I want to start off this post by saying that I never really liked Tony Stark. Well, I can’t say I never liked him. I just never considered him one of my favorite characters out of the many to choose from in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Usually, I don’t pick favorites at all, but when the question came up, he was never a first choice.
I mean, who would pick “genius, playboy, billionaire, philanthropist” Anthony Stark as a role model? Who likes listening to somebody that arrogant and snarky? Pick Captain America, the do-gooder who always does what he believes is right. Or Thor, the buff god of thunder with a redemptive origin story.
Not Tony. Tony’s too flawed.
Tony Stark Was Made to be Hated
I once read something about Stark’s character origin that I thought was interesting, so I went and dug up the article again. Long story short, Tony Stark was created to be despised.
Stan Lee recalls in an interview for the first Iron Man film:https://www.syfy.com/syfywire/little-known-sci-fi-fact-stan-lee-thought-marvel%E2%80%99s-readers-would-hate-iron-man-first
“I think I gave myself a dare. It was the height of the Cold War. The readers, the young readers, if there was one thing they hated, it was war, it was the military. So I got a hero who represented that to the hundredth degree. He was a weapons manufacturer, he was providing weapons for the Army, he was rich, he was an industrialist. I thought it would be fun to take the kind of character that nobody would like, none of our readers would like, and shove him down their throats and make them like him … And he became very popular.”
And I thought that was very interesting. How do you make people like a character who represents everything they hate?
But then look at what Tony Stark became. From the minute Robert Downey Jr. stepped in to play the billionaire in 2008, a previously unknown character suddenly became a household name, and it’s not because of the storyline, it’s not because of the CGI, it’s not even because of the music (though I love it to death).
It’s because of the character and Downey Jr.’s portrayal of him.
That being said, back to the original question. Most likeable characters are generally agreeable. Some of the more interesting ones start out with issues, but go on the “hero’s journey” like Luke Skywalker or have a redemption arc like Thor. Usually, unlikeable heroes don’t last very long, which is why there are so few of them.
So what makes Tony different?
The Story of Tony Stark
Let’s look at Tony’s journey throughout the MCU. There will be Endgame spoilers in this section so if you haven’t watched the movie yet, a) go watch it and b) please don’t continue reading past this point, though I don’t know why I bother as the spoilers are all over social media anyway.
Tony Stark is basically the father of the MCU in terms of characters. In Iron Man, after being attacked and captured in Afghanistan by the Ten Rings, Tony, a completely self-enraptured, profiteering celebrity arms dealer, realizes that his weapons are being stolen and used against American citizens.
He builds his first suit as a way to get out of the cave and when he gets home, building a better, more streamlined suit becomes his obsession. Soon not only has he designed one that can fly, but is basically his own personalized weapon only he can control. Using the suit, he rectifies the wrongs that his company had been causing and becomes a national hero.
Iron Man 2
Fast forward to Iron Man 2. At this point in a typical hero’s journey type story, Tony should be sorted by now. Right?
Not even close.
Tony allowed the suit and his own genius to boost his own ego. Being the hero and getting to save everyone all the time went to his head and made him more arrogant than ever. It’s not that he was doing anything wrong per se, he made the US safer, he saved countless people, he definitely qualifies as the good guy.
But I think pride has a unique place among other character flaws because it’s something everyone struggles with. Tony Stark became the embodiment of one of the sins that roots more deeply and is harder to beat than almost any other. It doesn’t cause any obvious problems, not right away.
But left unchecked, pride is one of the most dangerous and self-destructing things that can ever ruin a person’s life, or in Tony’s case, the world.
The Avengers and Iron Man 3
The Avengers does a bit for his character development, but not much. The movie makes sure viewers are aware that he “doesn’t play well with others” by focusing on his conflict with the other Avengers, specifically Cap. The end of the movie also establishes, however, that he is capable of working with other people and even more than that, that he is willing to sacrifice his own life to save the people he loves.
Follow his story through Iron Man 3 and you can see that his arrogance is still there, but by the end of this story, he realized to some extent what his pride had done to Pepper, and from there his character development started to skyrocket.
Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War
In Age of Ultron, it seemed he had become more of a team player. However, this movie is where that arrogance started to cause major issues for more than just himself. Ever since the Battle of New York, he’d had PTSD about what would have happened if he hadn’t been able to save everyone. His pride made him take the weight of that burden onto his own shoulders. He became obsessed with finding a way to protect the earth from alien invasions.
He went behind the team’s back and coerced Bruce to help him use the Mind Stone in Loki’s scepter to try and create what he called “a suit of armor around the world”. And then the plan went out of control. Ultron emerged, twisted Tony’s plan to include the death of all humanity, and suddenly Tony has put the entire world in danger because he didn’t listen to his teammates.
An encounter with Scarlet Witch makes his PTSD worse, and by the time you get to Captain America: Civil War, he’s so afraid of himself and his own arrogance that he agrees to the Sokovia Accords. This is a large part of what caused the division between himself and Cap.
I want to make sure you’re understanding this.
Make a note here that Tony is still trying. Despite his flaws here, he still cares about his friends and the fate of the world more than anything else in the world, and he’s willing to do anything to ensure their safety. What his pride is preventing him from seeing, however, is that he alone is not responsible for the fate of the world. He cannot expect himself to take on that burden alone.
His character development has gone on an amazing journey by this point in his story – he started out only caring about himself and now he’s destroying himself trying to keep everyone else safe.
This is also the main point of conflict between Tony and Cap. Tony has gotten so paranoid that he has placed safety above freedom. Steve believes nothing is more important than freedom – evidenced very clearly by his stance in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. And then when he felt he had failed, his pride prevented him from taking responsibility. Instead, he blamed the others.
Infinity War and Endgame
And then comes Avengers: Infinity War. After finding out that the baddie responsible for the danger to the world since the Battle of New York is planning on attacking, after having been a part of such a catastrophic team split that he doesn’t even feel he can call on Steve for help, he chases his young protegee Peter into space and loses everything.
Very little of this is actually his fault. But his pride and ever-decreasing self-esteem causes him to think that it is.
Now for the Endgame part. Captain Marvel rescues him and Nebula from a slow death drifting in space and he gets reunited with Pepper.
And he gives up. He finds a cabin in the woods, hides away with Pepper, has a kid: Morgan. He’s lost a lot, so he’s clinging to what he does have, because for once in his life, he’s stopped believing it’s up to him. He’s lost hope.
But, irony of ironies, guess what?
According to Strange’s visions of the future, the fate of the world actually is up to him.
He refuses the team’s suggestion of time travel when they approach him for help. He doesn’t want to lose his family over the chance of bringing Peter and the rest of the world back.
But Tony Stark is, deep down, a hero. He could never be anything else. And for once in his life, he puts away his own desires. His genius kicks in and he realizes, not pridefully but accurately, that he can help.
An accurate assessment of one’s abilities is not pride, it’s common sense. And Tony realized that without his expertise, that slim chance of recovering what was lost was no chance at all. And ultimately, that expertise was the only way to save everyone. Tony’s ultimate goal, to keep the world safe from otherworldly threats, was finally accomplished.
At the cost of his life.
A True Hero
He knew that was probably going to be the price. And he paid it willingly. Not for attention or recognition, not for a martyrlike self-shouldered burden of care, but for his love for his friends and a desire to make the world better. And I love Pepper’s words to him as he lay dying in the aftermath of the battle: “We’re going to be okay. You can rest now.”
What does the life of this one remarkable character say to us? It says that even the most flawed people can be heroes. It says that it doesn’t matter the mistakes you’ve made in the past if you make the right decisions in the future. In our lives, no matter how broken we are or how many mistakes we’ve made, God can still use us if we let go of our shortcomings and follow Him instead. It says that if Tony Stark can be a hero, so can we.
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”John 15:13, KJV
This is what makes Tony Stark a great hero. He wasn’t my favorite character originally. He was created as an embodiment of everything people hate. His movie character was dominated by pride and caused as many problems as he solved. But not every hero is perfect, not every hero never makes mistakes or has no flaws.
A hero is someone who cares for someone else more than they care for themselves, and is willing to take action to defend them.
From the moment he created that suit to escape from the desert cave to that final, defiant snap wielding all six Infinity stones, Tony Stark created a legacy for himself that other characters will be hard-pressed to match.
He is, and always will be, Iron Man.
So, to Tony Stark, my favorite Marvel hero:
Love you 3000.