Is Tony Stark the real villain of the MCU?
As anyone who’s seen Captain America: Civil War or even just watched the trailers for it knows by this point, Iron Man is treated as an antagonist in the movie. For all intents and purposes, he’s arguably the main antagonist, as while Baron Zemo is technically the one pulling the strings and kicking off the plot, the primary conflict is between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, with the pair coming to blows over differing ideologies, different worldviews, different ways to handle specific problems, and more than once engaging in actual out and out fights.
Since it’s a Captain America flick, it’s not much of a spoiler to say that the movie itself more or less sides with Captain America, with Tony portrayed as acting out of guilt and fear and not giving Cap the time or freedom to help clear the name of his friend. To be clear, the two argue about their opposing philosophies all the time—Stark increasingly siding with the government and favoring more control and oversight, with Cap increasingly disillusioned with the government and favoring less—but in the film itself, this manifests as Tony being so concerned with law and order and on protecting the team that he’ll put the wrong man either behind bars or even in the ground.
Their actual political differences are not fully debated, and Tony becomes increasingly irrational and hostile as the film goes on, to the point where he’s playing into the hands of the villain. In other words, whatever you think of his pro-superhuman registration stance, in the film proper, Stark is definitely treated as being in the wrong, however much we’re led to sympathize with him.
This isn’t an isolated case, however. In the very first Iron Man movie, which happens to be the very first movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Tony Stark is introduced to us as a selfish, egotistical jackass and weapons dealer who learns the error of his ways after he’s abducted and forced to work for terrorists who have somehow gotten hold of his weapons. He later learns those weapons were sold to them by his own CEO, Obadiah Stane, who also orchestrated his kidnapping, which are all things that might not have happened had Stark been paying more attention to his company and acting like a more responsible businessman.
But, whatever; this was his origin story, and Stark makes up for his mistakes. He stops his company from manufacturing weapons, Stane is exposed as an evil villain and killed, and Stark becomes the superhero Iron Man. Cue the second movie, where Stark claims that as Iron Man, he’s ended wars and destroyed terrorist organizations, basically bringing about a new era of world peace. And all is well with the world, right?
Except, for this and the next few MCU movies, people keep trying and failing to copy his technology, or they kidnap him and attempt to use his genius for their own ends: the two main villains in Iron Man 2 are both men with (admittedly unjust) murderous grudges against Tony, the bad guy of the third movie also turns out to be a nerdy geek who has his own selfish bone to pick with Stark after he humiliated him at a party one time, and the villain of Age of Ultron is the titular killer robot who, in this continuity, happened to be a lab project of Stark’s own design come to life to run amuck. And let’s not get started on how thus far he’s provoked fights with his best friend Rhodey, with Thor, and with Captain America (among other fellow heroes), and is usually depicted as being in the wrong each and every time.
It might not be Tony’s fault that all of these villains turned into dangerous sociopaths, of course, but it doesn’t speak well of him that nearly every problem he has to solve can somehow be traced back to him in some way, shape, or form. In a more meta sense, you could argue that Tony is the poster boy that Marvel and other franchises have when it comes to drama: They’re trying to put the hero’s inner conflict front and center, which often comes down to the villains having some personal grudge against or interest in the hero that ends up driving the plot and getting a lot of people killed, whether it’s because killing Superman or Captain America forms a crucial part of their evil scheme, or because Thor or James Bond happen to be a sibling-by-adoption of the bad guy, which leads to everyone that the hero knows being put in danger.
But if all of your conflict and drama in a superhero movie comes from the heroes either causing the problems or being the target of them, then your heroes don’t look very heroic, do they? Especially if nowadays, it gets to the point where they literally fight each other half the time as well.
No character epitomizes this problem better than Tony Stark. In at least five of the six Marvel movies he’s been in (discounting cameos), he’s either directly caused the problem or arguably exacerbated it in one way or another (who else hears Bruce Banner say not to make him angry and responds with poking him? Seriously?). However well-meaning he is, he’s kind of a douche about it, and his plans for saving the world end up backfiring spectacularly in almost every film, whether it’s inspiring people to copy or steal his technology, goading a terrorist into attacking his home, having his building hijacked as a power source for an alien invasion, creating a sentient machine that tries to kill nearly everyone on Earth and ends up destroying a small country, or feeling so bad about all those past failures that he goes to war with his own teammates to make up for it.
I’m not saying that Iron Man is 100% to blame for everything bad that happens in these films, but there is a pattern that emerges, you know? Tony Stark is the most recurrent character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe at this point, and nobody has seemingly put the Earth in as much danger as he has without actively trying to. His story arc so far is almost canonically that he becomes a superhero only to become steadily more and more extreme in his methods and outlook, all because he can’t truly own up to the part that he and he alone plays in making his messes.
Even in the latest movie, he’s more willing to lay the fault for the events of Age of Ultron at the feet of “the team” rather than remember that the world-ending menace they defeated was built in his own private laboratory. If there’s any single Avenger that needs to be brought under control and accept his limitations, Mr. Stark, and if there’s any one of them that might be “no better than the bad guys”… maybe it’s you. And maybe that’s even what the writers are going for. Food for thought.