(You all thought I’d forgotten about these, didn’t you?)
There’s a running joke I’ve seen in the MCU fandom: why are the Iron Man sequels simply Iron Man 2 and Iron Man 3 as opposed to having subtitles like Captain America: The Winter Soldier or Thor: The Dark World? Well, because that would imply they were about something other than Iron Man. This speaks of an understanding of Tony Stark’s narcissism (as if he has reached through the fourth wall, tapped an executive on the shoulder and demanded full billing) but is also true, in a way: of all the MCU line-up so far, the Iron Man movies function the best as movies about a person.
Maybe this was why they were so successful, and kicked off the franchise properly—they serve as a good character study, of a character some of us knew already and others were being introduced to for the first time. There are plenty of explosions and robots in the mix too, of course, but what we want at the heart of our stories are characters to follow and peer at. That’s why Iron Man 3 happened even after Iron Man 2 was complained about so much: we still wanted more Tony Stark. Even if the story around him is a cluster-mess, it’s the hero behind the mask at the centrepoint of all the madness that we’re really interested in, and everything else is secondary to a certain degree.
Whether it’s due to writing or directing or the timeless magic that is Robert Downer Jr. I do not know, but Tony is by far the most compelling character in the Avengers and Co, possibly because we’re given a full look into his messy mind and get to watch it and the human attached progress through a character arc. Tony is not the same man at the end of the third movie as he is at the start of the first, and all along the way he’s consistently flawed and believable. Which may sound funny considering he’s the “charming genius billionaire” fantasy in human form with a snazzy beard stuck on. But they start with that and they take it down, bit by bit, until we see what Tony’s really made of underneath all that. Which the suit is a lovely metaphor for, come to think of it.
The start of Iron Man is a wonderful establishing character moment—and then he’s thrown out of his comfort zone and forced to not only fight for his life but face the fact that the technology that leaves him sleeping on silk sheets cuddling money is actually being used for war crimes. Grown man and prodigy he may be, but he always retains an air of immaturity, and in a way we get to watch him grow up. All the better, then, that the villain of the first movie be his father figure, who manages to be twice as menacing than if he’d been a complete stranger. Ah yes, every hero needs a good villain, and though we know that the hero’s going to win and thus they’re disposable one-shots in every film, the Iron Man ones are particularly well-crafted.
Well, Whiplash and Justin Hammer were a little messy, but that was mostly because there was so much going on in Iron Man 2, what with Tony dying and S.H.I.E.L.D. coming out of the woodwork and sexual tension with Pepper and the magic of friendship with Rhody and oh, lord, the daddy issues… the point remains, Tony’s villains are all interesting because so far they’ve never come out of nowhere. Not only are they linked to him, but he’s created them himself (literally, in Ultron’s case) and in many ways they’re reflections of himself too. Hammer is the spoilt heir covering his insecurity with bravado and charm, Whiplash is the son of a scientist filled with bitterness, Obediah is what he could have been had he been bigger and meaner at heart.
Because don’t get me wrong, Tony’s an asshole, but he’s also fundamentally a good person. You’d like to think it comes naturally with superheroism, but among all the snark and social failings you kind of forget. He’s also an exceptionally privileged and messed up individual who manages to be a good person, which is important to see. He makes mistakes, he obsesses, he needs people, he gets knocked down by PTSD and panic attacks—there’s a beautiful realism to him, and it’s really important to show superheroes being people with their vulnerability going beyond them getting beaten up by bigger baddies or having their hearts broken over the women in their fridge.
And on that note, I feel like I need to talk about dear Pepper, who is pretty much literally the opposite of fridged, in that she comes back very much not dead and also very much on fire. The climax of Iron Man 3 is also not the first time she’s been portrayed as strong, though—she’s physically badass then, but it doesn’t mean she hasn’t been resilient or interesting before, which is again a very important thing to show and speaks of a well put-together character. She’s not just a love interest, or the long-suffering assistant who enforces wisdom in Tony’s life; she manages to be her own character and a perfect foil to Tony, which again, I don’t know if I have writers or actors or both to thank for.
The dialogue in these movies just flows like something rare, certainly something you don’t see in the other ones—it overlaps and jumbles and is expressive and again, feels real. Their dynamic goes beyond sexual tension and banter and Pepper being one of his emotional crutches, but it’s also all of that and a bit of fun at the same time. Layers, man. These characters and the interplay between them have as many working parts as the Iron Man suit.
I almost feel like—no, wait, hear me out here—we don’t need any more Tony focus in any of the other movies. Yes, he’s a crucial part of The Avengers, but his story has essentially been told. We’ve watched his arc leap and bound and reach a sensible and satisfying conclusion. I kind of feel like anything else will be unnecessary addition, especially angsty silliness like the Civil War plotline has the potential to bring about. Let Cap 3 be about Cap, who’s just starting on his journey, and give Iron Man, who’s completed his, a day off. Lord knows the man needs it.
Verdict: I just talked about Tony Stark for 1000 words. That alone should speak of how rich and interesting a character the budding MCU served up to us—maybe even what made the MCU bloom, proof to the world that superhero movies can be intelligent character dramas as well as being fun. Thank you, Tony Stark, for being a beautiful mess of a man and an inspiration and entertainment to many.
Next time: The Incredible Hulk (?)