A Pop Culture Analysis: Tony Stark is Both the Biggest Villain and Saviour of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Thanos is not the greatest MCU villain, as we all thought. The greatest villain is actually the hero we have all come to love 3000. Image: stock images / Freepik.

Brno, Sep 10 (BD) – Here’s an unpopular opinion about Iron Man: He’s the biggest villain of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). I just went ahead and said it, already knowing that this would bring the fury of many upon me, but someone had to say it. If you’re willing to let me tell you why, then keep reading. Spoilers for the Avengers saga ahead.

For anyone who has been living under a rock for the past 10 years, here’s a little history: Iron Man is a movie that set the massively successful snowball rolling that we now know as the MCU, a multi-format audiovisual universe based on the characters of Marvel Comics that consists of over 20 interconnected movies so far. It represents an unparalleled achievement in terms of interlinked massive-production-cost blockbusters. A true milestone for pop culture cinema.

The cornerstone of the first phase of this project for the past 10 years has been the character of Tony Stark, the playboy billionaire and genius creator of the Iron Man suit. Sporting this suit himself, he fights crime globally alone or with his pals the Avengers.

The success of this character can be, in large part, attributed to the portrayal made by Robert Downey Jr. We have all come to love him, so much that, just like a toxic relationship, we all ignored the red flags that signalled he was going to be the one responsible for the biggest loss the greatest heroes ever had to endure: the crushing loss of the team of heroes before Thanos, the mad titan who managed to eradicate half of life of all the universe in the events of the movie “Avengers: Infinity War”. 

To see why this was really Tony ́s fault, we gotta first honestly see and understand who Tony Stark really is. 

Tony’s character is one whose whole arc has been about redemption. His main M.O is guilt and a neurotic need for acceptance, and the void left from his father’s emotional abandonment is almost palpable. In his need for attention and redemption, he resorts to his natural genius to fix problems, such as building solutions like the Iron Man Suit that often overcompensate and cause more problems than they solve. At the core of this character we find a narcissistic ego-driven personality that, as he said himself in Iron Man 2, you can count on him to please himself.

Like any narcissistic persona, his charm and wit allow him to constantly get a pass from the people around him, even if his obsessive compulsive behavior puts them in danger over and over again. Just rewatch Iron Man 2 and 3 and try to see beyond his charms, and you’ll find a highly egotistical and irresponsible alcoholic wielding a deadly weapon of mass destruction; he almost sounds like Trump to me, if you’ll excuse the comparison. Of course, we can count on him to save the day and do the right thing in the end, but half the time he’s saving that day from having put it in danger himself to begin with.

Not convinced yet? Just think about the time when Tony’s mind was tampered with and manipulated by the Scarlet Witch; we can see that as ego-driven as he is, he takes it upon himself to be solely responsible for the doom and therefore salvation of the whole human race – these are both his biggest fear and desire. Talk about careful what you wish for! Here’s another example: in the Civil War he believes that he’s the one trying to keep Steve Rogers from breaking the Avengers apart, but as self-unaware as he is, he fails to see he’s actually the one doing so, and in fact manages to do it in such a way that they remain permanently disunited, paving the way for Thanos to defeat them easily in Infinity war.

We find several key moments that show Tony’s inexcusable flaws in The Avengers’ second movie. For example, Tony tries to justify creating a “murder bot” by going back to his first moment of true sacrifice and he articulates his need to try to avoid being the cause of the world’s demise for not having used his genius to prevent it. Cap tackles his ego, saying that acting together against the coming dangers is the only way to preserve the meaning of the heroes’ way. Tony’s fear intervenes and he answers that they would lose, to which Cap replies: “We’ll do that together too”. Stark returns to a similar scenario in Endgame; full of even more guilt and with his ego bruised because he had lost with his strategy, instead of even trying to reflect on his own path he once again places the blame on others and cries to Cap that it was all his fault. Cap, as usual, is the bigger man and he lets him be, even when he knows much, much better.

Tony’s biggest sin and mistake is that he created exactly what he feared the most, and dragged the whole universe along with him. Because there’s just no way that a world with a united Avengers couldn’t have prevented Thanos’ infamous snap.  

You see, the thing is that Tony, acting from ego, is fundamentally incapable of understanding his counterpart antithesis, Steve Rogers. “Sometimes I wanna punch you in your perfect teeth” he says to Steve, when he discovers that Cap’s morals are not as flexible as his when it comes to compromising basic liberties and the whole mission of the hero: to protect the innocent whenever needed, not just when some government or any organization deems it sanctionable. Because as Cap knows – and come on, they should all know this because of the whole “Hydra infiltrated SHIELD” debacle – governments, and even the UN, have political agendas and these can change. 

Cap can see what Tony fails to see because of his guilt; he sees through the hypocrisy and manipulations of the Secretary when he tries to make the Avengers feel guilty and coerce them into signing the accords which, as Cap knows, are nothing but a way to control the team. Cap sees the government’s fear, and refuses to give in to this fear, because even when Vision, a being worthy of wielding Thor’s hammer, appeals to the collective good, he knows this is only a very superficial solution, and in fact they would be jeopardizing the common good in the long run. This is just what ends up happening when Thanos finally comes with the Avengers disunited. And let’s not forget that Cap is also more than worthy of building Mjolnir with as much if not more might than Vision.

The peak of this movie, the Civil War, is the peak of the whole ideology and philosophy clash behind the two most important pillars of the Avengers. Understanding how much Tony opposes Steve is understanding how he ends up as the biggest villain the MCU ever had, which was necessary in order for him to become the biggest saviour the universe has ever had at the end of Endgame, and complete his whole arc of redemption. We all loved him at that moment as we were supposed to, as a villain turned hero, a villain we can easily forgive.

And this leads me to the conclusion: 

We all identify more easily with Tony because his character is one of the most human and most complex: full of flaws, self-absorbed, anxious, obsessed, guilty, fearful. We all see our reflection in him, even if only subconsciously, and just as with other narcissists we are desperate to give them a chance because we see the good in them as we see the good in us, and we try to believe that if redemption is possible for them then it is also possible for us. 

Steve Rogers, on the other hand, is the aspiration, hard to reach but not unreachable. We see how he himself struggles to keep his actions in line with his moral compass and his values. We often believe we can never be as strong as him, but the fact is that if Stark is the mirror in which we see our flaws and capacity to redeem ourselves, Steve is the other side of that mirror, in which we can see that the best version of ourselves is possible, if we can manage to defuse the ego and keep the shadows at bay. 

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