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Closure after ‘Endgame’: Proof that Tony Stark Has a Heart

‘Avengers: Endgame’ still
Robert Downey Jr. (left) stars as Tony Stark/Iron Man in “Avengers: Endgame.”

This review contains major spoilers for "Avengers: Endgame."

It isn't hyperbolic to say that "Avengers: Endgame,” directed by the Russo brothers, may be the biggest cinematic event of all time. It isn't a perfect movie, but at the end of the day, "Endgame" is a love letter to the fans who have stuck with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) through its 11 years and 22 films. A major reason for its success is its treatment of the MCU's founding member, Iron Man. When Robert Downey Jr. first donned the hot-rod red-and-gold colors of the armored Avenger in Jon Favreau's 2008 film, he was only a few years removed from rehab, and Iron Man was far from Marvel's best-known character. Needless to say, Marvel Studios took a risk when it used Iron Man as a launch pad for an unprecedented network of interconnected films that comprise its cinematic universe. So why Iron Man? Marvel had sold its rights to most of its iconic characters: Hulk was with Universal, Spider-Man with Sony, and X-Men and the Fantastic Four were with Fox. Starting a cinematic universe, an unprecedented feat, on a character most mainstream audiences hadn't been exposed to, was risky to say the least. But despite all these improbabilities, it's now impossible to fathom the MCU without its signature "genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist." With 10 films featuring Iron Man, Marvel has carefully constructed Tony Stark's journey, setting the stage for "Endgame" to leave audiences with a compelling and satisfying conclusion for the superhero that started it all.

Favreau's 2008 origin film introduces "Iron Man" to audiences with a redemption arc. Tony indulges in a reckless lifestyle, wrapped in a cocoon of high-glamour, and dodging the real world implications of his weapon manufacturing company. But Tony's mindset is shaken when he's taken hostage; he, along with fellow captive Yinsen (Shaun Toub), build the first Iron Man suit to escape, but Yinsen sacrifices himself for Tony to survive. Wracked with guilt, Tony uses these experiences to refocus his attentions: He builds a new rendition of the Iron Man suit to launch a vigilante campaign to destroy Stark Industries weapons that have landed in the wrong hands. This sets the precedent for Tony's character in future films, including "Avengers: Endgame.” Technology is his first line of defense against adversity — just as he built his first suit to escape terrorist captivity, he takes control of scenarios whenever he can. But it's also hard for him to resist the credit for his heroic actions, so much so that at the end of "Iron Man,” he reveals to the world a now iconic catchphrase, "I am Iron Man.” As a character, Tony Stark blows existing genre tropes out of the water. Previous superhero films (Donner's "Superman" and Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy) used secret identities as major plot points, so from the outset, audiences knew Tony's arc would be unique.

From the egotistical character we learned to love in "Iron Man,” Tony is able to grow in "The Avengers.” He has to make concessions to operate in a group larger than himself. Perhaps the key exchange in the film is an argument between Iron Man and Captain America, in which Captain America says, "I've seen the footage — the only thing you really fight for is yourself.” This exchange sets up Iron Man's sacrifice in the film's climax when he flies a nuclear warhead into space, risking his own life to save Manhattan. This scene fulfills Tony's arc both in "The Avengers" and his two prior standalone films. He learns to make the bigger play, putting his own desires aside to a degree that Captain America (and the audience) doubted he ever would. More than anything, it suggests there's more motivating his character than ego and guilt.

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Tony's defining heroic moment is quickly followed by downfall, however, as he suffers debilitating psychological trauma from his brush with death. This trauma brings out the worst of his overbearing character. In "Avengers: Age of Ultron,” for instance, Tony operates out of the fear that one day, the Avengers can't hold their own anymore. He copes with that fear the only way he knows how: hiding behind technological creations. However, for the first time, Tony's technology fails him, and his attempt at A.I. inadvertently develops into the villainous “Ultron.” The guilt Tony suffers over the repercussions of such a failure damages his mindset (using technology to seize control), and this makes him so eager to control the Avengers in "Captain America: Civil War.” Tony's battered ego becomes desperate — he must be proven right in "Civil War" — but these hot-headed emotions ultimately leave him defeated, representing his new low.

So why did audiences still root for Iron Man in "Avengers: Endgame" despite these setbacks? Sentimentality over seeing the godfather figure of the MCU back in action is surely a part of it. But leave it to Marvel to pick up his character arc after "Civil War" and redeem Tony Stark for a second time — this time by exploring the theme of fatherhood. There's Tony's guilt over never mending the battered relationship with his father, his mentorship with Peter Parker (Spider-Man), and in “Endgame,” the introduction of his daughter in "Avengers: Endgame.”

First, "Endgame" builds off earlier films in the MCU ("Iron Man 2"), which painted a strained relationship between Tony and his father, Howard. "Civil War" reveals that Tony's (unknowingly) final, bitter interaction with his father scarred Tony forever with the guilt over never having been able to tell his father that he loved him and appreciated everything he'd done. So with time travel a possibility in “Endgame,” the Russo brothers give Tony a moment with his father in the 1970s, immediately before Tony was born. The caveat, however, is that they should somehow converse without Howard ever knowing he's talking with his son from the future, since such a revelation would break the timeline continuity. This allows for an innocent and surprisingly open exchange between two eccentric innovators who were not able to express affection as father and son. What makes that moment so emotional is that they're not bound by the stress of their past relationship — they're two fathers (or father-to-be in Howard's case) worried about failing their children. Tony worries about losing his daughter in his new quest, and Howard is anxious about being a father at all — he doesn't want a son to become like him because "the greater good has rarely outweighed my own self-interests.” Of course, the child Howard ends up having is Tony, so Howard's doubts parallel Captain America's comments in "The Avengers" and again, Tony is set up to make the big team-play at the climax of "Endgame.” Tony's able to connect with his father in this ephemeral moment because being a father himself gives him new perspective on why Howard neglected him as a child. On the other hand, Tony's able to forgive both his father for his lack of support, and himself for never having the courage to take the first step toward reconciliation. As Tony departs, he hugs and thanks his father, finds some much needed closure to fill his biggest emotional void.

Tony's relationship with Peter Parker (Spider-Man) marks another major step in developing his parental journey. Considering Tony's troublesome relationship with his father and the death of Peter Parker's Uncle Ben, it feels natural for Stark to want to mentor Peter in "Spider-Man: Homecoming," which unfolds two years before "Endgame" begins. This budding relationship presents Tony with the opportunity to correct some of his father's mistakes and build Peter into a better version of himself. He shows parental concern for Parker when he takes the Spider-Man suit away from him, advising him "If you're nothing without the suit, you shouldn't have it.” Tony's overly protective behavior echoes lessons he had to learn himself in previous films, particularly when he was forced to succeed without his armor in "Iron Man 3.” He even places parental control on Peter's suit, which is noticeably more technological than previous iterations, to parallel Stark's Iron Man armors. Still, Tony restrains from showing too much care — in one hilarious scene in "Homecoming,” Tony reaches past Peter to open the car door, which Peter interprets as a hug: "It's not a hug, I'm just getting the door for you." Their relationship develops further in “Infinity War,” where Tony and Peter fight side by side for most of the film. When Peter turns to dust in Tony's arms at the end of "Infinity War,” Tony feels immeasurably guilty: There's no suit he could have built, no technology he could have used, that could have stopped his mentee from dying. This guilt is what ultimately convinces Tony to rejoin the Avengers in "Endgame,” just as he was plagued by survivor's guilt "Iron Man" after Yinsen died. Therefore, when Peter Parker returns in "Avengers: Endgame,” Tony's first instinct is to hug him, just as a father would with a returning child — it's uncontrollable and something Tony wasn't able to do with his own father before. This reunion is a reference to the faux hug played for jokes in "Homecoming" and represents how far Tony has come in caring for others and displaying that care.

The final chapter of Tony's second redemption involves his new family in "Avengers: Endgame.” The audience learns that Tony now has a daughter with his wife in the beginning of the film, fulfilling the quiet family life that always seemed out of reach for him (he discusses this impossible dream in "Avengers: Age of Ultron"). Tony's new loved ones not only raise his stakes, but are also a compelling way to test his dedication to change for the greater good. All other Avengers take up the quest to reverse Thanos' “snap” in "Avengers: Infinity War," which had decimated half the life in the universe, out of a sense of morality, having nothing else to lose, or wanting to regain something they lost.

But because Tony has thrived after the snap, he's reluctant to rejoin the Avengers. He's driven not by a need to protect his ego now, but to protect his family, and this new interest compounds some of Tony's fatal flaws from previous films. He's stubborn in refusing to even contemplate rejoining the Avengers because there's too much at risk for him. Therefore, Tony's sacrifice at the end of "Endgame" is both sorrowful and cathartic. It's a beautiful moment because it completes his redemption arc — audiences have seen how this character is capable of acting in the greater good in "The Avengers,” but they have also seen him fall to treacherous depths in recent films and doubt if he's capable of returning to form. And now, despite higher stakes, Tony finds a way to come back and deliver. He gives up seeing his daughter again, which is particularly poignant because he knows firsthand how difficult it is to grow up with an absent father. But this decision is all the more meaningful because he learned to forgive his father, and hopes his daughter may also understand one day. He's come far from his selfish but understandably protective self in the beginning of "Endgame,” when he feared conceding anything to cover other characters' losses. His final words as he uses the Infinity Gauntlet to decimate Thanos' army, "I am Iron Man," is not only a homage to the iconic line from his 2008 film, but also symbolizes how far this character has come from that moment 11 years ago. While Tony first used that line to find public glory in vigilantism, he's now put in a situation where he has given up everything to save his mentee, and sacrifices the most emotional fulfillment he's ever strived for in life (his family) to save the world anyway.

Tony's fitting sacrifice in "Avengers: Endgame" bookmarks a 10-picture journey, which is the most films that audiences of the MCU have spent with one iteration of a character. To put the magnitude of Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man into perspective, Christian Bale was Batman for three films, Christopher Reeve was Superman for four, and only Hugh Jackman's Wolverine comes close with nine appearances. But emotional connection to characters takes more than just exposure. Marvel took the patience to craft characters that audiences understand, so that as they progressed, their development felt believable and relatable. With 10 films of this character development, Marvel has concocted poignant plotlines for Iron Man. The character who once found meaning in life by claiming recognition of being Iron Man has come so far by "Endgame": He's found meaning in forgiveness, in the importance of being a father, and in the power of sacrifice. As "Avengers: Endgame" cleans up Box Office records (currently the 5th highest grossing film of all time in only its second week), it's easy to attribute this success to its sheer scale or the over-the-top action, but "Endgame" succeeds with fans because it's proof that Tony Stark has a heart.

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