The Iron Arc: The Serialized Story of Tony Stark, Heroism, Freedom and Technology

Abe Beame explores the Tony Stark saga and the themes that carry it.
By    April 19, 2019

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Abe Beame is not an Avenger, but he’s been in infinity wars.

At the end of this month, the first act of Marvel’s paradigm shifting cinematic universe will come to a close. When we talk about Marvel, we talk about spectacle, about scale, about capital, but rarely do we talk about how their model has provided the opportunity to completely revolutionize cinematic storytelling. Or when we do it’s in the sense of these vast interconnected franchises. How each film is a commercial for the next film, an endless form of extortion, never quite satiating us because that would mean letting us keep the rest of our savings and go home. But within their model, they’ve created an opportunity to revolutionize how we follow characters on film.

Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark was the first hero of Marvel’s modern era. When End Game drops the character will have had a role in nine films. With the final Avengers installment clocking in at three hours and two minutes, that means by what could be the end of this suite of films, the character Tony Stark will have spent in the vicinity of 21 and a half hours on screen. That’s nearly an entire day.

For perspective, Michael Corleone has been in three films. Indiana Jones has been in four. The dinosaurs from Jurassic Park have been in five. Depending on how you do your math throughout several different iterations with many different actors, the non animated or Lego character Batman has been in 10 since 1989. And while yes, Tony Stark wasn’t in every frame of every film, what’s remarkable is that in this universe he doesn’t need to be on screen or even in a particular Marvel film to build his character, motivation, legacy, background and mythology. While we get caught up in the sacred text and the grand narrative, just this one character portrayed by this one actor has been in our lives an incredible length of time. It’s closer to territory we’ve visited with Tony Soprano, Jimmy McNulty and Walter White.

Tony Stark, and his Father Howard, through SHIELD, are woven firmly into Marvel’s cinematic tapestry. Tony is the Abraham of this Universe and its most compelling character — so I decided to explore what Marvel has done with this unprecedented opportunity to dedicate so much time to developing one person. I’ll acknowledge watching Marvel films for plot is like reading Hustler for the articles, but I decided to re-watch all Tony Stark’s films and all the supporting material to trace his journey through this universe. I was interested in tracking the growth, or lack thereof in the character.

It’s well established that Iron Man (2008) was an unlikely piece of intellectual property upon which Marvel built their church. The more lucrative franchises had been sold off and produced by other studios. But in some ways, Tony Stark was the perfect hero to usher us into the world. He’s as close as Marvel gets to Batman, an ordinary guy who uses God given talent rather than mutation to become a hero and fight evil. He lost his parents tragically and he’s impossibly wealthy. Specifically, Tony is the posturing asshole version of Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight, adding seats to a table he wasn’t invited to in the middle of the restaurant he owns and preening with a Russian ballerina, only for Tony it’s not a posture, he’s just an asshole.

As a terrestrial being of average speed and strength, he has the most conflicted relationship with his “powers” and his superhero peers, which despite his wealth and fame arguably makes him the most relatable hero in the universe. More so than any other hero in the MCU, Tony will spend the majority of his time on screen throughout his arc wrestling with what it means to fight evil, if evil can be fought, how to keep the people he loves safe and what his responsibility is to the world in his heroism. There will be a part of him that also shares the fear and perhaps resentment many humans have towards the Avengers, who they see as threats, acting without oversight and using their powers recklessly. The shepherds at Marvel never let you forget his humanity as he rubs elbows with superhumans.

Tony Stark is both Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. The monster is Iron Man, one of the greatest tools that has ever been created and a technology with potential to destroy Earth, or at least surrender it to the fascistic power that can wield it. This concept will be at the center of his conflict throughout his time in the MCU. These ideas are explored in an unprecedented manner in Iron Man, which was was a Paramount Picture, worthy of mentioning because it tackles issues Disney may have never let fly, particularly as a table setting opening salvo for an entire mega franchise.

It opens in Kabul. Stark is introduced as a merchant of death, the most famous mass murderer in the history of America. Stark literally says, “I’d be out of a job with peace” and sets the early template for his character: A charming, brilliant, smart ass nihilist with a heart of gold. Downey brings his Groucho Marxist fast-twitch, last word wit and arrogance to the role. It’s Old Hollywood magic that is just as comfortable here as it would be in a Preston Sturges or Billy Wilder film. In another actor’s hands, the character could be off putting if not repulsive. In Downey’s he’s magnetic, an important quality as at times Tony will engage in questionable and dangerous behavior.

Is it better to be be feared or respected? And I say, is it too much to ask for both?……… They say the best weapon is one you never have to fire. I respectfully disagree. I prefer the weapon you only have to fire once. That’s how Dad did it, that’s how America does it, and it’s worked out pretty well so far.

This line is delivered by Tony as he presents his newest toy of mass destruction to the military. In theory it’s a presentation of the mentality Stark will spend the film reforming, but at the heart of that idea is the troubling conservatism Stark will spend his time in the MCU trying to reconcile. He is and always will be the arms dealer, trying to sell others as well as himself the dream of safety and security that is impossible in this comic universe or any other. In each Iron Man film, the villains are always other weapons manufacturers, even Michael Keaton’s Vulture in Spiderman: Homecoming. They are all inspired or directly created by Tony himself.

One of Tony’s first eye opening moments is the discovery that the Taliban stand-in terrorist camp he’s being held captive in is already are hoarding a cache of Stark Industry weapons. It’s a moment that acknowledges the amorality of global capitalism and introduces the idea that no amount of good will or intention can control technology once it’s introduced into the world. Before the creation of the suit, a fascinating monologue is delivered by a head terrorist early in the film depicting Tony Stark and Stark Enterprises as an arm of empire.

He compares him to the bow and arrow that allowed Genghis Khan to take over the world. Stark, and by extension Iron Man, are a metaphor for American might and its resources. He’s also presented as a blunt object, a tool of death that can be picked up and fired by anyone. As the films progress, Stark’s conflict with his own creation can be read as the responsibility and guilt an American contends with as they reconcile themselves to the destruction committed in the name of self preservation.

Stark’s first rickety, tentative steps as Iron Man have shadows of Peter Parker learning how to control his sticky fingers or swing through midtown, but even in this primitive form Iron Man easily dispatches his captor militia. We see it as game changing innovation that spells the end of human conflict, or at least its evolution. It’s the machine gun or the U-Boat or the atom bomb, an equal parts utopian and tyrannical implication depending on who will be wielding this weapon of extreme power.

The overt conflict at the heart of the first installment of Iron Man is rather dichotic and base. Stark has a pang of conscience after his imprisonment in the desert. He has second thoughts about being an arms dealer and wants to begin using his wealth and powers of innovation for good. But from the beginning the suit is a gift and a curse. Tony’s longtime partner and company director Obadiah Stane copies Stark’s technology and creates his own version of the suit he plans to mass produce and sell to the highest bidder. He of course loses their face off, but Stane’s last words explicitly lay out the dilemma at the heart of Iron Man franchise. In his desire to rid the world of violence, Tony has created the ultimate weapon, the rest of his arc will be composed of trying to control the powerful tool he’s unleashed.

Throughout the series, both in the Iron Man and Avenger franchises, the suit becomes easier and easier for Tony to put on. At the outset it’s clunky and laborious, like a Nascar getting serviced by a robotic pit crew. By Infinity War Tony need merely tap his chest and the suit materializes. Conversely, as the suit becomes easier to put on and remove, Stark becomes less and less comfortable with his creation. It becomes more difficult for him to find the places where Tony Stark ends and Iron Man begins, physically and psychologically. At one point in IM3 he somewhat helplessly tells his partner Pepper Potts, “It’s a part of me”.

Iron Man 2 (2010) deepens the mythology and complicates Stark’s ethical dilemma. Mickey Rourke is Ivan Vanko, the never named comic villain Whiplash. Inspired by footage of Iron Man on television, Vanko creates the Whiplash suit. It’s derivative but still very dangerous, as is Vanko’s brilliance paired with Stark’s innovation. While Stane directly rips off Tony’s prototype, in Vanko’s invention we see a more troubling proposition. He’s the counterbalance, the repercussion of Stark’s decision. A literal dark reflection as another second gen boy genius. Just by introducing this tech into the world Tony has let a genie out of the bottle. More threats and copycats will be created in Iron Man’s image and Tony will be powerless to stop it. This won’t be the last occasion. From Stane to Ultron, Tony’s tech is constantly being weaponized against him.

Tony is served by the Senate Armed Services Committee, lead by Gary Shandling’s Senator Stern, a secret Hydra operative. The government steps in and it’s the first inclination we have that superpower is a threat to national security in the MCU. Tony begins in opposition to the idea of regulation, in favor of vigilantism and his moral authority as the owner and creator of the Iron Man suit.

The logic behind Stark’s resistance is made explicit by Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer. He’s a dumbass and a hack, an arms dealer who wants to be the government contractor Stark resists becoming throughout IM2, mistrustful of allowing his tech to fall into the wrong hands. Hammer plays the role of Stane in this film, standing in for the corrosive role of capital. He’s comic relief but he also fills the void left by Stark when he leaves arms dealing. While Vanko is positioned as the ultimate threat, Hammer is a more realistic and dangerous one. He is the retail consequence of Iron Man. The cheap, mass produced models that will merely be used to spread death and tyranny in struggles around the world rather than the universe deciding super conflicts. It’s tech that has the potential to upend world order.

Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 (2013) opens with the line, “We all create our own demons.” as a wall of Iron Man suits explode in slow motion. It means everyone ends up authoring their worst fears, men who want peace above all things create ultimate engines of war, invaders create Avengers. Tony had his eyes opened by the Chitauri Army that invaded Manhattan in The Avengers (2012) and is suffering from PTSD as a result. This manifests in him manically tinkering with the suit, his one weapon against the “Gods and Aliens” that haunt his dreams and threaten to destroy his world. Stark is introduced in his lab, his sanctuary where only his closest friends are welcome and he experiences much of his growth as a character in these films. He’s surrounded by a fleet of Iron Man suits. We discover that since The Avengers he’s developed 35 new prototypes of the Iron Man.

The suit is indivisible from Tony at this point and his obsessive, tireless tinkering is a stand in for the work he needs to do on himself, to help recover from the trauma of New York and make peace with the elements of life he can’t control. He also isn’t sleeping. In a scene early in the film, two kids approach Tony to autograph their fan drawings in crayon. Stark unconsciously crosses out the depiction of Iron Man and has a panic attack. It’s his desire to erase the suit and himself, to put the toothpaste back in the tube with the impossible burden he’s created via Iron Man. Later in the film we’ll realize his panic attacks are a manifestation of suit related separation anxiety.

He’s trying his best to hide all this from Pepper Potts, who doesn’t know how much work Tony has done on the prototypes. A recurring theme that emerges in IM3 and will run through Infinity War is Stark’s condescending paternalism. As he moves from ally to something like a rival/villain to Captain America, his behavior by necessity becomes increasingly controlling and antagonistic, most of all to the people he loves and wants to protect. In this film he’s constantly managing Pepper, what information to share with her and what to keep from her “for her own protection”. Just before his house is destroyed by a fleet of missile armed helicopters he tells her she can’t leave the house because “I can’t protect you out there”. He will also attempt to quarantine Scarlet Witch in Civil War for her own protection, he creates a Hulk Buster suit to protect him from his supposed friend Bruce Banner because he doesn’t trust him, and his relationship with Spiderman will be entirely based on trying to restrict his heroism, even though Tony is often the inciting force behind its escalation.

Early in IM3, while she sleeps, Pepper is attacked by a malfunctioning suit, activated by Tony in the midst of a nightmare, a suit that no longer needs Stark to operate. It’s the most literal manifestation of his creation and how in spite of his maniacal focus, the suit is both the savior and potential destruction of his relationships, both in the physical dangers they invite and the barrier it pits between Tony and the people in his life.

While IM2 considers iron man in relation to the world, IM3 considers Tony Stark in relation to Iron Man. The film is a shaggy noir that removes us from the beats and plot points of most “typical” solo installments of MCU franchise films. Tony winds up stranded in rural Tennessee without use of the suit. The result is a character sketch. In Tennessee, Tony gets back in touch with his true superpower: the genius for invention. He refers to himself at the mechanic: the guy who built Iron Man, who takes care of Iron Man, and who will fix Iron Man.

In one scene, Tony raids a paper terrorist called the Mandarin’s compound with weapons fashioned from shit he bought at a hardware store. It’s one of the better action sequences in all of the MCU. On a basic level it’s simply very well considered and shot, but it also carries great metaphorical importance. Tony is asserting he doesn’t need the high tech super powered suit to be powerful. He just needs an Ace Hardware and his imagination. It’s a firm declaration of self and indepence of hero from superpower.

The film ends in that great Marvel playground, the shipping yard, where Tony fights the mad, mutated Killian with the entire fleet of suits he’s created that survived the helicopter attack. One by one the prototypes are destroyed in the climactic battle as Tony sheds their symbolic weight. Tony’s worst nightmare comes true during the showdown as he fails to grab Pepper who we momentarily believe falls to her death. But she doesn’t. She’s been exposed to her own macguffiny superpowers that allow her to survive her plunge, save Tony by dispatching with Killich, and even destroy the final Iron Man drone when it once again malfunctions and targets her. Pepper’s sudden show of agency and self sufficiency, saving herself and solving her own problem, is a rebuke to Tony’s condescending paternalism. Tony finishes what suits are remaining by ordering them to self destruct and theoretically destroying his obsession with solving the evil in the world and keeping his loved ones safe. He has not just accepted himself independent of his suit but the imperfect world without the suit in it.

But in a serialized story like this, a true finale is a goal post that never stops moving. Had Iron Man been a self contained story in the older model it could’ve been one of the best start to finish hero trilogies ever. Instead, it’s followed by Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), which has rightly been called out over the years, not just because it’s overstuffed and at times incoherent, though it is, but because it completely betrays Tony Stark, the character at the heart of the film’s conflict.

The will to create Ultron in secret is completely baffling in light of the events of IM3. It’s part and parcel with Stark’s pathological desire to erase threat at all costs. Ultron is an A.I. initiative dreamed up by Stark Industries meant to provide a final and lasting deterrent. The very idea of Ultron is the same sort of naive and impossible wishful thinking we were lead to believe Tony had put behind him. It’s a return of the mistrustful, withholding, neo-conservative Tony Stark. Like his eventual creation Ultron, we are meant to see that Tony can’t tell the difference between protecting the world and destroying it.

The film gives Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner the voice of reason, arguing against the idea of Ultron, the worst case scenario that it could turn on its creator, and questioning the logic of acting without consulting with the rest of the Avengers. Tony literally says, “I don’t want to hear the, ‘Man is not supposed to meddle’ medley. I see a suit of armor around the world.” Then the film correctly, immediately punishes him for his hubris in Ultron attaining sentience, and coming to the conclusion that the one way to protect Earth is to eliminate its human hosts. Ultron understands Tony’s annihilist desire better than he does. The only true and lasting removal of threat would be the eradication of life. Ultron goes about attempting to execute this vision with……. An army of super charged Iron Men suits he controls. There are direct and overt Frankenstein references in Tony’s creation of Ultron, and even more incredibly, in the creation of Vision.

Vision is where the film truly goes off the rails, in a too-many-cooks sense and in a destruction of its own logic. After creating an existential threat by rogue freelancing, refusing to listen to his peers and letting his needs for safety and security control his decision making, Tony resolves the threat of Ultron by indulging in the exact same thought process in his creation of Vision, only this time it arbitrarily works and Vision helps the Avengers save the day. It’s bad screenwriting but also a complete absolution of responsibility in the evolution of the character. This is why i suspect the movie is considered a circuitous and muddled mess, these films need clear arcs and resolutions. It’s unclear what this film is about, if it indeed it’s about anything besides table setting. It is the first time, but not the last, that Iron Man loses logical agency and becomes a tool of plot, betrayed by the necessity Marvel’s larger narrative demands. It’s an insult to us as an audience, and to Tony Stark as a character.

In both Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014) and Captain America: Civil War (2016) the other side of the argument Tony has spent a decade hashing out with himself rages. The first and most important thing one has to understand about Captain America is he’s a soldier. His trilogy, and much of his narrative is coming to grips with taking orders, reckoning with the institutions he’s taking his orders from and locating his own moral compass.

Winter Soldier is a story about completely fucking with a kid who already has serious trust issues. Cap’s exposure to tyranny in WWII has put him on the defensive when it comes to defending privacy, open information and freedom. He accepts the risky proposition of life and its various threats, he trusts and chooses to believe in the ultimate goodness of people, so what better way to drive him off a cliff then center him in a byzantine, paranoid Watergate-era thriller? In the film we learn Hydra and SHIELD are two sides of the same coin. The focus is on the competing ideas of the benevolent and malignant surveillance state, and if there can even be a difference.

The central issue at the heart of Winter Soldier isn’t just personal freedoms but freedom of information, Captain resents being kept in the dark and the film tells us information is its own form of power and control. Fury is one of Stark’s benevolent dictators of information but by hoarding his intel he leaves others vulnerable, and himself open to the limits of his imagination and intellect, which Pierce exploits, just as Captain and Widow are exploited by Fury. Ironically, much of Hydra’s fascist rhetoric is the malignant form of what Tony believes is precautionary concern. Robert Redford’s Secretary Pierce posits, “What if you could kill your enemies and keep your loved ones safe with the flick of a switch?” It’s an echo from the original Iron Man and the false hope sold by an arms dealer.

Hydra believes humanity cannot be trusted with its own freedom, a mirror of Tony’s philosophy if he were to do the hard work of thinking through his impulses. He’s both a genius and a fucking idiot. Part of the issue with Tony’s thought process is the (convenient) belief there can be a solution. That there is a higher institution that can be trusted, that institutions themselves are more than conglomerations of individual irrational actors pursuing their own agendas. This conservatism is his weakness. He seems almost stunningly, blissfully ignorant to how time and time again these problems created by humanity persist. Tyranny lives within Tony’s utopian vision. He believes in the possibility of compassionate, morally upstanding rule as long as he gets to set the boundaries and mark the protected.

Tony isn’t in Captain America: Winter Soldier which is a shame because if he had been it would’ve saved Marvel the necessity of making Civil War. After an entire film dedicated to the infiltration and corruption of a government body that had amassed too much power and control, the very next installment is dedicated to repeating the same sins. The focus is once again immediately shifted to vigilantism and the unpredictable threat and damages created by superheroes with no checks or balances (Why does no one ever bother to ask how bad the destruction and death could be if there were no superheroes around to neutralize the threat?).

So Tony and half the heroes in the MCU align with these government concerns and expect the other half to do the same, largely to set up an essentially meaningless fanboy showdown on an airstrip and a climactic violent orgy between Steve Rogers, Bucky and Tony Stark. Tony’s recruitment and introduction of Spiderman is particularly egregious and shoehorned in. It’s like he’s a flesh and blood Iron Man suit Tony quickly makes every single mistake with from scratch. The film ends with Captain America barely defeating Tony, apologizing and leaving the door open to future collaborations before they go their separate ways. It’s nakedly resetting the narrative yet again and erasing any meaningful change in characters and their relationships.

With Tony Stark’s journey, we see the potential for how the creation of this longform cinematic storytelling could pay dividends, but how the Marvel braintrust eventually lost their handle on the character in a sea of competing stories and agendas. As the unified MCU matured and took a greater and greater share of the bandwidth of each puzzle piece, it’s no surprise that the best installments of the MCU are the ones that were given the most space and ability to focus on their characters and those character’s standalone stories.

The problem I’ve heard television writers describe concerning their medium is you have to create the illusion of change without creating actual change, because that isn’t what viewers really want, even if they think they do. We rely on and are comforted by the bar greeting Norm in the same manner every week, for him to regale us with different versions of the same story about his wife. In spurts, particularly with these individual franchises, Marvel created something different for their protagonists, they provided real stories that demanded and delivered real change. But that change has to be walked back and reimagined, sacrificed in the interest of a larger story they need to keep rolling.

But with a massive rewatch I’ve gained a level of sympathy for Marvel because interweaving these characters (both central and supporting) and macguffins through a multitude of independent stories and arcs that have to unite these diverse writers and directors in a singularity was an unbelievable undertaking they pulled off with considerable grace, finesse and cohesion. Unfortunately, they failed in telling a story much larger than that of a snake eating its tail. If they had given character continuity as much thought and care as they did to the Easter Eggs in Benicio Del Toro’s weird collection of Jack Kirby ephemera, they could’ve potentially taken their sacred geometry style of storytelling further. Using Iron Man’s constant regressions as a crutch to move plot reads more like convenience and lazy writing in retrospect.

The final coda of the Avengers first grand movement is something of an anti-climax for Stark and his journey. Infinity War and theoretically End Game are simply too big and firmly centered on Thanos’ final, legitimate Doomsday scenario that obliterates any sort of philosophizing or hand wringing over power, responsibility, vigilantism and society. Who knows if they’ll find a way to reintroduce these issues in Endgame once Iron Man and Captain America are finally reunited. Maybe the heroes are falsely accused of responsibility for half the universe dissolving. But even so, it’s a convenient end around after tuning it out for the entirety of Infinity War. Which is too bad.

The initial arc of Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark, then his conflict with Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers was the one thread in the MCU that allowed for existential questioning of meaning in these franchises. It was the consequence and the ultimate value of these computer generated entertainments. And it leaves Iron Man as little more than a glorified plot device, unsatisfying empty calories when considered as the painstaking whole we’ve invested in him. That we’re unlikely to get a meaningful conclusion to the ideas that powered Tony’s journey is truly the greatest loss that occurred when Thanos snapped his fingers.

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