‘I Am Iron Man’: The Redemption (and Return?) of Tony Stark

‘I Am Iron Man’: The Redemption (and Return?) of Tony Stark April 21, 2024

Robert Downey Jr. in the Iron Man Suit.
Aisyaqilumar – stock.adobe.com

“I am Iron Man.”

There are two times that line takes center stage in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Infinity Saga. They mark the beginning and the end of the redemption arc of billionaire inventor, playboy and philanthropist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), aka Avengers member and super-suited superhero Iron Man.

(Mild language warning on some of the video clips below)

To Infinity and Beyond (Sorry, Wrong Movies)

The Infinity Saga, inspired by Marvel Comics characters, is the most audacious big-screen high-wire act I’ve ever seen, and Stark’s tale is one of film’s all-time great redemption stories.

The series comprises 22 movies released over 11 years — from Iron Man (2008) to Avengers: Endgame (2019) — 10 of which star Downey as Tony Stark/Iron Man.

Not all of them are gems (Captain Marvel is a standout dud), and many characters have significant and engaging storylines, but none encapsulated the journey from darkness to light, from death to life, like that of Tony Stark.

Will Iron Man Rise Again?

At 59, Downey just won his first Academy Award, for Oppenheimer. IMHO, he should have been nominated for at least one Iron Man performance. But, while Hollywood takes movies about blowing up the world seriously, if superheroes and aliens are also involved … not so much.

Toward the end of a long but fascinating April 8, 2024, Esquire profile — in which Downey also discusses his friendship with Mel Gibson, which I wrote about here — Downey’s asked about returning to the Marvel Cinematic Universe:

Would he ever return to it, as an Academy Award winner? “Happily. It’s too integral a part of my DNA. That role chose me. And look, I always say, Never, ever bet against [Marvel Studios president] Kevin Feige. It is a losing bet. He’s the house. He will always win.”

UPDATE 4/26, from Variety:

In a recent interview with GamesRadar+, “Avengers: Endgame” directors Joe and Anthony Russo expressed some confusion over Downey’s Iron Man popping back up in the MCU after they killed the character off so heroically in their record-breaking film.

“I don’t know how they would do it,” Anthony said. “I don’t know what the road to that would be [laughs].”

Joe added, “I mean we closed that book so it would be up to them to figure out how to reopen it.”

So, for now, Tony’s story is over — and what a story.

Take a trip down memory lane (BTW, if you haven’t seen all the films, go away now … and watch them).

Do You Have to Watch All of the Infinity Saga?

During the 2020 lockdown, armed with Disney+ and time on my hands, I set myself the nightly challenge of watching all of the Infinity Saga films, in release order. And this I did, twice through.

To follow the story as a whole, and understand each intricate detail, you really have to watch every single one.

(For the purpose of this article, I’m going to assume you’ve done that. You’ve been warned.)

After starting and then stopping Captain Marvel, I tried to skip it, only to find that it has information I needed to understand the film after it. So, I dutifully went back (to be honest, I did omit it on the second go-round and every viewing after that).

None of the 22 films stands entirely on its own. Each assumes you’ve seen what came before and goes from there. And that also means watching the post-credits sequences at the end of each film (which Disney+ makes challenging, because of its tendency to steer away from the credits to push you to the next film).

By the way, there are a couple of early Hulk films: The Hulk (2003), with Eric Bana; and The Incredible Hulk (2008), with Edward Norton. You may safely omit those, except for the post-credits sequence in the second one. But, fear not, here it is.

I’ve heard that some of these sequences were shot before there was final casting or even a final script for the subsequent movie. That’s a bold gamble.

Who Is Tony Stark, and Why Does He Become Iron Man?

Tony Stark is a 21st Century man. He’s smart, technically savvy, witty, dresses well, indulges himself in luxury and the ladies, and appears to have no beliefs beyond an unstoppable faith in his own brilliance. As an arms manufacturer, he’s made his apparently boundless fortune dealing death — and he’s cool with that.

But, in Iron Man, he learns the true cost of what he’s been peddling. Being Tony, he uses that knowledge to stop building weapons — except the ones he wears himself.

Tony is a hedonist, a narcissist and an egotist. But there is a spark of humanity in him, a kindness covered by snark and sarcasm (at times, Downey seems to be channeling Bill Murray), and, somewhere under all the motormouth and metal, a heart.

Damage to Tony’s heart sparks his creation of a way to power the Iron Man suit. It’s this vulnerable heart (his actual, not metaphorical, one), that nearly does him in more than once. But it’s also his heart (his metaphorical, not actual, one) that propels him to sacrifice himself not once, but twice, to save, well, everything.

Tony stops making weapons only to become one. His goal is to protect the world. First, it’s to assuage his guilt and pump up his own ego, but later, it’s on behalf of those he loves … even if he has a prickly, unsentimental way of showing it.

The Loves of Tony Stark

Pepper Potts

Top of the pyramid is loyal assistant and later love of his life and Stark Industries CEO Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Hyper-focused, efficient and gutsy, she eventually gets a suit of her own.

Harley Keener

Then there’s Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins) of Iron Man 3. He’s an ordinary kid in Tennessee who helps a stranded, PTSD-ridden Tony at Christmastime and has the adventure of his life. And yeah, you know, they’re connected.

Peter Parker

Perhaps most telling is Tony’s relationship with Peter Parker (Tom Holland), aka Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man. As a kid whose comics reading was pretty much limited to Iron Man and Spider-Man, I can tell you that the movies took a different direction.

While both are Marvel Comics characters and members of the Avengers, they weren’t pals on the page — and Tony definitely wasn’t a mentor to the teenage Peter. Their whole relationship in the films is an invention.

Tony recruits Peter for extra firepower when different opinions over whether the U.N. should control the Avengers split the group and set members against each other.

Interestingly, the freewheeling libertine Tony, still more than a bit leery of the havoc he’s unleashed in his own life, opts to sign on to the multinational Sokovia Accords. But, the straight-laced, patriotic Captain America (Chris Evans) instead comes down on the side of individual freedom.

It’s a nuanced look at how personal feelings and principles affect political decisions, with each of the Avengers perhaps not taking the side one might expect.

But Peter knows nothing of this. He’s just there to impress Mr. Stark.

They form as close to a father-son bond as Tony can manage at the time. When totalitarian alien Thanos (a very CGI-ed Josh Brolin) wipes out half of all living beings, that includes Peter — and all a shattered Tony can say is, “I lost the kid.”

Then, in the last film, Avengers: Endgame, when the lost lives are restored, the naked emotion in Tony’s reunion with Peter tops anything but the bond he’s formed with Pepper and their little daughter, Morgan.

And, BTW, this continues and is expanded upon in the Spider-Man films starring Tom Holland: Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) and Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)

Thanos, the Church and the Sanctity of Life

By the way, Thanos’ plan to “improve” planets and redistribute resources by employing mass slaughter (eventually expanded to include the whole universe) was hotly debated in Christian circles when the movies were being released.

In researching this piece, I ran across a post by a non-Catholic Christian, called Avengers Infinity War: The Greatest Catholic Film.

The writer, Pastor Andy Holt, gives props to Catholicism for consistently standing up for the sanctity of life … and to the Marvel Infinity Saga for coming to the same conclusion:

Let the people of God say “Amen!” to Father Captain America’s sermon, “We don’t trade lives.” God doesn’t trade lives; he makes alive. The sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary was not an exchange of one life for billions. It was an act of war. It was victory! And Jesus proved that he conquered Thanatos and all the forces of death when he walked out of that grave in the power of his resurrection. And now all who walk with him travel in the hope of that victory, testifying that God is the God of life and abundance.

Thanos was wrong. The Population Bomb was wrong. The six infinity stones (which serve as an apt metaphor for our own culture’s solution to overpopulation – legalized abortion) are not what we need for life to flourish. All we need we have in God. In Father, Son, and Holy Spirit we have the ever-abundant, ever-giving, ever-loving source and sustaining power of life. He who has ears, let him hear the testimony of the priests of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that life is, indeed, sacred.

I’m pretty sure that the creators of the comics and the movies didn’t see themselves as pro-life evangelists, but hey, I’ll take it.

Anyway, Back to Iron Man

Tony Stark is a man who’s too rich for his own good, too smart for his own good, and too attached to doing exactly what he wants. He doesn’t become a different person over the course of the films, just a better version of himself. And no, he doesn’t find God or anything like that, at least not that we hear about.

So, although Marvel isn’t averse to religious characters — witness the Catholic Daredevil — it’s not part of Tony’s story.

As the metal suit is largely ripped off his body at the climax of Endgame, and he faces Thanos without his protective helmet and most of his armor, Tony still says, “I am Iron Man,” before sacrificing himself to destroy evil in defense of life.

I’d say to him, “It was never the suit, Tony. It was always you.”

As his father, genius inventor Howard Stark, says to him in a video from the past, “What is and always will be my greatest creation … is you.”

Image: Aisyaqilumar – stock.adobe.com

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About Kate O'Hare
Based in Los Angeles, Kate O'Hare is a veteran entertainment journalist, Social Media Content Manager for Family Theater Productions and a rookie screenwriter. You can read more about the author here.
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