Iron Man: A Hero in Free Fall

Before we get started, I need to get this out of the way:

spoiler warning

In this post, I’m going to be dropping lots of spoilers about movies from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If you haven’t seen these movies and don’t want them ruined, stop reading now. You have been fairly warned.

Back when Captain America: Civil War came out, I boldly declared that it was the best superhero movie ever. For the most part, I still stand by that statement. In the interim, a few people have accused me of being a Marvel fanboy, and I suppose there might be some truth to that. Personally, I think I’m being objective; I still have major problems with a lot of the Phase I movies (I’m looking at you, Iron Man 2 and Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger). Anyway, not the point.

Since I made that pronouncement, there has been some criticism leveled on Civil War, especially the ending fight between Iron Man, Captain America, and the Winter Soldier. Several people have commented that this fight seemed out of character for all of them, that there really was no reason for them to try to tear each other apart. I first heard this critique from JR Foresteros of the StoryMen podcast. He brings this up in an episode (in which I was called out for dropping spoilers), saying that, in the finale of the movie, Zemo basically tells Tony what he’s about to do, and even with that advance knowledge, Tony falls for it anyway. “Tony is the guy who out-monologued Loki in the first Avengers movie,” JR said. And he has a point. You’d think that someone as sharp as Tony would see through Zemo’s scheme.

This criticism also appeared in the latest How It Should Have Ended video, which dropped this past Tuesday. The relevant part starts at 2:36, but you should totally watch the whole thing, it’s hilarious:

So this got me to thinking: had I backed the wrong horse here? I don’t like being wrong about things, but it certainly seems like this is a valid point. Why would Iron Man attack Bucky and Cap after the villain told him that’s exactly what he was trying to get him to do? Is there any possible explanation for why Iron Man would do this?

And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that yes, there is a possible explanation, one that’s stretched throughout the MCU and shows up in just about every movie that Tony Stark is in. Ladies and gentlemen, I believe that Iron Man is a hero in free fall. He’s going to crater soon and, if Marvel is clever, they could use this to make a heck of a movie.

So let’s dig in, shall we? This is going to be a lengthy post, so strap in and enjoy the ride.

Tony Stark’s Positive Arc

iron man tank explosionLet’s get started by talking about the positive character arc that Tony was on up through Avengers. When we first meet Tony, he’s a crass, immature party-boy genius who only cares about making toys that make him money. He’s irresponsible, he doesn’t have a whole lot of empathy for the people who might be hurt by the weapons his company makes. But that changes when he takes that chest full of shrapnel. Suddenly he realizes that people are getting hurt, and so he becomes Iron Man to assuage his conscience.

But in spite of that, Tony Stark isn’t really a hero. Not yet. He’s still as narcissistic as before. Think of the Senate hearing in Iron Man 2. He refuses to be reined in by anyone. The Iron Man suit is his and it’s only safe if it’s in his hands. And this streak continues well into Avengers. Tony is willing to take on Loki, but he’s still in it for himself (remember, he only agrees to look at what Agent Coulson brings him when Pepper makes him some whispered promises). When Captain America says that Tony’s not the kind of person to lie down on the barbed wire so his friends can get past it, Tony glibly replies that he’d just cut the wire. He’s trying to deflect the harsh truth: he’s not that kind of person. He’s a superhero who isn’t that heroic.

Except that Phil Coulson’s death changes him. When the Security Council fires a nuke at New York, it’s Tony who carries the missile up through the Chitauri portal, nearly sacrificing himself in the process. In that moment, Tony completes a positive character arc that takes him from self-centered playboy to self-sacrificing hero. It’s a good thing, but it’s only a peak. He’s about to drop and drop hard.

Tony Stark’s Collapse

Just as Tony’s heroic journey hits its zenith, he starts collapsing almost immediately. We see this all through Iron Man 3. Tony is suffering from what I suspect is supposed to be PTSD. He almost died in the Chitauri wormhole and it’s an experience that has clearly rattled him. That’s why he’s been obsessively building suit after suit after suit. It’s why he suffers from panic attacks whenever someone brings up the New York Incident. He’s in a death spiral mentally and, even though it appears that he’s over it by the end of that movie, I don’t think he really is (more on why I think that in a bit).

tony nightmareEven if he is on the road to recovery, his encounter with Scarlet Witch at the beginning of Age of Ultron doesn’t help matters any. She stirs up his deepest seated fears, that of his friends lying dead and broken after trying to stop a new Chitauri invasion. Personally, I think that Tony didn’t realize that this was his fears that he was seeing. I personally think he thought it was a vision of the future, one that he could stop by building the world an impenetrable suit of armor (hello, Ultron!).

To put it bluntly, I think that Tony has been wrestling with some serious demons from the first Avengers movie up until Civil War. He’s worried that his friends are all going to die if the Chitauri come back; after all, he almost bit the big one as well. Worse, now they’re the ones causing the pain and death, as he discovers when the mother of one of the dead from Sokovia confronts him. I believe that Tony is on edge emotionally and mentally when Civil War starts, and things only get worse when Rhodey gets shot down by Vision in the airport battle. Sure, he realizes that he’s been backing the wrong horse, but he’s still one large, frayed nerve.

And what makes things worse is the fact that Tony helped make himself that way.

When Do-It-Yourself Turns Into Did-It-To-Yourself

Let’s face it, Tony’s always been into DIY. He’s got a big enough brain that he figures that he can fix just about any problem that’s set before him. The problem, though, is that Tony’s competence comes with the flip-side of massive hubris. There are times when he encounters a problem that he simply cannot solve, but he’ll keep trying to fix it, even when he shouldn’t.

Think about what happened in Iron Man 2. The ARC reactor in his chest is slowly poisoning him. Tony has tried to find an alternative power source so he won’t die, but nothing is presenting itself. So what does he do? He sucks down algae shakes at an alarming rate, trying to stave off the toxins that are slowly killing him. He flirts with Black Widow and Pepper, throwing himself a massive birthday party, all the while trying to ignore that the Grim Reaper is stalking his every step. It never seems to occur to him that maybe the best course of action would be to, you know, consult an actual medical professional and maybe have the shrapnel that’s trying to kill him removed. And we know that’s totally an option, because that’s what he does at the end of Iron Man 3.

It’s my belief that the reason why he doesn’t have the shrapnel removed is because he’s Tony Stark. If anyone can figure this out, it’s him. And it’s that DIY hubris that nearly kills him.

So what do you suppose would happen if Tony encountered another problem, but one that goes much deeper? I don’t think he’s learned his lesson yet. Instead of seeking an actual counselor, he instead tries to fix it himself.

Let’s consider all the ways that Tony tries to deal with his PTSD (or whatever it is):

  • He starts obsessively building new suits, dozens of them
  • He even tries to build a suit for the entire world and winds up killing a ton of people (which probably doesn’t help anything)
  • He creates what I would call a “holo-therapist,” the tech that he shows off in the beginning of Civil War

bruce and tonyIt’s true, he does seem to be going to a therapist during Iron Man 3, but remember, it turns out that this “therapist” is a sleeping Bruce Banner, who glumly points out that he’s “not that kind of doctor.” Sure, Tony finally has the ARC reactor and shrapnel pulled out of his chest, but by that point, that’s become a symptom, not the root cause. Tony is trying to piece himself back together, but because he’s still dealing with a pretty significant ego, he’s confident he can handle it himself. But his attempts aren’t working and, I suspect, also helped stir up some latent issues that have burning in him the whole time, namely…

Tony Has Major Mommy Issues

What superhero doesn’t, amiright? But I suspect that Tony has some major unresolved issues stemming from his mother’s death. We know that he didn’t much care for his dad. He respected him, sure, but the relationship between Howard and Tony was anything but loving. I think that might be part of the reason why Tony and Cap clash so much: Tony knows that his dad admired Captain America, and now, here’s the object of his dad’s admiration in the flesh, just as strong and perfect as he was in the stories. Maybe Tony sees Cap as something of a surrogate or representative of Howard Stark.

Iron Man 2 movie image

But what about Tony’s relationship with his mother? Well, we get a peek at what that was like in the beginning of Civil War. But more importantly, I think that Tony loved his mom so much that he tried to replace her with Pepper Potts.

Think about what Tony’s relationship with Pepper is like when we first meet them. Pepper is definitely a surrogate mom, taking care of all the details of Tony’s life so he can play as much as he wants. Think of the line Tony uses when Pepper catches him trying to get out of the wrecked Mark III armor: “Let’s be honest, this isn’t the worst thing you’ve caught me doing.” That’s a very son-to-mother sort of thing to say. And sure, Tony’s relationship with Pepper evolves into a romantic one, but that strikes me as very Oedipal.

So what does this have to do with anything? Well, let’s remember that in the beginning of Civil War, it’s revealed that Pepper has left Tony. This isn’t just a romantic break-up here. This is Tony losing another mother figure. Tony’s already wracked with PTSD and guilt. Toss in a new wave of personal loss, and Tony is a fractured mess. I suspect that his little holo-therapist room stirred up a lot of these feelings as well by dredging up the memories of what happened right before his parents died. He was complaining about headaches when Secretary Ross visits the Avengers about the Sokovia Accords. That very well could be residual damage from the holo-therapist. Put all of that together, and Tony is basically a powder keg ready to go off, especially if the spark is a revelation about how his mom died.

But wait, I hear you saying, what about the criticism of Zemo telling Tony his plan and then Tony falling for it? Well, consider this:

Getting Hit Where You Least Expect It

Allow me argue by way of analogy: let’s say that you’re a professionally trained boxer and one day, you’re put in a match against an opponent. This individual is not as physically impressive as you are. He’s actually on the scrawny side. Before the match, you’re warned, “This guy will come at you and come at you hard. You’re in for the fight of your life.” And when the bell rings, he does. Only here’s the thing: the guy’s a professional trained kickboxer. The first blow he lands is a roundhouse kick to the side of your face.

Now honestly, how many of you think you’d be able to shrug that off, even with a warning?

I think that when Zemo started monologuing, telling Tony his plan that “I’m going to have the two of you fight each other,” Tony probably figured that he had everything well in hand. There was really no reason to worry about what the crazy little man had in store for him. But what he didn’t expect was the revelation that Bucky was the one who murdered both of his parents. How could he?

And when Cap reveals that he knew that Tony’s parents died as part of a Hydra-related hit? That’s just another roundhouse kick to the skull.

civil war fightSo here we have a man that’s already a frayed nerve, consumed with trauma and guilt and loss, and he suddenly finds himself in a room not only with the man who killed his beloved mother but also with a man who represents his father and their strained relationship? And let’s not forget that Tony’s probably got some residual anger about what happened to Rhodey. I think it’s somewhat understandable that Tony would go ballistic. He’s been primed and ready for several movies now. He’s been in free fall: he’s just now hitting rock bottom and he does this by trying to get revenge on the person who killed his mom.

The Caveat

Now I know what some of you are saying: if this is all true, Marvel should have made it more explicit. And you’re right, they should have. This is my pulling at a lot of threads and trying to weave them together into an answer. I may be way off base here. The ending may very well be the product of sloppy writing and “We need ’em to fight one last time, so let’s come up with a reason! I know, dead mother!” If that’s the case, it’s a shame, because I think this story arc makes Tony a lot more interesting as a character.

And not only that, but I think it also opens up an interesting possibility for a fourth Iron Man movie.

Iron Man 4: Demon in a Bottle (take two)

demon in a bottleWhile I haven’t read it myself, I’ve heard that Demon in a Bottle is one of the most iconic Iron Man stories in the comics. And the MCU has already tried to adapt it once. Bits and pieces of the plot made its way into Iron Man 2. But we all know what a train wreck that was, so maybe they should try to give it another go. Here’s how I think it could go:

Like I said, Tony has hit rock bottom mentally and emotionally. He’s isolated himself from everyone he knows and trusts. Sure, Cap promised to come back if he needs him, but Tony doesn’t feel the need for Steve Rogers’s help. He’s got this. He can handle it. He can do anything. He’s Tony Stark, for crying out loud!

Only he really doesn’t have it under control. Not hardly. He’s turning into something of a Howard Hughes recluse, letting everything kind of go to seed around him. Most everyone else has given up on him with one exception: Vision. The former disembodied voice of JARVIS is going through something of a crisis himself: he’s wrestling with his own inadequacies after nearly killing Rhodey and he’s also trying to work through a broken heart: after all, Wanda betrayed him and has gone into hiding. He’s bound and determined to help Tony get through this crisis, because he hopes that by doing so, he’ll help himself.

Vision isn’t all that successful, but a new threat has emerged that will bring Tony out of his isolation. An old enemy has re-emerged and he’s gunning for Tony in a very real way:


What? No, not Trevor Slattery (although, to be fair, I think it’d be great to bring that character back). I’m talking about the real Mandarin. In the Marvel One Shot Hail to the King, we learned that there was a real Mandarin out there who didn’t like what Trevor Slattery did to his reputation. And I’d be willing to bet that he’s none too pleased with Tony for his role in that humiliation either. And when I say that it’s the Mandarin, I mean give the man his Makluan rings. We’re establishing magic with Dr. Strange, after all.

So now Tony has to face an enemy that is brutal and extremely overpowered. In his present state of mind, he wouldn’t last long against him, but he tries anyway. And the Mandarin naturally mops the floor with him. Tony has to learn a hard lesson: he’s broken and he needs help. He can’t do it all on his own. He has to reach out to Vision and his other friends, admitting that he needs them to defeat this villain.

At least, that’s how I would tell it. And I realize that it would be next to impossible to cram this in before the Infinity Wars kick off (which is where I think this story would have to fall, personally).

So what do you think? Am I full of it? Probably. Does this explanation maybe work, just a little? Would you want to see Tony Stark take on the Mandarin in a grudge match? Let me know.

Author @JohnWOtte dissects Iron Man's rise and fall in the MCU and brainstorms a possible fourth movie. Check it out! Click To Tweet


  1. Where are all the comments??? =D

    Wonderful, well written post/essay –If it’s okay, I’m probably going to “head-cannon” it, since that’s a part of the movie that kind of bothered me. =)

    I’m a casual comic book reader, just started immersing myself into them a couple of years ago, but haven’t read the Civil War storyline (wasn’t a fan of what I heard of it). Needless to say, I wasn’t thrilled when they announced this film (superheroes should be fighting the bad guys, not each other)! However, I did end up enjoying Captain America: Civil War and appreciated how they managed to show each side.

    I really liked Tony’s growth through the films, so while he’s not my favorite character, I do care about him and hope things will work out. I’m a “Pepperony” fan, mostly because of one of the animated series, but I do see the “mother” connection now that you pointed it out … I might have to re-think this, LOL. =P

    Your Mandarin idea is perfect –I was really disappointed that they took the route they did with Trevor in IM3 (it was kind of funny, but really a disservice to the *real* Mandarin’s history and importance in the comic books). I don’t suppose there’s a chance you could write the script? πŸ˜‰

    I’ll have to browse around your site –I got here from a blogroll. Great to “meet” you. =)

    • Um, I suppose I could take a crack at a script if Marvel came calling. It’s been a long time since I’ve written a screenplay, though, and I’m a casual comic fan as well. I’d probably wind up creating a story that’ll just tick off a whole new group of fans. LOL!

      Nice to meet you too! Make yourself at home. πŸ™‚

  2. Living in a household of Marvel fans, I was delighted to read your Iron Man analysis.

    According to the Daily Mail, researchers claim that there are just six plots in every film, book and TV show ever made. The most popular story arcs? rise-fall and fall-rise-fall. (The rise-fall-rise arc was less popular.)

    Iron Man’s current story arc probably fits the rise-fall pattern.

    So here’s the question: if Tony faces off with the Mandarin, does he get his act together and change the story arc to rise-fall-rise? or does it extend his fall? (how much lower can you go than rock bottom?)

    Personally, I would love to see Tony get his act together and live happily ever after with Pepper. If he has to take on the Mandarin to repair the relationships in his life, I’m all for it.

    • That would be great if Tony could have a happily-ever-after. It’d even be a great way if the MCU wanted to transition over to having Riri Williams take over as Iron Man.

  3. Lol…another crazed Pepper/Tony fan girl (fan woman?) here. I’ve had some of the same thoughts trying to reconcile the Pepper/Tony split. On one hand the characterization of Pepper’s actions in Iron Man 3 and Civil War seem a.bit of a plot device, I even read one essay where someone said Tony is given the “idiot ball” to carry throughout the movie. Why would Pepper leave him? Not because she refuses to help him but because he refuses to help himself. He throws himself into trauma and falls into obsessive behavior after each event. He, as you say, is falling to hubris and has to make his odyssey before he can be redeemed. I think in Infinity Wars we will need to see him reach out to his friends and realize He can trust others. I hope to see Pepper as part of the team as Rescue or even as a Maria Hill type job. If Infinity War 2 is Downey’s last film I think perhaps we’ll see that he is comfortable handing some of the responsibility off to others. Perhaps in part 1 we will see him hand a leadership position over to Captain. They’ve mentioned several times that others on the team are soldiers and more cut out for the high stress than Tony for all his adrenal addiction seems to be. A deleted scene in Iron Man 1 shows his first trip back where he is shaking, and pale telling Pepper “take me home”.

  4. Wonderful article. I have yet to see CA3 (or for that matter 1 or 2), and I decided to live with the spoilers.

    If you worked on a script for Marvel, though, would you find a way to sneak Failstate into the story? LOL

  5. FWIW, I don’t think Marvel had to make it more explicit for it to make sense. Any more and then people would be complaining it was TOO obvious. πŸ™‚

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