“Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” – with four words Joss Whedon defined the character of Tony Stark for a generation. But it was never the words alone that transformed a b-level character into a worldwide icon and the anchor for a groundbreaking interconnected cinematic universe. It was the man inside the armor delivering those lines. While it’s easy to forget, eleven years and twenty-two films in, back in 2008 Marvel Studios was far from a sure thing. Marvel had sold their most successful characters (Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four) to other studios and was left to make their own movies with their second tier. Robert Downey Jr. made it work. He incarnated Tony Stark perfectly, seamlessly blending cockiness and charisma, arrogance and vulnerability, snark and heart. He presented a character who resonated and who meant something. He carried the world of comic books into the mainstream on his armored shoulders, all but single-handedly paving the way for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. No matter how much brilliance followed in his wake, this is why Tony Stark will always be Marvel’s cinematic masterpiece to me.
“I am Iron Man.” – Tony Stark, Iron Man (2008)
At the conclusion of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, Tony Stark reveals to the world he’s Iron Man. It was a brilliant if unexpected moment that upended decades of comic tradition while feeling completely organic to the character. How could a man (with an ego) like Tony Stark not claim the credit he deserved for being Iron Man? Save the Fantastic Four, the secret identity has always been as foundational a part of the superhero as their larger-than-life abilities and colorful costumes. But with four words, Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark burned down a classic trope, and it stuck. Now there are fewer heroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with secret identities than without. In that moment, Tony owned the whole of his personality and, perhaps unexpectedly, he presented an easy avenue for me to do the same. While I can’t speak for others, I’d presume my experience here isn’t unique.
When I was a kid, comic books were far from mainstream. While I never experienced any sort of bullying or harassment for liking them, outside of my brother David and a couple of our cousins, I didn’t know anyone else who cared about comics. Through elementary school, middle school, and high school, none of my friends from school shared my enthusiasm. Heck, as far as I knew, no one else read them at all. I didn’t know anyone who had files at our local comic shop nor was there anyone who I could discuss the weekly exploits of X-Men: The Animated Series or Spider-Man: The Animated Series with. As I grew up, through middle school and certainly in high school, I increasingly got the sense that my love of comic books wasn’t something to proclaim. While I never felt ashamed of it per se it didn’t feel like something I should publicly share.
I remember, as high school wore on, feeling a sense of apprehension going into my local comic shop each week. I became a little scared someone would see me. This haunts me to this day and that’s probably why it’s a story I’ve never shared. I’ve never talked about it out loud because it bothers me that I was so insecure about something I loved. I feel a sense of guilt about it. My family has always taught me whoever I am/choose to be is perfect and that’s something I’ve done my best to live my entire life. And, for the majority of my life, that’s who I’ve been! I am who I am and I love me. But high school can be a vulnerable time…and no matter how confident a person we are, there are moments we feel insecure. When the time came to leave behind the world of regular comic reading and collecting, with gas money and car maintenance taking precedent over a pull list, it was bittersweet. On the one hand, I was sad to say goodbye to a world that had meant so much to me for nearly ten years. On the other, there was a part of me that felt relief over not having to balance this part of my identity that didn’t seem to fit in anyplace else in my world.
I want to reiterate, I was fortunate enough to have never dealt with any sort of bullying or judgment for my love of comic books growing up. But I was also always a bit of a loner, at least by the time middle school rolled around. I had friends but there weren’t any I took fully into my world – I kept myself at a distance. This seems so foreign to think about now, now that I’ve learned the beautiful blessing of friends who become family in the truest sense of the word. In high school, I began to find closer friends again…but there was still no one I’d share my love of comic books with. Star Wars, for whatever reason, always seemed more acceptable/accepted than comics. Maybe it was the coming of the Prequels or maybe my brilliant high school English teacher I had who taught us the Hero’s Journey with Luke Skywalker as central as Odysseus. Whatever the reason, I shared my love of Star Wars openly…but comic books remained something I kept to myself.
Regardless of what people actually would have thought, there was nothing I saw in the culture around me that felt like superheroes and comic books fit. I didn’t know where or how to share this passion and I doubt I’d’ve had the courage to do so (because that’s what it felt like, it felt like it would take courage to do so) if I knew how. So all through middle school and certainly high school, I didn’t talk about this love with anyone other than David and occasionally our cousins – it became a secret, peripheral love for many years.
But then Robert Downey Jr. came along and his Tony Stark proudly proclaimed, “I am Iron Man.” And just like that, I found so many people – both old and new fans – with whom to share a passion that had lain quiet in my heart and soul for years. This community has only grown with the MCU. While I had become far more confident with myself by 2008 anyway, the birth of the MCU made it easier to wear my comic pride on my sleeve (literally with t-shirts appearing everywhere) and relighting a fire that would eventually take me back, with confidence again, to my local comic shop.
“You’re tip-toeing big man, you need to strut.” – Tony Stark, The Avengers (2012)
That sense of confidence is so important! Not just in loving comics, but in everything! That’s why I love the above quote. It’s one of my most-quoted lines from the entire MCU. Why? Because we can all use a little more Tony Stark confidence in our lives! So often we tip-toe when we need to strut. Tony shows us the potential power to be found in this because no one struts like Tony Stark. He isn’t ashamed to love himself, to bask in his own brilliance.
We shouldn’t be ashamed either! When I walk into my classroom, on my best days, I believe I’m the best damn thing to ever stand in front of those kids. I need to be sure of my worthiness of their attention if I have any hope of holding it. Am I God’s gift to the teaching profession? No…well, probably not :). But I am damn good at what I do and, on my best days, I know that. And when I feel it, I live it. We should take pride in our talents! We should believe in our own amazing ability and powerful potential! There is nothing inherently wrong with saying, “Hell yes, I’m good.” Tony Stark does this and, because of that confidence, he believes he can “privatize world peace;” stand alongside gods, super soldiers, and master assassins in the Avengers despite being “just a man in a can;” and fight Thanos on his own for the fate of the universe. How many religious texts and self-help books tell us we can do anything if we believe in ourselves? Tony Stark certainly believes in himself and, because of this, he can do incredible things.
But, okay, he can be a bit of an arrogant jerk sometimes. I grant that. But again, this is part of the magic of Robert Downey Jr.’s performance! He gives us the arrogant, prideful, cocky, and (at times) condescending Tony Stark BUT we always know there’s something more to him. Pepper will inscribe Tony’s first Arc Reactor with the line, “PROOF THAT TONY STARK HAS A HEART.” To me, it’s one of those meta-lines that works in the narrative but also about the narrative. I was never a fan of Iron Man in the comics. He was always kind of a jerk to me. But in the movies? As this piece is illustrating, I adore him. The way Robert Downey Jr. plays him is to credit for this. His performance shows us, despite the arrogant and cocky veneer, Tony Stark does indeed have a heart. That’s what we connect to, it’s the redeeming light buried under the snark. It also reminds us, even those who seem unbearably arrogant to us, have hearts too. We’re all human, an important if difficult lesson to remember sometimes.
“I’m a pipin’ hot mess….and I have to protect the one thing that I can’t live without. That’s you.” – Tony Stark, Iron Man 3 (2013)
Heart or not, Tony messes up. A lot. But this is what makes him so important as a character! This is also what makes him human. Who among us can’t identify with this? Who among us has never fallen prey to their own sins, fears, mistakes, guilt, and fallibility? I know I have. Tony begins to slip more and more, making increasingly compromised choices, after the Chitauri invasion. He realizes how great the potential threats out there are. He also realizes he doesn’t know how to protect Pepper – or to protect the world – he just knows he has to.
In anger (and while wrestling with post-traumatic stress disorder after the events of The Avengers), Tony impulsively threatens the Mandarin and his terrorist organization on television before giving out his home address in Iron Man 3. By Avengers: Age Of Ultron, his fear of potential world-ending invasions lead him to recklessly create Ultron, a monstrous A.I. that will try to destroy humanity. It doesn’t work but it doesn’t ease Tony’s fear either. His fear will be coupled with guilt in Captain America: Civil War as he finally loses some of the steadfast confidence he’s always had in himself. Tony goes all in behind the Sokovia Accords, willingly giving up his freedom as a moral actor and choosing to go where the U.N. tells him to go, when they tell him to go there. His inability to step away from his superhero lifestyle ultimately costs him Pepper and, while Spider-Man: Homecoming will show us they’ve reunited (yay!), he still can’t figure out how to lead the Avengers without Steve. Come Avengers: Infinity War Tony solemnly tells Bruce, “The Avengers broke up. We’re toast.”
Tony keeps messing up. He, arguably, keeps making things worse. But he keeps going forward. Is that arrogance? Or is that hope? Is it faith? I like to think the latter because, in our darkest moments, that’s all we can ask or hope of ourselves right? That we have the strength to keep going forward and trying to sort things out.
Personally, this is important to me. As above, I don’t presume to make sweeping general statements about his character’s importance to “everyone” but I doubt my connection here is unique. There have been plenty of moments in my life where I’ve felt like “a pipin’ hot mess” and have struggled to figure out how to go forward. Obviously, I’ve struggled like this through my whole life (you know, we humans tend to be imperfect 🙂 ) but I’ve felt it in a strikingly specific way on two separate occasions.
First, back in 2017, as the second half of the school year unfolded, I was hit with this crushing depression I’d never felt before. Always an extroverted and decisive person, I found myself paralyzed with indecision and having to fake my way through social situations. I would cry for no reason, as this crushing sadness held me in its grip, often bringing me to my knees in desperation and sadness. Everything seemed overwhelming. I felt hopeless, a feeling I’m not used to. I’ve always worked very hard at being an optimistic and positive person (something you do have to work at!) but that sort of positivity felt beyond me in those moments. I had no idea what it was until Kalie pointed out to me that it sounded like depression. I was hesitant to use the term, knowing people suffer from this in very real ways their whole lives but Kalie taught me depression can exist on a scale and, just because I hadn’t experienced it before, didn’t mean I wasn’t then.
After several months, it disappeared as unexpectedly as it came. Nothing more than luck lifted it but I always lived with the fear it would return. Then it did. Earlier this year I could feel the monster lurking in the corners of my mind again – caged but awake. Then a little over a month ago it was loosed again. The story that best describes what it’s like in my head is this: One day after work, Kalie and I were going to do some grading at Coffee Culture. My friend Miranda called, to see if we were planning on working. I said we were and she asked where we were going, saying she was feeling Wegmans. I said we were thinking Coffee Culture and she asked me to just let her know whatever we settled on. Now this was a decisions that didn’t matter. No one cared. It was trivial. Kalie didn’t care where we went. Miranda didn’t care where we went. I didn’t care where we went…but I stood in my kitchen and cried for fifteen minutes, unable to make a simple decision. Ultimately, I asked Kalie to choose and she did. But I find myself in these moments – wrapped in crushing sadness, anxiety, indecision, and seeing every single task before me as being overwhelmingly impossible – and I don’t know what to do. I am incapable of willing myself to do what I could normally do with ease. I can’t make my brain work. I feel trapped, in my body but with a mind that’s not my own. I’m stripped of so many of the facets of my personality I’ve always taken for granted and I don’t know how to put one foot in front of the other. Everything is hard. Everything feels impossible. I don’t recognize the person in my head and I have to go through my day pretending to be who I normally am. I’m a pipin’ hot mess.
But so is Tony. He’s a broken man who has to do his best to figure out how to save the day…and he doesn’t always make the right choice but he will (eventually) admit he’s wrong and ask for help when he needs it. He always steps back in the suit, he always tries to fight the good fight, no matter how unsure he is. We need that model. I need that model. Thankfully, I’m blessed with a loving and compassionate circle of people who are beautifully supportive. In helping me name and deal with what’s going on, they’ve also helped me begin get a handle on things. I’m in therapy now for the first time in my life (and I LOVE it! I have no idea why I wasn’t in therapy before!) and am starting to learn what’s going on in my head, what causes it, and how to handle it. I no longer feel like I’m at the mercy of this thing, that I’m waiting for luck and chance to pull me out. I’ve got help – and brilliant professional help at that – in addition to the people who love me and are there for me every day.
When I look at Tony Stark, I see a character that probably shouldn’t be a superhero. As Tony himself says at the press conference that ends Iron Man, “I…I’m just not the hero type, clearly, with this laundry list of character defects, all the mistakes I’ve made, largely public…” Yet he is a hero all the same which is why he goes on to say, “…truth is……I am Iron Man.” Tony Stark rises above those character defects again and again to try and do the right thing. And when he fails, he keeps trying.
For better or worse, I see a lot of myself in Tony Stark. He teaches me. He warns me. He inspires me. He’s not perfect but God knows I’m not either…probably :). He does this all while being fun and funny and making the entire world fall in love with a character and – by extension a universe – that once lived only on the fringes of our popular culture. While I don’t know what fate will befall him in Avengers: Endgame, nothing will ever change the importance Tony Stark has in the Marvel Cinematic Universe for me, or the place he holds in my heart.