“Genius. Billionaire. Playboy. Philanthropist. ”
That’s Tony Stark in his own words, a man who never shies away from immodesty. With one statement he basically claims that he has hit every mark of modern-day American success. He’s smart, wealthy, has a rock star-like sexual prowess, and is a humanitarian, but is that all he really stands for? With the conclusion of Avengers: Age of Ultron, and the building anticipation of Captain America: Civil War, it seems like as good of a time as any to try and understand who really is the man behind the iron armor.
When people think of a superhero that best represents America, Iron Man is not always at the top of the list, but the truth is that Stark and his alter ego represent aspects of this country as much as anyone else carrying a star-spangled shield. First and foremost, Tony Stark is a capitalist, and there is nothing quite so American as that.
A billionaire industrialist, Anthony Edward Stark and his family made their money from weapons’ manufacturing and technology. Even once Tony made the move away from arms dealing he never lost his company or his wealth. In fact, the first Iron Man debuted in 2008 during the American recession, when over 7% of Americans were out of work and floundering for money. Yet, we cheered on the wealthy Stark all the same, because that first movie is basically a tale about how Tony must make himself worthy of his family’s company and wealth in order to prove that he is more than just a genius trust fund screw-up. It is like a version of the American dream, the self-constructed superhero. At a time when so many of America’s wealthy were practicing immoral acts against the public, it was nice to see a fictional one who was trying to do good. Iron Man was an idealized capitalist, but that has always been a basic fact of the character.
The best comic heroes are icons of something greater. For Tony Stark, his comic came along at a time when the “First World” was struggling against the evils of the “Second World,” the Cold War. Stan Lee designed Iron Man in 1963 to be the “quintessential capitalist.” He was designed to be a businessman and a weapons manufacturer. At the time capitalism was in direct opposition to communism, and Tony came to represent everything that struggle had to offer. Stark fought villains like the Mandarin and the Red Dynamo, using his wealth, and his technology to save the world, but if Captain America is a symbol of American ideals, than Iron Man has become a symbol of America’s pragmatic reality.
Ever since the end of the Cold War, our favorite shellhead has found himself floundering for villains to fight and most of the time he ends up being his own worst enemy, whether through alcoholism or blind ambition. If that sounds familiar, then congratulations you have been paying attention over the last thirty years of global politics. In modern times, Iron Man now represents more than just capitalism. He represents an America that is continually falling toward unfettered security. Of all the Marvel heroes we have seen on the big screen, Tony Stark has been the most dynamic. Captain America is a good guy, Bruce Banner had rage issues, Thor is a god with family problems, but Tony has shown the most growth, and not always for the best.
An Armored Allegory
As stated earlier, Iron Man was about Stark proving his worth. By the beginning of Iron Man 2 Tony was flying high. People loved him like a celebrity, and his enemies hated him like a devil, but most were too powerless to do anything about it. Technologically, he was so far beyond them that none of them could even begin to challenge Iron Man. The CEO of Stark Industries even gave the finger to Congress in a cinematic scene that would have made Ayn Rand stand up and cheer. The movie ended with Stark defeating some personal problems and some soviet sins from his family’s past, but Iron Man was still on top of the world. He was literally the world’s only superpower, like America after the Cold War. Times were good.
The Avengers changed all that. Tony was no longer alone and suddenly he faced a tragedy in New York City that completely shook his world view and his faith in himself. In the end, he saved the day, but he was never quite the same again. Iron Man 3, was about a new Tony Stark who suffered from panic attacks and became so obsessed with security that he built several dozen new Iron Man armors, new security systems, and even automated his suits to protect his home. Yet, when threatened by an enemy carrying out terrorist attacks, he blindly and immediately jumped to a stance of false bravado and strength. He paid the price for it as his technology failed him, and we learned that the terrorist he thought was his enemy was in fact nothing more than smoke and mirrors to hide the real threat presented by a fellow CEO of a powerful corporation that had been pulling the strings on both sides of the war.
In a way, this country has built more suits of armor than anyone else. Since 9/11 The United States has spent nearly 800 billion dollars on homeland security. Our own tragedy in New York has changed us, and given us justification to do as much harm to ourselves as anyone else. Stark has mirrored the American journey from the Cold War to the present almost precisely, the bravado, the fear, the heroism, the celebrity, and the wealth.
However, he is also coming to represent what the future of what America might become, if we keep on our current path. If Tony in Iron Man 3 represented the USA in modern times, than his role in Avengers: Age of Ultron represented what we could be in danger of becoming. Tony creates the Ultron Project to “put a suit of armor around the world.” He shows a favoritism toward security rather than freedom, and unsurprisingly it is an initiative that ends less than stellar for the Avengers and one small European country. This is a trajectory that promised to only increase in captain America: Civil War, where Tony’s fear and pragmatism will directly conflict with the old American idealism of Captain America.
Great Iron Men of History
Part of Mr. Stark’s problem is his capitalistic tendencies. We would not go so far as to say that he fits the bill of Ayn Rand’s ideal hero, but he does seem to prescribe to the Great Man Theory of history and culture, where all the world’s history is nothing more than the biographies of great men, one of which is Tony himself. He sees himself as the savior of the world, and that is something we cannot always fault him for. We have watched the struggles of Iron Man for more than five movies, and each step he has taken is incremental and almost understandable considering what he has faced.
America has taken a similar journey, and so often we see it as our duty to be the world’s policeman, but our power is fading and paranoia is starting to take hold. Like Tony Stark we have gone from an invincible technological superpower to a country willing to sacrifice freedom for safety. It is also worth mentioning that at the end of Iron Man 3, Tony literally had his heart removed, the very heart that made him Iron Man in the first place. The symbolism of that is about as heavy-handed as you can get.
Thus, the stage is set for this greater conflict of Civil War, but also for some real-world tensions that have sat at the core of our nation. The issue of this coming conflict will be between more than just two titans of Marvel comics. Is our modern system mutually exclusive to a idealistic belief in total personal freedom and equality? Have we allowed our own fears and ego to drive us to become something we no longer recognize? We are not the villain, but we may need to confront the fact that we may no longer be the hero either, at least not a hero like Steve Rogers.
Captain Idealism and Iron Reality
Calling Captain America an allegory for anything is almost an understatement less subtle than taking a red, white, and blue shield to the face. Yet, what a lot of people do not understand is that Cap is not really a representation of America as a whole, but a representation of an idealized America. He doesn’t represent the government, or the Army, or even democracy. Instead, we should look at Steve Rogers as a walking Bill of Rights: freedom, liberty, and equality. He is not a cynic, nor is he a satirized symbol. Captain America is genuine, at least as genuine as his own belief that all men are truly created equal, regardless of race, color, religion, or even nationality. It is a trait he demonstrates in both comic and movie form, most notably by dismantling SHIELD when he sees them as having too much power over the ordinary citizen. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, it is Cap that first lends a voice of understanding to the Maximoff twins, even when he still thinks of them as his enemy. He does not revel in war, but understands its necessity.
Civil War will not just be a battle between two friends, but a battle between ideals: order versus freedom, safety versus privacy, and our new American reality versus our most sacred beliefs. Each side will have a point, and if done right each side will not be entirely wrong. If nothing else, we hope it is a movie that will spark debate among audiences, and not a debate about who is stronger physically, but who is right in their judgment.
It will be easy to paint Stark and his arguments as the villains, after all Captain America represents the best of us, the ideal we want to live up to, but should we always live our lives in a world of ideals? Iron Man would probably say that he sees people as they truly are, and he believes he is doing the best he can for the world as it stands, not as he hopes it will be. Is that wrong? There are no easy answers, and we each must struggle with them for ourselves.
Both Stark and Rogers represent different Americas, but the current conflict will be as much about their disagreements as it is about what our country will chose to become. The United States is still a young nation, and its role both domestically and in global politics is always changing. We live in a time of turmoil where technology moves faster than moral progress, we strive between our ideals and our fears. We are a country founded on opposing forces, liberal and conservative, security and liberty, democracy and capitalism. They all pull at each other like an arc reactor fighting to pull shrapnel from a wound, but much like that arc reactor these forces also act at the heart of our nation. They keeps us going and force us to continually confront the future with new and evolving ideas.