With millions of movie fans seeing both Batman v Superman and every Iron Man or Avengers movie Marvel has released, there's a good chance many have noted both heroes' journeys (and indeed, their entire franchises) ended up relying on one simple fact: they love their mothers. But few will have noticed just how similar the related twists really are. And that while DC's "Martha" moment takes the heat, it's Marvel's version which is likely the worst mistake in Tony Stark's entire story--which Avengers: Endgame drives home.
That observation isn't meant as a knock against Maria Stark (Hope Davis), or praise for Martha Wayne (Lauren Cohan or Diane Lane). After all, both women exist to be killed, so their sons will be set on their paths to becoming billionaire superheroes. Yet both Zack Snyder and the Russo Brothers rely on these women to turn their heroes into adversaries, and finally, reverse their main characters' directions entirely. In Batman v Superman, the 'Martha' moment is called out (literally) and impossible to miss from the very first scene. But after Avengers: Endgame shows what Tony's story was always about, and fans reflect on Civil War's own version... Marvel will prefer nobody notice it again.
Bruce Wayne Loves His Mom (And It's Driving Him Mad)
Grasping what's at work in Bruce Wayne's mother subplot shouldn't be difficult. The film shows Bruce is constantly reliving the two most traumatic experiences of his life basically every night... when he allows himself to sleep between doses of pills and alcohol. The murder of his parents (his mother's, specifically) ending with his father's last word, "Martha." And his second sequence of the film showing the Battle of Metropolis, in which Superman is responsible for "killing his family." Through Bruce's nightmares it's clear he's combined the two traumas, spreading Superman's guilt to his mother's death and cementing his mission to kill the Kryptonian--thus avenging both moments he was helpless to protect his family.
Fast forward to what should be Bruce's moment of victory, Superman defeated, Bruce triumphant, poised to kill. The two traumas come slamming together when Superman, not Bruce's father, utters his mother's name: "You're letting him kill Martha." Realizing HE has become the villain, Bruce is stunned, and forced to (finally) reckon with his mental and emotional state. Viewers who enjoy that payoff and those who do not aren't going to agree any time soon, but the point is clear: Bruce Wayne is vulnerable when it comes to his mother. The same is true for Tony Stark... which is where the major problem lies.
Tony Loves His Mom (Who Never Existed Until Now)
The same basic idea is what fuels Tony Stark's own twist, but notably reversed from Bruce Wayne's. Again, it comes in a moment that should be one of victory: Zemo cornered, defeated, counting only on Tony and Steve turning against one another (which they won't because they're friends). But at that same moment, it's the mention of Tony's mother's death--sorry, Tony's mother's murder that stuns him into a reversal. This time from a friend to a murderer. Fans can debate or defend the decision to have Tony Stark--a man ill-equipped to handle emotions, favoring cold logic instead--to not just seek vengeance, but commit to it for an extended fight sequence. He accepts a mission to murder a man brainwashed into committing the act... and also his oldest friend if he tries to stop him.
But what makes this 'Martha' moment so problematic in the context of its own story isn't whether audiences can understand Tony's rage when faced with the man who "killed my mom," but the fact that this simply isn't what his story is about. In fact, it's explicitly NOT about that. For starters: through the FIVE previous Iron Man film appearances, Tony's mother never even existed (she doesn't really exist after this, either). She finally gets a scene so audiences are reminded of her existence, before they learn she's Tony's true weak spot... basically the moment he reveals he's willing to commit murder to avenge her. And if there were any doubts this is the MCU's biggest storytelling misstep, Avengers: Endgame makes it painfully clear. Because every single Iron Man fan knows: Tony's weak spot was never his mother.
Tony's Story Was Always About Howard, Not 'Martha'
We may never understand what drove the Russos to have Tony's attempted murder of Bucky motivated by him "killing my mom," but it will be hard for any Iron Man or MCU fan to deny the story the previous films were actually telling, and the resolution they were building toward. In the first Iron Man, Tony's relationship with his father is basically non-existent, something Tony shields himself from with quips and humor. In Iron Man 2, Tony's relationship with his father is shown to be far more complicated and painful--driven home by Howard's message of love, pride, and hope for Tony to exceed his own shortcomings. And after Iron Man 3 and Age of Ultron, Tony seems to have moved beyond his daddy issues, and found closure.
So how in the world did Civil War not bring Tony's story to its climax, abandoning logic when faced with the man who "killed my dad"? In the process, using those same five films to show Tony's loyalty is to his father, and not Steve Rogers? And that his rage towards Bucky is not for killing the mother who clearly loved him, but to the father with whom he was robbed of the chance of reconciling?
Those just as dumbfounded may never get an answer, but Avengers: Endgame demonstrates that really should have been the twist. After all, Tony's MCU story flows through the five stages of grief over his father's death. In that Civil War betrayal and chance for revenge, he finally lets decades of denial drop, losing himself in anger. Bring on the bargaining when Tony dives headlong into battle with Thanos believing it to be exactly what Iron Man was created for. Bring him back to Earth to exhibit hostile depression, fleeing from his friends entirely. And finally finding acceptance, having the chance to visit his father, and make the peace they never got to while Howard was still alive. While also setting up Tony to achieve their mutual hope of serving "the greater good" instead of their own self-interest (read: their own children).
It's poetic... or at least it should be, if not for Marvel's own 'Martha' moment anchoring the inciting incident on Tony's blink-and-you-miss-her mother, instead. Batman v Superman detractors may dislike Clark and Bruce's mother having the same name, and that being used as an anchor for Bruce's trauma and epiphany. But at least that is Bruce Wayne's actual story from beginning to end. When laying out Iron Man's journey to its Avengers: Endgame end, Marvel's equivalent makes about as much sense as Superman growling out "Thomas!" and getting the same result. Maybe Marvel can swap out the dialogue in a future re-release, so Howard Stark can be given his place beside Martha Wayne, where he belongs.