Avengers: Endgame — How Marvel Cinematic Universe's Tony Stark is a metaphor for governmental overreach
Does a superhero always have to be the moral centre? This question is at the heart of the Iron Man films, and in particular the character of Tony Stark.
(Editor’s note: Ahead of the release of Avengers: Endgame, here is PART TWO of a five-part series that attempts to understand the relationship between the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the state of the world today. This series will seek to engage with the MCU critically, and argue how their films have real world anxieties built within it. Read PART ONE here)
For us it has become a matter of received wisdom to assume that superheroes should be all good. And, if one were to closely observe, they will not be disappointed. In the DC Comics universe, for example, Superman is supposed to be the epitome of goodness and virtue. In Christopher Nolan's adaptations, Batman becomes the moral centre, the one who is known for his nobility and values, against the chaos represented by the Joker.
Coming to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we have Captain America who shows these qualities. In fact, in Captain America: The First Avenger we see how Steve Rogers is chosen, despite his lack of physique and fighting qualities, a thin boy from the streets of New York fighting off bullies, and just wanting to join the Army and fight in the World War 2. And the reason why he is chosen, is because he is empathetic, because from that very first film on, we were glimpsed into the fact that here was a soldier who was truly good and noble.
But does a superhero always have to be the moral centre?
The question might seem to be an easy one - swinging between yes and no - but it actually isn't. This question is at the heart of the Iron Man films, and in particular the character of Tony Stark.
Tony Stark’s Fatal Flaw
Tony Stark, in the very beginning of the first Iron Man film, is your regular rich guy, who also, incidentally, happens to be a tech genius.
He is flamboyant, a womaniser, and the owner of the Stark Industries, the company founded by his father, and in the MCU, is known for its arms manufacturing. Before he undergoes a change of heart, when under captivity in the arid wastelands of Afghanistan, Tony Stark had a particular idea of what peace should be. Just before his capture, Tony is interviewed by the Vanity Fair magazine's Christine Everhart. The conversations goes this way:
Christine: "You've been called the da Vinci of our time. What do you say to that?"
Tony: "Absolutely ridiculous. I don't paint."
Christine: "And what do you say to your other nickname, the Merchant of Death?"
Tony: "That's not bad."
After this exchange, Stark goes on to say two very important things at this juncture: He first says, "it’s an imperfect world but it’s the only one we’ve got. I guarantee you the day weapons are no longer needed to keep the peace, I’ll start baking bricks and beams for baby hospitals."
And follows this up, with this line: "Okay, here’s serious. My old man had a philosophy. Peace means having a bigger stick than the other guy."
It is only during his captivity, and especially when he realises how the weapons manufactured by his own company have begun to fall into the arms of not just the US defence forces, but the terrorists as well, that he has a change of heart, takes matters into his own hands, disbands the arms division of his company, and becomes Iron Man.
It might seem to be a simple moralistic tale of a blind arms dealer who tries to redeem himself by undoing the wrongs he was responsible for. But Tony Stark is a complicated figure, and so is his moral compass. Usually, it would have been easy to just class him as an anti-hero. But Tony Stark is not really an anti-hero either. Anti-heroes have their own moral codes, and they usually eschew the codes foisted upon them by society. Michael Corleone in The Godfather, now that's an anti-hero. Tony Stark is your quintessential insider, the one who was born with the silver spoon in his mouth, heir to a vast empire.
In Shakespeare's tragedies, the central characters are defined by not so much the moral codes they espouse, but because the characters have a central great flaw inherent in them. For Othello, that flaw was insecurity and jealousy. for Hamlet, it was indecisiveness, and for Macbeth, it was ambition. Tony Stark, in a way, fits that category.
Because, on the outset, he indeed is good. He does espouse strong moral code and genuinely wants to safeguard the world he has been tasked with saving. That fatal flaw of Tony Stark is glimpsed at in all the three films, but is actually clearly spelt out in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Remember that lovely scene, where Tony and Bruce Banner, after their gigantic mistake in creating Ultron, begin to try the experiment again, but this time attempting to transplanting Jarvis's Artificial Intelligence into the vibranium android. Wanda Maximoff and Captain America storm in, trying to stop Stark from making that mistake again. And why? Maximoff, at one point, tells Steve Rogers: "Ultron can't see the difference between saving the world and destroying it. Where do you think he gets that from?"
She's directly referencing Ultron's creation by Tony Stark here, and means how the idea of security has become so rooted in Tony Stark's mind, that he would go to any length in order to fulfil it. And, mind you, this idea of security is Tony Stark's version. It doesn't mean everyone buys into it. Of course that experiment the second time turned out to be a success and Vision is born. But hypothetically, think about it. What if Vision had malafide intentions, like Ultron did? The point is you never know.
Tony Stark as a Metaphor
In many ways, this fatal flaw of 'peace, at all costs' is also at the heart of our modern world, a world where nations become superpower based on the weapons they have.
Where, to take India and Pakistan as examples, the idea of peace between the two countries is, ironically, based on the primal fear of nuclear winter, as both the nations are nuclear-armed, and this in itself becomes a condition for peace. Tony Stark and his Iron Man is a metaphor for this modern world where weapons, and who wields them, define not just power, but morality.
Tony Stark's fatal flaw is also echoed in the justifications that our governments give us when, in the name of national security, it becomes imperative to use mass surveillance as a tactic. Where we are asked to let go off our inherent right to privacy, because, well, everyone wants to be safe, and that's always a priority, isn't it?
Tony Stark means well. He wants to do good. What MCU lays bare, instead, is a beautiful deconstruction of this well-meaning hero, and how there is a thin line that separates over-emphasis on security from paranoia, which in the case of Tony Stark is personal, and in the case of our governments, institutional.
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