Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
Note from the Editor: This piece contains for real spoilers for Avengers: Endgame. It’s a wonderful article, but don’t complain to me if it spoils things for you.
“I am Iron Man.”
These are famous words. They kicked off a 22-movie (and counting) franchise, they broke the mold of superhero storytelling, and they left a new generation of movie-goers anticipating the lives and actions of a universe of fictional characters. But for as many heroes as have been added to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and for all the important contributions these characters have made to the larger narrative, Tony Stark’s journey to embody Iron Man has remained the driving force behind the films. And now, after eleven years of intricately crafted Marvel storytelling, “I am Iron Man” have become famous words again—famous for being the last words spoken by Tony Stark as he takes the Infinity Stones onto himself and snaps Thanos and all his wicked works out of existence. Avengers: Endgame is a resurrection movie that hinges on the redemption saga of Tony Stark, and when he takes death onto himself so that everyone else may live, his words cause us to reflect on not just the end of his journey, but the beginning.
Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) first speaks the words “I am Iron Man” in Iron Man 1 at a press conference. In doing so, he declares for himself a new identity and publicly takes on the mantle of the red-suited hero who, at that point in the story, is only known for smashing up a roadway and his own factory. Publicly, nobody in his world really knows who Iron Man is, and no one close to Tony Stark has any faith that he can be anything other than what he’s always proven himself to be: a genius, but tragically naive, selfish, and flawed. Tony Stark was no hero, and no suit of armor was going to change that.
Prior to going in to the press conference where he declared himself Iron Man, Agent Phil Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Clark Gregg) handed him a stack of cards with a fake cover story. “Just stick to the official statement, and soon this will all be behind you,” he says. Tony pages through his cards, which detail the sorts of things he usually would be involved in (yachting, beautiful women, partying), and he becomes increasingly agitated, disillusioned. “Even I don’t think I’m Iron Man,” he says to Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his loyal assistant—and the woman he’s destined to marry. “You’re not Iron Man,” Pepper replies. “You’re not.”
But a man who has been given a second chance at life can’t just “put it all behind him,” as Agent Coulson is urging him to do, and Tony Stark is a man reborn.
For all intents and purposes, Tony dies in Afghanistan and is buried in that cave. When that first film begins, Tony Stark is a very different man than we see at the press conference at the end of it. At our first introduction to him, he’s selling his company’s weapons in Afghanistan, sipping scotch, hitting on female soldiers, flippantly unbothered by the human cost of war, and entirely unaware that the weapons he’s selling to the U.S. Military are also being double-dealt to Afghani terrorists. In the American press, he’s called the “Merchant of Death,” a moniker he shrugs off as smoothly as a roll of the dice in the casinos he frequents. When he is kidnapped by the Afghani terrorists who have benefited from his weapons shipments, their leader says to him, “Welcome, Tony Stark. The most famous mass murderer in the history of America.” Tony is shocked as his sins are laid bare by an enemy who knows him better than he knows himself. Worse than this shock, though, is the physical transformation he’s gone through. Tony is also a man who is—as his cellmate, Yinsen (Shaun Toub), calls him—the “walking dead.” He took a chest full of shrapnel from one of his own rockets in the terrorist attack that led to his capture. A Stark nearly killed by a Stark rocket—the Merchant of Death transformed into the walking dead by the work of his own hand.
These are just a few of many moments of not only disillusionment for Tony Stark, but also the beginning of his rebirth and renewal. For all intents and purposes, Tony dies in Afghanistan and is buried in that cave with Yinsen, who brings him back to life by installing a magnet in his chest to keep the shrapnel from reaching his heart. Tony’s resurrection isn’t affected in full until he installs an arc reactor in his chest and builds a suit of armor to break himself, and Yinsen, out of captivity. But at the moment of their escape, Yinsen sacrifices himself to buy Tony time to live. “Don’t waste it. Don’t waste your life,” Yinsen tells Tony on his last breath.
Tony clothes himself in armor to cover up who he is. Yinsen’s role in Tony’s sanctification cannot be overstated. Not only does he save Tony, twice, and leave him with a charge to not “waste” the sacrifice he made for him—and a mandate to turn his life around—but he also, earlier in the story, called upon Tony to see his life for what it is. Yinsen said to Tony, after Tony sees the terrorists with all his weapons, “What you just saw—that is your legacy. That is your life’s work…. Is that how you want to go out?” Yinsen acts as Tony’s conscience, as his mentor, as his savior, and as his friend. It is not enough for Tony to merely see that his weapons have fallen into the wrong hands, or for him to experience being kidnapped and tortured. He needed someone to save him and to show him how to live rightly as a man.
Tony Stark emerges from that cave reborn, but conflicted. As his story progresses, MCU storytellers often chose to show his struggles through the suits of armor Tony builds—and his interactions with those suits. Tony’s many attempts to sanctify and redeem himself are mirrored in how many suits he has, how and when and whether he wears them, and in how other characters interact with him and his suits. He doesn’t know how to reconcile what he knows to be right (as represented by Iron Man) with his baser self—his humanity. The result should be familiar to all of us who struggle with the daily process of sanctification.
Tony clothes himself in armor to cover up who he is—he has no innate superpowers, no worthiness to be Iron Man beyond a desire to change his legacy. From the moment he embraces being Iron Man, he’s willing to give his life for others and to defeat evil. As he tells Pepper Potts about taking up the armor, “I shouldn’t be alive, Pepper. I’m not crazy. I just finally know what I have to do. And I know in my heart that it’s right.” But his heroism comes in bursts and spurts of selflessness interspersed between his more typical selfishness, erratic behavior, and sometimes tragic coping mechanisms as he wrestles (often unsuccessfully) with past trauma. As his story progresses beyond Iron Man 1 into Iron Man 2, The Avengers, and Iron Man 3, it becomes clearer than ever that Tony Stark/Iron Man is on a complicated journey. Early on, Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) declare Iron Man fit to join the Avengers, but Tony Stark unfit, highlighting the dichotomy between his humanity and his hero persona. And when the Battle of New York occurs and Tony does join up with the others, he “doesn’t play well” with them, clashing most especially with Steve Rogers (Chris Evans’s Captain America).
Tony is a man constantly at odds with his alternate identity. This conflict with Steve tells us a lot about Tony’s redemption journey, as well. Tony lives a life of self-indulgence and has to learn, over and over again, how to put himself aside for others. Even as a hero, he struggles with his vanity, narcissism, and pride. His flaws are the most stark when placed in comparison to Steve. Every day of Steve Rogers’s life is a day of self-sacrifice for the common good. From the moment he put his plane in the ice in Captain America: The First Avenger, he hasn’t taken anything for himself. Self-denial is as easy as breathing for Captain America. By the time we get to Avengers: Endgame, he’s still, at heart, the same kid who threw himself over what he thought was a live grenade in basic training. You never doubt that Steve Rogers is going to do the right thing. That’s why it’s no surprise that, in Endgame, he stands and faces the legions of Thanos’s forces alone.
In contrast to Steve, Tony is a man constantly at odds with his alternate identity. He’s difficult. He makes mistakes (massive ones), and he leans more toward self-ambition than altruism. He teeters on the knife-edge of self-destruction. Is he Iron Man, really? He lives always in the shadow of the man he was—the war-monger, the playboy, the mess. We do doubt that Tony Stark will do the right thing, even in the “endgame,” when all is nearly lost, and many times along the way.
In Iron Man 3, Tony’s struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, and his inability to maintain a healthy relationship with Pepper manifests in a divorce of his human self from his Iron Man suits—and thus his Iron Man persona. Crippled by panic attacks and self-doubt, Tony creates vast versions of Iron Man—all separate from himself. The message is clear: this is Tony Stark’s dark night of the soul, during which he loses even the connection with his original suit. He must face who he is with faith like a child before he can resume wearing any suit of armor. Who is Tony Stark, and who is Iron Man, and are they the same? At the end, he destroys the multiple divorced versions of Iron Man, concluding that Iron Man must coexist with Tony Stark, or not at all. He then has the remaining shrapnel and arc reactor removed from his chest. He is not the walking dead any more. But is he still Iron Man, and what place does Iron Man have in a world filling up with more heroes, and more, and greater, villains?
At the beginning of Endgame, he discovers a mercy he certainly feels he does not deserve: his wife. His redemption saga is not complete at the end of his trilogy of movies, and Tony Stark moves into a position of leadership with the Avengers. He has grown much, as you would hope and expect, but he is still a man with many character flaws. No matter which side you support in Captain America: Civil War, Tony is at least half at fault for the dissolution of the Avengers. He remains prideful, he holds a grudge, and he has a serious need to be in control of (and to be right about) everything. But the events of Infinity War strip him of his control. He loses “the kid” (Tom Holland’s Spider-Man), and in his failure to defeat Thanos (Josh Brolin), he loses half the universe. All illusions of control are stripped from him, and he finds himself again in a place of certain death.
The opening of Avengers: Endgame echoes Tony Stark’s time in the cave in Iron Man 1, and that is no accident. Stranded in a ship that stands in for a different sort of cave, Tony is a virtual prisoner, floating in space. A walking dead man. On the ship, Tony records a series of goodbye messages for Pepper Potts, but he records the messages by speaking to his Iron Man face mask. By doing so, everything he says to her, in a way, he says also to his Iron Man persona. One almost can’t help but wonder if, when he says, “it’s always you” he dreams of, he’s speaking to Iron Man as well—his conscience, the persona he created for himself in a cave in Afghanistan as a means of escape, of salvation, and of redemption—the better half of himself. The effect is strengthened as he taps the mask’s forehead. Tony Stark, broken, wishes he’d had the strength to truly be Iron Man—to defeat evil and be redeemed fully at his end.
But it’s not his end yet. Another salvation awaits him from the cold, sure death of space, and when he returns to earth at the beginning of Endgame, he discovers a mercy he certainly feels he does not deserve: his wife, Pepper, survived the snap. With Pepper by his side, Tony decides to move on. Thanos won. The Avengers lost, and that means Iron Man was a failure. He decides to take his mercies and find peace. In a move that hearkens back to Iron Man 3, he sheds Iron Man’s armor—and his arc reactor—and embraces being Tony Stark.
Five years later, the world has not healed from Thanos’s devastation. The Avengers may have killed Thanos, but killing him did not undo the works he wrought across the universe, and the grief for those who can’t move on is palpable. When Steve and Natasha and Scott Lang (Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man) figure out a way to bring back everyone who was snapped away by Thanos, they need Tony’s help to work out the mechanics of time travel. But when they go to him to try and convince him to help them, they find him happy with his wife and young child. He says, “I got my second chance right here, Cap. I can’t roll the dice on this.” Tony Stark is unwilling to do what Iron Man would have done, and even though anyone watching the movie empathizes with his situation—with the happiness and peace he’s finally feeling as a father and husband—it is a selfish happiness and a costly peace if the price is half the universe.
He can only defeat Thanos by reversing the power of death—by taking death onto himself. Pepper knows this, and so, really, does Tony. Although he hasn’t worn the armor in five years, Iron Man is the part of him that won’t let him rest in the face of injustice. In the quiet of his home, he works out the physics of time travel and realizes that he does, indeed, hold the key that just might bring everyone back. As he ponders his discovery—and as he realizes what it will mean for him—he says to Pepper, “I can’t help everybody.” Pepper responds, “It sorta seems like you can.” Tony resists; suggests that he should “put a pin in it,” hide the discovery from the world, “sink it to the bottom of the sea.” He knows, in his heart, that it could be the end of him and of his family—of his happily ever after. Pepper knows that he will be compelled to do the right thing, though, and she says, “But would you be able to rest?” The answer, of course, is no. Because he’s not just Tony Stark, he is Iron Man.
Avengers: Endgame is Tony Stark’s story. He is Iron Man—he is the one who can defeat Thanos, not because he wields the most power (he’s only human, after all), but because he knows what it is to die and come back to life. He understands the sacrifice that must be made because it’s a daily sacrifice he’s been living since that cave in Afghanistan. He has no super serum, he’s not a mythical god, he does not have the power of a mystical animal or gamma radiation flowing through his veins, and without his suit, he’s not even that talented of a fighter. He’s just a man who was given a chance to live again. After so much striving and struggling against his very self, he comes to the realization that he can’t defeat Thanos by fighting him—he can only defeat Thanos by reversing the power of death—by taking death onto himself.
Tony Stark fully knows that when he takes up the Infinity Stones and snaps Thanos and his minions out of existence, he, too, will die. But he does it anyway, and it’s in keeping with his story arc that he’s in his armor when he does so, but he’s lost his face mask. As part-Iron Man, part-Tony Stark, he says to Thanos: “And I… am Iron Man.” With those words, he sacrifices himself to destroy the mad titan and all his works.
In Iron Man 1, Pepper told Tony, “You’re going to kill yourself… and I’m not going to be a part of it.” Eleven years later, she not only convinces him he must once again take up the mantle of Iron Man when he is reluctant to do so, but she fights beside him in the climactic battle of Endgame. And when he meets his end on the battlefield, it is Pepper who tells him, “You can rest now”—the last words he hears before the life goes out of him.
His story, more than any other’s, encapsulates the ups and downs of the formation of the Avengers. In that fateful press conference from the first movie, as he stands before the microphone and shuffles the cards filled with lies about who he is and what he’s been doing, Tony Stark mutters about how “outlandish and fantastic” it would be if he was Iron Man. “I’m just not the hero type, clearly…” he says. He has a “laundry list of defects” and character flaws, and he mentions “mistakes I’ve made.” And then he pauses. But he doesn’t just say, “I am Iron Man,” he says, “The truth is… I am Iron Man.” And it is the truth. Obadiah Stain (Jeff Bridges), who sold Tony to the terrorists, effects false grief when he says of Tony, “I was so happy when he came home. It was like he came back from the dead. But then I realized we never really got him back, did we?”
He is right. Tony Stark didn’t come back from Afghanistan—Tony Stark plus Iron Man came back, a duality that doesn’t find peace and completion until he sacrifices himself for the universe in Endgame. At that moment, there is no longer any dichotomy in his character. Tony Stark is Iron Man, fully, at last. The contraries within him then are resolved. He’s no longer at war with himself; he’s at peace, and he can rest. He didn’t waste his life, as Yinsen implored him not to. His redemption has been a journey, and a crucial part of the journey is the end, as Tony himself tells his family in a recording he left in the event of his death.
In one respect, the MCU has always been Tony Stark’s redemption saga—so it’s fitting that Avengers: Endgame not only brings his story arc to completion, but brings it full circle. He dies, but in the ways that matter most, he is brought to life. His story, more than any other’s, encapsulates the ups and downs of the formation of the Avengers, and after a true journey of sanctification, it is fulfilling in every sense that his death should not only bring him peace and rest, but bring life to the universe he inhabits.