As of May 2018, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is 10 years and 19 films old. In celebration, we’re talking about the deeper elements of the MCU, mostly film-by-film. We’ve already talked about how Iron Man is about finding truth, why Incredible Hulk might not be in the MCU, that Iron Man 2 is the true beginning of the MCU, how Thor does the work to make the Avengers great, why Steve Rogers was alone BEFORE he fell in the ice, why the Avengers weren’t the Avengers until they beat the tar out of each other, how Iron Man 3 exposes the hidden symbolism of Tony’s life, that no matter what the advertisements say, Marvel TV isn’t connected to the MCU, that Loki’s greatest illusion is Loki himself, that the Winter Soldier represents Steve’s darkest fear, how Peter Quill didn’t know who Star-Lord was, my crazy fan theory about the Infinity Stones creating Ultron, that Ant-Man is the unfortunate casualty of the greater MCU, and why Steve Rogers had to sacrifice the Avengers for the good of the world.
With all these long-running film series, there’s no shortage of analysis. That’s double true of Tony Stark, a character that movie audiences have only known for 10 years, but has somehow appeared in 9 films since then (and that’s mostly because Marvel took a break from releasing films in 2009).
You’d think we’d all be tired of Robert Downey Jr. by now. After all, outside of the MCU his appearance in a film has almost no bearing on whether or not a film is successful. Audiences aren’t clamoring for more Robert Downey Jr, but they can’t get enough of him as Tony Stark.
In and of himself Robert Downey Jr. was such a risky move back in the day that Terrence Howard (who played James Rhodes pre-War Machine) was reportedly paid $4.5 million for his part in the film, while RDJ was paid closer to 1/10th that amount.
But why aren’t people tired of Tony Stark, “with his long list of character defects?” I think it’s because while he’s possibly one of the worst people in the world, there is something very relatable about Tony Stark.
I’ve watched every film in the MCU more times than I should admit and every single time I see RDJ on screen I see one singular motivation in almost every action for Tony Stark. When he breaks ties with his best friends, when he creates artificial life to protect the world, when he scolds Spider-Man for wanting to be an Avenger, all of this comes from one simple truth: Tony Stark hates himself. “I’ve been called many things, but nostalgic isn’t one of them,” he tells Pepper. Why? Because he can’t wait to be a different person than the person he is right now.
Oh, and Tony Stark is a liar.
At least at the beginning of Iron Man he is. As the opening credits begin, the man Tony Stark sees in the mirror is a liar, the son of a liar, who was raised by liars. Or at least that’s what Tony believes deep down inside.
According to the timeline, Tony Stark was born in 1970 and Howard Stark died in 1991. That means that Tony was around 21 years old when he was left to find his way in the world. He followed the path of least resistance and took over his father’s company, under the guidance of Obadiah Stane.
In this film, Obadiah Stane is the embodiment of Howard Stark’s legacy and Tony’s darker side. There’s a lot to cover on this subject, but if you watch carefully you start to see a pattern when Stane is onscreen.
Whenever he’s present, he’s there praising Tony, coddling him, even offering him food. Just before Obadiah sends the Ten Rings in to kill Tony, he calls and checks on how the sale went. There’s a great little moment where Tony finally confronts Obadiah about Stark weapons in Gulmira and Stane practically sings “picture time!” to Tony as he wraps his arm around Tony and positions him towards the paparazzi, his face plastered with a saccharin grin.
If the subtlet is lost on you, they didn’t choose the name Obadiah Stane, the “Iron Monger,” for no reason. Obadiah is a war-profiteering hate-monger and Tony is his golden goose. All he wants to do is keep Tony fat and happy until the next best way to blow something up pops out of Tony’s head.
And what’s the greatest trick that Obadiah Stane pulled?
He’s convinced Tony that Tony’s doing good. If you listen to his very practiced speech to Christine Everhart from Vanity Fair, Tony tells her that his weapons are the only reason America is safe at night. If Tony Stark didn’t make weapons, the enemy would. He’s jokingly proud of the name “Merchant of Death.” He claims that he’s ready to start building better hospitals if the world would just stop being so imperfect.
And how does Tony ultimately resolve the moral dissonance he’s confronted with? By literally wooing Ms. Everhart tonight and discarding her tomorrow. She wakes up to an empty bed and stern warning from J.A.R.V.I.S., meanwhile Tony Stark has moved on and Pepper Potts is there to “take out the trash.”
But that’s not the real Tony Stark, is it? The real Tony Stark can’t be bothered to show up to receive the accolades that come from a career following in his father’s weapon-making footsteps. He’d rather skip out on the awards ceremony that celebrates his weapons designs and gamble for money he doesn’t need with people he doesn’t care about.
“Tony Stark wants to save the world.”
Before Tony’s big moment of truth (the one where he comes face to face with a bomb that literally has his name on it) Tony lets the truth slip to a vehicle full of soldiers. He mocks the idea of ever leaving his amazing, but still repetitive, boring, alcohol-soaked existence behind. “Peace? I’d be out of a job for peace.”
But all of that changes in the cave. In order to save Tony, Ho Yinsen rips out his heart, confronts him with truth, and gives him a loaner till he can make his own. In that cave, Obadiah’s illusion cracks and Tony becomes the one thing he never was: honest.
After his “brief soirée in an Afghan cave,” Tony opens up about his father. “There’s questions I would’ve asked him. I would’ve asked him how he felt about what his company did, if he was conflicted, if he ever had doubts. Or maybe he was every inch of man we remember from the newsreels.”
With newfound clarity, Tony rejects Obadiah Stane, Tony’s personal arbiter of Howard Stark’s legacy. Tony rejects the girls of the week and pursues Pepper Potts, the woman he knows he actually wants to be with.
While the finale of the film might look like two dudes in robot suits beating the tar out of each other with lasers and missiles and rocket boots, there’s a lot more to it. Tony’s not just fighting for his life, he’s fighting for his soul. Tony is facing the biggest lie in his life with truth. When Tony asks Pepper to destroy the arc reactor to kill Obadiah Stane, it’s not just big shiny sky beam go BOOM! Tony extinguishes the Iron Monger in the flames of Howard Stark’s hopes for the his son. That’s a moment dripping with symbolism.
Before we wrap up, there’s another moment that changes when you realize this movie is about Iron Man making an honest man out of Tony Stark. It’s the big reveal that the ends the film.
People forget that before the MCU, the superhero secret identity was part of every comic book movie.
Spider-Man had to juggle the responsibility of real life against his heroic secret, Vicki Vale had to choose between Bruce Wayne and Batman. While Tony Stark’s admission was surprising at the time, the public confession is really the only way this movie could have ended.
In a movie about a liar’s path to redemption, you can’t get much more honest than the last four words of this film:
“I am Iron Man.”
See you next Monday when we dig deep into the orphaned step-cousin of the MCU, Incredible Hulk.
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