The Evolution of Tony Stark, From Reckless Leader to Reluctant Mentor
Avengers: Endgame Spoilers
By now, everyone knows that no new images exist past the Avengers: Endgame credits, only the ominous clinking of iron. The echoing ironwork leaves a feeling of rebuilding and mourning for the dearly departed. Listen closely, that’s the same sound from Iron Man, the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So, what does that mean for the legacy of the tech billionaire playboy genius in the incredible suit? Could someone rise and take his place?
Remember back to 2008. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), captured by a terrorist group and pissed that the weapons his company manufacturers were killing their people, creates the arc reactor in secret. This core becomes the central part of Tony’s identity. It represents his vulnerability, his ingenuity, and his legacy as a Stark.
Having lost his parents at such a crucial stage in his development, Tony still hasn’t forgiven himself for not being the man his father wanted him to be before he died. In Captain America: Civil War, Tony creates the last memory of his parents. While defending his mother from spending another holiday alone away from home, while Howard Stark (John Slattery) works, Tony chastises his father with his usual sarcasm. “You know,” Howard chides back, “they say sarcasm is a metric for great potential. If that’s true, you’ll be a great man one day.” His mother encourages Tony, in the simulation, to tell his father how he feels. “I love you, Dad,” Tony replies. “I know you did your best.” He ends the presentation of his latest technology by funding every project at MIT. Howard’s global legacy will always be his work with SHIELD, working to further technology and protect innocent lives. In so many ways, Tony was his father without even trying. It was merely his perspective that needed changing.
A hiccup in a stitch-tight plan throws Tony back in time to meet his father before he was born. Howard feels he knows his son immediately. Expressing his fear of becoming a dad, Howard allows himself to be vulnerable with a stranger in a way he never could when he was consciously speaking to his child. At this moment, Tony was able to tell his father everything he wished he had.
Tony chased that dream with booze, women, and technology. Chasing the shadow of his father, and his father’s hero Steve “Captain America” Rodgers, led Tony to a protegee of his own. It’s not long after Tony presents Binarily Augmented Retro Framing (B.A.R.F.) that he discovers Peter Parker. Using the same dry wit Howard used on young Tony, an older Tony begins the vetting process to see if Spider-Man could be a good addition to the Avengers team. “Why are you doing this?” Tony asks. “I got to know. What’s your m.o.? What gets you out of that twin bed in the morning?” In a way Stark couldn’t at that age, Peter ponders his answer. He’s already a serious human. Tragedy made Peter serious, but it did not make him coldhearted or jaded the way young Tony was. Peter demonstrates this with his response. “When you can do the things that I can, but you don’t, then the bad things happen, they happen because of you,” Peter clumsily responded. This brief exchange cements a life-long mentorship.
In Spider-Man: Homecoming, Peter, frustrated by the training wheels Tony’s put on his development as an Avenger, begins to rebel. Disabling the training program on his Stark-manufactured spidey suit, Peter begins hunting criminals by himself. Nearly all parental figures are blindsided by teenage rebellion because it so closely follows genuine adolescence. Stark is Peter’s hero like Howard was adolescent Tony’s hero. After nearly causing a catastrophe on the Stanton Island ferry, Tony realizes he’s come face to face with himself when he had been gifted super powers. Reckless, ambitious, without a lot of forward thinking, Peter isn’t a disappointment, but a reminder that becoming a hero is fraught with mistakes. A miscalculation on a superhero scale could mean a lot of innocent dead people.
At the end of the film, Peter turns down a chance to be an Avenger, choosing to be a friendly neighborhood spider instead. Once again, he surprises Tony with his action. Certainly at 15, Tony would not have passed up a chance for recognition. When hostile aliens descended into his neighborhood, Peter gets to fight in the big leagues again. Avengers: Infinity Wars shows Tony found a legacy in Peter Parker. He builds a spider-suit with major upgrades. Peter shows he can follow directions and is a team player, a state of mind Tony has always had a problem embodying. Peter is the reason Tony gets back in the fight after Thanos is killed in Avengers: Endgame. It’s the second to last regret he holds onto. In Homecoming, Stark tells Peter, “If you die, I feel like that’s on me.” In Endgame, he keeps Peter’s photo next to pictures of his wife and kid.
Emotionally fraught, being the leader of a team doesn’t come easy. Entitled, rich kid Tony always wanted to lead without any indication of what that would mean personally. Captain America knew. It’s why he lied to Tony for years about not knowing who killed the elder Starks. It’s why he couldn’t sign the Sokovia Accords and become a piece of property for a governing body. And it’s why he and Tony never truly saw eye to eye. From the very beginning, he was willing to lay his life down for the team. The final move in the battle of the invading Chitauri in the first Avengers film saw Tony flying a nuke into another galaxy with no guarantee he would return.
The truth is, Tony was never the right person to lead the Avengers, but he was the perfect rebel to kick the group into hyperdrive. A reckless disregard for the rules, plus a sense of self-awareness reserved only for recovering addicts and those who’ve suffered serious trauma, Stark was always willing to do what needed to be done. In his own series, Stark repeatedly denies access to blueprints to his suit and most importantly the arc reactor, which could be used to power more deadly weapons. But after meeting the Maximoff twins, Wanda (Elizabeth Olson) and Pietro (Aaron Taylor Johnson), and seeing the devastation his company’s weapons caused in Sokovia, Stark wanted to make a change. He submitted to a higher power for the greater good.
Tony’s legacy boils down to one thing, a tireless search to do the right thing. He was the essence of what a hero should be, wrapped in a fallible body. He was THE hero of an era. He was our Iron Man.
Header Image Source: Disney Marvel
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