Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), the invincible Iron Man, was the poster boy of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe during Phase 1, which ran from May 2008 until May 2012 – a role that largely continued throughout Phase 2 (May 2013 to July 2015) and into Phase 3, which kicked off just this month with Captain America: Civil War. All told, he’s made seven appearances in Marvel’s meta-franchise, ranging from starring roles (the Iron Man trilogy) and co-starring parts (the two Avengers films and, now, Civil War) to cameos (The Incredible Hulk).
One of Phase 2’s most interesting developments, beyond the formal introduction of the Infinity Stones and the revelation of Thanos’ (Josh Brolin) master plan to unite them, was Steve Rogers’ (Chris Evans) rise to prominence; he’s now at a level of parity with Iron Man, though his exact breakdown of seven films looks a bit different – he’s the lead in three (the Captain America trilogy), the co-lead in two (the Avengers series), and made cameo appearances in two more (Thor: The Dark World and Ant-Man).
This makes the fact that the two are sharing the spotlight in Civil War perfectly understandable, but it also means that following their respective character arcs can be a bit tricky for all but the most hardcore of fans, who track and memorize each and every detail of each and every Marvel release with the devoutness of the religious. Worry not – we’re here to help with our recap of Iron Man’s Journey to Captain America: Civil War.
Iron Man (2008)
Tony Stark is an eccentric, genius, billionaire playboy, sleeping around and wantonly engaging in the designing and manufacturing of various weapons of mass destruction. After finding himself injured by one of his own bombs and being held captive by a terrorist cell in Afghanistan, Stark starts to learn the error of his carefree ways; after initially designing the Iron Man suit to both save his life and procure his escape, he quickly begins using it to help others who are in dire straits. He also instantly changes the core of his father’s company, Stark Industries, from being a weapons provider to a clean energy pioneer.
Because of his new set of superpowers, S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) seeks to recruit him as an agent, generally, and as a founding member of the Avengers Initiative, specifically – a team of agents that would be assembled should a doomsday scenario ever arise; their shared skillsets would make them exponentially more powerful than what any one of the agents would be individually. For all his growth as an empathic human being, however, Tony isn’t quite to the level of maturation that would allow him to be a teammate just yet; for now, he still values his independence and freedom from responsibilities.
Iron Man 2 (2010)
This all begins to change in Iron Man 2, which sees Tony realize that, well, maybe there are certain situations in which having someone to cover your back is not only nice, but also a necessity. It is this film that sees Iron Man realize that S.H.I.E.L.D. may possess some information and technology that is conducive to his superhero career and very life both – not to mention helping him reconcile some of his errant feelings for his father, Howard Stark (John Slattery), who co-founded and then co-lead the spy organization for some four decades. Along the way, Stark and the audience both are introduced to War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), two cohorts who are instrumental in helping him defeat the new (paper-thin) baddie and save the day.
It’s enough to make even the most jaded of billionaire inventors want to sign up with SHIELD, but, by this point, Fury realizes his error in attempting to recruit Stark – he’s still too much of a self-absorbed hot head. Still, he’ll take Tony Stark as a consultant in order to get access to Iron Man on the nascent Avengers.
It’s also more than enough to jumpstart a real, lasting, meaningful romantic relationship. After seeing that Tony is finally coming around to decency – and is, therefore, willing to commit to a monogamous relationship – Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) allows herself to act on her feelings for her formerly-reprehensible boss. Oh, yeah – she’s also made the head of Stark Industries, to boot.
The Avengers (2012)
When the Avengers are, at long last, assembled and Tony Stark has his long-awaited encounter with Steve Rogers, better known to the world at large as Captain America, the two immediately clash: Cap has devoted his entire life to service – to his country, to his friends, to his fellow soldiers – and Tony’s egocentric style instantly rubs him the wrong way. (Which isn’t to mention the chip on Stark’s shoulder that he brings to the meeting: for all his life, he has heard about how great and wonderful Captain America is from his father, who helped create the WWII-era supersoldier program before heading S.H.I.E.L.D. For Tony, it was like having a bigger brother whose perfect shadow he could never come out from under.) Iron Man’s problem, Rogers tells him, is that he isn’t willing to lay down his life on the line so that his comrades will be able to complete the greater mission and come home safely; all Stark can reply with is that they’re not soldiers – a feeble response.
And an inaccurate one, which Tony learns once the Chitauri invasion of New York begins. In order to prevent the nuking of New York City – a last-ditch effort concocted by the World Security Council to prevent the entire planet from coming under the sway of the alien invaders – Iron Man flies a nuclear warhead through the portal the extraterrestrials are arriving from as it closes in around him, only just barely making it back to Earth. He has just done the unthinkable: he was willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good.
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Of course, attaining adulthood comes with some growing pains.
In the aftermath of the Battle of New York, Iron Man faces his worst adversary yet: panic attacks. Formerly the king of the world, Stark is now just a mere mortal in a realm of gods, aliens, and supersoldiers . Defending the world is rendered all the more important to him now, given his fledgling relationship with Pepper – the one thing that he now realizes has ever truly meant anything to him. Afraid that it’s only a matter of time before the Chitauri come knocking on Earth’s door once again, he begins developing a nearly infinite number of suits around the clock – and, what’s more, develops a more strident version of artificial intelligence in order to control them while he’s away, essentially cloning himself.
While this makes Iron Man all the more powerful, it ends up making Tony Stark all the more vulnerable; he’s become emotionally distant and all but physically absent from Pepper, endangering their relationship. Realizing that trying to save her is ending up making him lose her, the end of Iron Man 3 sees Tony make the biggest leap of faith in his life yet: with his home and lab already destroyed, he self-destructs all several dozen Iron Man suits that are left over – and, even, has the shrapnel from that fateful bomb all the way back in the first film removed (I guess medical technology has significantly improved in the five years since he received the at-the-time-irreversible wound), in order to symbolize his separation from Iron Man. Yes, he is still a superpowered consultant to S.H.I.E.L.D., but that will now be a minor, controlled aspect of his life – a life that he will now begin to actually live again.
The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Life, however, soon conspires against Tony.
With S.H.I.E.L.D. now gone, Stark feels he has no choice but to fund the Avengers himself, out of his own pocket, in order to fill the security void that has suddenly emerged. This also presents a corollary complication: Iron Man will be needed more than ever in order to help his teammates on whatever missions are necessary to enforce world peace and security (which, in the one-year gap between Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Avengers: Age of Ultron, are mostly comprised of tracking down and eliminating the various major Hydra cells).
In order to make the Avengers’ job easier and to ensure a greater level of separation from his duties as Iron Man, Tony has been working on the Ultron project with new brother-in-arms Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), which seeks to create the world’s most sophisticated AI in order to direct his Iron Legion armada of remote-controlled suits. The program backfires, however, when Ultron comes online and immediately sees that the solution to world peace is to eliminate that very item that continually threatens it: humanity.
Since Ultron can’t get access to the various governments’ nuke launch codes (thanks to the persistence of JARVIS, Tony’s original AI), the murder-bot comes up with a rather historically poetic contingency plan: he scoops up a good portion of Sokovia, a fictitious Eastern European country, and ostensibly transforms it into a meteor, making it fall back to the ground and wipe out all life on Earth as we know it – save Ultron and his nigh-impenetrable body, of course.
Ultimately, the Avengers are, unsurprisingly, successful in defeating the rogue program and staving off mass extinction, but at a great personal cost to the entire team: most of them end up hanging up their superpowered spurs and taking a leave of absence for one reason or another. For Stark, it’s so he can attempt to live with the guilt that the death of Pepper – and all the rest of mankind – was only a few seconds away from happening, at his very hands.
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
WARNING: the following section contains MAJOR SPOILERS for Captain America: Civil War
When Captain America leads his brand-new team of Avengers on a mission-gone-awry in Africa, the various countries of the world have had enough and pass a new resolution at the United Nations: called the Sokovia Accords, it will create an oversight agency that will attempt to provide the governmental accountability that has been lacking since SHIELD collapsed two years previously.
For Tony Stark, the development provides the chance for absolution: already guilty about his role in the Ultron incident, he has a chance encounter with a State Department employee, Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), who doubles as a grieving mother (her son opted to do charity work in Sokovia, and paid for that decision with his life) and who helps to inadvertently convince him that being forced to be held accountable is the right step to take. And then there’s personal absolution, as well; with Iron Man still remaining an-ever-more important part of his life, Pepper Potts has decided the only thing she can do is leave both Iron Man and Tony Stark behind.
Unfortunately for him, not everyone agrees. When Steve Rogers, the moral center of the Avengers, insists that signing the Accords is the dead-wrong thing to do, Tony finds himself becoming the dogged, inexorable salesman for the UN’s pitch – exactly the opposite position that either one of them would have taken at the outset of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s maddeningly frustrating for Stark – just when he’s finally managed to live up to Captain America’s impossible standards, the man that Howard Stark thought so much of has now become the failure -the one to place his individual needs ahead of the collective unit.
Even worse is the fallout from Cap’s stubbornness. When he and half of their teammates go rogue, failing to sign on to the new law but still insisting on fighting threats to humanity in the same old way, Iron Man is tasked with hunting them down and bringing them back in – a mandate that forces him to recruit some new enhanced individuals to help fill the vacant slots. The main candidate on his list is the teenage Peter Parker (Tom Holland), who has already decided that the only responsible thing to do with the superpowers that he’s just recently been granted is to try and help make his neighborhood in Queens a safer, better place. This mentality is precisely what convinces Tony that this so-called Spider-Man has what it takes to be a superhero – and reaffirms him on the path that he’s chosen to take in this brewing civil war.
The mission, it turns out, ends up being only partially successful: most of the rebelling Avengers are detained in a maximum-security, state-of-the-art prison like a bunch of superpowered terrorists, and one of his allies ends up betraying him, heading on over to Cap’s side of the Sokovia divide when all is said and done. Worse still, his longtime friend and brother-in-arms, War Machine, winds up being paralyzed from the waist down as a result of the two rival Avengers teams’ clashing. Never has doing the right thing been so disastrous for Tony.
But not even this represents hitting rock-bottom for Iron Man. At Civil War’s climax, he finds out that the man responsible for both of his parents’ deaths is none other than the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), and even though he understands that the assassin was under Hydra-perpetrated mind control when carrying out the hit, he simply doesn’t care – getting a chance to finally have some sort of closure in regards to his father, coupled with seeing surveillance camera footage of the murders firsthand, is enough to make him dump any sort of newfound moral consideration for a long-standing personal vendetta (even if he didn’t know he was even harboring that vendetta). And when Captain America attempts to defend his erstwhile friend from Iron Man’s rage, Tony is perfectly willing to kill him, too – anything to get to Bucky Barnes.
Combining their strengths, the two supersoldiers are ultimately able to destroy Iron Man suit’s power source, leaving Stark lying helpless on the ground and impotent in his rage. It’s an emotional nadir that he’s forced to take back with him to New York, along with Captain America's abandoned shield.
Now more than ever, Iron Man is dominating Tony Stark’s life – a life that is newly dedicated to government service, generally, and personal redemption, specifically.
Do you think Iron Man’s character arc is the most interesting aspect of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Do you feel like it was short-changed in Captain America: Civil War? Be sure to let us know in the comments.