From Playboy Philanthropist to Civil Rights Adversary: Tony Stark’s Cinematic Arc

Tony Stark, the Invincible Iron Man and, of course, self-proclaimed genius billionaire playboy philanthropist (and lovable asshole).  He’s one of the most popular characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (he’s certainly my favorite).  Why?  Well, Robert Downey Jr. brings a certain charisma to the role, and I love the look and feel of the Stark tech in the films.  Most importantly though, I have been loving the progression of his character.  In particular, I really love geeking out over how they have been perfectly setting Tony up for the Civil War.

Most of you are likely aware of Marvel’s Civil War, even if you don’t know the details.  I’ve given a short explanation before, but it bears repeating (and fair warning; if you really want to go into the next Marvel movie without any prior knowledge you should probably stop reading right now).  As portrayed in the comics, Civil War starts when a group of supervillains causes a massive explosion on live TV, killing the New Warriors (who had been broadcasting a reality show about superheroes), and 600 other civilians (which had included 60 children).  Public outcry was immediate, and the approval rating for superheroes plummeted.  As such, the government was able to push forward the Superhero Registration Act, a piece of legislation calling for all superpowered beings to unmask themselves and register with the organization, ensuring they would be made responsible for any collateral damage and future damages.  Tony Stark, originally opposed to the legislation, later became its biggest proponent after the incident with the New Warriors.  Steve Rogers, that is Captain America, was immediately opposed, feeling that this Act took away liberty and the right to privacy from superheroes and, thus, violated their basic rights.

Kinda poetic, actually; first Avengers movie had Iron Man bouncing his repulsor off Cap’s shield in a show of teamwork.

The Civil War escalates quickly.  Pro-registration heroes make the capture of Captain America a priority, while anti-registration heroes (the Resistance) fight to remain secret and end the legislation.  At the end of the conflict a group of Resistance heroes launches an attack on the pro-registration SUPERprison, freeing the prisoners there and launching a full-scale SUPERbattle that moves into Times Square.  Captain America is about to deal the finishing blow to Iron Man when he is tackled by a group of emergency workers and, seeing the devastation that all the heroes have caused and the fact that civilians side with Tony’s position, unmasks himself and surrenders, ending the war.  He is then later killed in front of a courthouse before his arraignment.

The next film in the MCU is Captain America: Civil War.  Naturally, we expect it will follow the basic plot of the comics; there will be some sort of disagreement between Tony and Steve about the Superhero Registration Act and the various heroes of the MCU will side with either.  We already know about a few changes, though.  The most important?  Superhero identities aren’t particularly secretive in the MCU; everyone knows who Captain America is, who Hawkeye is, who the Hulk is, etc.  As such, Marvel has stated that the SRA will focus on world governments demanding accountability for superheroes.  To what extent that means we don’t know, but we can assume that it’ll be serious enough for Steve to be against it.

It’s obvious that Tony will be an advocate for the legislation; that’s the whole point.  What I find great is how well the character has been developing into that person through his experiences throughout the films, especially when taking into account how the SRA will be different.  Some of it is fairly obvious, but I want to go over that development here, particularly because I think that a lot of non-comic readers may not understand how Tony can suddenly step into the shoes of an anti-villain role.

When we first meet Tony in Iron Man he’s something of a warmonger.  It’s not that he’s violent, but he’s a playboy who only cares about money and how to make it, and Stark Industries makes money through war.  His public perception is important only to the extent that being outright hated will harm his business dealings, but even then he knows how to sway people to his side; a reporter approaches him with ill intent and Tony gets her in bed not a few hours later.  Then at the unveiling of his newest weapon he asks, “is it better to be feared or respected? I say, is it too much to ask for both?”  Tony doesn’t care about what’s right or wrong; only what gets him what he wants.  Being feared is just as valid a business model as being respected, and though we can infer he was referring to the American military with that line I personally think it was also a statement of his personal belief system.  As a man Tony is callous, apathetic, and selfish; whatever gets him ahead is fine with him.

He's just an asshole at this point; not much
He’s just an asshole at this point; not much “lovable” yet.

Then his caravan is attacked, his chest is punctured with shrapnel, and a terrorist leader tries to force him to create new weapons of mass destruction.  This is Tony’s first real villain, and his first realization about what war does to people and how those with power over others will use it to harm and control.  Upon returning to the U.S. he ceases weapons production for Stark Industries and begins constructing improved versions of his armored suit, hoping that he can help prevent more war and death and bettering people’s lives through his new technology.  It’s amazing, really, seeing his transformation.  He’s not anti-violence so much as he is pro-peace.  And then Tony meets his second villain; Obadiah Stane.  Stane represents big business and the power that large corporations have and to what extent they are willing to go in order to keep that power.  Stane represents Tony’s old self; the capitalist business man who uses war as a profit scheme.  He’s a relatively ordinary person with money, and he wants more of it, and Stane doesn’t care if people have to get hurt or die for that to happen.  Tony defeats Stane, and he finishes the film firmly against making money off war and harming innocents; any profit he makes will be through the benefit of humanity.  There’s a problem though; Tony isn’t a perfect person.  He’s still extremely flawed, and the flaw that comes into play the most throughout his character arc is that Tony thinks he’s invincible.  It’s a core tenant of who Tony Stark is.  Whatever else he becomes, that will always be a part of his personality.  He believes himself infallible, and that explains why he makes a lot of stupid decisions in later films; it never occurs to him that it could go wrong.

But let’s keep the chronological order.  We come to Iron Man 2.  Tony has to come to grips with a lot of inner demons in this film, but as far as Civil War is concerned the important parts are Ivan Vanko and Justin Hammer.  Hammer, as a villain, in most respects isn’t much more than a repeat of Stane; he’s a business man who makes a profit off war and weapons.  He doesn’t teach Tony anything new, though he is in some respects more normal than Stane (who at least wore a super suit; Hammer never gains any real “powers”).  So I suppose he’s just a repeat lesson.  Vanko shows Tony something new.  Early in the film the government tries to get Tony to sell his designs, something that he refuses to do.  They fear that with Tony as the only legal proprietor and user of his technology anyone else could copy him and become a threat; selling his designs to the government would ensure that they can properly prepare for that contingency.  Tony asserts that no one can copy his technology, and that the world is safe from its abuse for that reason.  And how he is proven wrong when Vanko shows up at the Grand Prix, wearing an arc reactor.  He, too, is ultimately defeated.  Vanko teaches Tony that even his technology, which until now had been used for peaceful endeavors, can be used to harm others if someone else gets their hands on it.  Tony gains further perspective about the dangers facing the world.  He’s seen the dangers of an “ordinary” person (Hammer and Stane) and now the dangers of his own tech.  I think this is why, come Avengers, Tony pushes for an autonomous lifestyle; Stark Tower becomes self-sufficient, a “beacon of self-sustaining, clean energy.”  How better to prevent a repeat of Whiplash than to go off the grid?  Tony certainly isn’t going to dismantle his tech.

Speaking of The Avengers, the events of this film are, in my opinion, what cement Tony as the pro-registration individual he is slated to become.  Thor comments earlier in the film that S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Tesseract-based weapons tells the rest of the galaxy that Earth is ready for a new level of war.  S.H.I.E.L.D., of course, had acted as it did strictly because of the knowledge that extraterrestrials even exist (thanks to Thor’s actions in New Mexico).  They need something to level the playing field against technologically advanced races like the Asgardians.  Tony is openly against Fury in this scene, pushing him to stop lying and pointing out how a nuclear deterrent “always calms everything right down” (sarcasm emphasized).  But then the Earth is attacked by a race of extraterrestrials, and Tony and the rest of the Avengers battle in the streets of New York to fight them off.  Tony almost sacrifices himself saving the city.  People died.  And people could die again.  I want to draw attention to a particular detail back in that scene when the Avengers are arguing.  Look at Tony when Fury says, “the world’s filling up with people who can’t be matched.  They can’t be controlled.”  Fury says this directly to Tony.  He walks right up to him.  And Tony’s expression, to me, is one of reluctant agreement.  Fury has a point.  Superbeings are flooding the planet; a new one is discovered practically every few months.  They are dangerous, and now we have the looming threat of aliens hanging over the Earth.  Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. are doing this the wrong way, but he, Tony Stark, well he can do it the right way.

This is not a face that says
This is not a face that says “you’re full of shit.” This is a face that says “Yeah…. you have a point….”

At least, eventually.  For now we hit Iron Man 3.  Tony is traumatized by the events of New York.  He isn’t sleeping, “and when [he] does [he] has nightmares.”  He’s having anxiety attacks.  Through all of this he tinkers and constructs more suits, doing what he knows.  And all he knows is that “threat is imminent” and he has “to protect the one thing that [he] can’t live without” (spoilers; it’s Pepper).  That’s why he’s built the suits, that’s why the House Party Protocol exists.  Have you ever actually looked through Marks VIII through XVI?  Some of them are just more heavily armed or faster.  Some are more durable.  But then others were built with a special purpose.  The Mark XV was designed for stealth.  The Mark XVII was built around a more advanced chest reactor that could create wider or more narrow beams.  The Mark XXI was designed for supersonic flight.  The Mark XXIII was a heat-resistant suit.  The Mark XXV was a construction suit.  The Mark XXXVII was a deep-sea suit.  “Igor,” the Mark XXXVIII, was designed for heavy lifting.  There was the Mark XXXIX, which was Tony’s sub-orbital space-flight suit.  And that’s not even close to all of them.  The point is, Tony built a suit for nearly every contingency he could think of.  He was scared, and developing this “Iron Legion” that could respond to any issue was his way of dealing with his fears at a time when he couldn’t articulate his thoughts properly.  Then Aldrich Killian and his Extremis-fueled soldiers show up, kidnap the president, nearly kill Tony and Pepper, and by the end of the film Tony has gotten a clear enough head to see that yes, Fury was right; these superhumans are as much a problem as alien invasion is.  Tony doesn’t want to stop or kill them, but they need to be contained somehow.  Accounted for.  Perhaps registered, if you will.  Tony becomes less obsessive about building suits and “being Iron Man,” but in its place are two new obsessive concepts; one is to formulate an actual valid plan to protect the world, and to ensure that he (and the rest of the Avengers) don’t have to be there to do it personally (and thus avoid another unnecessary New York sacrifice).

What does Tony say here when J.A.R.V.I.S. suggests he had an anxiety attack?
What does Tony say here when J.A.R.V.I.S. suggests he had an anxiety attack? “Me?!” He’s incredulous. A man like Tony doesn’t have anxiety attacks. He’s too… awesome for that. Or at least that’s how he sees himself.

I think I should mention that Tony appears in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  He was one of the targets of Project Insight, where individuals determined to be a future threat to HYDRA and the safety of the world would be killed en mass.  Bruce Banner and Stephen Strange are also targets for their own reasons; Strange certainly is one of those “may be a problem in the future” cases.  The fact that Tony was on the list isn’t much of a surprise; he’s an Avenger and logically a threat to HYDRA and their new world order.  But again, in his case I think it goes a bit deeper than that.  Tony has aspirations of his own; aspirations that go against HYDRA’s, because it’s hard to rule when there’s “a suit of armor around the world.”

Which is where we find ourselves in Avengers: Age of Ultron.  Tony has remade the Iron Legion into a force of mass-produced androids.  They can be sent in place of the Avengers for relief efforts, small-scale disturbances, and the like.  I find them to be questionably similar to Hammer’s armored drones.  Sure they’re a bit less military, but the idea of autonomous robots fighting battles so that humans don’t have to is the same.  Tony had obvious issues with Hammer’s drones, yet constructs his own anyway.  I’m not surprised that Tony wouldn’t consider how they are similar.  He is, after all, Tony Stark.  He can’t screw it up (are you seeing the pattern yet?).  And so he precedes forward, pushing for the creation of his Ultron global defense program (which itself has some similarities to Project Insight, and his reasons for ignoring history are the same here).  This is his ultimate goal; an artificial intelligence that can take over the work of the Avengers and protect Earth from anyone and anything that would do it harm.  And what happens?  Ultron goes rogue, taking his purpose literally, and attempts to destroy humanity to protect the Earth.  Not only that, but in the ensuing chaos the Avengers, one of whom is his best friend, cause a large amount of collateral damage.  Everything seems fine and dandy as the film closes, but Tony also leaves, off to do something, and coming up next is Civil War

I don't know who I side with more. Ultimately, I think a compromise between both extremes can be found. If only Tony and Steve could get along for five minutes.
I don’t know who I side with more. Ultimately, I think a compromise between both extremes can be found. If only Tony and Steve could get along for five minutes.

I think with the end of Age of Ultron Tony has reached the breaking point and has finally realized that he can fail.  He’s scared, and every single one of his plans to protect everyone has ended poorly or almost gotten everyone killed.  He tried being a superhero, thinking he could stop everyone himself.  He tried building a bunch of robots to carry the burden of protection.  He tried building a global security guard that could watch everyone all the time.  None of them worked.  I think it’s clear from all these experiences why film-Tony is prepared to accept any potential solution that could protect everyone by controlling those with the power to do harm.  Perhaps we’ll even find that he’s the one to suggest the Act.  We know that more collateral damage will occur at the beginning of Civil War, but I believe Tony doesn’t even need that to be convinced of what needs to be done.  He’s already there.  Whatever happens exactly, I’m loving the journey that Marvel has taken Tony on.  Whether I agree with his views or not, I at least understand why he will believe in them.  That’s good storytelling.

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