ByBarney on Movies, writer at
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Barney on Movies

Tony's Stark/Iron Man's character arc is one of the most detailed and complex, not only in the MCU, but in movie history. Every film he appears in develops his character to new and exciting levels. He's one of Marvel's most loved heroes; beautifully portrayed by Robert Downey Jr, and seemingly well understood by every director that takes him over. His story is poetic, beautiful and tragic, yet often misunderstood. I've written about his arc before, but now that I've seen 'Captain America: Civil War,' I decided I'd update his story. Don't worry, I'll give you a fair warning before the spoilers come up! So before that you can enjoy delving into his arc so far and prepare yourself for where he is before Civil War. Then read past the spoiler warning if you've seen the movie!

We first meet Tony in 'Iron Man' (and his flashback at the start of 'Iron Man 3') where he truly is the billionaire playboy philanthropist. He parties hard with little consideration for the ramifications of his actions, and accepts no responsibility at all. He ignores the obvious issues his weapons create, and even chooses the most dangerous scenarios; not suspecting his risky actions could have consequences. Why? Because he's never had to learn that. He was raised as a boy who had everything, a son of a millionaire, who never needed to worry about what his playful actions may cause (quite the opposite of Steve Rogers for example.) Thus Tony is a reckless and careless weapons dealer with little care for his actions, and that's pretty fun to see to start.

But we all know Tony doesn't stay like this. In fact, Tony's arc is all about becoming a hero and bettering the world ("ridding it of weapons,") as well as learning that his actions have consequences and that with great power, comes great responsibility. This is a very interesting arc because we follow him on a journey to better himself, which makes him one of the most accessible characters in the whole of the MCU.

But first, something must happen to kick start this journey, and it sure does! Tony learns the hard way what his weapons are capable of (and what can happen when they're in the wrong hands) when he is captured by, and escapes from the Ten Rings. When he gets home, watching Tony deal with this is like watching a child being told 'no' for the first time; Tony's never had to deal with the consequences of his actions before, and now that he's opened his eyes, he doesn't know what to do.

Tony's had the shock he needs, but how does he start dealing with what he's seen? Well, as is always the case for Tony, he has an immediate, unplanned and reactionary response. Just like most of us, he responds with a mix of 'fight or flight' when faced with adversity.

Flight? He shuts down Stark Industries weapons manufacturing company, and heads to his underground basement where he distracts himself from the real problems unfolding.

Fight? He builds a suit, and recklessly attempts to take out a bunch of terrorists who are kidnapping villagers. Tony still doesn't understand that this probably wont help them in the long run, he's just reacting.

And this is again what makes Tony so relate-able. When most people are faced with stress, they distract themselves or react irrationally, just like Tony does. He's a normal human being who's freaking out, and that's why audiences love him. It's worth noting his distractionary nature is also the reason behind his narcissistic ways: he uses humour to distract himself; convincing himself things are ok when they're not.

Before we carry on with the story, I'd like to discuss another character trait of Tony Stark - he's not remotely self-aware. Over his arc, we can see the changes he is undertaking for sure, but he doesn't necessarily attempt to understand them himself until quite a way into his arc. The reason I mention it now is because it's pretty integral to everything said here - he's not aware of the changes he making, we can just observe them.

But more on that later, and back to the situation in hand where further into the first movie Tony's made a decision - he knows what he was doing before was wrong, and now wants to become a better man and make the world a peaceful and better place (as shown by his first touching moment with Pepper.) This is truly the beginning of his arc; he now wants to become a hero, and thus reveals to the world that he is in fact Iron Man (with the intention of using this to make up for his wrong-doings). Again, he may not have considered the consequences of this, but now he at least has the intention of dealing with his mistakes going forward.

It's important to remember Tony still doesn't understand what being a hero means, and still doesn't know how to better himself or the world. Iron Man 1 just gets him to a place where he actually wants to, and the next films are more about him finding out how.

So welcome to 'Iron Man 2' and Tony is dying. He wants to better himself now, but he's in a big rut. The new-found fame and seriousness of his position as Iron Man is a big problem for him, and we know how Tony deals with problems - fight or flight. So here he's distracting himself from the problems left right and centre. In some ways, Tony's situation is made worse by the pressure he's put himself under to become a better man; he doesn't know how and he's confused.

So Tony hides away again, accepting that he's going to die very soon. It gets so bad that he gets drunk in his Iron Man suit at his party, forcing Rhodey to fly off in another suit for the US military to intervene (an unbearable scene that they try to make the funny point of the film might I add!) By this point, there seems to be no way out for Tony. That is, until SHIELD come in to give him the leg-up he sorely needs to help him survive. With the right help, Tony returns to form and starts showing his genious again. He makes a new element, and gathers the tools he needs to defeat a demon created by his father's past: Ivan Vanko. This is the first time we see Tony actually dealing with a problem conciously (this time he's dealing with the repercussions of his father's actions - not his own)

Actually, this seems to be another trait of Tony's - that when he's challenged or placed under extreme pressure by a situation, he often solves the problem. This only happens when he sees a way out, and his reactionary nature turns fight, not flight. The reason I mention it now is because it's a pretty important trait for Tony in the near future

But back to 'Iron Man 2,' where with a little help, Tony has learned that he needs to do more than just 'be Iron Man' to be a hero. In order to actively start becoming the man he want to be, he now knows must actively do something about it. Tony now actually looks for a solution, and he finds it in Nick Fury's "super secret boy band." Yep, Tony Stark is now doing something about wanting to be a better man - he's joined The Avengers!

In 'The Avengers,' we first see Tony as a very different man to who he was at the start of 'Iron Man 2.' He's now someone who's working on a renewable energy project with Pepper (Stark Tower) and is working closely with SHIELD; so when the movie starts, he's recruited to help save the world from Loki. A lot happens, but it all ends with a final showdown in New York, where Tony sacrifices himself to save the city. This is another reckless problem solving response from Tony when he's under pressure, but the solution is something the old Tony would never have done. He's saved the city, but has he now fulfilled his legacy and made up for his past? Is he a hero?

That's a pretty interesting question, because it boils down to what a hero actually is. That's a whole new question for a different time, but the question we have to ask now is what does being a hero mean to Tony? I've talked a lot about Tony wanting to "better himself" and "become a hero," but it's apparent he never actually knew what that meant (let alone how to get there, as discussed.) I think at the end of this film Tony knows he's done something heroic for sure. He's sacrificed himself to save thousands, and in doing this, he's learned that with great power comes great responsibility. In other words, "sometimes you have to lay yourself on the wire."

In some ways then, his first arc is complete, but there's still lots more to explore with Tony. He's a hero of sorts now, but how does he deal with the new-found responsibility that comes with that?

Well role on 'Iron Man 3,' and it's a fascinating place to start a movie. We've got a character who's developed a serious case of PTSD after his experience in New York, thus Tony's in his darkest place yet. The vulnerability of the world frightens him, so what does he do? This is no longer the 'flight reaction' Tony we knew before, this is a man who understands he has to be pro-active in solving the problem at hand (seen at the end of Iron Man 2.) The new problem now of course, is that he craves global security; a responsibility he now believes is his to create. In fact, on top of his PTSD, this new-found responsibility frightens him, and he's now at the stage where he's extremely obsessive and very vulnerable.

But as a reformed Tony, he still goes about solving the problem. How? You guessed it, by building suits! This time, though, it's different and somewhat obsessive. He's now building weapons that can protect not only himself, but the world from the new threats he's so afraid of. It's pretty interesting to see Tony get like this, and it's also interesting how it affects his personal relationships (more on that later.)

So what happens next? Well, the Mandarin shows up, but Tony's fairly pre-occupied with the 'bigger threat.' He thus remains in hiding, and building suits even more obsessively and rapidly, cocooning his fears in Iron Man in the belief that his suits can deal with every problem that comes the way of the world.

That is, until the conflict is brought closer to home, and his butler (and best friend) Happy Hogan is injured in an attack. It's here where we see a very interesting scene unfold: Tony comes out and gives a revenge speech to the mandarin, then gets angry at the news reporters "that's what you wanted isn't it?" Surely this suggests Tony begrudges the responsibility that's now placed on him? Well, I'm not sure it's that simple; I think Tony's basically just confused, angry and frightened. This is why he appears reckless; he now wants to fight the Mandarin, but suddenly feels his personal world is falling away around him at the expense of him accepting this responsibility (we see Tony has fully realised this in his phone call to Pepper.)

Throughout the rest of 'Iron Man 3,' it's actually a very 'close-to-home' story for Tony. The fight between him and the Mandarin is a very personal one. After all, Tony created the demon in Aldrich Killian (the 'real' Mandarin,) and ignored the problem until it almost too late. Then of course Pepper gets captured; Tony suddenly feels very responsible for the whole situation.

The fact the conflict is so personal, and the fact that Tony now knows the strain his obsessive suit building has put on his personal life, means that by the end of the film, Tony realises he can't use Iron Man to contain his every fear and responsibility. He realises that in order to protect Earth and the people he cares about, he must directly do something himself. Sure, he's been trying to deal with his new-found responsibility, but as Iron Man, not Tony Stark.

When Tony blows up his suits at the end of the 3rd Iron Man film, he's destroying the idea that Iron Man can protect against his every fear (so no, he doesn't retire.) He's breaking the cocoon he's placed himself in, so that he can go about dealing with the problem of global security directly himself. It's his responsibility now, and he needs to deal with it himself, not as Iron Man.

To summarise then, Tony's now a changed man to the one we first knew. He's a hero who accepts the responsibility that comes with great power, and believes that he needs to do something about creating global security by himself (after all, he can't be Iron Man forever.) He's still vulnerable and scared, and craves security, but he's willing to tackle those new fears head-on.

It's here where we first see Tony developing the ability to be self-aware. He's thought about things, and has a plan going forward. He knows he accepts that responsibility, yet knows he can't cocoon himself. This is a big deal, especially toward the end of the upcoming Avengers 2, where Tony is definitely more aware of himself.

So with this new-found self-awareness, Tony starts pro-actively seeking opportunities to create security - starting by taking over the Avengers after the collapse of SHIELD in 'The Winter Soldier.' From here he builds a team of great heroes and the 'Iron Legion,' which brings us neatly to 'Avengers: Age of Ultron'...

.... where we jump in head-first, and Tony's with his new team. They locate Loki's scepter, where Tony is shown (by Scarlet Witch) a personification of his greatest fear: the end of the world. Here we see the responsibility he feels to protect the world personified when Cap says "you could have saved us," during an image of the Avengers all lead dying beneath a wormhole. Tony's PTSD hasn't just gone away (it doesn't in real life,) and his fear is still there. So when returning to Avengers Tower, Tony decides to tamper with the scepter with the aim of unlocking the global peacekeeping initiative, Ultron.

The reasoning behind Tony creating Ultron isn't that simple though, and to explain it fully, we need to go right back to the start:

As we know, at the end of 'Ion Man,' Tony has the intention of becoming a better man and making the world a better, more peaceful place (ridding it of the weapons he made his fortune with.) As I've discussed, he's certainly a better man, and he certainly believes he knows what he has to do; he accepts responsibility for global security and making the world a safer place. But does that contradict his aim right at the beginning of Iron Man 1? In fact, does craving security in itself contradict wanting 'peace'? Remember, these aren't questions Tony asks himself yet, these are questions that the audience can consider both in 'Age of Ultron,' and probably in the upcoming 'Civil War.'

Basically though, when looking at Tony, it's clear these are both ideals that he has. He is someone who is desperate for a safe world, and thus is appears to be on the security side of the fence in the freedom vs security debate (even if he doesn't realise that,) yet he still aims for peace ("peace in our time," as he calls it.)

Effectively then, his drive for peace and a better world actually causes him to crave security, which in turn causes him to do everything he can to defend it. It's here that we hit one of Whedon's interesting philosophies explored in Avengers 2 - that "men of peace create engines of war," as Ultron says. And this is what Tony is doing in creating Ultron. In fact, that quote about 'peace in our time' is from left-wing British Prime-Minister Neville Chamberlain who declared war on Germany. This was a man who also wanted peace, but only found war (wow, you didn't expect this much depth in a film like this did you Mr and Mrs Critic?!) So in conclusion, Tony craves security (as established after 'The Avengers') and his goal for peace and a better world actually drives him to find war. This is Whedon saying something bigger about the world, but it also makes a lot of sense when looking at Tony's arc.

So Tony creates Ultron because he's frightened. His intentions are peaceful, but the responsibility he feels for global security, as personified by his dream sequence (and actually directly driven by his drive to make the world a more peaceful place) causes him to create this 'suit of armour around the world.' Ultron.

We all know how well this goes, because Ultron turns out to be a robot hell-bent on destroying humanity (typical, hey?) But even that's way less simple than it seems. Funnily enough, Ultron gets a lot of his traits from his creator such as (on top of his humour,) the fact he can't see the difference between saving the world and destroying it. Tony, like Ultron, craves peace; something which only drives him to create more war. The difference is that Ultron sees the inner threat posed by humanity, where Stark does not (yet!)

So the Avengers spend the rest of the film trying to find and then defeat Ultron, with Stark creating another artificial intelligence in Vision. Here, Tony clearly showcases that he accepts responsibility for the consequences of his actions, and decides whole-heartedly on a solution. It works, too, and Vision is a truly peaceful (and 'worthy') being; perhaps the very thing Tony strives to be. This shows Tony now accepts responsibility not neccessarily for global security here, but more for the making up for the consequences of his actions. That's a big arc for Tony, and one that's been a joy to see so far.

So eventually, the team save the world and defeat Ultron, and by the end of this movie Tony is in a pretty new place yet again. Make no mistake, Tony still craves global security, but now recognises the threat that humans poses to the Earth too. He feels guilty for Ultron, and thus has the intention of scaling himself back from the Avengers. He views himself as dangerous, and is frightened of what might happen if he continues to accept all the responsibility. However, he's also frightened of what will happen if he doesn't, because he can't imagine a world without his weapons. He still craves global security, so whilst he has the intentions of leaving the Avengers, he deep down believes that he can't. This is shown by a throw away line "I might build Pepper a farm." Like black Widow, he wants to leave, but can't.

This is a pretty amazing arc; Tony's gone from someone who accepts no responsibility, to one who accepts all of it, to one who believes he shouldn't, but can't bring himself to leave

One crucial point before I move onto his arc in the next film: I think it's important to point out how self-aware Tony is at this point. These are all things his dialogue clearly represent that he knows. He knows despite his intentions, he can't pull himself away, and he knows he feels guilty for what happened.


But moving on, and at the beginning of 'Captain America: Civil War,' it's clear Tony is still trying to distance himself from the Avengers; offering grants to students and supporting new projects. However, it's also clear he's still stricken with guilt for his actions with Ultron (personified by a message from a Sokovian's parent.) He's in a pretty similar place to where I'd expected; trying to distance himself but not fully managing it. He can't forget.

So when another incident sparks the Sokovia Accords, we find out pretty quickly that Tony is pro-registration. And the question is why? Well, it seems like the logical choice to me because not only is Tony feeling guilty, he now recognises the threat that people pose to the world, because of what happened with him in Ultron. He realises that the best way to ensure global security is to have the Avengers controlled by government, so that some of their responsibility is shifted. This is a Tony who whole-heartedley believes that this is the right choice because he can't bear to see more people die at the hands of other individuals with such responsibility. It's the logical place for Tony, and one that doesn't come as a surprise by now.

What is surprising though, is what a dark character Tony has become since the end of 'Age of Ultron.' No longer is he the bravado filled narcissist, this is now a man who will stop at nothing to achieve his aims. I think the reasoning behind this is partly his extreme guilt, but also the breakdown of his relationship with Pepper (perhaps sparked by the grief.) That's a huge deal to Tony, and he's clearly in a pretty dark place.

So as the events of 'Civil War' unfold, Tony continues to push for Steve to register with the accords. He also naturally doesn't approve of Cap's loyalties to Bucky, and thus is working closely with General Ross to bring Cap back in. This further reinforces the changed man that Tony is, because he's siding with a man he clearly doesn't trust here. That's huge lengths to go to to achieve his aims - but he's now willing to do that.

Eventually though, whilst he's still pro-registration, he realises that the whole thing is not quite as black and white, and the reasons for Steve's absence are different than just running away. Tony is shown that darker hands are at work, and heads to find Steve himself. This is a big moment because he still believes in registration, but sees that perhaps the Bucky-Steve situation is more complex. He goes with the intention of helping them find Baron Zemo, where he shockingly is shown that Bucky killed his parents. His world is torn apart, and he breaks into fight where through sheer rage and anger, he attempts to fight Steve and Bucky. This is a truly heart-wrenching sequence, ending with Tony battered and heart-broken.

So where is Tony at the end of this film? Well, one thing Civil War doesn't do so well is tie up what actually happens with the accords, but effectively they exist, and the heroes who sign it are regulated by the UN. Despite the lack of clarity, we can still see where Tony is by now.

So towards the end, Tony states pretty clearly that he isn't going to stop being Iron Man. A letter from Steve also tells Tony that 'he is home,' referring to the fact that Tony belongs as an Avenger.

So Tony appears to now want some of that responsibility that he felt he needed to lose? Has he gone back to the end of Iron Man 3 and accepted all responsibility again? Well, not quite. The way I see the end of this movie for Tony is like a compromise between accepting all responsibility, and getting rid of it. Actually, that's what he was trying to achieve. Government registration was a great way for him to lose some responsibility, but also bow to his lack of ability to do so for his craving for security.

And basically, he has succeeded in doing that. He's won. Tony now sits in a place where he can safely be Iron Man and work as an Avenger, but under regulation. It's a bitter-sweet ending because there have been heavy costs for fighting for what he wanted and believed in. His best friend is heavily injured, and half of his team-mates are criminal vigilantes. Wow, what a poetically tragic ending for Tony here.

This latest film from Marvel concludes, and it has put Tony through his paces yet again. The new position of Tony and all the Avengers by the end is very interesting, and is something which I can't wait to explore in the rest of Phase 3. Roll on the rest Marvel...

Any questions about his arc? Feel free to comment below!


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