The main purveyors of superhero stories are, of course, the comic book publishers, large, medium and small. Marvel Comics, arguably the most globally successful of those creators, has birthed no fewer than a grandiose thirty-four films over the last decade and a half, with two more set to be released later this very calendar year. The most eagerly anticipated of those yet-to-be seen films must be Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), a film whose original garnered over $1.5 billion in box office receipts in 2012.
That’s a tidy sum for movie that had an approximate budget of $220 million. And that bottom line doesn’t include the lucrative franchise offerings of licensed toys, video games, magazines and all the ancillary products featuring the Marvel Comics characters of Captain America, the Hulk, Nick Fury and Thor.
Yes, everyone loves a superhero. And these days, everyone loves the character of Tony Stark, the superhero known around the globe as Iron Man.
Brilliantly played with zest and aplomb by actor Robert Downey Jr., Tony Stark, the Iron Man, is known as the quick thinking, fast-talking, faster acting, mustachioed playboy with a golden ticket in the form of his parentage, as well as an all-important golden suit of high-tech armor.
But beyond his humorous quips, his intrinsic glamour and his numerous heroic deeds, there lays a dark lining to the legacy of everyone’s favourite, shining character. It is a legacy that Tony Stark has both inherited and, in fact, cultivated, through his own personal failings.
And so much good and bad in the Marvel Cinematic Universe exists because it.
In both comic books and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Tony Stark’s legacy begins with his father, the mid twentieth century brilliant mechanical engineer, Howard Stark. Already played by three different actors, the character has been seen, or at least heavily mentioned, in four films to date: Iron Man (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) and one recent television series where he’s had a guest-starring role: Agent Carter (2015). The elder Stark has been portrayed as both a lynchpin between the founding of the Marvel series of films (beginning during World War II) and also as the torchbearer, passing that sense of importance on to his son.
A self-made man, Howard Stark is a brilliant and wealthy playboy. He is also a flamboyant and charismatic showman, aspects that come to his son both inately and through conscious growth. During World War II and the Captain America: The First Avenger film, the elder Stark is first presented to audiences at a future technologies fair modern marvels pavilion, where he introduces the automobile of the future: a flying machine that resembles a cross between an Oldsmobile and, for eagle-eyed viewers, Agent Coulson’s red 1962 Chevy Corvette named “Lola” from the more recent Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2014-) television series.
After kissing his attractive female assistant (to the “oh’s” and “ah’s” of the women in the audience), Stark takes the microphone, exclaiming that the vehicle would be available in “just a few short years.” Of course, after hovering for a few seconds, the car unceremoniously fails in a dazzling display of sparks, explosions and fire. “I did say a few years, didn’t I?” a smiling and debonair Stark coolly reminds the audience. They forgive him with a round of applause. For certain, it’s the sense of instant likability that Howard, the father, has passed down to his son Tony, but it’s also the element of failure.
In the first Iron Man film, Tony Stark engages in a presentation of his own – to the United States military. He showcases not futuristic items, but his present-day weapon of warfare, the Jericho missile, products Stark Industries excels in creating and monetizing.
“Peace means having a bigger stick,” states Stark to his audience of Generals, with a heaping dash of both belief and bravado. “Is it better to be feared or respected? Is it too much to ask for both?” The man even sounds like his father when he states that the weapon uses Stark proprietary “repulsor technology”, echoing the proprietary “gravitic reversion technology” of the wartime automobile of the future.
Still, there’s no warming this audience over with smiles and there’s no chance of failure in his product. “That’s how Dad did it, that’s how America does it,” he stoically and confidently states. The missile, of course, performs overly well, and Tony Stark, the overly exuberant patriot and showman, adopts a messianic pose, in his mind delivering victory before a battle has even begun while in his hand, a glass of scotch, toasting yet another economic triumph.
To peace, indeed.
While Tony Stark is blatant and unashamed of his chosen industry and his role in warfare at the beginning of Iron Man, Howard Stark, too, is about more than just flying cars of the future.
Indeed, the founder of Stark Industries had a militaristic role to play in both the creation of the super soldier serum that gave rise to a muscled, athletic and heroic Captain America from a scrawny weakling. He was also the visionary behind the arc reactor, a device that sparked the origins of Iron Man himself, saving his son’s life in the process. But this all leads to the duality of the older Stark.
At his essence, forced upon by his role in society along with his intrinsic partnership with the American military, Howard Stark is a natural liar. The uplifting nature of his creations for mankind’s betterment is weighed down by his more destructive, and more financially rewarding, engineering feats. There’s only one way, it seems, to get to where he’s at in society’s pyramidal echelon. He comes clean on his persuasions and this sense of duality on an episode of the recent, mid-twentieth century set, Agent Carter television series, telling Peggy Carter “you don’t get to climb the American ladder without picking up some bad habits on the way.”
That Howard Stark’s multitude of good deeds has an underlying darkness to them is inevitable. Tony Stark keeps no real secrets. It can be said that perhaps his father was a product of his time, where secrets and lies kept western civilization free. Howard Stark existed at a time wherein the world was in the grips of a war against Nazi Germany, a Cold War against Russia, and, during all this, during the slithering, underbelly rise of evil organizations like Hydra – a faction that has also been active in many of the Marvel Universe series of films. “He was no flower child – he was a lion,” says Justin Hammer, a modern day munitions contemporary to Tony Stark, speaking about the patriarch founder of Stark Industries.
For Tony, there is no worry. He didn’t have to adopt any bad habits on his climb up the American ladder. He was born there. Any bad habits he has are part and parcel with his egotistical, yet likable, marketability. It’s no wonder that Agent Nick Fury came to Tony Stark first when he was putting together the “Avengers initiative”. Fury knows that heroes need to be seen and who better to be seen than someone who is already liked by the masses? There is no distinction between Tony Stark and Iron Man. “I am Iron Man,” he famously exclaims at the end of the first film.
Oppressive agencies and scientific problems as mere irritants that are but a thought away from elimination via Tony’s scientific brilliance, his wealth and his affable public/private persona. The younger Stark’s confidence in all of his endeavors allows him to believe in the authenticity and attainment of any required salvation that he himself singularly composes. Stark is a “Type A” personality, the center of attraction wherever he goes. As easy as it is for him to create horrendous weapons for destruction, as easy as it is for him to come to resolutions for long-standing and complex issues, Tony Stark believes he is ultimately doing good.
Still, Stark moved away from supplying government agencies with the weapons they wanted after he saw evil factions using the same technology in the first Iron Man film. “I don’t want a body count to be our only legacy,” he says. That’s why he built his armored suit. That’s why he built multiple and upgraded versions of the suit, each having the ability to operate on their own. Taking global problems into his own, albeit egotistical hands, “I’ve successfully privatized world peace,” he matter-of-factly sates to the Senate Armed Services Committee in Iron Man 2, just as he slips on the fashionable sunglasses that complete his look of bravado, playfully waving a Nixonesque peace gestures to onlookers, obtaining their buy-in on that very mantra.
But for every one of Stark’s golden creations, no matter how “privatized”, there remains an underlying darkness, a malicious intent that constantly rears itself from the shadows. Just like his father before him, Tony Stark’s legacy must be one that exudes a malice on all mankind.
At the center of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, one of its greatest heroes is also its greatest purveyor of conflict.
Part two of BBP’s It’s All Connected: Golden Glitter & An Underlying Darkness-The Legacy of Tony Stark In The MCU will be published on Tuesday May 5. It will take a closer look at the darker aspects of Tony Stark and the Stark legacy that have infiltrated the Marvel Cinematic Universe over the last seven years.