Iron Man: Being Who You Are

Iron Man: Being Who You Are

“I am Iron Man.”

It may be hard to remember now, but this line was pretty shocking when we first heard it said by Tony Stark in 2008. Tony’s glib admittance, nay, bragging about his “secret” identity at the end of the first of the MCU films stood general superhero convention on its head. There was supposed to be hiding and skulking and angst about living a dual life. Tony Stark publicly embraced his heroic identity, with all the fame, fortune, and responsibility that entailed.

The rest of the Iron Man and Avengers films can be read as Stark figuring out what being Iron Man means: how his knowledge, responsibility and power ought to work in the world. In so doing, he is constantly exploring how being Iron Man relates to being Tony Stark.

I don’t want to frame this as the “who is the real mask” conversation we usually have with Batman and Bruce Wayne. It’s not about a secret identity, it’s about tensions between power, responsibility, and happiness. It’s the same conversation Spider Man constantly has (which is probably one of the reasons Spidey and Tony are so close in the MCU, but that’s another essay).

When Iron Man is defeated by Thanos on Titan, Stark fails at a particular way of being Iron Man. His failure, ironically, then brings about an idyllic way of being Tony Stark, yet that is also incomplete. His eventual victory and sacrifice in defeating Thanos is possible only because he has been down both of those roads and found them wanting. Let me explain. . .

Since the second Iron Man film, and especially in the Avengers movies, Stark wants to put a “suit around the world.” What began as a cool weapons/energy platform (the Iron Man suit) became a way to protect the earth from massive threats the normal defenses could not handle. Ultron, all the extra Iron Man suits, the whole SHIELD satellite thing, the Avengers as a whole -- all of these were variations on Tony’s way to “fix” the problem terrifyingly demonstrated by the Battle of New York. There is a problem -- interstellar threat to the Earth embodied by Thanos -- and Stark spends countless hours trying to fix it.

This “fixer” mentality pervades Tony’s approach to the Avengers throughout the films, but it’s not very healthy for him. Tony cannot help but continually mess with stuff. He’s a “tinkerer”, constantly problem solving, building, experimenting. The realization of this aspect of his own identity comes in Iron Man 3, when he’s hiding in that kids garage and building the mega potato cannon. It’s what helps him get back on the horse, so to speak, as he deals with his PTSD.

Being a tinkerer and being a fixer may seem the same, but they are not. The differ in a number of ways, but a key difference is how they deal with failure. When a fixer fixes something, upgrades something, builds something, that thing is supposed to be whole, complete, perfect. If it does not work, then the project has failed. HE has failed. He must start over, or just move on.

This is exactly how Tony reacts when Captain Marvel returns him to Earth. His plans to fix things so that Earth is safe has failed miserably. And so he’s done. He gives up on the project. Let someone else worry about it. He, finally, can go be a husband and a father.

By all accounts he’s a good one. He and his family seem happy. But note he is still tinkering. He’s building Pepper a suit. He apparently has massive computing power (enough to figure out time travel) in his living room. He’s still tinkering, this time without the immediate pressure of fixing the problem of protecting earth. He’s able to just mess around with stuff, just like he was able to do in the kid’s barn.

For the tinker, failure is just part of the process. Things don’t work. They smoke. They break. That just means one needs to try again, refine, get back to it. Failure is a learning opportunity. Similarly, a project is never done. There’s never any final state of “fixed.” There’s just a temporary break where things seem to be working. This lasts until they don’t work anymore or the tinker gets a new idea she wants to try out.

Tony-as-fixer is defeated by Thanos and moves on. Tony is broken, physically and emotionally, at the beginning of Endgame. All his compromises and sacrifices have still led him to failure. When it turns out that Pepper has survived the snap, Tony’s relief is immense.  It’s no small compensation that he gets to move on and embrace another longed-for aspect of his life. Not just because the woman he loves still lives, but because now, finally, he has no excuse not to just be Tony Stark -- husband. Iron Man got his ass kicked, so Tony can just be Tony. But, while he seems to be done fixing things, he can’t stop tinkering with things. That’s just who he is.

Tony-as-tinkerer is the one who jumps back in to help the Avengers figure out the time travel plan. There are problems to play with, permutations to consider, and a big dose of “what if” throughout it all. He improvises with brilliance, helping to guide the recovery of the Infinity Stones.

The final fight with Thanos, and eventual sacrifice by Iron Man, is the bringing together of all these parts -- Tony the husband, Iron Man the Hero, the scientist, the tinkerer. It’s, in some sense, and embrace of how things ought to be. Only one timeline has Thanos losing; that happens to be the timeline where Tony uses the stones to defeat Thanos and dies in the process. I see Tony’s willingness to do this not just as embracing the inevitable actions that need to be done in order to win, but as a the realization that he -- Iron Man -- has to be the one to do it. Iron Man is the fusion of all the parts of Tony Stark -- fixer, tinkerer, hero, husband, and father.

“I am Iron Man” at the end is not only a smart ass remark to Thanos, but a reminder to us all that Tony has always been the man in the suit, the protector of earth, and that happily married husband/scientist was, at best, a purposeful and earned reprieve. A bit of a vacation into domestic life. Having experienced this part of his life, Tony/Iron Man is complete. And so he can move on.


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