ByRob Taylor, writer at
Rob Taylor

Since Iron Man in 2008, one thing has cemented the myriad bricks that build the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Robert Downey Jr's portrayal of Tony Stark.

Likable but infuriating, heroic but flawed, insane but just occasionally the safest pair of hands on the planet and the pair most likely to destroy it, the character works because there is so much underneath the surface.

A Flawed Genius

In many ways Tony Stark is the realest action hero ever portrayed on the big screen. He has flaws, feelings, (very) inappropriate behaviors and sometimes no filter whatsoever in his actions or their consequences, he is often totally unguarded in admitting his flaws and is the guy governments HATE having to trust, but 100% have to.

One theory that is often given is that many of his issues are PTSD related to his experience going through the wormhole in New York, however they actually are far deeper and on investigation reveal both Tony Stark's gift...and his curse.

Yes, the MCU version of Tony Stark indeed has a superpower, one just as potent as that of Scarlet Witch, Vision, Cap or any of the others he has interacted with yet it comes at a terrible cost to himself, those around him and the world at large.

Tony Stark's power is his uniquely brilliant mind - he quite literally is the smartest human on the planet when it comes to soaking up knowledge, being able to turn that into something tangible and practical.

Look at his achievements from a young age:-

Building a circuit board at four, a V8 Engine at 7, hacking the Pentagon at 16 and graduating MIT at 17. That's just his childhood. By 21, not only did he take over Stark Industries but took it to the next level in terms of weapons and financial success, he learned from Stane and the lessons of how his father did things and took them further than Howard ever could, designing his own AI system that could run everything in the world if he ever allowed it out of his control.

He can build an Iron Man suit in a cave using basic parts, but could also learn at an exponential rate, as evidenced in Avengers when he learned everything needed in a night. Stark will always be the smartest guy in the room, even when a Bruce Banner or Hank Pym is around because he can learn their science quicker than they ever could.

Tony Stark and Bruce Banner in 'The Avengers'.
Tony Stark and Bruce Banner in 'The Avengers'.

That is a hell of a superpower to have - but there is of course a cost, Superman has his Kryptonite, Cap is ultimately human and Spidey has his "Great Power/Great Responsibility" cross to bear. Tony's was that his emotional brain didn't work for much of his life... AT ALL.

A Tough Childhood

As a child he perceived his father to be cold, distant who cared more about a guy lost in a block of ice for 50 years or solving the problems of the world than his son. The reality was that Howard Stark wasn't distant, Tony just couldn't understand the emotional viewpoints of others or empathize.

He couldn't see a bigger picture or why his family might take a certain line with him, just "they don't get it, they don't get me, screw them".

In all the early scenes of his life shown in the MCU so far, from Civil War's re-enactment of his last meeting with his parents, to Iron Man 3's Millennium Eve to the pre-convoy plane ride with Rhodey we see a Tony Stark purposely behaving at odds with the emotional view of others because he just wasn't getting it.

Not showing up for the award his BEST FRIEND is giving him and leaving him hanging? Creating the monster that became Aldrich Killian by being cruel to someone he had no reason to be cruel to and even refusing the offer of riding with Rhodey in favour of "the funvee" - arguably putting Rhodes into a bad position with his superiors when it went wrong, were typical Tony Stark. He couldn't see how his actions might affect other people and as a result, he didn't care. You have to feel to care and Tony just couldn't feel. Even for the endless women.

The only people Tony related to on any level in those days were people like him, with intelligence who he can talk shop with like Maya Hansen, employees who understand him enough to tolerate him and ultimately do as they are told like Pepper and Happy or Obadiah who helped raise him in terms of business and is the one link to his family he has left.

Tony Stark and Pepper Potts in 'Iron Man 2'.
Tony Stark and Pepper Potts in 'Iron Man 2'.

It's telling that before that fateful fun-vee ride he has the most connection with JARVIS, a computer HE designed himself (his own best friend in effect) who has been programmed to understand him by him, complete with self deprecation and his tastes in music, colours etc. Like everyone else, JARVIS is subservient to Tony.

They never explain how Rhodes and Tony became such close friends, but you have to imagine they met at college. I even wrote a back story for the origin competition MoviePilot did about a year ago.

Tony & Rhodey: From Friends To Brothers In Arms

You could imagine Rhodes literally helping the younger Tony out of a bind on a Spring Break or vice versa, the two partying all weekend and forming a lifelong connection. Tony likes Rhodey's responsible nature but doesn't want to have to have it himself and he's in the position he can say "I want this guy to work with me" whereas Rhodes loves that Tony gets to do the stuff he would LOVE to do himself if he wasn't in the military, especially the women. There's a symbiotic yin and yang there at the most basic level.

This is all of course BEFORE Golmera... That fun-vee ride is Batman's Alley, The spider for Peter Parker or the Gamma Explosion for Banner in terms of Stark.

When that Jericho went off and pierced Tony's heart, the trauma actually awoke the emotional part of Tony's brain that had laid dormant his entire life! Awakening in that cave was a literal reboot of his mind and that is why it was so jarring for him.

The genius, problem solving part that had got him there was intact and he used it to escape and thus become Iron Man - but the cost was a double whammy as not only was shrapnel now close to killing him but he now FELT emotions he had never felt before, much as Matt Murdock or Peter Parker had violent reactions to all the input and have to "focus" to use their newly acquired powers, suddenly Tony Stark feels consequence, emotion and death, every mistake he makes, every tear Pepper sheds for him, every time Happy takes one for the team. Tony Stark now "gets people" and it terrifies him.

Yinsen's death was the first of many that followed, and Tony feels each of them more than he did his own parents deaths...why? Because when they died he had machines and science he could lose himself in, and reinforce his own mental image that "daddy didn't care". The moment he got home from his hostage ordeal he did the same, shut everyone out and did what he knows.

He built, blinding him to the fact that things were not quite right with Stane. You could imagine Tony's reaction to his parents death being the same, he would have gone and rebuilt the Arc Reactor, perhaps to spite his dad. Ironic as when he saw the old film in Iron Man 2 he realized that "Dad DID get me and I just never got it" and the Arc Reactor was a major part of that.

All of these events would be traumatic for anyone, but how would they affect a child?

Child In An Iron Man's Body

Yes, emotionally, the Tony Stark of Civil War is a child or a best an early teenager!

Since first putting on the Iron Man suit in the cave he has had to look at the world a whole new way. Emotions that were never part of him are now loud and in the forefront. He has been forced at times to make emotional connections to people he would never otherwise have made, to consider consequences when in the early years he couldn't understand what a consequence was.

As a child, you don't test something out - you just go for it, Tony's first suit flights ended in a painful fall and a near death experience that ultimately saves his life. Kids learn through doing and Tony does just that after Golmera.

At the second press conference he fumbles his way like a child does when they want to say "I did that..." but will get in trouble if they do, then he takes control and does it. Kids also don't think that your invention or family could turn against you, but they do repeatedly turn on Tony Stark.

Your mentor and father figure trying to murder you? Pepper, Rhodey and Happy all coming VERY close to dying or leaving you? finding out your dad had a whole other life you knew nothing about and of course having to take a nuke through the wormhole.

An adult taking that kind of responsibility would be called a hero, and the Avengers all have that experience of life to draw on. Tony doesn't, to that point all he's really done prior to New York is clean up his family mess.

Think back to Tony's immediate reaction when he awakens after saving the world in New York. It's a child-like, "Yay we did it, I want Shwarma..." rather than a heroes response of thanking the team or god the world is saved.

Father Figures

Looking at Stark this way adds a new dimension to his relationship with Steve Rogers. Steve only ever knew Howard Stark as the philanderer/genius, not the serious and dedicated man he became after Cap was lost. Naturally he sees the same in Tony and judges him the same measures as seen in The Avengers.

As early as Coulson's death, Cap gets that there is more going on with Stark than being a playboy. Coulson is arguably the first new person whom Stark interacts properly with in his new mindset. For the first time he sees someone as a person and it fascinates him, for example his jokes about "his name is Agent..." and offering to help solve his relationship issues. He takes his "death" very hard, even though he can't quite show it. Cap recognizes this and over time Tony realises this is why his dad always talked about Cap... Cap was his dad's Coulson and Phil was Tony's Bucky.

Like any child, Tony needs that father figure so that now is Steve, whether he likes it or not. Indeed they are polar opposites, Steve is the old man in a young mans body, while Tony is the child in a man's body. Much of Steve's interactions with Stark post Avengers seem to reflect this, from dad type moments like "Language" to the frustrated ripping a log up. It's not so much an "I'm gonna knock you out" moment but a "DAMMIT KID STOP HIDING FROM THE TRUTH!!! " moment.

Steve probably hoped for a son one day with Peggy or at least figured she'd hook up with Stark in his absence. Neither happened and he is now almost "stuck" with Tony Stark, who is the last guy he would have chosen to "be responsible for" or a mentor to.

The emotionally minded Stark has a major problem with authority, he had this before but to a far lesser extent.

He knew the military brass, senators and their ilk were essential to his company, he could glad-hand when needed, Obie taught him that much. They need him far more than he ever needs them and they put up with his, at times outright disrespect when others would be "taken down", of course a lot of this is due to the HYDRA infiltration, one thing that was never explained was if Stane was part of that. I am guessing not, but you can never be 100%.

Once Tony came home from his captivity however, his tolerance for these people was near non-existent. His interaction with Senator Sterns, even if ultimately he was proven right is childish to the extreme. His disdain for Thunderbolt Ross even more apparent, even Nick Fury to an extent, while he respects Fury as a friend of his father he has no issue mocking him, hacking his files and calling him out on things he disagrees with.

It's very apparent his relationship with Obadiah is changed when he won't let him see what he is working on. Of course we later know that there was a more sinister aspect and perhaps Tony had noticed something was not right but again was dealing with so much new data that he couldn't focus on it clearly.

Stane notices too, as someone who had quietly manipulated Tony for many years, you can see in Jeff Bridges' portrayal a man who knows the man who came home is different to the one he "raised" and time is short, just like a father knows that once puberty hits, you're gonna lose close control of your kid very quickly, especially if you're the stepfather.

While Stane is ultimately evil, there is a genuine affection there for Tony in everything... he wasn't always the monster he became, that happened over time. That is the genius of casting Jeff Bridges who is known as a "nice guy", you can buy Obie and Tony being genuinely close once, but it becoming clear to the older man that Tony was going to screw things up sooner rather than later.

He looks at Tony as "a nice kid who has outlived his purpose and needs to be put out of his misery" rather than having any genuine hatred of him. Indeed he set up a "tragic death" for Tony, one that would see him mourned and remembered as an American hero and patriot rather than the playboy and oft-times buffoon he was.

He didn't want to see Tony's death himself, only to orchestrate from afar and when that plan was ruined, Stane himself becomes more unhinged. He now has to do what he didn't want to do, take care of things himself before Tony's new emotional senses destroy everything as he had long feared would happen.

Even when he does take the Arc Reactor from Tony's chest, he paralyses him in the hope death will be quick and relatively painless for him and maybe even appear a tragic suicide/accident. It is only when the frustration boils over that Stane truly snaps as he realizes he NEEDS Tony after all and will always need him. You get that sense that only Tony can drive someone that nuts.

Ultimately Fury, Stane and Rogers all give Tony that link to his father and help inform these new feelings. Notice not one of them ever says "he'd be proud of you", that is left to Howard himself via the old film, because ultimately all of them know that Tony has to grow on his own and hopefully in the way they want him to.

Childhood Friends

The proof in the pudding of Stark's emotional age is that the most meaningful relationships Tony has had have been with in effect, children.

Tony and Banner get on so well because The Hulk is basically a giant toddler, Tony can relate to that in The Hulk and with Banner on a science basis. He encourages Banner to let that side of him out, with lines like "You need to strut big man" and is always keen to see The Hulk...possibly so there's someone less mature than him around. Banner is repressed emotionally, knowing the damage so Stark can relate to him and in some ways is envious of him, especially the level of control he has learned. Tony wants that control so his life can "go back to how it was" and to an extent he gets it in Iron Man 3, but it's clearly a doomed enterprise as an adult relationship with Pepper is bound to fail.

Tony makes a connection with Harley, the boy in Iron Man 3 who is somewhat like he was at the same age. Harley is smart, funny but has those emotions Tony knows he never had.

Remember that "You spazzed me out" line? That's not Tony blaming him for an episode, that's Tony thinking back to being his age and now feeling emotion about it, when he never did. Perhaps Tony was bullied or was a mean kid and realised the damage through Harley or he remembered a time his dad chided him or they even went to New York and something happened. Putting that memory and emotion to his trip into space would be pretty horrendous for anyone.

Now there is also Peter Parker, who epitomizes what Tony wishes he had been at the same age.

Civil War showed well that Tony was as much in awe of Peter as the other way round. Tony loves that there is another kid, who can create tech in the same way he could and has got superpowers to boot. Tony would have loved to have been "Iron Lad" and to an extent now he can live vicariously through Peter. He can also offer the same good mentoring that Obadiah (Stane did a lot of good in Tony's life, even if he ultimately betrayed him) did without turning on him.

The downside for Tony is of course he now knows there are consequences for everyone but he will often try to bargain out of them like a child trying not to be grounded or sent to their room.

He treated Ultron and the dismay of his peers much like a child would..."but... but we nearly got it, let me try again..." by Civil War the penny had dropped that when he behaves that way, many people die.

His reaction on finding out the truth about his parents death is a pure child raging at the person who took away their loved one and his final line after the battle about Cap "not deserving the shield" is a pure tantrum and could easily be replaced with "it's not fair..." Steve understands by then what Stark actually is, a man-child and leaves him the Shield, not symbolically but almost to comfort him knowing Tony needs it more at that point, it's a powerful dual meaning that has been missed by many.

For every mistake Tony Stark makes he does 3 good things, but like any child, often the bad things cause more trouble and are remembered far longer.

He made a more mature call telling Peter to go home after the airport battle, but he made a childish one in bringing his new buddy along for a situation he was ill prepared for.

He made a mature decision going to aid Steve in his battle with Zemo but a childish one in lashing out at Bucky and Steve.

Later, with distance we saw a smile that almost said "I screwed that one up big time" and a more mature viewpoint emerge, perhaps of "I said I'd help you find them, and I did..." when the phone from Steve arrives and he hangs up on Ross. Tony knows what's happening, that Steve is going to bust out the others and that it's right he does. You could say that is the point he finally "grows up".

Not Bad...For A Kid...

All in all Tony Stark has not done a bad job for being an 8 year old in a 45 year old body. To learn new emotions or how your mind changes after a trauma is always to be applauded but it's a journey and takes time. It's wrong to simply label the MCU version of Stark as a PTSD sufferer, it's far more than that and arguably works because Downey has had a lot of similar issues in his own life.

Some fans wanted to see Demon in A Bottle, but I think this is a much more interesting take on it. The demon is emotion in this version rather than alcohol and until a fateful day in the Funvee, it was well and truly bottled up for Tony Stark.

Now the demon is out and while it leads Stark on his heroic and ultimately good path it is a constant source of danger to Tony, his friends and the world itself.


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