‘Iron Man’ is Marvel’s Villain Problem

We begin our 17-week journey to Avengers: Infinity War with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, and ascertain the MCU’s true, exceptionally manicured, mustache-twirling villain.

Marvel Roadmap Ironman

We begin our 17-week journey to Avengers: Infinity War with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, and ascertain the MCU’s true, exceptionally manicured, mustache-twirling villain.

Tony Stark is the Merchant of Death. It’s a slanderous nickname tossed his way early on in Marvel Studios’ audacious product launch, but it’s a label that forever stains his character. He can upgrade his armor all he wants; he seems genuinely incapable of shedding past shames for nobility. From his introduction to Captain America: Civil War, Tony Stark is an incredibly flawed human creature chasing heroism. For all his triumphs over Iron Mongers and Ultrons, Stark is ultimately the villainous engine driving the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

He is the aphorism “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” come to life. Violence and oppression are bad, so he’ll just drop into foreign soil, blow some shit up, and dust his hands of the whole dirty business. He then has the condescending balls to act on the world’s behalf because he sees his superior intellect as his own get out of jail card. He simply knows what’s best for you. His IQ score proves it. What a strange and absolutely brilliant character to hang your franchise upon. While we’ve been crying foul on Marvel’s villain problem, the MCU’s greatest threat has been there since act 1, scene 1.

Originally, I was unimpressed with Iron Man. In 2008, I couldn’t shut up about Christopher Nolan’s painfully serious The Dark Knight. It’s a masterpiece. You’ll only find its detractors within the smuggest corners of the Internet. To this day you’ll find it at the top of most Best Superhero Movies lists. It’s a big “No Duh.” Jon Favreau’s origin story was more of a mystifying creation. Who the hell cares about Tony Stark? At the time, Marvel Comics barely did. He stole a little bit of the spotlight with Mark Millar’s Civil War and Brian Michael Bendis’ New Avengers, but his own book sold barely a fraction compared to the top tier titles whose cinematic rights were long gone to other studios. And here comes the Zathura director with just another origin story. Little did I know that this simple superhero venture would be the cornerstone for an epic endeavor.

Ten years in the making, Infinity War looms on the horizon. The MCU finally promises to deliver on Thanos’ death-courting grimace first glimpsed during the mid-credits tag of Joss Whedon’s The Avengers. Having pulled themselves out of bankruptcy, thanks in large part to the successful leasing of IPs like X-Men and Spider-Man, true-blue fanboy Kevin Fiege put his faith in the characters Marvel still retained, and re-introduced the concept of serialized storytelling to the cinematic landscape. “The Avengers Initiative” was a bold proclamation that I straight-up did not believe would succeed until I was jumping from my seat during Hulk’s smashing rampage through the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier in 2012. Decades of Howard the Ducks and Punisher retreads had fooled me into thinking that these properties were impossible to translate.

Thanos The Avengers Grin

While some may now curse Marvel Studios for unleashing the beast that is the cinematic shared universe upon us, I am still in awe of all they have accomplished. What Marvel does better than any other pretender studio is recognize the delight of the source material they own. They do not apologize for their spandex. They understand that we schedule our Wednesdays around their comic book releases because their melodramas are rich with character. The devastating blue light in the sky has an allure, but we’re even more intrigued by how that destructive force will affect the awkward romance between Tony and Pepper. Favreau’s Iron Man knew that we would invest our hearts as passionately for this playboy Avenger as much as we already do for more “serious” Hollywood fodder. As The Cosmic Cube Turns, these Superhero Soaps can be as valid as any other form of drama if they’re creators believe it to be so.

Ultimately, we don’t love Iron Man because one CGI shellhead crushes another CGI shellhead. We’re here to watch a barely functioning alcoholic get his act together, and reach for that valor his daddy championed through Captain America bedtime stories. Iron Man is a hero born out of guilt. His emotional origin is assigned within the first five minutes of the film. When his ride in the Funvee erupts into fiery explosions, he tumbles from his safe passage, and stares directly at a rocket propelled grenade brandished with his own name. That’s his manufactured shrapnel drilling down into his heart. Like most successful asshole industrialists, Stark paid no mind of where his munitions landed until they literally penetrated his body. Held hostage inside a cave, surrounded by terrorists carrying his weapons and a doctor whose family was murdered by those arms, Stark’s Grinch heart grew three sizes that day. Adapting his good doctor’s designs, and applying the comic-booky science of the arc reactor, Tony Stark sets about righting his wrongs as The Invincible Iron Man.

But does he? He certainly gets his own ass out of that cave thanks to his big brain and Dr. Yinsen’s willing sacrifice since his narrative function has ceased to be relevant. Back on Planet America, after scoring an All-American Burger King product placement (how else do you keep those armors in the air?), Stark announces his change of heart via the only platform his ego understands, the press conference. No one believes him, and with good reason. Prior to captivity his life amounted to nothing more than flavor-of-the-week get-rich invention, forgetting the names of the Maxim cover models he’s bedded, and harassing the attractive help.

The innovation of Iron Man really only amounts in that escalation problem touted by Commissioner Gordon during the final moments of Batman Begins. Stark’s Mark III armor will not only lead to Mark 47 and beyond, but it will also result in Obadiah Stane’s Iron Monger, the Age of Ultron, and the royal rumble between his super friends. As Stane spits back in his face during their climactic CG bout, “you were trying to rid the world of weapons, and you gave it the best one ever.” Stark just can’t help himself. He’s always digging; it might not only his own grave, but The Avengers’ as well.

Iron Monger

Tony Stark is a vigilante motivated by fear, not good deeds. It’s probably what compels him to mentor young Peter Parker (we’ll talk more about that in 16 weeks). No other actor could pull off that dark side drive like Robert Downey Jr. Only he could make a floundering, sexist billionaire with delusions of spandex into a likeable scallywag. Downey has crafted a lifetime charming us with his faults, easing us away from scandals with a wink and a smile. He understands Stark better than most of us ever could. He’s a rapscallion who dreams of redemption, and we’ll give it to him if he makes us laugh.

As much as we want to believe in the treachery of Loki and Thanos, Stark’s own “I Am Iron Man” public announcement reveals a truly insidious ego. “I know better than you…certainly better than that boy scout Steve Rogers.” Did Nick Fury really know what he was getting when he crept into Stark’s Malibu estate with a request? He was probably more interested in stockpiling armors like he was Red Skull’s Hydra weapons. Heck, his Avengers are less of a global emergency response team as they are just one more weapon from Tony Stark’s arsenal. His declaration to the universe that they were ready for global combat is inevitably that dinner bell we will finally hear answered with Infinity War. For every heroic act they’ve achieved during the Marvel phases there’s been plenty of collateral damage left in their wake. The stumbles as much as the achievements have always been the appeal of Marvel comic books.

What Iron Man Contributes to the MCU:

  • The Avengers Initiative – “You think you’re the only superhero in the world?” With just 32 seconds of last-minute screen time, Samuel L. Jackson steps from the pages of The Ultimates and erupts an orgasmic wave of geeky glee. Impossible childhood dreams made true.
  • Jarvis – Reinterpreting the comic book butler into the snarky, know-it-all A.I. that coordinates all of Stark’s needs from healthy smoothies to flight control was a staggering upgrade. The fact that Paul Bettany’s roguish voice would be made flesh in subsequent films is all the more delightful.
  • Pepper Potts – Cary Grant needs His Girl Friday. The will they/won’t they sitcom strategy was pleasantly maintained for a couple films, and Gwyneth Paltrow goes a long way in helping the audience find empathy for Stark.
  • Happy Hogan – It’s been interesting watching Happy’s career grow within Stark Industries as Jon Favreau’s behind-the-scenes involvement has dwindled. From chauffer to head of security to Peter Parker’s penpal, Happy Hogan has been one of the more agreeable flavors of the franchise.
  • Yinsen – He appears again during the introduction of Iron Man 3 as a nice reminder of what a tremendous scumbag Tony Stark was before their encounter in the cave. He’s still a bit of jerk/cad, but thankfully he’s learned a few good manners on his road to wannabe heroism.
  • Daddy Issues – No matter which actor is playing Howard Stark (Gerard Sanders, John Slattery, or Dominic Cooper), his specter never quite dissipates. Tony is always chasing Howard’s shadow, and it becomes all the more haunting when his war buddy Captain America eventually thaws out.

What Iron Man Withholds from the MCU:

  • The Ten Rings – Ok, so yes, they do technically come back for Iron Man 3, but their ultimate revelation, while purposefully anti-climactic, certainly frustrated fans eager to see some diabolical wizardry.
  • The Stark Industry Board Members – Once Obadiah Stane is vaporized within the arc reactor, apparently, so are the rest of the Board Members. Despite Pepper’s flirtations as CEO, from Iron Man 2 on, Tony Stark appears to be the sole mind behind his corporation.
  • Hotrods – I guess once he has his armors to tinker on, Stark no longer needs to bother with spark plugs and carbonators.
  • Terrence Howard – You can stay Rhodey, but not so fast Terrence. Was he pushed out by Robert Downey Jr. or did he simply demand too much money? The answer doesn’t really matter. Don Cheadle’s interpretation of the character is now our War Machine, and I am more than pleased with the recasting.

Iron Man

Further Reading:

The Invincible Iron Man, Vol. 6 by Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca – While a lot of folks will steer you towards Warren Ellis and Adi Granov’s Extremis, I believe the follow-up team of Fraction and Larroca to be the superior Iron Man creators. The series launched alongside the 2008 film, and features cinematic favorites like Pepper Potts, War Machine, and Black Widow, as well as treacherous appearances from Norman Osborne, M.O.D.O.K., and Detroit Steel. It’s wild with comic book concepts, but grounds the characters with recognizable emotions. You may not identify every reference within, but you also don’t need several decades worth of knowledge to jump on board.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.