Eleven years ago Iron Man landed in cinemas and was met with critical praise and excellent box office profits. What none of us could have foreseen eleven years ago was just how enormous a franchise would be born from it. Eleven years since Iron Man debuted, a further 21 films have come out to make the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or MCU for short), a box office behemoth which kickstarted a whole new trend in film franchises, with a number of Hollywood studios creating shared universes (or at least trying to), having seen how successfully Marvel did it.
The cornerstone character of the MCU is Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, a self-proclaimed genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist. Robert Downey Jr. has starred in this iconic role in the Iron Man trilogy, all four Avengers films, Captain America: Civil War and Spider-Man: Homecoming, while also cameoing in The Incredible Hulk. With the MCU’s 22-film-long Infinity Saga concluding with the recent release of Avengers: Endgame, this piece is going to discuss what made Tony Stark such an excellent protagonist that he served as the cornerstone character for such an enormous franchise, with a list of ten reasons. Be warned though, this piece will contain spoilers for Avengers: Endgame.
1. Wealth Never Went to His Head
When we are first introduced to Tony in Iron Man, he is with a military convoy in war-torn Afghanistan. He is established to be the billionaire owner and CEO of Defence contractor Stark Industries, primary weapons manufacturer to the U.S. Military. However, despite his wealth, power and privileged upbringing, it immediately becomes clear that Tony has never let these things to go to his head, which is first shown when Tony is happy to let some of the soldiers get their photo taken with him.
This attribute is emphasised throughout the MCU, as Tony treats his bodyguard and chauffeur (Happy Hogan) like family rather than an employee, and never once looks down on the Parker family for being working-class. Furthermore, Tony is more comfortable in jeans and a t-shirt than an expensive suit, unlike most fictional billionaires, and he also takes pleasure in simple things. In The Avengers, he decides to go for shawarma with his teammates in the post-credits scene, and when he settles down with Pepper Potts to begin a family in Avengers: Endgame, he is shown to live in a somewhat modest lakeside house, rather than a lavish mansion which he could easily afford.
It may sound somewhat cliche to say that a superhero makes for a great protagonist because of their honesty. I mean, let’s be real here, lying is definitely not a heroic trait. However, where Iron Man differs from superhero films such as Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy and the Burton/Schumacher Batman anthology is that Tony Stark publicly announces that he is Iron Man at a press conference, rather than try to cover it up. Stating “I am Iron Man” was a moment of self-clarity for Tony, but ultimately reflects the fact that he believes in total honesty and that the public deserve to know the truth.
Tony’s honesty was expanded upon in his future appearances in the franchise. He would make numerous mistakes over the course of the franchise, but what made Tony a protagonist to whom the viewer can look to with respect is the fact that he was honest about his mistakes, seeking to atone for them and learn from them. For example, he admitted that he was wrong to not go on PTSD medication in Iron Man 3, and he tried to undo his catastrophic mistake in creating Ultron in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Not only does his honesty about his mistakes make Tony a protagonist who can be looked to and respected as a good example, but it emphasises his humanity and makes him much more relatable.
3. Willingness to Sacrifice Self
It is a cliche, particularly in Hollywood blockbusters and film franchises, for the protagonist to be willing to sacrifice themselves heroically to save others (or indeed the entire world), and Tony Stark is no exception. However, this is a key reason for him being a protagonist that the viewer can get behind, as nobody wants to watch a superhero film in which a superhero will let people die in order to ensure their own survival. In The Avengers, Tony is willing to die in the outer recesses of space if it means that he saves New York City from both a missile and Loki’s armies. In this moment, Tony shows a real willingness to sacrifice himself to save others and just how selfless he can truly be.
This would be a defining trait of Tony’s character in future Avengers films. Like his teammates, he was willing to die in Avengers: Age of Ultron if it meant that the Avengers saved Earth. In Avengers: Infinity War he was willing to be killed by Thanos if it meant that the Mad Titan never got the Time Stone. And Avengers: Endgame culminated in Tony sacrificing himself in order to destroy Thanos and his armies, in a poignant yet triumphant moment which served as a fitting conclusion to Tony’s story arc. Tony’s willingness to die to save others is one of the reasons why he became a protagonist whom viewers could invest in, and it is highly unlikely that the character’s death would have been quite so sad had it been under different circumstances.
4. Very Real Struggles
Despite his wealth and power, Tony has always been depicted as quite a down-to-Earth individual, but one of his most relatable qualities is the fact that he faces struggles just like anyone else. Iron Man 2 emphasises Tony’s mortality, when it becomes apparent that the Arc Reactor palladium core is poisoning him due to his excessive use of the Iron Man suit. Tony decides to try to enjoy life, proceeding to get inebriated at his birthday party and use the Iron Man suit irresponsibly. Rather than make him less likeable, however, this makes Tony a sympathetic character, as his hitting the bottle emphasises the fact that wealth and power do not make people immune from very real struggles.
Tony’s struggles with very real issues, however, become most prominent in Iron Man 3. Six months after almost dying in order to defeat Loki in the Battle of New York, Tony is struggling to move on, and it becomes clear that he is struggling with PTSD, having gone through such a terrifying, life-changing experience. Like with his excessive drinking in Iron Man 2, this emphasises that Tony faces real struggles which anybody could go through, and brings real vulnerability and humanity to the character, making him a far more rounded and multi-layered protagonist, with Robert Downey Jr. giving a raw and powerful performance in these scenes.
5. Sharp Wit
If there was one thing that Tony Stark could be relied upon in all of his appearances in the MCU (bar a very expensive piece of incredible technology, of course), it would be his sharp wit. It was only in the most serious or bleakest of situations that Tony would not have a witty riposte or a brilliantly sharp (if slightly sarcastic) comment. While his wit did not make Tony more of a hero, it contributed to him being a very likeable protagonist by being an often much-needed source of comic relief, which can be attributed most of all to Robert Downey Jr.’s outstanding comic timing and deadpan delivery.
6. Recognising the Qualities of Others
When the titular Avengers come together for the first time, Tony clashes with Steve Rogers (a.k.a. Captain America), who views him as egotistical. Indeed, Tony can at times come across as egotistical, and it is not hard to see why given that his brilliant mind is only matched by that of Bruce Banner. However, when the Battle of New York begins, it becomes clear beyond any shadow of a doubt that Tony recognises the qualities of others. He lets Steve take charge of the Avengers, recognising his teammate’s leadership skills and combat experience, and afterwards he would happily let Steve be in charge of the Avengers, while he would be the financier.
Recognising the qualities of others would define Tony’s approach to other heroes in future MCU films. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, he reluctantly came to trust the Maximoff twins, recognising that their abilities would help in the fight against Ultron. In Captain America: Civil War, he recognised Peter Parker’s potential and, over the course of that film and Spider-Man: Homecoming, helped Peter nurture and develop his abilities to become Spider-Man. In short, despite being egotistical at times, Tony was very capable of being a team player as he could recognise the qualities and skills of others, which he would not dismiss as he also recognised how such qualities and skills could be beneficial.
7. His Rationale
While some of his fellow Avengers, such as Thor, tend to be quite hot-headed at times and rush into things without stopping and thinking about the potential consequences, Tony Stark almost always has a rationale behind his decisions and subsequent actions. His more level-headed approach at times makes him a voice of reason to his friends and allies, and without it he almost certainly would not have been such an effective mentor to Peter Parker in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Furthermore, over the course of the franchise, his rationale emphasises the fact that he tries to learn from his mistakes.
Tony’s rationale is most prominent in Captain America: Civil War, when he agrees to sign the Sokovia Accords as he realises that the Avengers need to be kept accountable as their tendency to rush into a situation to save the day has resulted in civilian casualties and lives being changed forever. His rationale for signing is highly logical and results in the viewer empathising with him as he and Steve Rogers clash over whether the Avengers should sign. Furthermore, this conveys the important message to viewers that actions have consequences, and that decisions should never be rushed, especially if they could impact others.
8. Being a Father-figure
Despite Tony coming across as egotistical at times, and also having quite a stoic facade as and when he considers it necessary, his softer side comes through in the fact that he does become a father-figure to other characters during the MCU. In Iron Man 3, Tony befriends Harley Keener, a 10-year-old boy who helps him while he is in hiding. While Tony is often sarcastic with Harley (who is a superfan of his), he shows compassion to the kid, who he realises is a victim of bullying, and the two bond with Harley looking to Tony as a father-figure. This foreshadows the relationship that Tony would go on to have with Peter Parker.
Over the course of Captain America: Civil War and Spider-Man: Homecoming, Tony and Peter develop a close bond that becomes one of sincere love and respect. During Avengers: Infinity War, it becomes apparent that Peter really does look to Tony as a father-figure and, when Peter begins to disintegrate during the Infinity Snap, a distraught Tony tries to comfort him in his final moments.
The viewer is left heartbroken as they see that Tony has come to love Peter like family. This love for a teenager who in many ways became like a son to him motivated Tony to join the Avengers in their last-ditch Time Heist in Avengers: Endgame, and gave fans of the MCU a well-realised and heartwarming relationship that they could really get behind.
9. Past Regrets
Previous entries on this list, such as Very Real Struggles, emphasise Tony’s humanity, but arguably nothing emphasises his humanity more than the fact that he struggles with regrets over his past. While he is shown to regret some of his past mistakes during the Iron Man trilogy, Tony’s regrets over the past are explored most in Captain America: Civil War. As a child, Tony had a strained relationship with his father, Howard, but deep-down they loved each other, and Tony’s biggest regret was that he never said goodbye properly to his parents before their deaths when he was 21-years-old.
A quarter-century later this regret still weighed on Tony, but in 2023 (32 years after his parents died) he travelled back in time to 1970, during the middle act of Avengers: Endgame, and got that final conversation with his father that he had so yearned for in a heartwarming scene. As well as emphasising his humanity, Tony’s regrets over the past make him a very relatable character. We all have things in our pasts that we regret and, while those regrets may not be something as weighty as Tony’s, the fact that he has them strengthens the fact that he is a protagonist with whom the viewer can empathise.
10. Family and Friendship
While this list has already explored Tony’s relationships with Happy Hogan, Rhodey, Harley Keener, Peter Parker and his parents, these are just some of the various relationships that Tony has over the course of the MCU which emphasise his beliefs in the importance of family and friendship. Family and friendship are the core themes of the MCU, and they have been driving forces behind the motivations and decisions of the countless superheroes, and Tony is no exception.
He views the Avengers as a family and, when the Sokovia Accords cause division in Captain America: Civil War, he is desperate for them to remain together. Furthermore, Tony is most in his element in Avengers: Endgame when he is with his four-year-old daughter, Morgan. One of the more emotional moments is when Morgan gets her final “Love you 3000” from her father.
This final reason for Tony being an excellent protagonist comes down to the realism of his bonds of friendship and family. He has banter with Steve Rogers and Thor, he opens up to Bruce Banner, he aims to help Rhodey and Wanda Maximoff in whatever way he can, he wants Clint Barton to enjoy retirement. These are all aspects of friendship that are grounded in reality, but none so much so as Tony’s ability to forgive his friends.
After the events of Avengers: Infinity War, Tony comes to forgive Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanoff for the events of Civil War, eventually re-establishing a familial bond with them. This has real sincerity in its reflection of the true importance of family and friendship, and also how vital it is to be willing and able to forgive the people in your life, further emphasising Tony’s relatability as a protagonist.
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