Does the Marvel Universe Have a Moral (St)Arc?

My Reflections on Tony Stark (WARNING: SPOILERS APLENTY)

I’m lucky enough to be married to someone who thinks and acts with moral clarity. When we went to see Marvel’s latest film, Captain America: Civil War, she entered — and exited — on Cap’s side. Let me say from the get-go that I think she’s right. That is, I agree with her in basic intellectual terms, but the MCU has created a character who symbolizes the truths and ideological failings of modern America much more than Cap ever could. Tony Stark — as performed quite brilliantly by Robert Downey Jr. in the MCU — is the quintessential contemporary American. So, although I think that my partner is right, I feel like she’s wrong. That’s right, yo. Shady is #TeamIronman. WTF, right?!

Let me back up and explain something that I believe about human beings, in general. In the most basic terms, we are all desiring creatures. That means we all need things outside of our own bodies just to survive. Our bodies and minds lack basic necessities, ranging from simple things like food and shelter to more complex things like sexual gratification, affection, and a sense of belonging. We seek to fill these lacks. But if we are truly driven by desire — and I believe that we are — our various lacks can never really be filled. We always crave more, need more, want more. I use this theory of lack to diagnose how society operates and what culture desires, too. We see a world that doesn’t make sense, a world full of violence, devoid of hope, or impoverished, and we seek out things (ideas, actions, objects) that will fill that lack, that will change our world. For me, the lacks in society would be filled by a more socialist and egalitarian form of government. For you, it might be filled by more reliance on religious doctrine. In any case, we keep looking, and nothing really fills the lack — at least nothing fills it for very long.

Here’s where the superhero (and the superhero film since it’s modern inception in Christopher Reeve’s Superman: The Movie) differs from the rest of society. Where I ask: what will fill the lack or gap? The superhero says: I fill the gap. I supply what society lacks. Batman seeks and often fails to do this in the Christopher Nolan films. Captain America fills the lack with his unfailing moral clarity. He makes the hard choices. He cares for the disempowered. He jeopardizes himself to protect the innocent. Make no mistake about it, though. This superhero narrative is merely a fantasy that fulfills a societal desire. It’s a fantasy that compensates for our lack of control over the world and our inability to see all our desires fulfilled.

Let’s recall that Tony Stark suffered a tremendous trauma in that cave in the first Iron Man film. His sovereign control over his own fate and identity were challenged. He emerged with a rather serious case of PTSD, and the MCU has suffered under the thrall of Tony’s emotional struggles ever since. He responded to his trauma by seeking to regain individual sovereignty in a very complex world. In that way, Tony is very much like the America that responded to 9/11. Tony Stark always believes that he knows the right thing to do. He believes in his own judgment, and he trusts himself to make decisions that will impact the entire world. He believes in his own exceptionalism. I can relate to his arrogance and to his willfulness. I always think I’m right, and I trust my own judgment. The problem is: Tony is wrong. He’s wrong a lot of the time. His desire to make the world a better place often makes it a more dangerous one. Sometimes, his decisions — as in Age of Ultron — end in catastrophe [think of the invasion of Iraq as a real-world example].

By building its Cinematic Universe on the back of such a troubled, troubling, and divisive character, Marvel has managed to achieve something that its Distinguished Competition hasn’t. It’s built a morally and politically complicated world that resists being broody and grim and dark. The MCU is a vibrant, fun, witty place. But with Captain America: Civil War that Universe also annihilates the idea of the hero as sovereign, the idea of the superhero as s/he who can fill the lacks in society. Near the film’s conclusion, the villain Zemo reveals that Hydra’s formerly ‘programmed’ Winter Soldier — Cap’s old best buddy, Bucky Barnes — assassinated Tony’s father Howard Stark and murdered Tony’s mother, Maria Stark, in cold blood. Tony responds violently and emotionally. When Cap reminds Tony that the Winter Soldier was brainwashed, Tony says: “I don’t care. He killed my mom.”

And here’s your Moral clarity moment, folks: Cap’s right. Of course he’s right. My wife even leaned over to me and said: “Cap’s right. Tony’s acting irrationally.” Yes. Tony acts irrationally, so do I, so do a lot of people. You see, despite the fact that I trust my judgment, that I trust myself to make decisions that will affect other people, I’m not always right. In fact, I’m wrong a lot of the time. I act impetuously. I think with my emotions. Those of you who know me even a little, know that I’m given to emotional outbursts. The world remains a complex web, and despite the fact that I don’t really trust the judgment of others, I also know that I should not have the final say in what transpires. When Tony Stark says “someone needs to put us in check,” during Civil War, I believe he’s saying “someone needs to put me in check.”

Over a series of six or so films with Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr has managed to forge a character who changes, who’s flawed, who wants to do right, who doesn’t trust others, and who can’t really be trusted. In short, he’s deeply human. Tony Stark does not appear to us as the modern equivalent of Sean Connery’s James Bond. Tony is not the suave, gadget-guy who gets a character reset at the beginning of each film. Iron Man exists as part of a truly serialized fictional Universe. His actions have consequences. Unlike most action protagonists, He doesn’t merely aim at making nothing happen — at making sure the world remains the same. But the Tony Stark who sits alone at his desk at the end of Civil War is no longer the triumphant egomaniac who announced “I am Iron Man” at the end of the first film in the MCU. He has failed to change the world, to fill the lack.

The Tony Stark we see at the conclusion of Civil War appears beaten down, alone, cut off from those he loves, and his oldest friend suffers from permanent paralysis. As I sat there watching him, I was struck by the similarity beween the Tony Stark who sits alone at the end of Civil War and the Michael Corleone who sits in isolation at the end of The Godfather Part II. Tony faces the consequences of his actions. He looks like a man thoroughly unconvinced by his own arguments, like a man who knows that he just might be wrong, after all. What’s more, we all know that he’ll try to pick himself up, dust himself off, and make an effort to fix things. He’ll try to learn, but he’ll continue to make mistakes. He’ll continue to fail. Even Christopher Nolan’s tremendously ambitious Dark Knight films didn’t have a character like Tony Stark. With Iron Man, Marvel took a second tier hero and built an intricate moral universe around him — but that universe isn’t dingy, broody, and grimy. It’s fun and provocative.

For what it’s worth, I’m glad that I’m married to someone who has moral clarity. In fact, i’m kind of in awe of that clarity. I don’t have it, and despite all appearances to the contrary, neither does the MCU.