Iron Man may be Marvel’s flagship hero – but, ahead of Avengers: Endgame, it’s surprising to note that he’s never actually won a battle on his own. When Stan Lee originally created Tony Stark, it was because he wanted to see if he could turn somebody everyone should dislike – a greedy, self-absorbed capitalist – into a superhero. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, although credit has to go to Robert Downey Jr for his iconic big-screen portrayal.
Downey’s Tony Stark lies at the heart of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and as a result he’s become Marvel’s highest-paid star – earning $10 million for his 15 minutes of screen time in Spider-Man: Homecoming. The recent Avengers: Endgame trailer opened with a hugely symbolic scene in which the defeated Tony Stark stared at the battered, broken Iron Man helmet; a symbol of the Avengers’ defeat, and of Thanos’ horrific triumph.
Tony Stark may consider himself a hero, and Steve Rogers may believe he’s Earth’s greatest defender, but surprisingly Stark isn’t quite so hot as he likes to think. In fact, when you cast a critical eye on Iron Man, you’ll find he doesn’t really have much of a winning streak at all.
IRON MAN ONLY EVER WINS IN THE MCU WITH THE HELP OF OTHERS
A recent discussion among fans on Reddit raised an interesting point about Iron Man: there isn’t a single major fight that he has won on his own. Sure, he can take down a tank or a fighter jet, and he can handle a score of Ultron drones, but whenever Tony Stark has gone up against any major foes, he’s won with the help of others. A core problem appears to be that Tony Stark has developed a stunning armored suit, containing a vast array of long-range weapons, but he’s unable to resist the temptation to get into melee fights, where he’s simply outclassed time and again. Take the example of the first Iron Man film, where Obadiah Stane builds his Iron Monger suit for brawling – and Stark is happy to oblige, even though it leads to his own suit being torn apart. In that film, Tony would have died without Pepper’s help. Iron Man 2 kicks off with Stark unable to beat Whiplash without a helping hand, and the film ends when he and War Machine make like Ghostbusters and cross the streams.
Moving on to The Avengers, it’s true that Loki surrenders when he sees Iron Man’s firepower – but that was his plan all along. Stark’s clash with Thor is basically a draw, which granted is impressive considering he’s going up against the God of Thunder, but it’s still not a win. Finally, the end battle is a team effort; it’s true that Tony proves himself a true hero, even willing to make the sacrifice play, but he’d still die if not for the Hulk’s intervention. Iron Man 3 is set shortly after, and opens with Tony suffering a major defeat. He foolishly tells a terrorist his home address and invites him to pay a house call, and yet doesn’t seem to have prepared for the eventuality the Mandarin would actually take him up on the offer. When it comes to fighting an Extremis-empowered Killian at the end of the film, Tony once again wins with Pepper’s help.
Avengers: Age of Ultron features what seems to be Tony Stark’s first major win, when he dons the Hulkbuster armor and manages to KO the Hulk. It’s debatable whether or not that counts, though; after all, the Hulkbuster was designed by both Tony Stark and Bruce Banner for the explicit purpose of beating the Hulk, and Tony is simply the man who’s wearing it. Again, the final battle against Ultron is a team effort, with the Avengers successfully defeating the genocidal android Stark has unwittingly created. Tony next appears in Captain America: Civil War, and of course the one time he goes up against opponents on his own – Captain America and the Winter Soldier – he’s defeated. He doesn’t have any fights in Spider-Man: Homecoming, and in Avengers: Infinity War is on the ropes in his battle against the Black Order until Spider-Man intervenes. It’s really Peter who thinks of a way to deal with Ebony Maw, and when Iron Man goes one-on-one against Thanos he ultimately loses and is almost killed.
Let’s face it: when it comes to winning, Tony Stark isn’t exactly a pro. He can handle grunts and he can take out tanks, but for all his advanced tech Stark always seems to be trying to punch above his weight. When he does win, it’s with the help of others, and frankly Pepper Potts probably has a better “kill count” in terms of boss battles than Tony does.
WHY IRON MAN CAN NEVER WIN ALONE
It’s important to understand that Tony Stark is no loser. The reality is that Iron Man’s greatest battle isn’t with Obadiah Stane, Whiplash, or even Thanos; it’s with himself. Tony Stark is a raging egomaniac who doesn’t play well with others, and who’s always tempted to push people away and try to do things on his own. He’s always having to relearn the same lesson – that he can’t win alone and that he needs to work as part of a team. That’s why the basic structure of the Iron Man films has always remained the same; Stark tries to do it on his own and fails, but by the end of the movie he has his friends and allies with him, and thus wins.
Notice that Tony Stark is frequently the one who works out how to beat the bad guys. In Iron Man, it’s his idea to use the Arc Reactor against Iron Monger; in Iron Man 2, he has the idea that takes down Whiplash in the end. Stark is the one who flies a nuclear bomb up through a wormhole in The Avengers, and he’s the man who figures out how to destroy Ultron’s city-bomb in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Tony Stark may not play well with others, but when he stops trying to operate solo and actually strategizes, he and his friends triumph.
All this makes Iron Man’s portrayal in Avengers: Infinity War particularly interesting. It’s important to remember that the film opens with Tony Stark alone, believing the Avengers Initiative has failed. As a result, he’s invested a phenomenal amount of time and effort in creating his most impressive armor to date, imagining that it will be enough to deal with the cosmic threat he senses is on the horizon. But notice that Iron Man is initially overwhelmed by just the Black Order, and is saved from death by Spider-Man’s intervention. In this first battle, Stark fights with allies; later in the film, when he goes up against Thanos, he tries to do it alone and all he gets for his effort is a single drop of blood. It’s a complete inversion of Tony Stark’s typical character arc, and as such it’s frankly no surprise that he’s beaten to within an inch of his life.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR IRON MAN IN AVENGERS: ENDGAME ?
It’s generally assumed that Tony Stark will play a vital role in either averting or undoing the snap in Avengers: Endgame. This is believed to be Robert Downey, Jr.’s last appearance in the role of Iron Man, and as such Marvel will want to honor their franchise lead. This has been effectively signposted; notice Doctor Strange didn’t hand over the Time Stone to Thanos until Tony’s life was threatened, suggesting he believes Iron Man is vital for his “endgame” plan. The first trailer opened with an extended sequence focused upon Tony as well, reinforcing the sense that he’s vital to the plot.
But if Tony is to put matters right, he will need to relearn the lesson life has been trying to teach him for over a decade: that he can’t do it alone. Tying in to this, notice a subtle detail in the Avengers: Endgame trailer: Tony Stark is wearing exactly the same clothes he wore in the first Iron Man film, when he was imprisoned in the cave and first created the Iron Man armor. Significantly, on both occasions there was someone else there who could potentially help him (Yinsen in Iron Man, Nebula in Avengers: Endgame). There’s no way this is a coincidence, and it suggests that both experiences should be viewed as times when Tony Stark reinvents himself – with somebody else’s help.
Moving on from this, when Stark returns to Earth his first priority needs to be reconciling himself with the rest of the Avengers. Although early drafts of Avengers: Infinity War featured scenes with Tony Stark and Steve Rogers in the same room, the Russos eventually switched things round. That scene – the awkward confrontation between two friends who have had such a painful falling-out – has been preserved for Avengers: Endgame. The Avengers must stand united against Thanos if they are to win.
At this stage, it’s unclear exactly how the Avengers will defeat the Mad Titan, although there’s abundant evidence that their plans involve time-travel. Whatever the truth may be, though, it appears to involve gathering the greatest band of heroes the MCU has ever seen. There’s been open discussion of a scene that features absolutely every major MCU character – from Janet Van Dyne to Steve Rogers, from Captain Marvel to War Machine. It seems likely the assembled heroes will be standing in opposition to Thanos, and if so it’s the clearest evidence yet that Tony Stark will have learned his lesson at last; not only is he avoiding a one-on-one rematch with Thanos, he’s also got more help than he’s ever had before.
When Avengers: Endgame finally comes to an end, the MCU will be very different. It’s generally believed this will be Tony Stark’s last, greatest, battle; but it’s crucial that it not be one he fights alone. Whatever he may tell himself, the truth is that Stark has never stood alone; he’s only ever triumphed with the help of his friends and loved ones. If the snap is to be put right, if half the lives in the universe are to be saved, then Tony Stark will need all the help he can possibly get.