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  • Writer's pictureMelanie Roussel

Tony Stark: MCU's most complex & beautiful arc

This is going to be a long post so let's not pull any punches. Tony Stark is the best-drawn character in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. Tony’s entire character arc has been the fulfilment of a promise he makes in the first twenty minutes of the first Marvel movie.


Iron Man sees the genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist Tony Stark captured by terrorists and torn apart by the realisation his weapons are being used to kill innocent people. His fellow captive, Yinsen, sacrifices himself to give Tony a chance to live. This act gives Tony a motivation – not to waste the time he has left. To be worthy of Yinsen's sacrifice.

Iron Man 3 sees Tony grappling with the events of The Avengers movie. The trauma of the alien invasion, the realisation that though he has done everything he can there are still things he can't face rattles him. It punches a hole in his belief that he is all-powerful.

Steve Rogers: I know guys with none of that worth ten of you. I've seen the footage. The only thing you really fight for is yourself. You're not the guy to make the sacrifice play, to lay down on a wire and let the other guy crawl over you. Tony Stark: I think I would just cut the wire.

Remember this exchange between Steve and Tony. It'll become infinity important later.

We see this belief being challenged very vividly in Iron Man 3. The Iron Man suit had become a symbol of strength and control to Tony. But always a way to hide his weakness and fear in a world that had become terrifying. Tony has done everything he can do using his massive intelligence and it's still failed him. Hence the many and frequent panic attacks we see him go through when he loses the suit. Tony is forced to reassess who he is - who is Iron Man without the suit?

The realisation that he is more than just the Iron Man leads us into the next stage of his character.

Captain America: Civil War

In Iron Man 2, we see Tony facing off against a Senate committee, maintaining his standing as a hero, whilst refusing to give up his own self-interest. In Civil War, he is willing to sign an accord which would drastically limit his power and influence. What happened to the Tony Stark of the first movie, driven by self-interest and gain?

We need to be put in check! Whatever form that takes I'm game. If we can't accept limitations, if we're boundary-less we're no better than the bad guys.

We start to see the big shift in Tony's way of thinking. The move from a private man with private interests to a man who understands he's part of a larger world, a deeply utilitarian philosophy which contradicts the narcissistic playboy background.

There were two ways Tony’s story could have come to an end in Avengers End Game. One I wanted to happen. And the one that did.

The ending that could have been

One way of viewing Tony’s arc is a classic midlife crisis story. But a positive one. The character realises there's more to life than X so they make a massive shift in their understanding of their needs and values. In short, Tony sheds his business, his superhero days and his life as a public figure to become a father.

We see glimmers of this choice in Spiderman Home Coming, Avengers Infinity War and End Game, though we saw hints of it in Iron Man 3. Tony ‘adopts’ Peter Parker aka Spiderman as a pseudo-son. And at the beginning of Avengers End Game, we see a wonderfully touching scene with him and Nebula, as they play a game. And, of course, his daughter Morgan.

This would fit Tony's character arc; he would have his a legacy, a world better for him being there, by being the father of the next generation who will go on to do bigger and better things.

The ending that was

Consider what's at stake for the heroes of End Game. Absolutely nothing. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

All except for Tony - Tony is the only character who has any real stakes; his family. Making his character flaw all the more poignant when he grapples with the fact that he alone can figure out time travel. Tony is simply incapable of hanging up the suit and resting, making Pepper’s last word to him so meaningful.

What I appreciate about this ending is it still ties Steve's criticism of Tony in the first Avengers movie. "The only thing you really fight for is yourself. You're not the guy to make the sacrifice play." And Tony dies doing just that. That's because he's realised that the way to fulfil his goal, to give back to the world and leave a legacy means sacrificing his own self-interest.

Tony embodies the Tragic Hero

Tony's flaw was spelt out for us. And then literally spelt out for is in his SHIELD personality report. Tony "displays compulsive behaviour, prone to self-destructive tendencies, and textbook narcissism."

Tragic heroes are destined to be defeated by their flaws. It shapes and defines them. The harder they try to escape, the more those flaws stand in the way.

Tony's self-destructiveness moves from his playboy life to the life of a superhero.

His textbook narcissism becomes the conviction that he alone can save the world. This is a spiralling flaw and so long as the world is in danger, Tony will fight to save it, creating bigger problems and putting his life repeatedly on the line.

Tony grew and developed. He had one of the most complex arcs of all the Marvel characters. He became most beautifully drawn paradoxes of the whole MCU, but in the end, he was doomed by the flaw which made him so human.

As much as I hate the Russo brothers for making me watch my favourite Avengers character die...

I completely understand the decision. This MCU started with Tony Stark and, to usher out this generation of heroes, Tony’s death seems the perfect way to bookend it.

And for those of you who stayed behind for a post-credit scene and instead heard metal clanging, that audio was lifted straight from Iron Man when Tony is hammering the metal to make his first suit.

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