Tuesday, May 3, 2016

In Defense of Tony Stark

As we get closer to the approach of Captain America: Civil War, a movie which contains an epic and heartrending battle between two of my all-time favorite characters, I find myself feeling nervous. This movie has the ability to change the landscape of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as well as our perceptions of its characters, for all time.

The problem is that, with a movie of this nature which contains our heroes fighting against each other, one of those characters is perceived as the villain. I've seen plenty of support for Captain America's team, which is great. Please know that this post isn't meant to bash Steve Rogers in any way. I'm not anti-Steve or anti-Bucky. However, due to the fact that our team is pitted against each other, as well as Tony's questionable actions in Age of Ultron (creating a murderbot), Tony hasn't been getting as much love, and sometimes he's even referred to as a villain. I'd like to prove this isn't the case. Civil War is about two points of view and two characters that happen to clash. Neither of them are better than the other, but unfortunately, our beloved characters have had to choose sides. This is Tony's.

It's not hard for me to see why people find Tony Stark unlikable... at least not at first. In Iron Man, we see a highly immature playboy who really only wants to have a fun time. He sleeps around, drinks quite a bit, and parties. Often he does all three at once. He's also the head of Stark Industries, a company that manufactures weapons, which doesn't exactly lend itself to being perceived as the best kind of guy. But at the same time, he's also incredibly smart. This is supported by comic evidence that states that he graduated from MIT at age 17. Tony Stark is a self-described genius (among other things).

All of this changes when Tony is kidnapped by an extremist group who wants to use his knowledge to help them build a weapon. He's injured by one of his own missiles, and to keep the shrapnel from reaching his heart, his fellow captive Yinsen builds him his very first arc reactor. Yinsen himself changes Tony's life in other ways by becoming a friend to him and ultimately sacrificing himself so Tony could escape. This is one of the first moments we can see Tony really change. He's taken out of his comfort zone. He's lost someone, someone who cared about him, and that makes him look at life a little differently. When he returns, Tony is a different man. After going through hell, he returns and changes the purpose of Stark Industries: they will no longer manufacture weapons. He builds his suit, and one of his first missions as Iron Man is to defend Yinsen's home village. Tony's capture and thus meeting Yinsen were the catalyst to help Tony become a changed man and a better one.

Tony's change is not immediate. Over the course of Iron Man 2, he still regresses several times, and it's a slow process. But eventually, he learns to work as a team player, he learns how to conquer some of his inner demons, and he falls in love with Pepper Potts. While Pepper didn't change Tony singlehandedly, she's still one of the people who consistently keeps him grounded. The Avengers were also a huge part of his character development as they showed him he could have team members... and even friends.

Speaking of the Avengers, one of the biggest turning points for Tony's character was during The Battle of New York. Throughout the movie, Steve insists that Tony isn't willing to make sacrifices.

“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… you may not be a threat, but you better stop pretending to be a hero.” 
This culminates when the World Security Council decides to fire a nuke at Manhattan. In order to save the city, Tony flies the nuke up into an alien wormhole, something that could very well be considered a suicide mission. He laid his life down on the line willingly, and he very nearly almost lost it. This is when, in my opinion, Tony truly became one of the most heroic characters I've ever seen.

In Iron Man 3, we see him struggling with the aftereffects of that, complete with PTSD and panic attacks. I appreciate that the movie gave us a chance to see the realistic aftereffects that superheroes deal with from traumatic events. Tony did a good thing, and he saved Manhattan, but it still affected him one movie later (and even into Age of Ultron). I appreciated that your typical action flick delved into this sensitive topic.

Things start to go slightly awry in Age of Ultron when Tony and Bruce accidentally create an artificial intelligence that wants to conquer the world. Tony's actions were completely misguided, but his characterization in this film seemed to turn for the worse. Gone was the mature yet snarky hero we've come to know and love, and instead, we got a bitter, prideful man who made a joke about prima nocta (my irritation with this knows no bounds). He also didn't seem to grieve the loss of Jarvis, his closest--if not his best--friend. All of Tony's character development over three movies and six collective hours seemed to just disappear.

So, between his characterization in Age of Ultron and his undeniable flaws, it's no surprise to me that people considered Tony the villain in Age of Ultron and even Civil War. But Tony's past has proved to me time and time again that while Tony is flawed, he is a hero. Flawed heroes are hard to come by, and I personally believe that Tony Stark is one of the best.

My love for Tony has come from the fact that he is a wounded warrior. He struggled with the death of his parents, alcoholism, the pressures of carrying on his father's legacy, and finally, the kidnapping that resulted in shrapnel embedding itself in his heart. The location of Tony's injury was no coincidence and can in fact be interpreted as a metaphor.

"Here you have this character, who on the outside is invulnerable, I mean, just can't be touched, but inside is a wounded figure. Stan made it very much an in-your-face wound, you know, his heart was broken, you know, literally broken. But there's a metaphor going on there. And that's, I think, what made that character interesting." - Gerry Conway

I have seen Tony's broken heart time and time again over the past few years, and it speaks to my own heart about the challenges each of us face. Even if you are wounded, even if your heart is broken, you can still fight. You can still be a hero. And the things we think are our weaknesses can sometimes be our biggest strengths.

 "You know, I've got a cluster of shrapnel, trying every second to crawl its way into my heart." [points at the mini-arc reactor in his chest] "This stops it. This little circle of light. It's part of me now, not just armor. It's a... terrible privilege."

Tony Stark is our hilarious, snarky hero. His snark is just a part of him, and it's actually a coping mechanism disguising a broken man underneath--a broken man who is slowly learning to build himself up again. Personally, it's been a (sometimes terrible) privilege to watch him do so. Tony Stark is one of my favorite characters to grace my screen--not only because of what he does but because of who he is. He encourages me to keep fighting, to be grateful for my terrible privileges, and to be a hero not in spite of them but because of them.

As we go forth with Civil War, please remember Tony's growth. Remember he's not a bad person. Remember that the Civil War will hurt him, too.

Remember what a hero Tony is and has been over the past few years. And ultimately, remember that you can be a hero too, no matter how broken your heart may be.

What do you think about Tony Stark?


  1. Tony has always been my favorite Avenger and I always get the raised eyebrow reaction whenever I tell people he's my favorite. To me he seemed like the most human of all the heroes and in many real ways he is the most human. He didn't receive any special powers. If anything, all he's ever received are handicaps and brokenness and with his genius he's managed to turn these to his advantage and that's something we all relate to, isn't it? We all are figuring out how to walk away from heartbreak, trauma, and loss, and turn it into something good.

    No matter what turn Tony takes in Civil War, he's always going to be my favorite and he's always going to have a special place in my heart.

    Thanks so much for sharing, Sky!

    Dani xoxo
    a vapor in the wind

  2. I love Tony. Thanks for writing this. You put it into words very well :)