Tony Stark. The man who would go head-to-head against the would-be god, the mad Titan, Thanos. Tony Stark is arguably the protagonist of the entire Infinity Saga. He is the man who kickstarted the entire MCU from the depths of a cave. Throughout his whopping 10 films in the MCU, Tony has seen a level of character development that has rarely, if ever, been seen before on film.
While Stark has worked incredibly hard to become a hero capable of the kind of self-sacrifice he displays in the Avengers films, it hasn’t always been that way. Even after the Battle of New York and Ultron, Tony still had a tremendous amount of growth that he needed to do before stepping up to the biggest fight of his life. But whether he’s trapped in a cave by armed men with shrapnel racing through his body or stranded in space after losing the biggest fight of his life, Tony, for better or worse, is Iron Man.
When audiences first met Tony Stark, they were introduced to an arrogant, self-obsessed, womanizing billionaire who wouldn’t even take the time to accept an award at a casino he was already gambling in. After his fated trip to Afganistan, however, Tony gets a real taste of the toll his family and lifestyle have extracted from innocent people all around the world. Tony is, possibly for the first time, truly aware of the weight of the Stark name and business.
After losing Yinsen and escaping captivity, Tony dedicates his life to making up for the mistakes of both his past and his family’s. The rest of the film sees Tony literally beat down the corrupt image of Stark Industries’ past in the form of Obadiah Stane. Stark flies up to new heights that the old school Stane just can’t manage. Shortly thereafter, Tony announces to the world for the first time, “I am Iron Man.”
In Iron Man 2, audiences see a very different side of Tony. While he hides from the sad reality of his fate behind dramatic entrances to the Stark Expo and flashy appearances in Congress, in which he compares giving the Iron Man suit to the government to slavery and/or prostitution (depending what state you’re in), the sad truth is that Tony is dying. And he knows it.
Throughout the second film, Tony is concerned with the Stark legacy. We see this illustrated as he donates his art collection to the Boy Scouts of America. We see it as he hands his company over to Pepper and a prototype Iron Man suit to Rhodey. The Stark legacy is responsible for not only what inevitably saves Tony from his fate, but also the birth of the film's antagonists.
Going into Avengers, Tony is feeling awfully confident. He’s learned from his past, overcome death multiple times, and he’s two for two versus the only real threats he’s met since becoming Iron Man. Tony has learned that he doesn’t have to do everything alone, but that doesn't mean he’ll work with anyone he doesn’t trust.
This is where both the main friction and the most growth comes for Tony in Avengers. He is forced to acknowledge that he may not always have the answer. If coming into contact with people like Thor and Cap weren’t enough of a shock to the system, delivering a nuke through a wormhole and narrowly, luckily surviving will have some lasting effects.
By the time we see Tony in Iron Man 3, it is pretty clear that he’s experiencing PTSD. He can barely stand to be in public. He’s having panic attacks. He can’t sleep. Tony just isn’t acting like the man he used to see himself as. Stark has finally been served his slice of humble pie and it’s much larger than he could’ve ever anticipated. He’s flown right into the void, and somehow, through pure coincidence, he’s managed to escape with his life and return to the world.
That world he returns to, however, has become a whole lot larger. And Tony is just one small man. Iron or not. Tony has learned that he is his own power, but he’s also cripplingly aware that his power isn’t enough. Just like his father, Tony begins to focus his attention on those who will come after him. Planting little hero seeds everywhere. Through his relationship with Harley, we begin to see Tony work through his issues with his father, and with becoming one.
During the events of Avengers: Age Of Ultron, we see the culmination of everything that has been weighing on Tony’s mind since the Battle of New York. The good, and, unfortunately for Tony and the world as a whole, the bad. Tony creates Ultron as a direct result of his fears and paranoia, and ultimately, it costs him and many others.
It is then Tony’s hopes, in the form of the newly-realized Vision, that ultimately save the day. It’s important to note that while Tony and Cap have butt heads before, this is the first time their disagreement has ever come blows. This is a fact that will be important moving forward.
A lot has changed for Tony in the years since he announced to the world that he is, in fact, Iron Man. For instance, when the Sokovia accords are pushed on the Avengers, Tony accepts that they shouldn’t be allowed free reign to solve the problems of the world. This essentially puts himself into the exact indentured servitude he fought against in Iron Man 2. We also see that Tony has gone out of his way to seek and advise the young Peter Parker.
Tony has reconciled the differences between what he thought being a superhero was and the reality of the situation. The reality is that, when Tony acts to protect those around him, oftentimes many innocent lives are put on the line. It’s important to note that Tony is the only Avenger confronted by a relative of a victim.
Tony’s appearances in Spider-Man: Homecoming kicks off what’ll be referred to in this article as the fatherhood trilogy. Tony has gone through a lot of growth to get to this point emotionally. He’s come to terms with his life ending multiple times. He’s come to terms with the relationship he shared with his father and he’s begun to transcend the limits his father would ever reach as an engineer, a Stark, and a human being.
Through programs like Damage Control, fans see Tony build on his commitment to accountability. Meanwhile, through Tony’s relationship with Peter, fans begin to see Tony dabble in the waters of fatherhood. While Howard was cold and distant as a father, Tony begins to display how loving and involved he can be. He knows who he is, without question, and he knows that Peter can be better, if he’d just listen to Iron Papa.
Avengers: Infinity War is a film all about fathers and the price their children pay to endure them. There are two very distinct types of fathers on screen in the form of Thanos and Tony. Thanos’ toxic, cruel, distant, and abusive parenting style can be seen not only as a foil to Tony’s own supportive, nurturing, and present parenting style we see him display with Peter, but also strikingly similar to Howard Stark’s parenting style. Taken to an extreme, of course.
It’s no mistake that both Tony and Thanos lose their children in this fight. It’s also certainly not a coincidence that Peter’s dusting is both the longest and most gutwrenching. Tony may have secured the Stark legacy with Pepper in charge of Stark Industries, but he's just watched his legacy turn to dust before his eyes.
Well, here it is. The end so many, including Tony himself, have been fighting against for so long. The death of Iron Man. With three simple words, Tony saves the lives of everyone in the MCU. Tony, like many great fathers, leaves his children prepared to take on whatever the world may have in store for them. He’s given Peter an unattainable goal: Be better than I was. He’s seemingly given Harley the same responsibility. To Morgan, he leaves behind the memory of a powerful father truly devoted to his children. And to the MCU as a whole, Tony gave something much more powerful. A new beginning.
He also solved time travel. Just saying.