In defense of Team Iron Man: Tony Stark is not the bad guy

He's just his own worst enemy.

4:29 pm EDT, May 6, 2016

Even if you’re #TeamCap before, during, or after you see Civil War, I’ve got a few good reasons why you should sympathize with Iron Man, too.

Note: This is one half of a dueling column. Read “In Defense of Team Cap” here.

This post containers spoilers from Captain America: Civil War.

After everything that’s happened over the course of three Iron Man movies, two Avengers films, and Captain America: Civil War, it would be easy to place Tony into a box labeled Bad Guys. But that would be a disservice to his long and complicated journey to heroism.

I have not made it a secret that I am firmly on Team Iron Man, though this does not mean I don’t sympathize with or even agree with Steve’s point of view when it comes to the Sokovia Accords. In fact, I think both teams ended up right where they needed to be by the end of the movie.

But the team dynamic of Civil War has led to a division among fans, and Tony Stark has continuously come out on the bottom.

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To be fair, it’s easy to blame Tony. He’s made a lot of mistakes that have had huge repercussions on his friends, his loved ones, and the world as a whole. When you compare him to Captain America, it’s not hard to feel as though he may be in the wrong. Steve is, after all, innately good, altruistic, and righteous.

Tony is not. He’s selfish and narcissistic. He’s often cold and clinical, preferring to work on his machines rather than work on his relationships. He’s always looking for a way out with the least amount of effort. Whereas Steve would call this arrogant and self-serving, Tony would call it smart and efficient. He wouldn’t lay down on a wire; he’d just cut it.

But there are exceptions to every rule. Beginning in Iron Man, Tony learned first-hand the consequences of his actions. He saw innocent lives taken right before his eyes by his own technology. He realized that perhaps those accusations of war-profiteering were true, and instead of letting someone else handle it, he donned the suit himself despite the danger and the consequences.

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This is a man who has spent his entire life surrounded by everything he could ever want and need. What he couldn’t buy, he invented. Money, women, and fame had never been an issue. After he was abducted by Obadiah Stane’s men, he could’ve gone back to that easy life.

“So you’re a man who has everything — and nothing,” Yinsen says. Tony threw himself into danger, risking the loss of everything he had grown comfortable with — his company, the companionship of Pepper Potts, and even his life — and he did it because it was right, because he could, and because it finally gave him a purpose worth fighting for.

This is perhaps best seen when he says to Pepper, “You stood by my side all these years while I reaped the benefits of destruction. Now that I’m trying to protect the people I’ve put in harm’s way, you’re going to walk out?” Tony finally took responsibility for his actions, and despite the pushback, both founded (Pepper) and manipulative (Obadiah), Tony endured.

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This is, in fact, a common theme with his story. Tony Stark is always paying for his sins — I did say he was his own worst enemy. In Iron Man 2, we saw what happened when he let his ego loose on the world. He kept people safe, but as he flaunted his power, there were those who laid in wait for him to become complacent. And that’s when they attacked.

Iron Man’s second solo film is a huge turning point for Tony’s playboy attitude. He is dying, and while he thinks he wants all the comforts of his past life, there’s only one person he wants by his side. “It’s you. It’s always been you,” he tells Pepper. Of course, he’s talking about giving her the company, but this is true in every part of his life. It just takes him until the end of the movie to let go of his former self completely.

So Tony has learned humility and he has learned love. What’s next?

Teamwork. The Avengers is unprecedented in many ways, but perhaps most strikingly for any fan of Tony Stark, it’s that shocking moment when he passes control over to Captain America.

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This is a man he’s been jealous of his whole life. A man that he could never be, no matter how hard he tried. Tony lives to defy laws, while Cap lives to protect them. They are, without a doubt, on opposite ends of the spectrum. Tony should relish in getting under Steve’s skin, and for most of the movie he does. But when it counts, Tony becomes part of the team, and he realizes he is not the best person to be in the driver’s seat (metaphorically speaking).

But more than this, Tony learns the meaning of sacrifice. When that nuke is heading for Manhattan, he doesn’t hesitate in taking it on. And he doesn’t hesitate in taking it through the portal and into space where it can detonate without harming anyone in the city.

“Stark, you know that’s a one way trip,” Cap tells him. And he does. He’s done the calculations and he knows he won’t be able to control what happens once his suit goes dark and he passes out. He won’t have any juice left to slow down his descent.

He made the sacrifice play.

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This is a no-brainer for someone like Steve, who we saw jump on a grenade in The First Avenger. For Tony, a Slytherin if I’ve ever seen one, this would not be his knee-jerk reaction. But he’s learned and he’s adapted and he’s grown. Some might feel this is uncharacteristic of him, but don’t forget that he’s been willing to do this since Iron Man. He knew he was gambling with his life when he decided to be on the front line in a war against terrorism, and while having a nuke strapped to your back might feel like a far cry from going toe to toe with some guys in a cave, the basic principle is the same.

So, yeah, he’ll still try to cut the wire if he can, but when it comes to the sacrifice play, don’t count him out.

Iron Man 3 saw Tony dealing with the very real, very human aftermath of the attack on New York. His anxiety is at an all-time high, and he’s suffering from PTSD following his battle with an alien army.

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The sarcasm, the witty one-liners, the cool confidence are all still there, but it’s only on the surface. Underneath it all, Tony Stark is very, very afraid.

You know that part at the top of the movie where Tony’s calling his suit to him with a series of arm movements, and he flips over so his upside down mask can click perfectly into place? He does a spectacular superhero landing, uttering, “I’m the best.” Then a piece of his armor hits him from behind and the whole suit goes scattering across the room, wreaking havoc and leaving him flat on his back.

That’s Tony Stark in a nutshell.

More than any other movie, Iron Man 3 is about Tony’s past coming back to haunt him. Aldrich Killian was slighted 13 years prior, and he still holds that against Tony. On the one hand, it motivated Aldrich to do better, but on the other hand, it has warped him into a megalomaniac. His bid for power comes when Tony is at his lowest.

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The level of anxiety that Tony feels is crushing. Every time he thinks about New York, he has a panic attack. He can’t sleep; all he can do is work. It puts a strain on his relationships with Happy and Pepper, and it turns him into an obsessive, paranoid recluse.

“I’m just a man in a can,” he says, and it’s now that we realize Tony has come face to face with his own mortality. He may have felt death’s grip in Iron Man, but New York presented that beast in a whole new manner. For someone who has had the ability to solve problems and invent answers to every question, he now does not know how to find a solution for what he has seen. Aliens? Gods? Magic? These are things that Tony would have laughed at just a year or two ago. But now he has concrete proof they exist, and he doesn’t know what to do with that information.

He tries to protect what he loves most in this world, which is Pepper Potts, but once again that backfires. I can’t say I’m not frustrated by Pepper’s lack of understanding for Tony’s current situation, but at the same time, I can’t blame her. She has been putting up with Tony’s antics for a long time, and to see that she has only just now reached her breaking point is definitive proof that she’s a single miracle away from becoming a saint.

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So once again Tony is the villain of his own story. He created Aldrich Killian, and he must now face the music. He does this by isolating himself from the woman who is probably the only person on the planet who can talk some sense into him. He has Rhodey and little Harley by his side, but Jarvis continues to be his best asset — and his best friend.

The loss of Jarvis in this film forces Tony to go back to his roots, which does a lot for his character as a whole. He is not Tony Stark and he is not Iron Man; he is simply the mechanic. It’s wonderful to see him use nothing more than lawn care tools and Christmas ornaments to take down a compound full of soldiers because it shows that Tony is not just a man in a can. Despite Fury’s acceptance of Iron Man and rejection of Tony Stark for the Avengers Initiative, the two are one in the same. The suit is not a hero; it is merely a tool. When you strip Tony down to nothing but his most basic elements, he is still the person willing to put his life on the line to save those he cares about. He doesn’t need a bit of red and gold to convince him to do that.

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Despite the end of Iron Man 3, Tony’s fears have not been assuaged.

If you’re looking for a movie that paints Tony Stark in the worst light possible, it is Age of Ultron. Don’t get me wrong — I actually do like this movie, but it does a lot to damage Iron Man’s heroic status. Once again he is the cause of destruction, and once again he is his own worst enemy.

Despite his blustering, Tony cares a lot. He cares about his friends and his family and his AI. He cares so much that he’d rather see Earth be placed in a cage than leave it vulnerable to attack for even one more day. He’s thinking ahead and trying to solve problems before they begin, like Nick Fury in The Winter Soldier, but like the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. found out, that sometimes creates the problems in the first place.

“We start with something pure. Something exciting. Then come the mistakes, the compromises,” Tony says. He’s talking about Maya Hansen in Iron Man 3, but this can easily be applied to himself in Age of Ultron. He began with the best of intentions and ended up with a murder bot instead.

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That’s the thing about Tony — he likes to poke things. For better or for worse, he’s an inventor, a scientist, a problem-solver. So when he sees his worst nightmare, that of another alien invasion which kills all his friends, he is confronted with the fact that he could have saved them if he had just done something to prevent it. Having just come out of Iron Man 3, Tony’s anxiety and obsession with protecting his loved ones is heightened by Wanda’s power.

“I want to see a suit of armor around the whole world,” he says. “That sounds like a cold world,” Banner replies. “I’ve seen colder,” Tony responds, speaking of the vision where he saw all his friends dead at his feet.

And there is the justification for Ultron. I’m not saying it was the right choice for everyone, but it was a choice that Tony felt was necessary. And let us not forget he did not make that choice alone. Bruce agreed with him, ran the tests for him, and helped to ensure Ultron would become a possibility.

The intentions were pure and exciting. Ultron was a way to disband the Avengers, to send them home from the war. But at the same time, these intentions were manipulated by the power within the mind stone. There is no doubt Tony should not have messed with an object beyond his comprehension, but then again, if he had not, Vision would not have been born.

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Ultron and Vision are two sides of the same coin. They both were created by Tony and one of the infinity stones, but the difference between the two is that Vision was born out of teamwork, thanks to Thor’s helping hand, much how Steve had wanted the decision about Ultron to play out in the beginning. They would win together or they would lose together. Tony hates losing, but by the end of the movie I would like to think he understands that some compromises just shouldn’t be made.

And that’s what makes Civil War so painful to watch. Despite the marketing campaign, this movie isn’t about Team Captain America versus Team Iron Man, so much as it’s about what is best for each respective side.

Tony Stark needs accountability: “If we can’t accept limitations, we’re no better than the bad guys.” I find it laughable that his detractors are calling him out for being in the wrong when, much like in the first movie, he has finally decided to own up to his failures. Yes, that pits him against Steve, but for Tony, this is the last thing he wants to do — answering to someone else, and the government no less. But he must do it in order to prevent what has happened time and time again.

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This solution does not work for Steve. Steve has the moral compass to keep him on the right track. He knows people, he understands them, and he can tell when someone is worth giving a second chance. The government has let him down more than once, and he no longer trusts it to make the right call. Someone needs to watch the watchdog, and who better to do that than Captain America?

Of course, we’ll have to see if that’s how this ends up playing out in the long run.

Tony often talks about legacy, but I hope masterminding his own downfall does not become his. He has spent nearly a decade trying to be a better person, but in most of these films all he has done was clean up his own messes. The Avengers is really the only film where he was not the cause of the problem, though in true Tony Stark fashion, his involvement ended up coming back to bite him in Civil War when the government decided to hold them all accountable for what happened in New York right alongside D.C. and Sokovia.

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I can’t say this doesn’t frustrate the hell out of me. Seeing Tony making the same mistakes over and over again does not make it easy to sympathize with him. In IM3 he learned that he couldn’t rely on his suits to keep everyone safe, and yet in Ultron he tried to use his technology to do exactly that. He learned that he couldn’t make decisions for other people just because he thought it was the right course of action, and yet that’s exactly what he attempted by keeping Wanda locked up at HQ.

If — whenwe get an Iron Man 4, I would like to see Tony’s past stop haunting him. I’d like him to have defeated his demons and moved on to help humanity not because it’s his fault they’re in danger, but because he has the ability to do so. I’d like to see him be more trusting and more compromising.

In the end, I understand why there has been a lot of dislike for Tony Stark. He is a hard person to love (just ask Pepper), and a difficult man to defend. He’s made a lot of mistakes, some of which are unforgivable, but the important part is that he never stops trying to make up for what he’s done. I would never expect someone devoutly Team Cap to switch sides, but I hope Civil War paints a picture of a hero who is doing whatever he can to sleep better at night. For Tony Stark, who spent so much of his life living in ignorance, this is a huge step forward. Only when he admits his faults can he truly begin working on them.

And trust me when I say I know he has a lot of work left to accomplish.

Note: This is one half of a dueling column. Read “In Defense of Team Cap” here.

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