Maybe Tony Stark died at the exact right moment. Maybe the spring of 2019 was the last time it was safe out there for a billionaire, and if he had survived into the current Democratic primary, which has made billionaires as much a target as President Trump, he would have come to understand Harvey Dent’s famous quote in The Dark Knight.
It’s almost hard to remember a time when Iron Man was a C-list superhero, but he was. He was essentially a runner-up, a superhero whose best known storyline was the one where he was too much of a drunk to keep being a superhero. But the vagaries of Hollywood are what they are, and Marvel Studios ended up with only the rights to their B and C-list heroes, and so they made an Iron Man movie. The rest, as they say, is history.
But it’s a weird history, one warped by the fact that Tony Stark is the founding member of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That doesn’t reflect his status in the comics (or at least it didn’t, until recently) and it has led to a strange and unforeseen – and, I think, largely unacknowledged – imbalance in the MCU. One that, now that Tony is dead, can finally be corrected.
See, Tony Stark is a billionaire weapons manufacturer. And he’s not even a self-made billionaire – he inherited his money. Yes he’s brilliant, yes he’s a genius, but Tony Stark, in the words of Obama “didn’t build this.” In a lot of ways, Tony Stark is the embodiment of everything wrong with the world – a pampered rich kid who had everything handed to him, and whose money comes from the untold suffering of others.
It’s important to note that this wasn’t always Tony Stark’s thing. When Tony was first introduced in the 60s he was clearly a self-made man, a true American Dream type. But in 1970 his dad was introduced in a flashback, and while Howard Stark was left in the storage bin for most of the decade, in 1979 he came back out in a big way, and was retconned into all sorts of Marvel history. The addition of a dad was surely intended to bring some psychological drama to a character who had been pretty well exploited in stories, but removing Tony’s self-made aspect actually makes him kind of less likable on the whole. It reframes his experience creating the Iron Man armor – it’s maybe the first time he’s face with real hardship – but that reframing represents a shift in how America viewed itself. The self-made Tony Stark is a post-WWII artifact, a representation of soldiers coming home to the GI bill, moving into Levittown, making a new life. But the idea of Tony as heir represents an America distanced from the source of its own greatness. It’s real Gen X, a generation removed from the folks who survived the Depression and won the Last Good War. It’s an American generation that didn’t have to work for it.
That’s the Tony we got in the movies. He’s not a self-made guy, he’s a guy who has been handed everything. The question, then, becomes what he does with those things. What he does, I would argue, is not that great.
But even beyond that the fact that this scion son of an arms manufacturer is the biggest hero on the planet Earth is a fundamentally troubling foundation for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It was never great, but early on the films seemed interested in at least examining it. Tony gives up the weapons biz in Iron Man. In Avengers: Age of Ultron he is confronted directly with lives that have been destroyed by his weapons… but that’s basically where it ends. In Iron Man 3 Tony is still dealing with the consequences of his past actions, but this time they’re way more personal, more tied in with the way he behaved on a human-to-human level. That’s great, and I love Iron Man 3, but the decision to keep the Iron Man movies a trilogy means that Tony’s larger arc ends here.
He continues on film, of course – he’s a co-lead in Captain America: Civil War, and here his relationship with his dad gets examined a bit more. But again, it’s got nothing to do with anything larger than family dynamics, and by this point in the bigger MCU Tony Stark has been totally divorced from his troubling origins. There’s a lot more to say about Tony’s arc through Civil War, including how he and Steve Rogers flip perceived positions (one man being aligned with authority until he isn’t, the other man being a free-thinking outsider until he isn’t), but what’s most important is the way that billionaire Stark passes into a soft global heroism after that film.
Where Cap and his pals go on the run, Tony just ends up being a celebrated rich hero. It’s almost as if everybody forgets where his money came from, the blood on every dollar he has. His richness is not seen as a problem but rather a status to which someone like Peter Parker aspires.
The relationship between Peter and Tony is complicated by a number of things that are not related to the movies. For one, Robert Downey Jr is the star of the Marvel franchise, so he’s never going to be portrayed in a truly sinister way. For another, there’s the inherent concept that Peter Parker is a lower class kid who is always struggling, so there’s going to be this push-pull between them. Added to that is the father/son dynamic that is added in for the movies and you find yourself in a situation where their relationship isn’t the best place to question Tony’s role in the MCU.
Or is it? It feels like a huge missed opportunity that Peter, who struggles and lives among people who are struggling even more than he is, never confronts Tony about the moral implications of him being so rich while others are so poor. There are Stark charities – the Stark Relief Foundation and the September Foundation – but it’s not clear what Tony is really doing for the world with his billions beyond building killer robots and BARF systems. It’s unclear what Tony was worth post-Iron Man 3, but he’s certainly among the richest people alive and he has enough personal money that it’s no big deal to just mass produce Iron Man suits that each likely rival the cost of fighter jets. Paying off the loans of that class in Civil War was the billionaire equivalent of me giving a dollar to a guy begging on the corner.
So as the movies got to Avengers: Endgame all of Tony’s earlier moral conflicts are forgotten, and he’s become sort of this benevolent rich genius, fully disconnected from the source of his own wealth. But Endgame takes it a step further, and it returns Tony to his weapons manufacturing ways. I’ve complained about this movie plenty, but let me just say here that having Tony’s solution to the problem facing our heroes be recreating the universe’s deadliest weapon (he doesn’t even invent it) – and then using it! – is really erasing a decade of character growth. The fact that he dies while using it doesn’t mitigate this at all, in my opinion – the death doesn’t read as some kind of cosmic punishment for returning to his weapons-making ways, but rather as a beautiful sacrifice, turning this billionaire weapons heir into the Jesus Christ of the MCU.
(And by the way, the introduction of a daughter in that movie ensures that rather than the billions Stark has accumulated being distributed to the needy, it will stay within the Stark family)
But his death does offer the MCU a possibility, one we began to see dawn in Spider-Man: Far From Home and that perhaps can be further explored in Phase Four. While Tony’s death made him a martyr, Far From Home exposed a bit of the continuing darkness of Stark Industries – the way that Tony, as the owner of any big tech company does, took the work and inspiration of his employees and made it his own.
The retcon of BARF, making it a creation of Quentin Beck, is vital. Here’s the thing: there’s no way to become a billionaire that is ethical. There’s just simply no way to amass that much money without exploiting other people, and the way Stark treats Beck (and all the other ex-Stark employees who have joined him) shows this. It’s kind of played for laughs, but it’s important that the flashback to Stark renaming the tech in a humiliating way comes after his martyrdom.
At the end of Far From Home Spider-Man is framed, putting him in his classic comic book position as being seen as a public menace. The next film simply must acknowledge the fact that Happy Hogan needs to distance himself from Spider-Man, because Stark Industries has shareholders to think of, and working with a criminal looks bad. This is better for Spider-Man dramatically, but it also allows the MCU to begin moving away from its heroes all being essentially wards of a super rich guy.
Because that’s what the Avengers are – they’re living in a house Tony Stark paid for, using money he got from either his dad selling weapons or himself selling weapons. They’re wearing costumes paid for by Stark. They’re using tech Stark provides, flying in Quinjets Stark built. They’re hanging around on a campus full of faceless soldiers running drills, Tony Stark’s private army. All of the Avengers are trapped in a system of inherently morally corrupt billionaire money.
To be fair this is a system no one in the mainstream questioned when the first Avengers came out. The idea of Tony Stark bequeathing his personal tower to the Avengers felt… progressive?… at the time. But it’s 2019, and billionaires are no longer our benevolent friends, they’re more like our malevolent overlords. Peter paling around with a billionaire doesn’t seem aspirational, it seems like he’s selling out the neighborhood. It’s become clear that Tony Stark wasn’t bankrolling the Avengers simply out of generosity – having Stark Industries branding closely connected with the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes is a marketing boon. Imagine trying to be a tech company going up against any Stark subsidiary when their products are being used by the Avengers?
The events of Endgame, intended to put a little capper on the first three phases of the MCU, gives Marvel a perfect opportunity to find a new status quo for the heroes. Most of the original Avengers are off the table – Cap has retired, Thor is in space, Black Widow is dead and Hawkeye is about to get himself canceled in an ugly divorce. Hulk is still running around, but he’s always felt like the Avenger least tainted by Tony’s riches, even though they were Science Bros for a brief, meme’d moment. Now, with Tony dead and those heroes gone, there’s a chance to redefine the Avengers.
It does seem like Marvel is ahead of the curve on this. Their Phase Four plans are diverse, and many of the characters they’re bringing in – Ms. Marvel, Kate Bishop, Moon Knight – are far from the kinds of privileged characters that have defined the MCU so far.
Could the MCU present a truly progressive view of a superhero universe moving forward, one that isn’t overseen by a billionaire? Maybe, but there are still traps into which the MCU could fall. Black Panther, for instance, seems poised to become the new Tony Stark, at least when it comes to funding and technology for a new iteration of Avengers… but is the money from a monarchy all that much better than the money from a billionaire? I think Marvel has bent over backwards to make Wakanda politically palatable, but I’m never going to be in love with royalty, especially a royalty whose line of succession can still be decided by single combat in the 21st century.
The other big character for Phase Four is of course Captain Marvel, who brings in her own weird baggage as a member of the Armed Forces. Captain America dodged some of this, as his service was fully during WWII, but Carol Danvers doesn’t have a righteous war in her background. The fact that she was a test pilot and not, as far as I can tell, a combat pilot, helps a bit, but she still joined the military post-Vietnam! Maybe this is why Captain Marvel is set in the 90s – so that Carol wouldn’t have joined post-9/11.
I’ve been hearing rumors that The Eternals will be the pivotal film for Phase Four, setting up everything that follows; it’s hard to figure out what that movie will look like, politically, as the Eternals are a royal group defined by blood lineage, but I suspect that as with Asgard they’ll be so far removed from human affairs it won’t feel that weird. Could the Eternals be the bank for Avengers 3.0, using wealth accumulated over millennia?
What I’d actually love to see is an Avengers without a tower or a base or a Quinjet. I’d love to see some of the younger, fresher characters coming together when there is a necessity, not just being together on a campus all the time. Imagine an Avengers defined more by a group text chat than by a physical location, a team defined by the situation as opposed to being a glorified military group.
Taking the Avengers away from the billionaire’s toxic legacy and removing them from a paramilitary context would be a major way to make the MCU more progressive in a real way, not just in a marketing-driven diversity way. Honestly, what’s the point of bringing in characters of different races, gender identities and sexual orientations if they’re just going to be soldiers in the private army of yet another billionaire? The MCU, in this old man’s opinion, kind of peaked with Civil War, the movie that most directly confronted a lot of the troubling aspects of superhero stories, and that offered no pat answers at the end. I’d love to see the next phase pick up from there, and begin interrogating the inherent fascism in these characters.
But it doesn’t have to be done in a Watchmen way. I think there’s space to have the characters, especially the new ones and characters like the Falcon, a regular Joe who deals with PTSD, really explore this within themselves and amongst each other without cynicism. A new generation of heroes who rejects the militarization of the original Avengers would not only be fresh, but opens the door for lots of stories and conflicts. The characters refusing the easy allure of big money – whether from Stark Industries or Wakanda – makes them more appealing underdogs, and it takes them out of the sphere of influence of economics and politics. One of the big misses of the MCU so far is that we never got a real story featuring Cap’s post-Civil War Fugitive Avengers, operating without the endless coffers of Stark Industries.
I don’t blame the MCU for its worship of Tony Stark – it was a product of the times, and it was the result of the vagaries of licensing. But now the deck is cleared, and the people behind the scenes have the space to re-examine the vision of a superhero universe. As the world outside the movie theater changes, so should the world onscreen, especially a world that can represent our more positive and hopeful vision of how people exercise their power.
In the first three phases power was always gathered under the banner of the military and/or a billionaire. In Phase Four and Five the possibility exists for power to be distributed among a diverse group of heroes, working together in a version of the Avengers that is less hierarchical, that serves nothing but the greater good and that benefits only the world. Of course the question of what the greater good actually is will differ from hero to hero, which is part of what would make such a structureless structure so interesting from a storytelling perspective. With the dissolution of SHIELD the MCU got out from under direct military control. Now there’s a chance for the MCU to show a vision of a superhero world that has moved past billionaires.
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