Stark in Stasis

Change in outlook lies at the heart of the MCU. But can its heroes affect real change when they’re most often concerned with protecting the status quo?

In terms of story, the biggest victim of the film’s muddled military approach is the character of Tony Stark. Take, for instance, the early scene in which a reporter questions him about his weapons contract with the military. In response, Stark comments on the media’s lack of reporting on military-funded projects in areas like crops and healthcare, a deflection that turns him, and the film, into mouthpieces for the American government.

Whether or not one has qualms about propagandist throwaway lines, inserting this exchange has a negative effect on the narrative. The film’s own attempts to contrast Stark with Ho Yinsen — whose life-saving use of technology is part of Stark’s awakening — are undercut, given that Stark already seems to use his military money for healthcare. In effect, Stark learns little he didn’t already know from Yinsen’s life-saving actions. The film seeks to turn a heartless war profiteer into a humanitarian. However, Stark taking pride in his ostensibly “good” military contracts serves to dilute and lessen his journey, the way Han Solo shooting second in Star Wars dilutes his eventual turn to selflessness.

This problem is further exacerbated when Stark decides to cease arms manufacture. His decision is rooted in whom his weapons are sold to, as opposed to his weapons being sold at all. Stark is given enough reason to hold his company accountable, but neither he, nor the film, hold accountable the real-world military forces he enables in the process.

Marvel’s Vague Villains

The Ten Rings terrorist militia — who speak an assortment of languages, from Arabic, Urdu and Pashto to Dari, Mongolian and Russian — have no discernible cultural or geographical origin, and thus, no discernible politics either. While they refer to Stark as “the most famous mass murderer in the history of America,” the film fails to specify who used Stark’s weapons for murder, against whom, and the reasons these militants retaliate against American military interests.

In the film’s geopolitical context, to rob the villains of clear objectives is to rob the premise of its full potential. The violence Stark’s weapons are used for is never fully contextualized, because painting a clear picture of the villains and their motives would mean portraying the U.S. military destruction they push back against. Therefore, Stark’s own remorse and reckoning — the very forces driving the film — have little dramatic grounding.

This lacking political framing plays counter to Iron Man’s seemingly “real world” setting. The film’s texture is real, but its politics are a fantasy, concocted to paint American military power as a neutral (if not necessary) default, in a world where non-specific foreigners and selfish billionaires bear the all responsibility of war.

Even so, this responsibility, as it pertains to Stark’s atonement, is only ever framed as power fantasy. Stark separates villains from civilians using artificial intelligence; he depends entirely on algorithmic facial recognition to determine, unilaterally, who lives or dies. Rather than an alternative to military power, Stark is merely framed as a complimentary force. He is positioned (at times, through the film’s own dialogue) as carrying out what the military should, but hasn’t been granted approval to.

Stark delights in righteous displays of violence and technological might, in ways that are at odds with his character arc. There’s little remorse to be found when punching bad guys to upbeat metal seems so indulgent.

The Long Game 

Iron Man features moments of reflection a-plenty, usually between Stark and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and in ways later Marvel films seldom do. However, the film doesn’t stop to let Stark reflect on the irony of trying to rid the world of weapons by creating new ones. Obadiah Stane even states this irony outright, but before Stark has a moment to consider his words, Stane is killed in an explosion.

The film regularly fails to frame its own politics in an honest light. However, this ends up a surprisingly solid foundation for Marvel’s long-term narrative, even if by accident. Many of the things early Marvel films fail to consider or contextualize are woven into the text of later entries. They’re dramatized, in retrospect, as mistakes made by Tony Stark.

Iron Man sees Stark, and the Marvel universe at large, identifying a problem but failing to provide a concrete solution. In the process, the film unwittingly sets up one of modern pop culture’s most interesting long-term stories, in which Stark (as well as teammate and eventual rival Captain America) struggle to find satisfying answers to the problems of responsibility plaguing modern geopolitics. The rest of the series builds admirably on this thread of Stark as a problem solver who creates new problems. However, it also magnifies the narrative flaws set into motion by a series built on propaganda.

Eventually, even with its muddled, military-fawning foundation, the Marvel Cinematic Universe does, to some degree, begin to course-correct, even though it circles back around to this problem in Captain Marvel. As the years go by, the MCU wrestles with ideas of militarism and intervention with increasing complexity — but has the series gone far enough? That remains to be seen.

Despite finding himself in another hapless predicament — trapped in space the way he was once trapped in a cave — the Tony Stark of Avengers: Endgame is no longer the Tony Stark of Iron Man. The eleven years and twenty films in between saw an array of evolutions in outlook, scope and style across the shared Marvel chronology, making this vast difference feel like a singular journey, cobbled together from seemingly disparate franchises.

In the end, for better or worse, Marvel will have kept audiences invested for over a decade, as the world at large continues to wrestle with similar questions of power ad infinitum. We’re in the endgame now.


Expanded from an article published April 2, 2018.

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