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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“Avengers Resemble. . .”: Marvel’s Mega-Series, What the Kids Are(n’t) Reading, and Political Allegory

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Review by Google“>Shawn Stjean

Marvel Studios has achieved something almost frighteningly big with its 21st-century film releases, Avengers: Age of Ultron only the most recent: not merely a franchise, but essentially an ongoing TV-type mega-series, with a cast of hundreds and a monetary value inestimable.  No longer content to re-boot and re-hash origin stories, filmakers can now rely on a continuity that allows story and character arcs to develop over years.  And that grandmaster of the long game, Joss Whedon, as he has done with all the other shows he’s run, has got all the pieces in motion and can pass the baton to whomever shares the vision.

Fans of Buffy and Angel would have to be dim not to recognize Whedon’s trademark setting of the “Big Bad” behind the scenes, scheduled to emerge 2/3 into a “season” as a major threat to the small group of heroes, while discreet episodes detail the rise-and-falls of minor bad guys all witlessly advancing a grand scheme.  Themes are also put into place, some of which resonate indefinitely (see the excellent final season of Angel), and some of which seem abortive or merely fun.  Avengers 2, for example, deploys a consistent but confusing array of Judeo-Christian religious allusions.  Perhaps a Jim Starlin could suss them into something coherent–recall he’s the creator credited with the Thanos/Warlock death-and-resurrection mythology that Whedon has anticipated–so I’ll leave that task to him or others like him. And the Avengers is also a family drama.  More pertinent today would be to trace some political implications of the elements in this latest sequence of films especially.

Students in first-year college English courses become familiar with Jonathan Swift’s method in “A Modest Proposal,” in which he bitterly attacked both the British and Irish gentry, nearly three centuries ago, for their roles in the starvation of the Irish working class.  In outlining a plan requiring the Irish to eat their own children as a solution, Swift employed enough levels of irony to take a four-hour night-class to unpack, and Whedon follows suit.  Keep in mind that the point of political allegory is not only to insulate the social reformer/artist/critic from counterattack by distancing her from the social criticism (“It’s just a kids’ movie,”) but to tell two stories at once: on the literal level, the Marvel Universe contains a host of “enhanced” individuals who struggle with their abilities, each other, and their enemies; on the figurative level, these characters face the moral ambiguities that we all face every day, of living in the most politically and technologically powerful nation on the planet.

Turns out that the small-screen extended narrative structure works well for social criticism, which has always been deplored as “bad art,” going back to ancient Greek tragedy.  A series of interlocked stories allows the social critic/artist to diffuse the attack, both time-wise and target-wise.  Marvel’s favorite theme is government abuse of power, and SHIELD stands in for whatever agency you like to hate, or all combined (FBI, CIA, NSA, ATF, and so on.)  In Whedon’s Firefly, they called it the Alliance.  Character mouthpiece for these attacks has by default become Captain America, a man frozen in ice at the end of WWII and awakening to a world where technology threatens constantly to supplant human values of liberty and justice.  “This isn’t freedom,” he insists to Nick Fury in The Winter Soldier (a subtitle hearkening back to investigations into Vietnam War crimes in which American veterans testified,) referring to SHIELD’s hovering platform that murders “hostiles” from orbit, in a clear nod at the US unmanned drone program.  Cap will complete that unfinished statement in Age of Ultron, as Fury’s helicarrier rises to evacuate the imperiled civilians of a floating city: “This is what SHIELD was meant to be.”

The reform agenda may be as mystifying to some as the religious elements.  Subtle touches like casting Robert Redford (who portrayed Watergate investigative journalist Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men and the betrayed protagonist of Three Days of the Condor, among other anti-establishment vehicles) as the puppetmaster World Councilman, though a neat bit of irony for those in tune, will be lost on the young.  Mark Twain, a virulent social critic in the late 19th century, was deplored by some contemporaries as “selling out” by covering up his artistic reform with low humor.  Above all, these films chronicle action.  And let us never forget that mega-corp Disney pulls the strings, to the tune of billions of dollars.

At times, though, Whedon’s/Marvel’s criticism becomes pointed, as when Ultron himself declares “Men always create what they fear. . .Invaders create Avengers.”  Aside from a cheeky reference to another of Marvel’s super-groups, I can’t help but hear in that the director referencing the unending cycle of violence that has come with America’s involvement in the Middle East.  Though the reference could apply, for all I know, to the destruction of the Alamo–endless revenge cycles are a very old story.   But not a subtle one–nor is the free-fall collapse of a skyscraper visually linked to the 9/11 collapse of the World Trade Center.

Contrary to Cap, Tony Stark would like to see machines take all work out of human hands, whether it be robotic weapons for the military, or the Avengers themselves: “I see a suit of armor around the entire world,” he announces in Age of Ultron.  Naturally, he’d hold all the codes, because at bottom he’s a fascist who doesn’t believe in deciding by referendum.  Instead, he keeps his own counsel and custody of the tech–which makes him and Nick Fury uneasy allies–and relies on personal charm to persuade Bruce Banner to help him create Ultron (in the future, watch for him to work his seduction on Peter Parker.)  Echoing Neville Chamberlain’s doomed vision of “peace for our time” after his 1938 meeting with Hitler, Stark can’t see his own God Complex, creator of a Frankensteinian metal army in his own image.  Opposing him, temperamentally and verbally, is Steve Rogers, extending his deep misgivings about secret agendas into this episode:

“How can you beat that?” challenges Stark, implying some threats are too imposing to be met with anything less than equally destructive force.

“Together,” affirms Cap.

Stark scoffs openly.  “We’ll lose.”

“Well then, we’ll do that together, too.”

From the audience’s perspective, it’s hard not to align with Cap’s self-reflexive naivete, his belief in democratic principles, and he has the right of it.  If we really do live in a republic, then we can’t relinquish moral decisions to machinery, whether of government bureaucracy or armed soldiers; “Ultron thinks we’re the monsters.  This isn’t just about beating him–it’s about whether he’s right.”

Ultron (Iron Man’s doppelganger) insists we should, as humans, evolve.  Is he right?

After all, we’re willing to let the supposedly better-informed tell us who our enemies are, direct evidence be damned; we’re willing to allow them to kill them for us, a few civilian casualties be damned; we’re even willing to let machines execute the so-called criminals without charge or trial, and our leaders brag out of television screens about it.  Never mind all the thousand little tasks machines daily take out of our hands, so that we may do worse mischief with them, or let them lie idle, or tap endlessly on cell phones.

The trouble with mechanistic thinking is that it can’t account for certain equations.  As Dostoevsky wrote, “2+2=4 is a very fine thing, but sometimes 2+2=5.”  And that’s Humanity for you–illogical, emotional, idealistic, cynical, intuitive–at our best, more than the sum of our parts.  But Stark’s robot AI, as obsessed with building ever-more-powerful anthropomorphic bodies as Iron Man himself with upgrading his armor, can’t see such distinctions.  “Ultron can’t tell the difference between saving the world and destroying it.  I wonder where he gets that from?”  Yes, abandoning freedom in defense of security–it would be as pointless as eating one’s own children.

Artists like to play disingenuous or directly disavow the political implications of their work, of course–a more famous case being J.R.R. Tolkien denying that The Lord of the Rings was not a re-(pre-?) telling of the nuclear denouement of World War II (his stated defense was that his good guys didn’t use the Ring of Power.)  Joss Whedon, famous for his Whack-a-Mole interview responses, would no doubt evade likewise.  But, in a sense, readers matter more than artists.  The values of Marvel Comics and films still make it through to the kids, however clothed: It’s disastrous to keep secrets from your friends, or to do a bad act in a service of a good ideal;  people can change, albeit painfully; and loving someone sometimes means having to push them off a cliff.

We might anticipate where all this is heading–we’ve witnessed, in spite of a visible concern for civilians in the way, a vast amount of property damage follow in the Avenger’s wake, especially the Hulk’s.  In 2016, the next Captain America fim, entitled Civil War, will likely dramatize the governmental response to this, with Stark and Rogers’ antagonism boiling over: “I don’t trust a man without a dark side.”  “Maybe you just haven’t seen it yet.”  The theft of Wakanda’s vibranium stores (stripmining of natural resources) prepares us for blowback from Wakanda in the upcoming Black Panther film.  I also wonder if the Scarlet Witch’s addition to the cast might bode some shades of House of M and Avengers Disassembled.   Asgard only knows that Marvel has an embarassment of riches in macro-event-mythology, to draw from.

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Marvel’s Mega-Events—Stan, Stop the Madness!

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I’ve been reading comics for 40 years. No, they didn’t call them “graphic novels” then, in some attempt to lend them the air of legitimacy.  I well remember the first “real” graphic novel: The Death of Captain Marvel. Whoa—a super-hero dying of cancer, with the cover image an homage to Michelangelo’s sculpture, Pietà, the Dying Christ (religious allegory a specialty Jim Starlin’s, inherited from his Adam Warlock forbears)—that was a next-level event.  It signaled a demand for literacy among the next generation of readers—kids who were growing up with the challenging and allusive lyrics of Springsteen, Rush, and Pink Floyd, and watching Star Trek in syndication—those same kids who are now grown up, many still reading.

At age 15, I could barely afford to buy this deluxe-format beast, of course, at the $5.95 cover price.  They were 15 cents when I began as a kindergartner, just up from 12 cents, and I scraped the money together for my first, personal issues by tipping up the clothes-dryer, and by plunging my little paw between the bench seats of the family sedan, and later shoveling snow for the neighbors.

Take it from me, Civil War (2006-07—seven brief issues, but it stretched to every mag Marvel published at the time, dozens of books) was the best thing Marvel has produced since the bronze age.  If you haven’t read it yet, I envy you the experience—it saved comics for me.   It could have been just another 1980s “Secret War”—again, I’m dating myself.  And Secret War was not bad, for its time, but it wasn’t written for adults —not really.  The coven of creators behind Civil War brought us something far more epic, far more mature and thoughtful, than just two big groups of costumed adventurers rumbling against each other.  I distinctly recall, aside from the death of Captain America, which functioned as an epilogue, several moments in particular: Sue Storm/Richards (The Invisible Woman) telling her husband, Reed (Mr.Fantastic): “I’ve never been so disappointed in you.”  Peter Parker joining the wrong side and embracing technology over intuition, because he believed he was doing the right thing.  Captain America clarifying for us that a real patriot must always be ready to defend his country against its government.  Family member against family member, and every worthwhile character trait that decades of creative teams made part of the Marvel mythology, drawn upon, epitomized by those moment of conflict.

Well, they couldn’t leave well enough alone.  A succession of crossover mega-events has followed, in a blatant attempt to sell overpriced magazines (the ridiculous four-dollar cover price is a subject for another lament.)   World War Hulk, Secret Invasion, Fear Itself, Avengers vs. X-Men, just to name the biggies.  No.  These things should come once per decade, at most—like they say in the mafia, “every once in awhile, to get rid of the bad blood.”  It takes away from the really fine moments in them to dilute the Marvel Universe this way.  An epic is more than the running time of the movie or the number of pages between the covers–it’s what’s at stake.  And I’m not talking about the destruction of the Earth by Kree and Skrulls, either–I’m talking about what our youngsters–the living heroes of tomorrow, learn from the experience.

Now they’re rebooting—I think—New Avengers.  Again.  Seriously.  The New-new-new Avengers.  What used to be Marvel’s best book, but, like some over-circulated photocopy,  more diffuse and unclear with each new iteration.  And how young does a kid need to be before he’ll fall for the old “I have issue #1!” scam, anymore?  Then, you’re taking candy from babies.

In the final analysis, every real hero is an individual, not part of some mob.  Read the immortal Amazing Spider-Man #33.  Stan Lee is a hero of mine—I’ve written about him elsewhere.   Back when he was a writer and leader, and not a media mogul doing fun film-cameos and leaving the important decisions to bean-counters, he was one of those human beings with what folks living through the ‘60s and ‘70s called soul.  He could actually inspire brand-loyalty in children, ones sensing the tepidness of the competition across town, great as some of their characters might be.  But, as has been said of many heroes in many tales: where is he now?  What soul gem can resurrect him?

Excelsior???

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