The Tragedy and Redemption of Tony Stark

AVENGERS: ENDGAME SPOILERS FOLLOW

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Requiem for a Fallen Avenger            by Shawn StJean

The 22nd film chronicling the MCU, and the culmination of its third phase, is too brimful of elements to treat in a single blog post, and not all of them working.  So I’ll leave alone the inevitable (self-reflexive) paradoxes of a time-travel plot, and the weariness of more multiple quests for magic stones (albeit made here more palatable when sought through time, rather than space, this still feels, in parts, like a video game).  Some are movie-trite and artificial–though still great, for all that–such as the hero moment with Captain (Carol Danvers) Marvel flanked by all the women characters on the battlefield.  Rather, I’d like to reflect on an aspect that packs more wallop than a Hulk punch, and carries more [emotional] heft than Thor’s hammer.  In fact, many in the screening I attended were reduced to audible sobs, at the death of Iron Man’s alter ego.

And this is really the crux of the superior storytelling that has defined Marvel all along, and raises it consistently, since the 1960s, above its counterpart, DC.  Even Clint Barton’s brief, sadistic rampage through the underworld, in anguish over the deaths of his family–clearly an echo of the Batman mythology–seems more believable.  Endgame manages to convey empathy for Ronin, while not aligning with him.  He’s no good guy at that point, and the his fellow Avengers say so; he himself acknowledges it.  There’s no avenging, in the end; there’s maybe possible atonement.  Revenge is only an outward manifestation of anger at oneself.  At failure to protect; and more, failure to love properly, in the first place.  With Batman, it’s simply a willing suspension of disbelief on our part, that unconscious revenge motives can masquerade indefinitely as controlled justice.

Which returns me to Stark, opening the film with a clear visual homage to Hamlet holding Yorick’s skull in his very hand, contemplating his own failure and death.  I might call it the second stage of his arc of tragic development, as a character.  Having passed through his initial phase as a self-aggrandizing egomaniac, in several films, culminating in his alliance with the government in the superhero registration movement, Stark begins a suicidal spiral.  The film does a convincing job of reducing his body to skeletal, and, ranting at Cap about how he was right all along to privilege security over freedom, “Iron Man” tries to tear the electrical heart from his chest, in a melodramatic, verging on infantile, tantrum of self-indulgent masochism.

But, again, Marvel makes us privy to the source of such a tantrum.  In the five years that elapse since Thanos’ immolation of half the sentient beings in the universe, Stark’s life is among the few that improve: he fathers a sweet little girl.  He loves her; any of us would.  And, while the film is still trying to keep the time-travel bit from breaking loose from its mooring, the scientist points out that if history is set right, he will lose what he’s gained in the interim.  So naturally, he refuses to help, at first.  But he wouldn’t be Anthony Stark if he allowed Bruce Banner to out-invent him, so he reconsiders.  But for him, it’s really a “even if I win, I lose” proposition.  His child will never have existed.  And that’s the essence of the Marvel Universe, and, as Stan Lee conceived and ran it, the reflection was close to life.  We suffer.  We lose.  But in those moments of victory lie the kernels of nourishment to keep going.  We individuals may win the battles and lose the war, but it is still worth the fighting, in service to those who remain.

IF you should have the same emotional reaction that I had during the third act (really an epilogue that redeems any of the film’s deficiencies,) examine where it’s coming from.  Stark was never a character we were meant to LIKE.  Arrogant, flippant, encased in armor and thereby distant, his finest hour begins with (another Hamlet allusion) his encountering the “ghost” of his father, Howard.  A more innocent and honest version of himself, is the elder Stark.  Howard confides his ambivalence about the impending birth of his son (Tony himself–it’s time-travel stuff, see the movie).  And in so doing, humanizes himself for his progeny.  What Howard is really doing is humanizing everyone for Tony: authorizing him to see the good, the weak, as well as the bad, in us all.  Joseph Campbell might say that, in recovering the infinity stone in this scene, Tony is really slaying the ogre aspect of the father, in his quest for identity.  “Be your own father, young man,” was advice given to the protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s 1950 novel, Invisible Man.  Only with the shadow of the father well and truly vanquished in the light, can a man begin to follow his own moral code.  Luckily for half the universe, Tony abandons selfishness and bows to serve.  Abandons ego.  As with armored heroes going back probably before Beowulf, his masks, his shields and swords, his mechanical and technological shells and weapons, fail him.  He turns to good, old-fashioned hand-to-hand (literally) combat with Thanos to save the day, and the effort overloads his already-debilitated, human frame.

The cost of war is sacrifice.  Marvel knows that.  These films, at the unconscious level where it counts, are advertisements for heroism, but they make no glorification of war.  A real-life small girl, younger than Stark’s daughter in the film, asked her mom “Is Iron Man dead for real?” during the screening’s denouement.  Indeed, he is.  So are the Black Widow and Vision and Gamora.  Captain America really is old now, and ready to hand over his shield to a younger man, who can lift it.  But, as in the Denmark that Hamlet gave his life exposing the killer of the true king to save, the price for redemption has to be paid, as dear as it may be.  The best any of us can hope for is the dignity of fleeting recognition:  “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

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