next logical step, then, is to rebuild the entire world in his image. Because if post-Avengers Tony Stark — the Tony Stark whose greatest terror is having failed to protect everyone else in the ways that he protects himself; whose worst nightmare as a human on this team of superhumans is having all his brilliance and resources and self-made power be simply insufficient — can’t save the world, he sees himself as having no value in it.

So he creates a global security system of protective artificial intelligence entirely under his command — he who is, in his own mind, the only person qualified to determine what is best for everyone else; he whose only superpower is his brain — and it backfires spectacularly. What does our self-appointed savior do? Does he register the consequences, scale back the mission, step down in chagrin? No. He builds another, better version. Because he can. Because he’s Tony Stark.

Tony Stark is not ‘ordinary’ without his suits and arc reactor. Tony Stark will never be ‘ordinary’. The point is that he’s inherently extraordinary, and even more so for having destroyed that cocoon of iron armor, for having found himself adequate and worthy without it. When Laura Barton looks at two men walking together in Age of Ultron and calls them gods, she isn’t looking at Captain America and Iron Man: she’s looking at Steve and Tony. Steve Rogers holds no conflicts or delusions about what he is capable of with the super-soldier serum, or who he is outside of it, but a Tony Stark who has fully coalesced himself with Iron Man — who knows he can be godlike without Iron Man — is a very dangerous man.

Going into Captain America: Civil War, Tony has stepped away from the Avengers following his disastrous attempts at preemptively saving the world. He has essentially killed J.A.R.V.I.S. — the best friend he created for himself — in those attempts. He has helped to destroy another of his creations, one whose autonomous feelings were in some ways an extension and amplification of Tony’s own (distinct from Ultron’s rage, Tony’s anger is rarely explosive — but when he locks onto a target, he obliterates it with single-minded calculation). He has made clear his refusal to compromise on either his methods or his goals. He has tried the ‘teamwork’ thing, and arrived at the conclusion that he is better working alone, in full control of his circumstances. Civil War will introduce Black Panther and Spider-Man — additional new, untested variables that Tony will likely seek to understand and contain. Tony’s stated desire is to stop fighting and “go home”, but it is his more subconscious desire to conquer fear of the unknown that is set to instigate another fight.

By the time Avengers: Infinity War premieres in 2018, we will have had ten years of Tony Stark — brilliant, reckless, paradoxical Tony Stark — whose singular character arc will be the first to span a literal decade. We will have seen him fashion himself into a hero, take on the role of a villain, and — perhaps — tinker his way to redemption once again. The Marvel Cinematic Universe began with Iron Man, and throughout its first two Phases, Iron Man has been the driving force connecting each film, each character, each plot. Now, as we prepare to enter Phase Three, Marvel has expanded far beyond Iron Man’s original relatively straightforward examination of the American military industrial complex — their thematic concerns have broadened along with their range of characters and settings, as we move from heroes to miracles, from Earth to far-away galaxies, from humans to Inhumans.

Yet Tony Stark has evolved, too, and will keep evolving: he’s not done building yet.

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