Warning: This article contains SPOILERS for Avengers: Endgame.
Avengers: Endgame wrapped up MCU's 22-film arc that started in Jon Favreau's Iron Man, and it was only fitting that it also marked the journey's end of the hero who started it all - Tony Stark, who sacrificed himself to save the universe. But before his emotional death in the film, Tony's position in the franchise had been murky for years since Avengers: Age of Ultron.
The MCU followed co-creator Stan Lee's mindset upon creating Iron Man in the '60s - create a character who's not meant to be liked, and yet people can root for. This was perfectly established by Favreau in Iron Man where we met the reckless, narcissistic billionaire who was blind to the fact that his tech was being sold to both sides of a conflict without him knowing. Even after his time in captivity in Afghanistan, Tony didn't magically overhaul himself - in fact, he got more insufferable in Iron Man 2. He remained an egomaniac for the most part of his MCU stint, but that doesn't mean he wasn't a good man and certainly not less of a hero. If anything, he worked doubly hard to do good by the people he swore to protect when he assumed the mantle of Iron Man.
Being an unorthodox hero wasn't easy, however, especially when juxtaposed with the textbook definition of a hero: Captain America. As Marvel developed the complex dynamic between the pair, Tony's heroism looked paler in comparison to Steve Rogers' - and at times, he's even painted a villain. But the events of Avengers: Endgame proved that he is the MCU's best hero all along.
How Iron Man Was A Villain From Avengers: Age of Ultron Onwards
Iron Man becoming the MCU's quasi-villain began in Avengers: Age of Ultron with his arc in the sequel directly a result of his near-death exploit during the Battle of New York. His PTSD from that experience was extensively explored in Iron Man 3, but with the Shane Black film primarily removed from the bigger lore, it was only until Avengers: Age of Ultron that we saw its bigger implications in the MCU. He created Ultron following Wanda's mind manipulations that heightened his existing fear of another looming extraterrestrial threat.
In the Scarlet Witch induced hallucination, he saw a post-apocalyptic world where all of his friends are dead, motivating him to move forward with the Ultron Project which was intended as a precautionary measure in case his vision come to fruition. The plan, although coming from a good place, backfired with Ultron turning in on them, leading to massive repercussions for him, the whole team, and the rest of Sokovia.
The Avengers pulled through and defeated Ultron with the help of Vision (who Tony also created with the help of Bruce Banner). But that one mistake effectively marked Tony as a bad guy for a brief stint. Captain America: Civil War leaned on his ideological differences with Steve regarding the Sokovia Accords, and that turned to a personal rift when Tony discovered that the man his father raved endlessly about hid the fact that his brainwashed best friend, Bucky, murdered him and his wife. Then, although nothing but a coincidence, Spider-Man: Homecoming's villain, Vulture came to be because of Tony's efforts to clean up the damage the Avengers left in NYC after Loki's attack.
Tony Stark’s Endgame Arc
The focus shifting back to the heroes after Avengers: Infinity War put Thanos front and center, the original Avengers re-assembled for one last mission - each of them having something going for themselves. But in the bigger scheme of things, Endgame primarily pays off Tony's journey - from the very first time we met him in 2008 all the way to his final heroic act. It was peppered with great callbacks (like his love of cheeseburgers or declaring "I am Iron Man") from his earlier standalone adventures that made people feel more nostalgic. Even his suit, Mark LXXXV, pulled from Mark III more than Mark L. The film was less about the spectacle of the suit and more of the evolution of Tony leading up to his demise.
Avengers: Endgame began with a hopeless Tony stuck in space, coming to terms with the fact this might just be how he goes. But as Captain Marvel successfully brought him back to Earth, the weight of his failure to stop Thanos all came crashing back to him. This was his Avengers: Age of Ultron nightmare come to life, and like in his vision, the worst part was he survived. When the opportunity to bring back everyone dusted by The Decimation emerged five years later, Tony was reluctant diving right back in having already settled with a quiet life with wife Pepper and his daughter Morgan.
As devastating it was for him to lose, at least it's over. Thanos won and he can't do anything more about it, allowing him to focus his energy on things he hadn't been able to since he developed his paralyzing fear of an unknown threat like his personal life. But, it was clear that he was still haunted by the thought of losing Peter Parker/Spider-Man. So, he had been tinkering on the possibility for the last five years with very little success until Ant-Man's idea to use the Quantum Realm for time travel emerged. He continued to hesitate, however, given the family he's leaving behind, but he couldn't simply ignore the call of duty - something Pepper knew.
With the blessing from his wife, he took on the most important mission of his life. It turned out joining the time heist was a blessing in disguise. Not only was Tony able to actively work on rectifying the predicament that Thanos put the galaxy in, he also had the chance to get closure with his dad, Howard Stark after spending most of his life resenting his old man. Similar to his reconciliation with Steve, Tony's decision to make amends with his father despite his treatment of him wasn't for anyone else but himself. Disrupting the peace he found did in the last five years brought about by his own family by harboring any ill-feelings just wasn't worth it. As he said, "resentment is corrosive and I hate it."
Every step of Tony's Avengers: Endgame story was meticulously planned. After all, wrapping up his story was one of the most important elements that the film had to nail. It tied all remaining loose ends with his overall MCU story. But with Thanos threatening the fate of the universe that they worked really hard to restore, Tony didn't think twice sacrificing himself by putting on the gauntlet and snapping his fingers to ensure that the Mad Titan was once and for all defeated.
Seeing him die, especially the way he did, was difficult to watch, but being the first person to sense Thanos' threat, actively deal with it and still being forced to live his worst nightmare after they lost earned him the right to take down the villain. His outburst recounting all the times his warnings about Thanos fell on deaf ears was justified. After years of people invalidating everything he's done as Iron Man, highlighting his shortcoming instead of his contributions, this was his glory moment. He could've sacrificed himself at any point before Avengers: Endgame, but his heroism in the film meant so much more because he had everything to lose.
How Tony Stark Has Evolved Since Iron Man (2008)
Tony's experiences changed him fundamentally with a clear through-line as years went by, making him the most fleshed out character in the MCU. The evolution of his suits mirrored the evolution of him as a person. At every point in his life, everything he did was deliberate - from taking on the mantle of Iron Man to putting on the gauntlet in Avengers: Endgame. He knew he was on borrowed time and was adamant in making every second count so he spent the rest of his days channeling his genius and resources to ensure the safety of the world - a redemptive move after both were long used for destruction without him knowing.
Granted, there were some missteps along the way, but he fully committed himself to the responsibility of being a superhero when he could've sat back and made amends in other ways. In the two-year aftermath of Civil War, he continued to sense that a greater threat was coming, so he worked relentlessly, even on his own, to prepare for the looming danger. This is why his failure in Avengers: Infinity War was so tragic - he did everything he could, and it still wasn't enough because he couldn't do it by himself.
Outside of the armor, he took on a different role as mentor to Peter, reluctantly imparting wisdom he's gained over the years of being Iron Man - and we know that most of those lessons he learned the hard way. Tony's mentorship continued, albeit less drawn out and explicit with Nebula during their time in space. Tony, like Nebula, wasn't particularly a warm person. They'd both lived with emotionally distant fathers (albeit to a different in extent), and yet they developed a quiet camaraderie evidenced with their interactions on Benatar. These relationships helped shaped the kind of father he became to Morgan - loving and doting, exactly the type he wanted Howard to be.
Tony was accused of being a self-serving hero who wouldn't sacrifice himself for other people, but that can't be farther from the truth. Throughout his stint as Iron Man and long before Avengers: Endgame, he repeatedly risked his life for the mission - asking Pepper to overload the large arc reactor in order to stop Obadiah Stane even if it could've also killed him in the process; hauling a nuke to space; lifting Sokovia to minimize destruction; and willingly taking on Thanos, even on alien territory. Every single time, he knew full well that it might be the end for him, yet, he got on with it without any hesitation anyway.
He survived his kidnapping reason and if that meant dying for the greater good, he'd long since come to terms with that. This is why there was no better way to take him out the way Avengers: Endgame did. He couldn't stop being Iron Man because it was his way of atoning for his past sins. No matter how content he was on a personal level, knowing that there's a threat looming on Earth out there (and there will always be one) will always urge him to put the suit back on and take care of it himself. Pepper assuring him that he can rest now because they're going to be just fine was the permission he needed to finally let go.
Iron Man’s MCU Legacy
There's poetry in Tony's story - he was alive for a reason, and he spent his days finding that reason. By the time he finally discovered it, he embraced it with no hesitation. His suit enabled him to become a hero on a bigger scale, but even without it, he was already one just by consciously wanting to be better - something that everyone can pull from. Tony may not be as noble as Captain America or worthy and powerful like Thor, but he was the MCU's best hero when it mattered the most.
Legacy was always important to him. Tony had been talking about it since Iron Man as part of his self-reflection after his abduction in Afghanistan. While he's no longer around, he'll continue to live through the people he's impacted like Peter and Nebula. There's also Morgan who might assume a superhero role just like his father did down the road. But aside from the impact he left on people he had personal ties with, he will go down in MCU history as the hero who sacrificed himself to ensure the future of the whole universe. The man who gave up a chance at living a happy life with his family so that many more families are ensured of their futures - a major turnaround from the insensitive, couldn't-care-less industrialist back in 2008.
Taking on the mantle of Iron Man was self-inflicted - a massive responsibility that he could've turned down, and yet, when it came to it, he was always at the forefront of every battle, risking his life for the greater good and being a proactive hero. He provided counterbalance to Captain America’s oftentimes idealized way of thinking and in turn, gave the MCU a sense of realism. He was almost always pragmatic - making the tough calls that may not look heroic at times, but in the grand scheme of things, were always in an effort to reach the best possible outcome given the predicament that they're in.
He was reliable and consistent, and Earth felt safer with him in it - with or without a back-up team. Tony will be a tough act to follow for newer heroes, but he's a better inspiration to emulate because he's proven that what you do in the future is more important than the mistakes of your past. While flying suits and a bottomless pit of resources may not exactly be relatable for the majority of the world, it’s what he did with what he had that makes him inspiring - be it from a cave in Afghanistan, a stranger’s garage in North Carolina or his own swanky lab.
From the outside, Iron Man wasn't the hero type, clearly. Dying wasn't his biggest fear, but not being able to protect everyone from the looming danger he knew was coming as evidenced by the Wanda-induced visions in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Through his sacrifice in Avengers: Endgame, he finally overcame that nagging dread by saving the universe, albeit in exchange of his own life. He had questionable actions and an ugly past, but he was always upfront about his imperfections and was actively working to be better. That kind of self-awareness is really important as it opens up grounds for improvement. His heroism was never pretentious. Tony Stark is the archetype of MCU heroes - flawed, but deep down, always good.
- Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) release date: Jul 02, 2019