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.

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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.

Is Tony Stark the real villain of the MCU?

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.

Is Tony Stark the real villain of the MCU?

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.

Tag: Marvel Cinematic Universe

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  • Murry Chang

    Well, he is the only superhero that actually caused any of the problems that the government was pissed about in Civil War. I’m sitting there like “These military jackholes do realize that all but one ‘bad’ thing that they’re accusing the Avengers of causing saved far more lives than if the Avengers hadn’t been there and all but one ‘bad’ thing wasn’t their fault, right? And the only Avenger that did actually directly cause one of the bad things to happen is the one you picked to head the registration effort?”

  • Tony is not to blame when other people try to steal his things and use it to hurt other people. Just like how Henry Ford is not responsible for people running over people with cars.

    I am pretty sure the Accords in “Civil War” do not work the way people seem to think they do. The Avengers are a group of un-elected vigilantes who ignore national boarders and have no oversight in how and where they engage targets. The Accords seem to be a number of countries authorizing the Avengers to operate, but if something bad happens during an Avenger’s operation (like a dozen people killed by a suicide bomber), the UN oversight committee can review the mission and administer some kind of reprimand if someone made a reckless decision.

    That struck me as a really good deal, and they even mention how the Avengers have saved the world, but you still need someone who is elected to review things and make sure nobody fucked up so bad that they shouldn’t be allowed to operate. Cap yells at Iron Man for house arresting Scarlet Witch, talking about how she is just a kid. But her “kid” status didn’t stop Cap from taking her on a mission to fight Crossbones to start with.

    Another thing:

    Tony did not make Ultron. Ultron is the Operating System from Loki’s staff which was presumably made by omnicidal space titan, Thanos. Tony and Banner were out of the room and the computer was off when Ultron turned himself on.

    Ultron was the name of the program Tony was writing, but I would wager a guess that he did not program it to kill the planet, I would guess that Thanos would make that the default operating protocol. The program switched on, took on the name of Ultron, and then started wrecking shit. That is not on Tony.

    • Gallen Dugall

      Good counter argument.

    • Murry Chang

      In the movie it’s directly stated that the accords put a UN committee over the Avengers to decide where and when they will act. If the MCU UN is anything at all like the real life UN, this is a stupidly silly idea because the UN is, for the most part, completely ineffective in any kind of real time capacity. They also seem to think that the accords will control beings like Hulk and Thor somehow, which is preposterous because one is a guy they’ve tried to control before with absolutely zero long term success and the other is a friggen god.

      Not to mention that, as Cap brings up, that is the agenda at the moment but agendas change. To me this seemed like an allusion to the Holocaust.

      Tony was ultimately responsible for creating Ultron since he was screwing around with the programming in the staff without proper safeguards in place…like, say, doing it in a remote location that wasn’t connected to the internet in any way. Thus, he was the only Avenger responsible for causing any of the things Ross mentioned in the movie.

      Honestly, if they want to rein in anyone, it should be Stark and Fury. The rest of the Avengers have done nothing but save people and mitigate the number of lives lost. For example, even though SW screwed up with Crossbones, she still saved far more lives than were lost in the building by moving him away from the dozens of people gathered around him in the market.

      • There is a few things to cover here.
        1) Yeah, there probably will be an oversight committee for operations like the one at the start of the movie. Captain America and the Avengers had intelligence (who knows from where) that terrorists were going to attack this city, and at no point do you see them coordinating with local officials or law enforcement to stop the crime. If they had presented their intelligence and said it was time sensitive to an oversight board then local officials and better precautions could have been taken. Or they could have been told not to act because of potential civilian casualties and another form of operation taken place. When I say that there will be a defacto, “you can operate within our boarders and we will make sure you have someone you have to report to in the event of a disaster,” that also applies for when things like an alien invasion happens and there is no time to hold a committee meeting.

        2) I do not know how that is an allusion to the Holocaust. Is it that he is afraid the Avengers would be barred from acting against state sanctioned genocide? I can’t imagine that happening, but I want to see that movie.

        3) He left the computer turned off and monitored by Jarvis. Tony isn’t responsible for unforeseen circumstances. I am putting what happened with Ultron outside of the “foreseeable circumstances” he should have planned for. And I still see it as Thanos at work (but that might also be because I see the post credit sequence of him getting the gauntlet as him knowing what Ultron was doing and being somehow involved in it).

        4) The idea of reigning in Fury and Stark strikes me as a contradiction because without them, the Avengers couldn’t exist. They provided all the necessary staffing and funding, and Fury put the team together in the first place. Without Quin Jets I have no idea how Captain America would get anywhere to do anything. His motorcycle can’t fly.

        I also generally disagree with Cap on lots of things, he was against the creation of Ultron on principle… but Earth is under constant threat of alien invasion and Thor only barely stopped the last one (Malakith) from destroying the universe. We can’t count on Asgard to protect Earth they have their own interests to look out for and Earth might not factor into them at some point (agendas change).

        Really the inability to control or regulate Thor and Banner should be scary. I monster and a space warrior god are walking around and aside from Tony there are not a lot of safe guards in place to stop them should either decide to wreck the world. You nee checks on things like that. There should be something in place should Asgard decide to take over Earth (cause I don’t know, a trickster illusionist performs a coup and decides he dislikes how Earth’s heroes embarrassed him).

        • Murry Chang

          1: That doesn’t actually do anything to stop the events they were talking about from happening though, making the Accords useless anyhow.
          2: Because it’s being said by a guy who saw first hand what happens when you register people that are ‘different’. No, he’s afraid that the Avengers and all super powered people would be subject to state sanctioned genocide…because he fought in Europe in WW2.
          3: Personally, if I was going to mess around with an alien device of unknown properties, I’d not do it in the lab where the rest of my stuff was. I’d do it in goddamn Siberia or someplace else that is hundreds of miles away from anything it could influence. That’s a reasonable precaution to me, though I didn’t make the Iron Man suit.
          4: I’m saying they need to be reigned in now, not in the past, because they’re the only ones that have actually proven to mess around with stuff they don’t understand and cause huge disasters.

          Of course it’s scary, but it’s also unavoidable and Ross was talking like there was something Cap could have done to keep Thor on Earth or something. How can you check the power of a god or the Hulk? Do you tell Thor “Stop doing what you’re doing, the UN didn’t give you permission to operate here!”?

    • Timerider Swann

      “Just like how Henry Ford is not responsible for people running over people with cars.”

      Because Karl Benz really invented the car. 🙂

      • Well, Tony didn’t invent Tanks. Just the best one.

    • mamba

      Actually Tony technically DID program Ultron to kill the planet. Just not on purpose, like all his mistakes.

      To summarize: His mission to Ultron was “peace in our time”. 4 words…make the world peaceful.

      Ultron then immediately scanned the Internet to learn about humans and saw in less than 10 seconds that humans are NOT peaceful people by nature. Therefore by his logic, the ONLY way to have peace in our time is to remove the only thing standing in the way of peace…humans.

      Ultron was following his mission directives 100%. He just wasn’t biased enough to think humans had to be the winning part of the equation because Tony never thought to mentioned it.

  • Gallen Dugall

    Great read.
    While I agree with the position above I’ve also heard people come down hard on pro-Stark with this film and claim Captain America is the real villain. Even going so far as to say he should have killed Bucky because Bucky was a murderer – although this was justified with “in the movies good guys can always overcome brainwashing if they want to” to prove Bucky is the baddie.
    Again my biggest complaint about Civil War is that Chris Evans didn’t give that silly “plant yourself like a tree” speech which I really wanted to see. That would have been hilarious. There’s no way to make that speech work seriously as real dialog and making it part of a flowery eulogy was a lazy cheat.

  • Cameron Vale

    I think someone in Marvel Studios really hates Iron Man, because every single movie that he’s in aside from the first one and the first Avengers constitutes some sort of attack on him. Or maybe they just hate Robert Downey Jr., the actor.

    • Joel Schlosberg

      My thought was just they opposite: they think Robert Downey Jr. is so likable as an actor that he can do anything and audiences will still like Tony Stark.

  • Saman Yousefnia

    That’s harsh !! Iron Man is my favorite Avenger LOL !

    I gotta say something here , Tony Stark above everything else is a businessman , a futurist businessman more precisely , his methods is exactly like the methods that most of the STEM kind businessmen (Like Steve Jobs , Mark Zuckerberg , Elon Musk and etc) use to develop their businesses and in their own complex mind think that they are helping to make the world a better place or even save it !!!!!! these kind of businessmen , most of the time don’t do all their work for the money but they do it to save the world , sure Tony may have cared for the money in the past , but he is not the same person anymore , his achievements make him think that he is invincible just like many real world business magnates ! and his “Saving the World complex” makes him to do all kinds of crazy things.

    Tony Stark shouldn’t be judged based on comparing him to Other Avengers ! i hate it when people do that because there is a big difference between Someone who has achieved everything by himself and someone who has been given the opportunity !

    I have this debate about real life businessmen too , for example when someone tries too insult Elon Musk , i defend him Because Elon is the one who has worked hard enough to get where he is now and he isn’t using his resources to buy luxury islands or … he is using his resources to solve the world’s biggest problems , he has made a few mistakes in the past , that’s for sure but people only judge him based on his mistakes and ignore every other big things that he is doing for the world , that’s not fair.

    The same thing is happening to Tony here and i don’t like it ! 😛

  • sousaphone93

    100% agree with everything here. I do sympathize with Tony but he’s like a bull in a china shop sometimes when he tries to atone for his mistakes or fix other messes.

  • drdvdplayerhandbook

    Here from the future to point out that even in the new Spider-Man film the villain is someone with a grudge against Tony Stark. He’s smart enough not to attack him directly, at least, but Jesus… at this point I fully expect Thanos to be mad at Tony for something that happened in the past.

    • Jonathan Campbell

      Here from further in the future to point out that Thanos basically expresses admiration for Tony and compares himself favourably to him.