Tony Stark: A character arc for the ages

Outside of Rocky Balboa and Anakin Skywalker from “Star Wars,” few characters have had as much screentime to grow and change as Tony Stark.

Of course there’s the obvious point of how Stark, played throughout the series by Robert Downey Jr., went from being a smart but rather selfish businessman to being a person who helps protect the world. however, the journey the character takes and the lessons learned are very layered and interesting to look at.

Like most things, the best place to start when looking at a character is the beginning.

First Iron Man, then a hero

While being held as a captor and forced to develop weapons for terrorists, something changes for Stark, but it’s not simply a billionaire playboy having a wake-up call. It’s more about a person who’s had something within himself all along and having that be brought out.

In the cave, Stark doesn’t have a 180 and become a new person, instead the person who he always was is revealed. What we find out during Stark’s time as a prisoner is he was more or less coasting through life, having great abilities but missing a purpose. Not only do these scenes in the cave display Stark’s skill as a genius, it also shows that he cares about the world and wants to do good but hasn’t put two and two together yet, despite his brilliance.

His own near-death experience and seeing Yinsin killed results in him taking a major step forward.

It is a single step, though, allowing for more development in the next few films. That development comes from Stark’s shift in worldview.

Both “Iron Man” and “Iron Man 2” feature conflicts very personal to Tony. As a result, it means that while Stark is trying to use his tech to make the world a better place, it still is through mainly his own perception.

The first two movies have to do with Stark correcting mistakes, sometimes out of guilt, and it ultimately leads to some breakdowns for the character, specifically when his friend James Rhodes takes one of his suits.

While the execution in “Iron Man 2” isn’t perfect, the movie does show Tony’s eyes being opened to the fact that the problems in the world are bigger than he is.

This is affirmed in the 2012 movie “The Avengers.” It’s especially noticeable in the argument between Tony and Steve Rogers, AKA Captain America.

In that scene Rogers tells Tony “the only thing you really fight for is yourself.” It’s an important line and one that Tony has a hard time rebutting because for all the good work he’s tried to do so far, Stark has mostly been in rather personal conflicts.

Courtesy Marvel Studios

This is of course followed up by the final battle where Tony fully realizes his responsibility as a hero and risks his life to destroy the invaders. It’s a sequence that completes the first part of Tony’s arc, where he goes from a person fighting for his own reasons, as positive as they may be, to being a true defender of the Earth with a better understanding of what that means.

Prepping for Doomsday

The first part of Tony’s development was good, but the second half, through the events of “Infinity War,” is where things really get good.

I’ll start by saying that “Iron Man 3” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron” aren’t my favorite Marvel movies, but after seeing “Infinity War,” I have a new appreciation.

“Iron Man 3” is partially about Tony affirming his status as Iron Man, and how that means more than just the armor he wears. However, more importantly, the film details Tony’s worry about the next attack.

In “Iron Man 3,” out of concern for another alien invasion, Tony builds several suits, constructed for nearly every situation. This “Iron Legion” was the first example of Tony knowing something was coming, and it’s continued in “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”

This moment shows exactly how his character has progressed:

At first glance, the events in “Iron Man 3” and “Age of Ultron” make it seem like Tony’s drive to work on projects, mixed with post-“Avengers” trauma and his somewhat reckless nature resulted in the Iron Legion and the Ultron program. However, it all ran deeper than that.

Tony knew something was going on. He didn’t know Thanos was behind it, but being the genius that he is, he knew that there were more, specific threats lurking. For all the stress he put on himself in “Iron Man 3” and the obvious disaster that the Ultron program was, Tony’s logic made a lot of sense when looking at the series after watching “Infinity War.”

These character traits were brought over very well in the film “Captain America: Civil War.” In the movie, the United Nations has introduced a document putting the Avengers under their direction, as several countries have grown weary of the super heroes operating with no supervision or oversight.

During initial debates on the accords, Tony says he feels there should be some oversight to the Avengers, because there appears to be a lack of checks and balances on the unit. Additionally, he says if the accords aren’t agreed to, members of the Avengers could be forced to shut down in a rather ugly way by government agencies.

Courtesy Marvel Studios

This is an important aspect, and one that’s repeated by Tony later during a confrontation with Captain America. In that moment Tony says he’s trying to keep Captain America from “tearing the Avengers apart.”

The statement, I think, is two-fold. Obviously there’s the conflict that is likely to occur between friends. But on top of that, it’s also another look into Tony’s view on the necessity of the Avengers as a whole.

Over the last several years in the movie’s universe, the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division was dismantled while the Iron Legion and Ultron programs didn’t work out, especially the latter. As a result, the one factor still in place to defend Earth was the Avengers, and they were now without Hulk and Thor for the time being.

Because he knew another threat was eventually going to come, Tony was just as desperate to keep the Avengers as a whole because it would still be a faction to defend the planet.

Cursed with Knowledge

Everything that Tony’s character arc had been building to arrived in “Infinity War.” From having his eyes opened and finding a real purpose for his intellect, to expanding his horizon of being a hero beyond his personal conflicts, and finally going to great lengths with the goal of defending Earth against the next threat.

There are a few great examples of this in “Infinity War,” with the first being when Bruce Banner and Dr. Stephen Strange warn Tony about the oncoming threat. In response, Stark’s first words are “this is it.”

His thought process about an oncoming attack was proven right, and it was just as dangerous as he had expected it to be. This continues in another scene where Tony tells Dr. Strange that Thanos has been in “his head for six years since he sent an army to New York.”

What’s most interesting about Tony’s character development, though, is how it relates to another character in the movie. As more is revealed in “Infinity War,” it turns out Tony’s character arc over the films is quite similar to the person he’s been trying to fight against all along.

During the third “Avengers” we learn how Thanos realized there was a grave threat in the future, and began seeking ways to prevent it from happening. In doing so, people were hurt, and Thanos himself was pushed to the limits. Sound familiar?

Tony Stark Defeated
Courtesy Marvel Studios

Thanos tells Tony during their battle that Stark isn’t “the only one cursed with knowledge.” After defeating Iron Man in combat, Thanos says he respects Tony, and it’s very possible he made such a statement because he saw some of himself in Stark.

Tony’s character arc is expected to conclude in “Avengers Endgame” and the events of “Infinity War” leaves the door open for some great final development. If Thanos is defeated by the combined forces of the remaining Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy, Tony might just be able to lift that “curse” of knowledge.

Hopes are high right now for a positive resolution to Tony’s character because of how well he’s been handled over the course of so many films. When looking back as a whole, his character arc is told consistently and is always intriguing based on the events of the previous installment.

Directors and writers including Jon Favreau, Joss Whedon, Shane Black, along with Anthony and Joe Russo, deserve tremendous credit for bringing the character to the screen in such a great way for so many years. As does Robert Downey Jr., who has portrayed Iron Man in each film.

Tony Stark is now a household name character thanks to these creative efforts, and for all the quips he makes and cool moments he has, the best thing about Iron Man is his development on screen.

Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

2 thoughts on “Tony Stark: A character arc for the ages”

  1. Amazing post, Matthew! I love Tony and I’m happy to see someone write about his arc in a way that is deserving. I can’t wait to see where it goes in Endgame.

    Liked by 1 person

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