The Avengers – most people in America can tell you at least a little bit about who they are, at least in their most well known incarnations that have been around in theaters for nearly ten years(!), and that’s really pretty amazing. Writers can always benefit from analyzing writing that’s successful and the most successful part of the franchise is undoubtedly its ability to craft memorable characters. So, as the Marvel Cinematic Universe builds towards the second touchstone movie in the franchise, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, we’re taking a look back at the first movie, Marvel’s The Avengers, to see what makes its characters so well defined. Today, we’re tackling Tony Stark.
Because it’s important to state biases I should note, before I begin, that I pretty much like Stark the least of the Avengers presented in this movie. That’s not to say that I don’t like him. I smile at his banter and I find him entertaining. But when I first watched the movie I suspected that he would begin to grate on me if I had to watch him solo and found that I was correct when I watched some of his stand-alone movies. I do like his character arc in this film but I don’t really love the character like a lot of people do. That said, his character arc in this film is really good.
Stark, as portrayed in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the only portrayal that matters for the purposes of this analysis by the by) is a genius weapons inventor turned general industrialist. His change of heart came after he was kidnapped by terrorists in Afghanistan and forced to escape by inventing the Iron Man power armor that he now uses to fight injustice. He claims to have privatized world peace. His ego is larger than the Hulk’s enraged form.
Like his friend Bruce Banner, Tony Stark’s conflict in The Avengers is character against himself. (And yes, one day soon I will be talking about what all the basic conflicts at the heart of writing are.) In Stark’s case it’s a conflict between his expectations for himself, rather than his actual personality. One half wants to continue to be the high-rolling, easy-street-walking, devil-may-care egotist he’s always been. The other half wants to be a superhero. Tony thinks he can be both but the fact is, the two halves are at odds.
We Meet Tony Stark
“Like Christmas, but with more me.” – Tony Stark
We are introduced to Tony when he’s completing Stark Tower, a massive testament to three things – Stark’s genius, as the whole thing runs of one of his arc reactors, his ego, in his comparing himself to a major religious icon, and his wealth and influence. These are the underpinnings of his character and we get them in less than fifteen seconds. Well done, Avengers. Well done.
As a side note, the choice of Christmas as the point of reference for Stark Tower is interesting. Why not the Fourth of July or, for something more in line with Stark’s character, a rock concert? Hang on to that thought for a bit.
Stark’s Starting Point
“Phil? Uh, his first name is Agent.” – Tony Stark
Stark’s biggest problem is that he’s lived an essentially selfish life up to the point he became Iron Man and, really, for a little while after he first donned the suit. He’s set himself a goal of being a hero but he doesn’t really understand what that means and his behavior towards most of the people around him is unbalanced.
We see this fairly clearly in the way he can’t seem to pay a straight compliment to Pepper and the way he spends most of the time he’s around Phil treating him like an annoyance at best and a nonperson at worst. And these are the people that Tony Stark really likes, the people who have done their best to help him become the hero he wishes to be. Our Anthony clearly still has a long way to go.
“Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.” – Tony Stark
In a choice that is at once odd and probably inspired, Tony actually drops out of The Avengers for a good tenish minutes to give other characters a chance to breath. He’s had two films to the one the other superheroes have and it lets us get a good idea who the more restrained characters – Bruce Banner and Steve Rogers – are before they have to deal with the louder and more bombastic characters of Tony Stark and Thor.
But almost as soon as Stark comes back his conflict is at the forefront. He starts a pointless fight with Thor that Captain America has to diffuse but then he turns around and leads the charge to find the Tesseract while also privately offering Phil Coulson the use of his private jet to visit an offscreen love interest. Both modes of Tony are at full blast and causing problems.
Ever the perceptive leader, Steve Rogers spots the hypocrisy in Tony’s claim to heroism and calls him on it, precipitating another conflict of a much different type. As a soldier and a veteran of actual war, Captain America knows that you can’t win the fights that mean something without suffering casualties. Steve recognizes that Tony’s in denial about what being Iron Man will cost him and tries to confront him about it but Stark weasels out by trying to make it Steve’s problem, not his.
After all, Tony Stark has always been smart enough, rich enough and, thanks to Iron Man, strong enough to solve his problems without ever having to give something up. What possible need could there be for him to consider giving something up for the greater good?
Ultimately, though, not all choices are in his hands.
When the brainwashed Agent Clint Barton and his squad attacks the Helicarrier Tony has to play hero again and keep the ship in the air. And he does save lives. Lots of them. But in the process Bruce Banner goes missing, Loki escapes… and Tony looses a friend.
“He was out of his league. He should have waited. He should have…” – Tony Stark
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan introduced the term Kobayashi Maru to the geek lexicon. For those not familiar, the Kobayashi Maru is a training scenario for Starfleet cadets and officers in the command branch of the fleet, in other words those seeking to eventually command ships of their own.
The set-up is thus: The cadet being tested is placed in command of a mission to patrol a demilitarized zone between the Federation and their bitter enemies, the Klingon Empire. On patrol they receive a distress call from a freighter called the Kobayashi Maru that has broken down in the neutral space between galactic superpowers. The cadet must decide if they will go and rescue the freighter, thus risking a breach of the peace, or leave the crew of the freighter there to die. If the cadet does send his ship in to rescue the Kobayashi Maru Klingons attack and destroy the trainee’s ship.
In the course of the movie we learn that the point of the scenario is to see how cadets react to a no-win scenario and to help them mentally prepare to face such a possibility in the future. We also learn that Kirk cheated, adjusting the programming in the scenario to make it possible to succeed, and Spock went through the Academy in the science branch and thus did not take the test. Neither one had really faced death. Ultimately both characters will face a real, life or death no-win scenario of their own and the outcome will mark them for the rest of their lives and become a touchstone of scifi literature.
I mention all this because out of all the Avengers in this film, there’s one who’s never faced a Kobayashi Maru before. Just like Kirk, Tony Stark didn’t believe in no win scenarios. Sure, Yinsen died when Stark first made his escape in Afghanistan but Tony hadn’t really been friends with him and he hadn’t really been Iron Man either. Tony thought being a hero meant never having to loose something again.
He was wrong.
Phil Coulson was Tony’s Kobayashi Maru. A wake up call to seriously consider the cost of the heroism Iron Man was supposed to embody. A reminder that Tony Stark could do everything right and still loose.
And Tony is still so very, very far from doing everything right. But at least he’s thinking about it. And Tony Stark thinks a lot faster than most.
Confrontation With Loki
“His name is Phil.” – Tony Stark
Stark begins his character’s transformation and the change in course almost immediately throws him in the face of Loki. Almost.
In the larger context of the Iron Man movies Tony has a habit of dropping into funks whenever things don’t go his way. And things didn’t go his way in a big way. So he goes off to brood after Nick Fury gives the team a little push. It takes Steve Rogers to snap him out of it and get him back on track. By example and by his own involvement Cap is making himself something of a thorn in Stark’s side, reminding Tony of his own failings in a way that makes him distinctly uncomfortable.
Steve also pushes him to get in Loki’s head and deduce his next move. Romanov and Loki may have the most similar skill-set but in terms of personality Stark and Loki are the most alike. That makes Stark Tower a fitting location for their showdown.
The confrontation between Tony Stark and Loki is interesting for any number of reasons but I’m just going to discuss two of them. First, Stark confronts Loki when he’s not in his heroic element, at least most of the time. All the other Avengers do.
Why? Well, I suspect it’s to emphasize the transformation going on inside of him. Stark’s never been a coward but, unlike Bruce Banner, he fully accepts the tools he has for the job. When he needs to put the hurt on baddies he does it with the Iron Man suit. But his current suit is busted and he needs time to get the new one ready and that means confronting Loki under conditions that aren’t optimal.
Stark’s never done this before. (As an aside, I like the fact that a major part of Iron Man 3 is Stark hacking it as a hero even without the armor.)
So in Stark’s willingness to confront Loki without his greatest resource at his disposal and without waiting for the rest of the Avengers to show up and make life a little easier we see a growing maturity in Stark’s behavior. He’s accepting risk as part of the job.
And why? Well, that brings me to the second thing that’s interesting. Tony’s trying to intimidate Loki, he actually uses the word “threaten” a couple of times. He plays up the overwhelming nature of the forces arrayed against Loki. As a former arms merchant, Stark knows a lot about the value of displaying overwhelming force against an opponent and he’s a natural salesman. He does everything he can to sell Loki on the overwhelming nature of the weapons at Earth’s disposal. And what are they?
Two of the best trained spies in the world, a man with breathtaking anger management issues, a demigod and the greatest soldier the world has ever known. Plus one more.
Tony Stark is nowhere on that list. Why? Is it because Stark was ashamed of himself for not protecting a friend and didn’t think he had anything to contribute? Possibly, but if so why bother going to Stark Tower at all? Did he feel his presence there was all the mention he needed to make? I don’t think so, he’s never passed on the opportunity to talk himself up before.
Instead, I’d suggest that Stark’s incredible high opinion of himself has been shaken. Oh, it will recover to be sure but, for the moment, he doesn’t really feel like a hero. His illusions of power and efficacy have been shattered and Phil Coulson, who’s actions objectively did little to directly hinder Loki, has risen to a place of prominence in his mind not through something he did but through the attitude he demonstrated. That’s fitting given Phil’s role in the story. More on Phil later, for now it’s important that during Tony’s confrontation with Loki he replaces himself with Coulson.
There’s a lot of other interesting things going on in the confrontation between Stark and Loki, not the least of which is Loki’s failure to dominate Stark’s mind, but from the perspective of Tony’s character arc the fact that he stuck his own neck out and did so in part because of the example of Phil Coulson are the salient points. The confrontation ends when Loki throws Stark out a window and the new generation of Iron Man armor goes after him, allowing Stark to take to the skies and grapple with the incoming alien menace.
“JARVIS, have you heard the tale of Jonah?” – Tony Stark
Once again the focus swings off of Stark as the Chitauri army fills the skies over Manhattan and a huge brawl breaks out. Stark is first on the scene and throws himself headfirst into holding the gap, a purpose he fills admirably.
Of note is the fact that from this point onwards Stark stops pushing back against the leadership of Steve Rogers. The two characters have grown to the point where they can no longer really serve for foils to each other and, to the movies credit, it doesn’t try and keep them in this role. Tony follows Steve’s orders both because he has a new understanding of what Captain America, who has lost many friends in past battles, has gone through and because Cap is clearly the man for the job. The only thing of note that happens regarding Stark’s character is when he and his electronic co-pilot JARVIS are trying to figure out how to take down the heavily armored Chituari sky creatures.
Taking Jonah as an inspiration is an interesting choice. The obvious reason would be the most famous part of that prophet’s story, his time in the belly of a great fish. But more interesting as a part of Stark’s character development is the fact that Jonah wound up in the water because he volunteered to be thrown overboard. Why?
Because he knew that the storm threatening to sink the ship he was on was caused by his presence. He knew that by leaving the ship he could save everyone else on board even though it might cost him his own life. Again, why is this important?
Well, I’ve asked you to hold on to a few thoughts during this analysis, I guess it’s time we tied them all together.
“I know just where to put it.” – Tony Stark
Over the course of the story Tony has compared himself to two religious figures, Jonah and Jesus, both of whom have self sacrifice as a component of their story. He’s also outright replaced himself with Phil Coulson when confronting Loki, and Phil is also a character who made a sacrificial stand during the course of events.
Now if only one of those comparisons had taken place we could say it was a coincidence. Christmas fits the theme of a tower of blazing lights. Stark was mad about Phil’s death. Jonah did go into the belly of a great fish and the leviathan Stark was fighting looked a lot like one as well. But all three together? That’s too much to be coincidence. Three is a number human beings like, three is the number of acts in the typical story, three is the number of times the comparison is made. Not accidentally. Deliberately.
Joss Whedon wrote this script and he’s an incredibly literate, articulate and artistic man. He knew the significance of the words he was putting in Tony’s mouth and he knew the picture they would paint. Tony isn’t serious when he compares lighting up Stark Tower to Christmas. He doesn’t want a religion built around Iron Man, although he probably wouldn’t mind being seen as a more conventional savior.
But when Phil dies it exposes something that Stark lacks and he’s trying to figure out what it is. He thinks Phil had it and as a result the humble Agent Coulson becomes the biggest thing in Stark’s mind. Thus for a moment Phil takes Stark’s place in the Avengers, at least in Stark’s opinion.
Finally, when JARVIS suggests Jonah isn’t a good role model Stark ignores it and treats the prophet as just that. He’s gone from not believing in heroes to recklessly following in their footsteps.
When world leaders deploy a nuke against the Chituari and threaten all of New York Tony Stark is a different man than he was at the beginning of the movie. He’s prepared to, as Steve Rogers put it, make the sacrifice play and lay down on the wire. Rarely do those who fail the Kobayashi Maru get a chance to redeem themselves. When Stark finds his he’s more than ready.
For a man pretty much defined by his ego and selfishness, it’s an incredible journey.
Of course a big part of what defines Stark’s journey is the constant presence of a man who has faced everything Stark hasn’t, and more than once. It’s ironic that Tony Stark spends most of the movie clearly of the opinion that Steve Rogers is naïve and out of touch but, when things go south, we find that it was really the other way around. While Iron Man is the most charismatic and charming of the Avengers, clearly it’s Captain America who is fit to lead them.
So next month let’s take a look at the man who’s struggle is one of the most relevant to the Avengers as a whole and the other characters individually. Come back in January and we’ll look at Captain Steve Rogers and the question of purpose.