Tuesday, June 12, 2018

From Merchant of Death to Earth's Greatest Defender: The Journey of Tony Stark

As of this year, Marvel marks a decade of producing superhero movies. While said movies boast an exceptionally broad cast of characters (outranking both The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter), it seems to me that the over-arching main character of the first ten years of the films has been my favorite genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropist, Tony Stark.


Of all of the Avengers, Tony has certainly had one of the most interesting, and I dare say perhaps the most inspiring character arcs in the Marvel films. At the beginning of Iron Man, Tony is a veritable hedonist who, as the head of the weapons manufacturing company, owns the title “Merchant of Death” with shocking indifference. He is alone, and has no respect for himself or for others. However, a swift turn of events brings Tony's path of pleasure and success to a screeching halt as he finds himself mortally wounded in a cave in Afghanistan, a prisoner of a band of terrorists.

Thanks to his fellow captive, Dr. Yinsen, Tony not only survives, but also emerges from the cave a changed man with a new recognition of the value of life and a resolve to reform himself and his company. Naturally, this comes as a bit of a shock to many of his friends, but Tony remains stalwart in his new sense of purpose. He informs love interest Pepper Potts, “I shouldn’t be alive unless it was for a reason. I’m not crazy… I just finally know what I have to do. And I know in my heart that it’s right.”  

However, conversion of life does not occur in a single moment. Virtue is a habit: a daily, even hourly, choosing of the good, the true, and the beautiful. And human nature being what it is, we often choose what is easy over what is right, ourselves over our neighbor, and the lie over the truth. Tony Stark is no exception. Throughout the films, he struggles and fails a great deal as he learns responsibility, vulnerability, and selflessness while simultaneously facing terrible forces including terminal illness, severe anxiety, ghosts from his past life, and enemies both domestic and alien. 

Nevertheless, Tony learns selflessness and commitment. He finds the courage to lay down his life when he fails to outsmart the bad guys, and he puts aside his ego to work alongside a band of imperfect, supernatural warriors to defend the Earth from those who would seek to destroy it. 

In Civil War and Spiderman: Homecoming, we see a side of Tony Stark that none of us expected to see: fatherhood. What began as a recruitment of the teenaged Peter Parker to the Avengers’ Civil War evolves into a mentorship as Peter clumsily attempts to prove himself to the impressive superhero, while Tony in turn attempts to simultaneously nurture and protect his protégé … with mixed results. It is frustrating and sweet to watch both parties as Tony tries to avoid the mistakes of his own father, while Peter’s ambition and pride hamper his good intentions. “I wanted to be just like you,” Peter confesses. Tony responds, “And I wanted you to be better,” suggesting his hope for Peter to eventually succeed him as one of the strongest and most brilliant defenders of Planet Earth. And, while Tony keeps the teenager at arm’s length by telling him he doesn’t need Peter’s death on his conscience, it is clear even in their first encounter in Queens that Tony is deeply moved by Peter’s honest, pure motives. 


At the end of Infinity War, Dr. Strange bargains away the Time Stone in exchange for Tony’s life. Moments later, Tony’s worst nightmare (confided to Nick Fury in Age of Ultron) comes true: Tony, powerless, has watched his loved ones die before his eyes, while he is left alive, and alone. 

However, Dr. Strange made it clear that, of the millions of possible outcomes in the battle between the Avengers and Thanos, there was only one outcome in which the Avengers emerged victorious, and apparently the role of Tony Stark in this scenario is of far greater value than the possession of one of the Infinity Stones.

This is extremely fitting. 

First of all, Tony Stark will have come full circle from the journey he began in that cave in Afghanistan. When Tony informed Yinsen that he had no family, Yinsen responded, "So you are a man who has everything and nothing." Nevertheless, Yinsen gave up his life for Tony because he saw his potential to become a hero. And, when Steve Roger called his bluff in Avengers, Tony proved himself ready to lay down on the wire to save his friends if cutting the wire wasn’t enough. Now Tony will make the “sacrifice play” once again, perhaps for the last time, for the family he holds dear -- namely, Pepper (and their unborn child??? hmmm...) and, in a way, Peter Parker -- so others can continue the mission of defending the Earth from those who would seek to enslave it.  

Second, every time Tony has been presented with seemingly impossible odds, he rises to the challenge with his intellect and resiliency, whether it’s outsmarting a villain of his own making (Age of Ultron, Iron Man 3), creating a new element (Iron Man 2), or battling aliens from another universe (Avengers). 

Third and finally, how fitting it would be if, when the destruction of half the universe was enacted through the sacrifice of a child for the sake of limitless power, its salvation was brought about through Tony laying down his life for the sake of the child he loves, namely Peter Parker? 

Needless to say, I am counting down the days until Avengers 4, and when that day comes, I am bringing tissues… lots of tissues. 

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