With CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR releasing this weekend in the UK, we refresh our knowledge of Marvel’s most consistent anchor and examine what has lead Tony Stark to stand by the Superheroes Registration Act in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
[NOTE: This article contains mild spoilers for Civil War – the comic book event, and MCU movies leading up to but not including Captain America: Civil War]
The topic of character ideology has been a source of discussion for Marvel Comics fans for decades, and now that debate is reaching cinemas this Friday (28th April 2016). The events of Civil War took place in the comics franchise in 2006, as almost anyone who’s anyone took a side for or against the Superhero Registration Act: A bill that would effectively criminalise super-human activities of any kind, unless regulated by the U.S. Government.
The catalyst for these events is a lot more simplistic in the comics – a group of young heroes known as the New Warriors clash with a hideout of criminals in a residential area and the conflict results in supervillain Nitro destroying the town of Stamford, Connecticut. The death toll reaches 600 citizens, 60 of which are children. The only survivor of the New Warriors is Speedball who goes on to brunt most of the blame as Nitro goes on the run.
The Registration Act is quickly put into place and for those heroes who wish to remain anonymous, this creates a huge conflict of interest. The Act requires public knowledge of a superhero’s identity in order to be regulated. As such it’s easy to see why some characters choose to sign up and others don’t…
Steve Rogers/Captain America takes a stand against the Act, as it would mean exposing not just the heroes themselves to harm, but also their loved ones. Cap believes that as a service which is provided purely for the forces of good, regulation represents a mistrust that could undermine the dynamic of being a ‘Protector of the People’ on a fundamental level – If you can only protect your world by exposing yourself to harm, then the simple choice is to stand-down altogether. This would have a devastating impact on world peace within Marvel.
This is where we move on to Tony Stark, and the main topic this Bulletin will cover. In Civil War, the comic event, Stark takes the side of registration as he feels it is the responsibility of all heroes to be trained and regulated. This is mostly in light of the Stamford disaster. This is an easy choice to understand, but things become more complex in the comic universe as that version of Tony Stark is a much shadier character than the Downey Jr. portrayal in the MCU movies. ComicStark at first takes a stand against registration but then changes stance when he sees an opportunity to gain control for himself. His plan of action is to allow the bill to pass, but to build bridges with the heroes he deems most trustworthy, so that they can secretly pull the strings and operate freely to a degree. This secret society is something many take strong issue with, Doctor Strange (film releasing in November) removes himself immediately and instructs Stark to never contact him again. ComicStark presses on regardless, however, and this is why we see him manipulating Peter Parker/Spider-Man so heavily. When Peter’s arm is gently twisted into revealing his identity to the world, this plays into Stark’s hands and his aim to get the Registration Act passed.
There are many examples of ComicStark taking part in shady deals, spying and general Machiavellian behaviour throughout Civil War and other stories. This is key to the story telling, as although ComicStark’s point of view is reasonable and agreeable, it’s his way, and furthermore the actions of the US Government, that position him as the story’s overall villain.
At the beginning of this piece, we referred to Tony Stark as Marvel’s most consistent character in the movie franchise, but not a lot of his actions from the comic strips seem consistent with his screen presence at all. It’s certainly undeniable that while Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man is one of the most charismatic icons of the films, his ink and colour roots are not so loveable. However, this doesn’t mean his character arc in the MCU is inconsistent at all. In fact, despite ComicStark’s villainous prowess, any fan can see for themselves how MCUStark is pro-peace, pro-regulation, and independent world defender all rolled into one. But just incase, here’s our recap:
IRON MAN -2008
Way back at the start of the MCU, we see that Tony Stark is an arrogant chauvinist. After his experience in Afghanistan (targeted and kidnapped by terrorists) which leads him to become Iron Man, he quickly dissolves the ammunitions portion of Stark Industries and begins to focus on clean energy.
We hear him comment:
“I saw young Americans killed by the very weapons I created to defend them and protect them. And I saw that I had become part of a system that is comfortable with zero-accountability.”
It’s from this that the idea of Iron Man as a separate entity to Government forms and also why Nick Fury approaches Stark about the Avengers Initiative.
IRON MAN 2 – 2010
In a film that has become more worthwhile viewing for the MCU now than when it first released, we see the U.S. government try to seize the Iron Man armour. Stark vehemently refuses to pass over the suit, stating that it is not a weapon but an extension of himself. Although it’s obvious Stark remains arrogant, albeit for separate reasons, his aim is clear; Iron Man in the hands of the government can only lead to further conflict.
Stark: The point is you’re welcome, I guess.
Senator Stern: For what?
Stark: Because I’m your nuclear deterrent. It’s working. We’re safe. America is secure. You want my property? You can’t have it. But I did you a big favour… I’ve successfully privatised world peace.
The scary thing here is that, although Stark is proven right throughout the film – as Hammer Industries tries to fill Stark’s place, mass violence is unleashed – it’s also clear that Tony believes he is the only one trustworthy of the power the suit provides. This creates a strong parallel to the comics, and it’s this arrogance that will lead to his downfall later.
THE AVENGERS – 2012
For the first time, the Avengers assemble in the face of a global threat as Loki leads an invasion of Earth. There are three key motions to MCUStark’s character arc that take place here, all of which show how his routes in the comics dictate his actions on screen.
“I’m bringing the party to you.”
First of all, we get to witness the blossoming friendship between Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, AKA the Hulk. Although genuine affection is obvious, Stark clearly hampers Banner with his own point of view: that he should embrace the Hulk. Stark views the Hulk as an extension of Banner in the same way he views his armour as an extension of himself. This is a limited point of view, but regardless, when the Battle of New York begins, Stark has already sewn the seed in Banner’s mind to take part and he follows this up by deliberately leading the first Chitauri Leviathan into his path. And just like that, the Hulk join The Avengers. Unprovoked, the Hulk would not have been there, which spells good and bad news for future events. Just as before, this softly parallels Tony Stark’s controlling behaviour from the books.
“We are not soldiers!”
Secondly, after Agent Phil Coulson is murdered by Loki, Tony takes the loss hardest. As they try to take in the events, Steve Rogers/Captain America and Stark discuss Coulson’s actions leading to his death. Tony remarks that he acted foolishly and should have waited until the Avengers as a team could strike at Loki. When Cap asks “Is this the first time you’ve lost a soldier?” Stark snaps back, “We are not soldiers!”
This is in respect to Stark’s belief that the Avengers do not represent a military team, but a force for peace. And it reveals Stark’s emotional wounds from Afghanistan are still present, where he did witness soldiers dying first hand.
“Because if we can’t protect the Earth, you can be damned well sure we’ll avenge it!”
Finally, and this is the main event, Iron Man saves New York by diverting a nuclear missile away from the city into a black hole, from which Loki’s alien forces are attacking. In these moments Stark accepts his full responsibility as a superhero to sacrifice himself, he believes he will die to save Earth. However upon entering the black hole, he is faced with the true nature of what threatens the world, as the extent of the alien army is far larger than could be imagined. Unexpectedly (for him, not the audience), Stark survives. But despite saving the day and escaping death, he must go on with the knowledge that humanity is completely exposed to unknown cosmic threats. And just as we see in IRON MAN 2, he only trusts himself to prevent that threat from succeeding. It’s this pressure that leads to the events of IRON MAN 3 where we see Tony struggle to overcome his PTSD following these events.
AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON – 2015
Although an all-round favourite here, the events of IRON MAN 3 are largely insular. We see Tony coming to terms with his PTSD, but not overcoming it per se. Most importantly, he accepts that although he will always be Iron Man he doesn’t have to carry the weight of the world alone.
This leads right into the creation of an AI that Stark discusses with Banner as a replacement to The Avengers. Once again, Stark puts too much faith in his own abilities. Quoting Neville Chamberlain*, he remarks to Banner…
“Peace in our time”
This is shortsighted for Stark, as once again his arrogance clouds his judgement. Despite his experiences, in an attempt to ‘step back’ he makes his largest mistake yet. This is also foreshadowed by the context of Chamberlain’s original quote being rendered completely preposterous in the years proceeding it (World War II – get your Google on, kidz).
All this results in the creation of Ultron, something the other Avenger’s aren’t even aware of at the time! Rather than a peacekeeping unit, Ultron undertakes a globetrotting murder spree in order to distract and provoke the Avengers. Its ultimate goal is to rid the Earth of humanity. Ultron’s perverse view of ‘peace in our time’ is as a direct result of Stark’s limited view of what he and the Avengers can achieve. Overall, this is the straw that breaks the camel’s back for most of the other team members, and that’s putting it lightly. Steve Rogers learns he can no longer trust Stark to operate sensibly, and just as he does in the comics Stark is all too happy to make his own plans behind closed doors. These events, in conjunction with SHIELD/Hydra’s behaviour in CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, result in Cap being ready and willing to step away from not just Stark but all Governmental Regulation entirely.
On top of the near annihilation from Ultron, the Hulk is also provoked into an explosion of chaotic violence – a situation partly caused by Stark and also something he once again tasks himself with resolving.
Overall, it’s clear to see Tony Stark’s progression from one arrogant stage to another. Beginning as an independent vigilante, to becoming a global peace keeper, to partial personal resolution of one’s own limits and responsibilities, to finally building a new defence that collapses in on itself spectacularly. It doesn’t take a leap of the imagination to see that after the actions of Ultron, Stark would be willing to involve himself with a regulatory body. His ultimate fear is that he and the Avengers are becoming part of a system comfortable with zero-accountability.
Additionally, it’s natural for Cap to want to protect himself and fellow Avengers from a similar onslaught to that he faced in WINTER SOLDIER and AGE OF ULTRON, especially if Stark is involved. Although, audiences will have to factor in Bucky Barnes’ actions as the Winter Soldier when deciding whether to side with #TeamCap or not… #BuckyMurderedThosePeople … I guess he was brainwashed, and it’s not as bad as Ultron’s deal… #StarkCreatesAntiChrist … but still.
The two Civil War stories show for themselves how characters can change from one interpretation to another, while staying true to core roots. Both stories have major differences, and while the source of disagreements and the Superhero Registration Act may be more complex in some places than others, it’s no less enjoyable to debate.
Tony Stark, as a figure head for the MCU has been a major success. Despite Downey Jr. basing his performance openly on himself, the arc of the story speaks volumes. There is an attention to detail here that’s evident of a story lovingly told, and not quickly pieced together for easy profit. As the franchise moves forward, it’s reasonable to assume Tony Stark will come undone, or simply step aside from the main action. Another character and star is sure to take the spot eventually. With Robert Downey Jr. confirmed for SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (out 2017), you could reasonably theorise Peter Parker could take the baton and carry the series into the future.
Whatever happens, we’re excited to see the next chapter in the MCU take place and witness Tony Stark arrogantly screwing up in another new and exciting way! We hope you enjoyed this recap. Until next time!
*The actual quote spoken was “Peace for our time”.