Avengers: Endgame has come and gone, and I can’t help but ponder his legacy within the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Editor’s note [May 6, 2019]: This article has been updated to reflect the occurrences of Endgame. There are spoilers within.
Legacy is defined by something given or left behind by a predecessor. It can be materialistic, like money or property, or something a bit more abstract, like life lessons or a dream for a brighter future.
Out of all the characters in the MCU, Tony Stark’s legacy is the most complicated. He inherited his father’s name and everything that came along with it, and then continued to build on top of that. The Stark surname has always had a controversial ring to it, even way back when Howard was creating the serum that made Steve Rogers a super soldier.
When we met Tony for the first time in Iron Man, it seemed like he was on top of the world. He had made history as the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company. He was constantly creating new technology thanks to military funding. He had money, women, booze, and acclaim.
But at what expense? People called him a warmonger. He had no family. He constantly took advantage of and disrespected the few people who actually cared about him. He was more interested in appearances than anything of substance.
To quote Ho Yinsen, Tony was a man who had everything and nothing.
When Tony returns from the desert after having been kidnapped, he decides to stop making weapons. Just like that, he severs himself from the family legacy.
After 10 years and over 20 movies, this moment almost feels insignificant given everything else that’s happened, but it’s had a lasting impact on Stark Industries and the rest of the world. Tony decided to rewrite his legacy, and he’s spent every movie since then trying to do just that.
I think he said it best in the beginning of Civil War when he’s on stage talking to an auditorium full of MIT students. He encourages them to take his grant money and reframe the future. He knows the world we live in is an imperfect one. He knows we are as responsible for our past as we are for our future. And he wants to change that, no matter how difficult it is.
And boy is it difficult. Tony goes through some shit in just about every movie he’s in. Sometimes it’s a little touch and go, but he always seems to make it out on top in the end. He’s trying his hardest to be a better man, and even though he makes a lot of mistakes along the way, he owns up to them and does his best to fix what he’s broken.
When Iron Man 2 kicks off, we see that Tony has kept his promise. Stark Industries’ weapons manufacturing department is still shut down, and Tony is personally helping to keep world peace by continuing to fight terrorism as Iron Man.
He’s also careful not to repeat the same mistakes that both he and his father have made in the past. When we first met Howard, he was working with the government on several different projects. In Iron Man, Tony was working with the United States military to develop weapons that would help them get the upper hand.
In Iron Man 2, Tony refuses to hand over his suit to the government. He can’t guarantee the past won’t repeat itself, and that’s not a risk he’s willing to take. If he’s to reframe his future, then Tony must continue to learn the lessons his own history is teaching him.
Unfortunately, Tony isn’t just facing his own demons. In Iron Man 2, we meet Ivan Vanko, aka Whiplash. He is the son of Anton Vanko, a man who betrayed the United States and was deported back to Russia. Both Anton and Ivan blame Howard Stark for their family’s misfortune, and Whiplash makes his debut with the intention of destroying everything Tony has built.
Tony is a work in progress, and once again his arrogance gets the better of him. He taunts Ivan, telling him how to improve his weaponry, and when Ivan escapes imprisonment, he does just that. Howard’s demons have become Tony’s demons.
Iron Man and War Machine obviously defeat the bad guy, but more importantly, Tony’s facade continues to crack and fall away, revealing a newer, better version of himself. He’s now accepted the help of his friend, he’s opened his heart to love with Pepper, and he’s doing what’s right instead of what’s profitable.
Tony still loves to be the center of attention. He’s still arrogant. Hell, he’s still dangerous — maybe more now than he’s ever been. But the difference is that he sees his faults, he cares about changing, and he’s actively working toward adjusting his trajectory. A lot of his power, wealth, and fame came from being Stark Industry’s CEO, and he handed it over to Pepper without blinking an eye because it was the right thing to do for himself, for her, for his company, and for the world.
The first Avengers movie allows us to see the Stark legacy on a much wider scale. We meet Cap, who Howard helped create. We meet Bruce, who became the Hulk because he was trying to recreate the serum. We meet many agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., who wouldn’t have a job if it weren’t for Howard co-founding the organization.
But not everything comes down to the elder Stark. Tony may not have qualified to be a part of the Avengers, but he had been a consultant for S.H.I.E.L.D. since the end of Iron Man 2. Black Widow and Hawkeye have surely benefited from his money and his technology, and they’re not the only ones. At the beginning of the movie, we see Tony is using clean energy to power Stark Tower, which undoubtedly has a ripple effect across the world.
It seems like Tony is redefining himself in every possible way. One of my favorite scenes in the entirety of the MCU is an exchange between Tony and Steve.
Steve Rogers: Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?
Tony Stark: Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.
Steve Rogers: I know guys with none of that worth ten of you. I’ve seen the footage. The only thing you really fight for is yourself. You’re not the guy to make the sacrifice play, to lay down on a wire and let the other guy crawl over you.
Tony Stark: I think I would just cut the wire.
I love this scene because it shows you exactly the kind of person each of them is. Steve has already proven he’s willing to put his life on the line for people he doesn’t even know. Go back and watch when he throws himself on that grenade in Captain America: The First Avenger. It’s a heartbreaking scene that’s equal parts inspiring and tragic.
But you also can’t blame Tony for trying to find a different solution. It’s what makes him such a great innovator. Why does someone have to die? What if we just find a better solution to the problem? Then we can all raise a glass and laugh about what a close call that was.
But Steve Rogers was wrong about one thing: Tony is the guy to make the sacrifice play. At the end of Avengers, Tony has a choice to make. Does he go on a suicide run or does he let a nuke destroy all of New York City?
It’s no contest, and this moment is where we truly see the kind of man Tony has become. He’s willing to give up everything he’s built, everything he loves, everything he’s fought for, so someone else can live.
But Tony does live, and now the real work begins. When the battle is over, Tony might celebrate, but he’s also incredibly aware of what he left behind. He knows legacies can be damaging, and he does his best to ensure what he’s given to those who come next is worth having. He invests in Damage Control, which helps clean up New York City after the events of The Avengers.
This truly is a turning point for Tony. In Iron Man 3, Tony is forced to face a whole new set of demons. He has PTSD from what happened in New York. He sees a ghost from his past in the form of Extremis and Aldrich Killian. He is forced to go back to the basics and remember who he is at his very core.
If Iron Man 3 is about breaking Tony down, then Avengers: Age of Ultron is about building him back up again. Except, in true Tony Stark fashion, he swings too far in the opposite direction. He overcompensates, and all of a sudden, his legacy is tarnished and twisted into a terrible and dangerous new shape.
After Wanda gives Tony a dark vision of the future, he begins building Ultron. The idea was to protect humanity from any threat, especially those coming from beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Tony’s ultimate goal here is to end the fight, to retire, to go home to the new life he has worked so hard to build for himself.
Of course, all of that backfires and now the Avengers have a murder bot on their hands.
Tony takes responsibility and joins the fight to bring down his creation. In the process, he also helps create Vision, who is as powerful as he is good.
Unfortunately, the damage is done. They track down Ultron to Sokovia. Tony’s creation launches a huge landmass into the air and then promptly drops it back down to Earth. The Avengers save as many people as they can, but there are causalities. A lot of them.
Once again Tony is faced with his legacy. He tried to reframe the future and failed. Now, he must face the consequences of his actions. On a personal level, this is beautiful character growth. In terms of the overarching plot of the MCU, it’s hard to watch as Tony bears responsibility for one of the most devastating events to ever occur in this universe.
He is quick to accept limitations and boundaries. He no longer feels as though the Avengers can go unchecked. He agrees to sign the Sokovia Accords, even when half the team has doubts about these restrictions.
I always find it difficult to pick a side during Civil War. On the one hand, I love that Tony is taking responsibility for his actions. He fears the idea that he might still be the person he was at the beginning of Iron Man, and he’ll do anything to keep that from becoming a reality.
On the other hand, Steve knows how dangerous it is to hand that much power over to a government. Corruption is a deadly disease, and it spreads like wildfire if it goes unchecked. Steve believes in the Avengers more than Tony believes in himself. Civil War was never about one side being right and one side being wrong; it was about each person picking the option that best suited them based on their life experiences.
As difficult as it was seeing the Avengers split up after the third Captain America movie, I loved seeing Tony move forward and continue to grow. His relationship with Peter Parker is a bit unconventional, but it’s also the most tangible form of Tony’s legacy.
Legacy is defined by something given or left behind by a predecessor. Tony knows Peter is talented, both as a regular guy and as Spider-Man, and he’s trying his damnedest to leave Peter with all the tools and lessons he can, from the suit to the morals to the experiences that come with being a superhero.
Peter Parker: “I just wanted to be like you.”
Tony Stark: “And I wanted you to be better. …Okay, it’s not working out. I’m going to need the suit back.”
Peter Parker: “For how long?”
Tony Stark: “Forever.”
Peter Parker: “No. No, no, no, please. You don’t understand. This is all I have. I’m nothing without this suit.”
Tony Stark: “If you’re nothing without the suit, then you shouldn’t have it.”
Where once Tony only cared about himself and the moment he was living in, now Tony cares about the people around him and how he’ll leave the world once he’s gone.
When we see Tony again in Infinity War, he’s once more donned his armor, but this time it’s to save the universe. Thanos tells Tony they’re both cursed with knowledge, and I have no trouble seeing the truth in that statement.
Tony has seen a dark future, the one that Wanda put in his head. He knows the world will always be in need of saving. That must be terrifying, especially for the person who has tasked himself with protecting it.
When we see Tony in Avengers: Endgame, we realize how lucky he was. Captain Marvel saved him from certain death and he was able to rebuild his life. He got a cabin in the woods, he married Pepper, and they had a beautiful girl name Morgan.
We see a little of the old Tony come out here. He’s not willing to risk his family to go on another mission that might not work out. It might be selfish, but I can’t say I blame him. He’s fought long and hard for this life, and he deserves happiness as much as anyone else.
But this doesn’t last long. Tony’s been working for years on a solution and he finally has one. He might be risking everything he holds dear to save the world, but he knows he can’t rest until he does everything in his power to make things right again.
What kind of legacy would he have left behind if he’d done nothing? What kind of example would he have set for his daughter if he had sat idly by?
So, Tony made the sacrifice play. Again. Only this time, he knew he wasn’t going to get lucky. It was all or nothing, and Tony decided to give it his all.
Despite all the darkness, there’s a bright future out there, too. Tony’s legacy can help shape all the heroes that come after him. That’s quite a burden to bear, but something tells me Tony is strong enough to handle it.
Marvel certainly owes a great deal to Tony Stark. If Iron Man hadn’t been as successful as it was, the MCU would not look the way it does today. That franchise has been an anchor for something greater than itself, and it’s been quite an emotional journey to see how much influence one character has had on the wider connected universe.
Canonically, Tony’s fingerprints are all over just about every corner of the MCU. Some characters have been less affected than others, but there’s no denying his reach across dozens of movies and television shows. Even if he hasn’t shown up personally, the name Stark has likely still had an impact, for better or for worse.
So, what happens now that Tony is dead? Well, that’s the thing about legacies — they stay behind once you’re gone. Even without Tony Stark there to help carry the MCU, his name and influence will still be doing a lot of the heavy lifting. Those who knew him will remember him. Those who didn’t will still be inspired by him.
Tony has made a lot of mistakes over the last 10 years, but he’s also done his best to face his demons, take responsibility, and make the world a better place. That’s the legacy he’s left behind, which means I am a very satisfied fan.
How do you think ‘Avengers: Endgame’ has impacted Iron Man’s legacy?
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