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Tony Stark’s evolution between Iron Man and Infinity War is why the MCU works

A look at Tony Stark’s impressive growth

Robert Downey Jr. spreading his arms. Marvel Studios

Tony Stark’s journey from genius playboy billionaire philanthropist to married man who wants to build a family and settle down in New York started exactly 10 years ago today on May 2, 2008.

It’s a journey quite literally 10 years in the making, and one of the biggest character transformations in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Stark went from being a chauvinistic douchebag who acts like every guy on a trust fund sitting in the back of your freshman lit class to a wise-cracking, lovable asshole who became a father-figure to Peter Parker. He’s not out chasing women. He’s spending his time trying to determine what the correct course of action is for the superheroes in the world, reflecting on his own past mistakes and trying to be a good partner to Pepper.

Tony Stark grew up over the course of eight films, and that’s what makes him such a special character.

[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War.]

Robert Downey Jr. holds out his hand wearing an Iron Man arm in Iron Man
Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man in Iron Man
Image: Marvel Studios

Iron Man needed to pay off

Iron Man was the MCU’s baby. It was a concept that Marvel Studios co-president Kevin Feige came up with in hopes of building something bigger. Everything rested on Robert Downey Jr. being endearing enough to sell us on this superhero. Iron Man was an unsure bet, and we were unsure about whether this was a superhero we needed in our lives.

By incorporating important and relevant topics at the time into the movie, like America’s position in Middle Eastern wars and the influential power technology companies held, Iron Man made an impact on audiences. It was Downey Jr., however, that sold the character and made us interested in this funny, peculiar, exhausting jerk. Iron Man turned Tony Stark into a hero we really cared about.

That sense of adoration only grew with each new Tony Stark appearance. His brief cameo in The Incredible Hulk reminded us of how cool he could be, but it was his role as the indisputable leader in The Avengers that made us fall even more madly in love with his character.

The Avengers represented one of Stark’s biggest turning points. Earth was in danger, and it was no longer just about his life. The world needed to be saved. Stark, always the lone wolf, put aside his own issues with other people and found a way to create a team to defend his planet against Loki’s threat. It was an affirming moment for fans who spent four years watching this team come together.

It all started with Iron Man in 2008, but by 2012 it was Iron Man that caused the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it to take shape.

Stark was still an asshole, but now he was an asshole trying to lead a superhero family and developing a plan to become Earth’s mightiest defenders. He was no longer just thinking about himself.

Iron Man Civil War
Iron Man in Captain America: Civil War
Marvel Studios

Growing as a character

As Stark grew, so did we. It felt like we were growing up together. The Stark appearance following Avengers: Age of Ultron, a movie that we all wish we could forget, was in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War — a movie that forever changed the the MCU. It was also Tony Stark’s most important film.

Civil War changed Tony Stark from a girl- and fame-obsessed teenager into an adult who recognizes that actions have consequences. Despite his best attempts to save people, he was hurting dozens, if not hundreds more, in the process. Cities were being destroyed, and his interventions were partly to blame. He ran as fast as he could from being called the Marchant of Death in his youthful Iron Man days, but carried down a path of destruction.

He hated the person he became. He sided with the government in an attempt to clean his conscience, but turned away from the family he found in the process.

The superhero aspect of the film is hardly relatable, but there’s a familiarity in his growth that resonates with me. These are the crossroads we often find in our life, and we have to make the decision we think is best, even if it means losing some friends in the process. It’s heartbreaking. The fact that so much of the destruction in these films, including the creation of Ultron himself, was due to Stark’s own attempts to protect people makes it even worse.

Tony Stark became an adult in Civil War after close to a decade. It was time for the next period of his life.

He found a new role in Spider-Man: Homecoming and Avengers: Infinity War: dad. He became a pseudo-father to Peter Parker, keeping an eye on him in Homecoming and literally treating Parker like a son in Infinity War. This coincides with Stark’s own announcement that he wants to start a family with Pepper, taking on even more responsibility and pouring his love into another human. Stark became an adult in Civil War, but Homecoming and Infinity War found him exploring what his future could look like.

Avengers: Infinity War
Tony Stark in Avengers: Infinity War with Doctor Strange (left), Wong (right) and Bruce Banner (far right).
Marvel Studios

Keeping up with Tony Stark

Maybe it’s because I’m 26 and my Instagram feed is nothing but friends’ babies, but this hit me pretty hard. Tony Stark is trying to figure out what the next part of his life should look like, and he’s slowly stepping into new roles role with Parker by his side.

It all resonates with me in a way that wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago. I, like Tony Stark, was an immature kid in 2008 that only wanted to chase fun things that made me happy. Now, 10 years later, I’m thinking of my own future and what I want to do next, taking control of my own responsibilities and trying to be a decent adult. Tony Stark is the rare character in a blockbuster movie who makes poor decisions, repeatedly, and then has to deal with the consequences in a believable way. The Iron Man we meet in Infinity War is defined by his mistakes as much as his successes.

I felt like I grew up beside Tony Stark, and that’s something incredibly rare for a movie franchise to achieve. It’s a feeling I often get with TV series that run for longer than five or six years, but movie franchises aren’t really designed to keep up with the many details that go into adapting a character over extended periods of time. It’s a one-and-done (or three-and-done) event usually driven by the action that dictates the movie.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe gave me a hero, however, that I could laugh at, learn from and aspire to be over a decade. That’s something I’m incredibly thankful for during my formative years. We can’t all be superheroes, be we certainly learn that there’s a life outside our own interests, and then take a step into it.

Tony Stark isn’t going to be around forever. Neither is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But the mark Iron Man left on me, and millions of other people, is something I will always treasure.

He’s truly become a great man, and an even better superhero. And to think it only took 10 years.

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