This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
This article contains spoilers for the Iron Man and Avengers films, as well as Captain America: Civil War and Guardians Of The Galaxy 2.
If Marvel want Robert Downey Jr to return to the MCU after Avengers 4, they’ll have some serious negotiating to do. The man’s contract will be up at that point, and he’ll be free to move on to other things, which also leaves the studio in a position to write the character off.
“I can’t imagine how they could but that doesn’t mean that they can’t,” original Iron Man director Jon Favreau admitted to IGN last year. “I just can’t wrap my head around that one. To me he’s the one element that has unified all of it, and I think kept a consistent tone, and the integrity of his acting ability and his talent really works wonderfully synergistically with the Marvel universe. I think that his personality is something which helps define it. That being said, nothing would surprise me, but for me it would be a hard pill to swallow and big shoes to fill.”
But since Iron Man first exploded onto the screen back in Favreau’s 2008 effort, each film has seen the character become just a little bit more damaged. Taking hit after hit, Tony Stark has been slowly unravelling – from the initial epiphany that he needed to change things up at Stark Industries and no longer manufacture weapons, to the realization that his best friend had become partially paralyzed by a being of his own accidental creation, he’s been bombarded by heartbreaks and set-backs – most of which have been of his own doing.
“A bomb is not a bomb when it’s a misfire.”
The start of Tony Stark’s current arc can more firmly be placed at the end of Joss Whedon’s Avengers.
Stark was on a suicide mission when he decided to fly through a wormhole grasping a nuclear weapon during the final act of the film. After being savagely knocked down a peg or two by Steve Rogers, who questioned his ability to fight for anything other than himself, Stark accepted his fate while ringing girlfriend Pepper Potts to say his last goodbye.
But of course, Tony didn’t end up dying while saving New York from a nuclear explosion, and the fallout from his own unexpected survival has haunted him through several further instalments in the MCU, including Iron Man 3, Avengers: Age Of Ultron, and Captain America: Civil War.
Despite making the ultimate unselfish sacrifice in an effort to prove he was worthy of being part of the team, his actions had no genuine personal consequences. Imagine deciding to end your life, then waking up and everything is fine. The character was given reinforcement about his own invincibility, but at the same time the universe simultaneously proved to him that he was closer to death than ever.
At the end of Avengers, Tony is on a path that could have led a more mentally healthy person to quiet reflection, but rather than fully accepting that he is now part of a team full of equals (or betters) and no longer the protagonist of the entire galaxy, his self-centered personality flaws won’t quite let him accept it, and he begins to flounder.
“A famous man once said, ‘we create our own demons.’ Who said that? What does that even mean? Doesn’t matter.”
In the comics, the character has sometimes relied upon an addiction to alcohol to block out events that have shaken his narcissistic personality to the core, beginning in the late ’70s with the Demon In A Bottle story arc, but other than touching on this a little during the midsection of Iron Man 2, it hasn’t been further referenced in the films.
Iron Man 3 director Shane Black told Comic Book Movie that Marvel just weren’t on board with this version of Tony making it to the screen. “I think we were just told by the studio that we should probably paint Tony Stark as being kind of an industrialist and a crazy guy, or even a bad guy at some points, but the Demon In A Bottle stuff of him being an alcoholic wouldn’t really fly.”
Instead, Stark has exposed his panic about his own mortality through some extremely visible and uncharacteristic anxiety which, along with countless reckless decisions, has forced the world to adapt to the aftermath of his shattered psyche.
At the beginning of Iron Man 3, Tony is a mess. Suffering from panic attacks, insomnia and an inability to reach out to those closest to him for help, he goads The Mandarin into attacking his own house on live TV after imagining that no human antagonist could possibly be as dangerous as the unknown forces that now exist inside his mind, but outside of our world. What threat could one bad guy be after dealing with an extra-terrestrial menace the likes of which he could never have previously conceived?
As an end result of these actions, Pepper Potts almost dies at the hands of Aldrich Killian, a man who he dismissed and mocked years ago – back with a vengeance and a grudge, and all the more powerful in the midst of Tony’s currently fragile state.
While Iron Man 1 and 2 saw Stark revelling in his newfound hero status, Iron Man 3 found him losing his grip on it, and eventually deciding to make big changes in what had become a toxic lifestyle.
Unfortunately, in Avengers: Age Of Ultron, the magic of Scarlet Witch only further worsened his anxiety over losing control, and he was back making rash decisions faster than Quicksilver at the races. The two films tie together the theme of Iron Man’s mental collapse, and although he and Steve are back making jokes on the lawn during the closing moments of Ultron, Tony Stark is on a path to self-destruction that it’s unlikely he’ll be able to veer off without some serious downtime.
“I’ve been called many things, nostalgic is not one of them.”
Despite Civil War technically being the third film in the Captain America standalone adventures, a whole lot of the film focused on looking back at Tony Stark’s past and examining his present. The death of his parents was explored in more detail, and the exposure of their ultimate fate packed quite a punch in the final act, where Cap’s impaired friend Bucky Barnes was finally incriminated as their killer.
Arguably, Tony went through more of a narrative arc in the blockbuster than Steve did, desperately clinging on to some sense of legitimacy by pushing the team toward a government-controlled future, admitting that he and long-term girlfriend Pepper were pretty much over, and taking time out to help War Machine on his way to recovery after yet another poor choice saw his bestie shot from the sky during the film’s epic Avengers face-off.
But the Tony Stark at the end of Civil War is a man who has very much been through the ringer. After Cap leaves him broken and beaten at the end of the movie, he’s left licking his wounds – both visible and invisible ones. Along with his patched-over mental collapse, Stark is now in a stage of emotional collapse – and with his superhero Scooby gang now fractured, who will be there to help him heal?
“So you’re a man that has everything, and nothing.”
Moving into Avengers: Infinity War, Tony Stark has very little left but his money. The Avengers are scattered and trust him as far as they can throw him (admittedly, that’s quite far for some of them), Pepper has finally ditched him, Rhodes is out of action and he probably feels pretty impotent after not being able to dish out the punishment he thought was fit for Barnes’ deadly actions.
It definitely feels like the end of the road for the character, and with the exception of Yondu and Quicksilver elsewhere in the Marvel stable – who, let’s get real, were only turned from antagonists to good guys shortly before their demise – the MCU hasn’t yet witnessed any major deaths.
Marvel seem afraid to make those decisions for whatever reasons (financial, contractual, etc) but with so many of the actors’ contracts expiring, the next two Avengers films could see some of the heavy hitters gasping their final breath – and with Thanos potentially out to woo Death (if things go the way of the comics) what bigger trophy could he collect than the head of the Avengers’ default leader, Iron Man?
So, sure, after suffering both a mental and emotional collapse onscreen, it’s entirely possible that Avengers 3 and 4 could play out the physical collapse of Iron Man and the end of Tony Stark. But what does that even mean in a universe that now has the mystical elements of Doctor Strange’s world? Alternate timelines and realities could see Iron Man back from the dead, if only temporarily.
Something else that’s been building inside the character’s arc since Iron Man 3 is Stark’s efforts at forging a legacy. Despite having no children of his own, he fully funded the helpful young Harley Keener, decided to foster the creation of Vision during Age Of Ultron, and he’s also taken more than a passing interest in struggling hero Peter Parker – trailers for the forthcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming reveal that he’s continued to set himself up as both a benefactor and a rather lackluster father figure for our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.
“This is really something that Stan Lee scratched down going on 50 years now,” Downey Jr mused in an interview with Slashfilm a few years back. “He touched on something really, really cool with Iron Man and, strangely, Iron Man was sort of second-tier superhero who laid the groundwork for these other guys and gals.”
So, if Iron Man doesn’t kick the bucket in the next two team-up flicks, could the character become more of a Nick Fury presence in future films, cropping up for a scene or two to bolster the Avengers’ strength?
We should also address the possibility of re-casting the role, either with a new face or someone a little more familiar. It’d be great to see the Riri Williams story unfold on the big screen, but considering it’ll have taken Marvel 11 years to bless one female character with her own standalone film in the form of Captain Marvel, a full female reboot of the Iron Man franchise seems like rather a longshot.
Pepper and Harley are two other very remote possibilities for the suit, but although the Winter Soldier stepped into Captain America’s shoes in the world of the comics, the MCU has made him responsible for a whole lot of other bad things in the films, including killing Tony’s beloved parents. Could the subsequent guilt (and loss of his killer arm) encourage Barnes to take on the Iron Man mantle after Stark’s demise? Hey, stranger things have happened.
Whatever goes down, it’ll be interesting to see whether Marvel will choose to tie up the character’s current arc and finally take Iron Man out of the picture in Avengers 3 and 4. Narratively, at least, it certainly seems like they’re on the road to doing so.