Avengers Week - Iron Man: I am Human
Welcome to Avengers Week here at Mirror Box! Each day, we’ll feature a piece from our incredible writers that highlights each original member of the iconic team and discuss the cultural impact and relevance these characters have on the big screen! This first piece is from Alex Oakley, as he takes a deep dive into the hero that started it all: Iron Man!
“The truth is … I am Iron Man.”
Robert Downey Jr. improvised this shocking revelation at the end of 2008’s Iron Man, and set the tone for the future of what would become the most successful and ambitious film universe since Luke Skywalker first stepped out across the sandy Tatooine in 1977. In an interview with Deadline, cinematic-universe-runner Kevin Feige revealed that the improvised line and the success of Iron Man gave Marvel Studios the confidence to take chances and treat the Marvel Comic Universe like guidelines, not scripture.
Now, 11 years and 20-odd films later, and we’ve reached Endgame–a cultural event so massive that it is a global phenomenon. Avengers: Endgame featured the culmination of the Infinity Stones arc, radical changes to some of our favorite characters, and great successes and character moments for others …
And the death of Iron Man.
The death of the character that started it all.
The end (maybe) of Robert Downey Jr.’s onscreen life in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
From a box of scraps in a cave that saved his life to the snap that ended it, Tony Stark has appeared as a major or supporting character in nine Marvel films (not including his cameo in the post-credit scene for The Incredible Hulk (the one from 2008, not to be confused with The Hulk from 2003 directed by Ang Lee that Monica and I talked about in April on our podcast Shot for Shot which you can check out Here). Arguably more than any other character in the MCU, we have seen Tony Stark grow, and change, and learn, and mature, and suffer. We have seen his character arc in every peak, and every trough.
And quite frankly, Tony Stark’s arc has been analyzed to–pardon the pun–death:
You can find thinkpieces comparing the rise of Tony Stark to the rise of Marvel Studios; The Washington Post called him the ‘best thing’ to happen to the Marvel Universe; and there are even pieces explaining how he could come back! (Not that resurrection is particularly uncommon for the superpowered jetset.)
There are pages and pages and pages of world-wide-web-wordsmiths looking at the nitty gritty details of each and every scene. People who binged every movie in chronological order without sleep in preparation for Endgame. I am not those people. I am a 12-year-old who saw a movie in theaters about a Marvel superhero that I kind of knew about but wasn’t super popular, and grew up to be a 22-year-old who cried audibly at the funeral for that same superhero. Discussions of masculinity, emotional imbalance, and a crushing fear that displaying negative emotions in any context will label me as ‘weak’ all aside, I don’t cry often. Particularly at movies. I can count the movies that have made me cry on one hand, and most of them center around the death of a dog. (Here’s lookin’ at you, Marley & Me.) So why, all of a sudden, did I, and countless other Marvel fans in movie theaters the world over find ourselves crying at the death of the character? Crying at Pepper Pots sending the ARC reactor out onto the lake by their cabin? Crying at Happy telling Morgan Stark how much her father loved cheeseburgers? What about Tony Stark got us so heavily invested? The character arc of Tony Stark has been, and will continue to be, analyzed literarily, narratively, and figuratively until the end of time. But I think what often gets overlooked in these nitpicks and video essays is not how Tony Stark changed and evolved from Iron Man to Endgame, but what that change means to us as an audience. Why did we feel so strongly about the death? Why was his change in Iron Man, and in Civil War, and in Endgame so impactful to us.
A film is a narrative. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Point A to point B. The protagonist starts one way, evolves through the narrative crucible, and comes out the other side changed. And that’s it. That was Iron Man. But then Iron Man 2 rolls off the assembly line. Point A for Iron Man 2 is not Point A for us or Tony Stark. Suddenly it’s Point C. We begin the film with knowledge of and investment in Tony Stark. But this is not unique.
What makes our investment in Stark at the beginning of Iron Man 2 any different than our investment in Woody and Buzz in Toy Story 2? Or Luke in The Empire Strikes Back? The short answer is that it isn’t. But after Iron Man 2, Tony Stark truly begins to tread on untested Hollywood ground. The Marvel Cinematic universe expanded beyond the scope of the Iron Man films, and we see the origins of Thor, and Captain America. And then we get the big fish: The Avengers, an ensemble movie FOUR YEARS in the making. (It seems almost silly to think about how ambitious this was in 2012.) Avengers was new, exciting, and different. And while we still get to see our swaggering Stark take on Loki and the Chitauri, he is sharing the screen for the first time with a full roster of costumed crime fighters and super geniuses. He is still a main character, but he is no longer the main character. We see him grate with Captain America and Thor and Hulk and Fury. We get the famous “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” line. We get all sorts of trials and tribulations for our super-roster that culminates in the splash-page-like panoramic shot that defined the Battle of New York for us. And at the end of it all, Iron Man has become a leader, a fighter, and more of a hero than ever; willing to sacrifice himself for the safety and survival of mankind. And then they go get Schwarma.
Then comes Iron Man 3. A radical shift in the Iron Man film MO. Tony’s confidence is gone. He is paranoid. He is suffering from PTSD brought on by his near-death experience destroying the Chitauri mothership in the Battle of New York. The events proper of this film aside, what makes Iron Man 3 stand out amongst Iron Man’s arc for us as audience members is that we see him truly suffer as a human being. Not suffer as a genius. Not suffer as a man in a super-powered suit of armor. But suffer as a man, as any of us could, and many of us may have suffered. We see Stark grow in Iron Man 3 in ways that we haven’t gotten to see any of our other heroes change yet, because here, he grows not only through external conflict, but through internal conflict that occurs on a much more personal level than the normal subset of superhero problems.We get to see how this internal change further affects him in Age of Ultron, in which Tony actually manages to create the villain in an effort to protect Earth from another invasion.
However, I think what truly was able to cement Tony Stark into the heart of Marvel’s audience, after all of this, is that Age of Ultron marks the moment in the MCU where Stark is no longer our central protagonist. Following Age of Ultron, Tony Stark appears in four films: Captain America: Civil War, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame. Civil War and Homecoming are where Tony Stark really evolves from a superhero protagonist to a well-rounded character developed beyond the scope of any character in a film universe we’ve seen.
Let’s start with Civil War. The protagonist of Civil War is Captain America, clearly. And we know that, from behind the scenes of it all, Helmut Zemo proved to be the puppetmaster antagonist. Yet, even with all the manipulation, Civil War gave the audience a rare opportunity–to see Tony Stark as an antagonist. I’m not saying Iron Man was a villain in Civil War, but I am saying that he was directly against the ideology of the protagonist of the film, and served as an obstacle for Cap and Falcon. We got to see Tony play the bad guy.
On the absolute inverse of that, we have Spider-Man: Homecoming, the not-an-origin story for Tom Holland’s plucky portrayal of Peter Parker that we were introduced to in Civil War. Here we see a penultimate new development for Tony Stark. The audience has gotten to see him as a playboy, a genius, a protagonist, a hero, an antagonist, and now we get to see him as a mentor. This movie cements a new kind of relationship for Tony, one that ages him, and makes him very different from the womanizing, high-roller we first met in 2008. We all know we gasped when Tony actually stepped out of the Iron Man armor to chastise Peter before taking away his suit for his recklessness, leading to a much more stressful and high stakes final battle with the Vulture.
This relationship is further fleshed out in Infinity War, where suddenly Tony finds himself not only a mentor to Spider-Man, but a protector, as they both become stranded on Titan and have to face down Thanos with Doctor Strange and the Guardians of the Galaxy. A role which he fails as Thanos defeats them, takes the time stone from Strange, and finally, the mind stone from the Vision, and snaps. Successfully eliminating half of all life, including Peter Parker, from the universe. We all know how harrowing it was to watch “Mr. Stark …. I don’t feel so good” in theaters in 2018.
And then we get to Endgame, with what proved to be the most heartbreaking (for us) development in the life of Tony Stark yet–fatherhood. If you, like me, went in to Endgame with the sneaking suspicion that the MCU was gonna have to lose either Cap or Stark, the reveal of little Morgan Stark, as cute as it was, dropped a rock in your stomach. Tony was willing to sacrifice himself at the end of Avengers back in 2012, so how could it be possible to make it more difficult for him to be willing to do it again in Endgame? Morgan. Give him something that he never had that truly could bring him to doubt the worthiness of sacrifice. Early on in Endgame, it does. Stark refuses to take part in the Time Heist because while he is still the hero that we have known and loved for over a decade, he is that hero with a child. A family. A cabin on the lake with his wife and his child. Unlike Natasha, unlike Clint, unlike Cap, the Iron Man we see in Endgame moved on. He found happiness through it all. He was lucky, and we got to be there with him.
What made Stark so different from any other character in the MCU, or in any film franchise ever at this point, was not that he appeared in more movies, or had the best lines or the coolest fight scenes or the most interesting conflicts–it was that we, the audience, got to see so many different facets of him grow and change over a decade. Eleven years is a long time. No one is unchanged after eleven years, which means, more than any other character on screen, we didn’t just get to watch Tony Stark grow and change, we got to watch him grow and change with us. As our hero, our mentor, or our friend. And now we have to go on without him. But we will, just like the MCU will. We will go on knowing that we are all the better for having had Tony Stark on our silver screens.