It may be tempting to think of Captain America: The Winter Soldier as the most “grounded” or even “realistic” movie Marvel’s ever done. Partly this is because its story about drone warfare and government surveillance remains timely; partly it’s because of the “70s political thriller” vibe directors Joe and Anthony Russo aspired to; and partly it’s because Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) is himself the least fantastical of the top-billed Avengers.
But Winter Soldier’s idea that all the worst developments in geopolitics since World War II can be attributed to a Nazi-affiliated secret society is pure fantasy. Here I mean fantasy not really in the sense of outlandishness, but in the sense of wish fulfillment. We wish the solutions to complex conflicts were that easy. We wish Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil wasn’t a thing, that our bad guys were all obvious, monologuing VILLAINS rather than short-sighted, garden variety ladder-climbers who maybe even meant well.
And we wish that the problem of having placed uncritical faith in a corrupt system could be solved by placing similarly uncritical faith in a few clear-eyed heroes who hit things really hard (or yell really irately). We wish heroism, and doing the right thing, and building a country to be proud of, were as simple as putting the proverbial right hands in charge and calling it a day.
Whose hands are right is the question at the heart of this week’s Captain America: Civil War, in which Tony Stark/Iron Man (RobertDowney, Jr.) champions government regulation of superpowered individuals, and Cap wants the Avengers to remain free agents. “I know we’re not perfect,” Rogers says. “But the safest hands are still our own.” It seems that Civil War will explore the Winter Soldier fallout that led Rogers, formerly a company man, to this point. Here, I’ll discuss how Tony Stark learned that the world is not his alone to save—and suggest that maybe he hasn’t strayed so far from his ideological beginnings.
“I AM IRON MAN”
Iron Man 2 is one of Marvel’s lesser works, but it starts the “right hands” conversation picked up by Winter Soldier. Early in IM2, Tony Stark faces a Senate hearing over who really owns “the Iron Man weapon”: its maker, or the American people?
Stark’s position depends, a bit disingenuously, on classifying the armor as a prosthesis: “I am Iron Man. The suit and I are one. To turn over the Iron Man suit would be to turn over myself, which is tantamount to indentured servitude, or prostitution, depending what state you’re in. You can’t have it.” (If Ayn Rand were alive and into superhero movies, this might be her favorite one.)
Stark’s erstwhile rival Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), a smarmy asshole and one of IM2’s villains, testifies: “Anthony Stark has created a sword with untold possibilities, and yet he insists it’s a shield. He asks us to trust him as we cower behind it. You know we live in a world of grave threats, threats that Mr. Stark will not always be able to foresee.” We’re supposed to sympathize with Stark, who rolls his eyes through the hearing. The thing is, Hammer is absolutely right. And Stark will eventually say the same thing.
He even starts to absorb this lesson in the course of IM2 (though the movie’s flaws undermine the character arc). Who has secret custody of the information Stark needs to save his own life? The covert intelligence agency SHIELD, depicted mostly uncritically as the good guys. Who says “Contrary to popular belief, I know exactly what I’m doing,” but ends up needing a lot of help—including future Avengers MVP Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson)—and even submits to SHIELD’s assessment that he’s too volatile and narcissistic to be part of the Avenger Initiative? Stark. In sharp contrast to the declaration “I am Iron Man,” Romanoff’s official evaluation is: “Iron Man: Yes. Tony Stark: No.”
A few years later, in the wake of the Battle of New York, Stark suffers from PTSD. He copes, in Iron Man 3, by “tinkering,” which for a man of his resources and talents means building dozens of armors for every possible contingency.
The second act of IM3 strands him far from home with just one suit, its batteries drained. He self-deprecatingly calls himself a “mechanic,” and at his lowest point, the moniker is tossed back to remind him that what really makes Tony Stark a superhero isn’t his armor, but his brilliance and resourcefulness.
After he pulls off sort of an Improvised James Bond act to reaffirm this, the full fleet of armors he’s built since New York becomes entirely disposable. In the finale, Tony switches from suit to suit as needed. Suits he doesn’t pilot himself fight autonomously. Finally, they self-destruct to prove that Tony has surpassed his fears—and his old self. “My armor? It was never a distraction … It was a cocoon.” You can take it away, but once again, “I am Iron Man.” This not because he and the suit are one, but because the suit is nothing without him. Iron Man is not armor, but an intelligence.
“SO WE GET TO GO HOME”
Un-intuitively—maybe inconsistently—the next step in this chain of reasoning, in Avengers: Age of Ultron, is not that Stark himself is indispensable to world peace. It’s that he doesn’t need to be in any armor, or to be personally involved in saving the world from an inevitable next alien invasion. When he’s teased by a scientist colleague about becoming obsolete, Stark replies, “That is exactly the plan.” Stark’s anxieties are re-channeled into the artificial intelligence Ultron (James Spader), meant as “a suit of armor around the world.”
But some of Stark’s other words come true in ways he couldn’t have predicted. “You start with something pure,” he says at the end of IM3. “Something exciting. Then come the mistakes. The compromises. We create our own demons.” Ultron, of course, tries to wipe out humanity.
Then again, as I’ve previously written, Stark’s do-over, the Vision (Paul Bettany), saves the day. Stark’s work finally far surpasses him, providing a partial answer to his question in the middle of the movie: “Isn’t that the ‘why we fight’? So we can end the fight? So we get to go home?”
The Vision helps explain why by the time of Civil War Stark says, “We need to be put in check. Whatever form that takes, I’m game.” While this sounds like a total 180 for the Tony Stark of the first Iron Man, even there if you set aside the Randian rhetoric, you have a guy dealing with the ramifications of building weapons without worrying about oversight. In Civil War, it seems Stark finally trusts that someone might know better than he does. Despite his uneven relationship with the government, trust in technocracy is consistent with who Stark’s always been. He believed his hands to be the safest ones through the Iron Man trilogy in large part because he was smarter than, knew better than, the other tech nerds.
His experience with the Vision—a synthetic intelligence, who proves to be purer of heart than even Captain America—is a natural outgrowth of this trust in superior judgment. Stark had just seen his own judgment go horribly wrong, and now here was someone to save him from himself.
“Now that I want to protect the people I put in harm’s way you’re walking out on me?”
Tony puts that question to Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) in Iron Man. He’s talking about undoing the effects of his weapons manufacturing business, but the same words could apply to the Sokovia Accords of Civil War. Once again, disagreement with a close ally—now Steve Rogers—is born of Stark learning from his mistakes. Indeed, Tony Stark learning from his mistakes has been the biggest part of the overarching Avengers story. First he learns personal responsibility. Then he learns he can’t go it alone. Then he learns personal responsibility isn’t enough and that it isn’t just battlefield assistance he needs, but someone else around to keep him honest.
And he learns it from Steve Rogers! It’s Steve who convinces Tony, mostly through sheer steadiness, that the best answer to the question of how the Avengers will win The Next One is just: “Together.”
Now that Cap seems to have learned a lesson in the opposite direction, it’s understandable that Stark is frustrated. Look, I think (unoriginally) that The Winter Soldier is (so far) the best in-house Marvel movie (give or take a nod to the resurrections performed by Iron Man, or the sheer novelty of The Avengers). I think Chris Evans’s performance as Steve Rogers is currently mass culture’s best argument for the case that genuinely, quietly Good People can be interesting fictional characters. But as a matter of public policy, I must confess I’m #TeamIronMan.