Although Marvel may not have realized at the time, Iron Man (2008) was the first member of a team of heroes that would protect the Earth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Tony Stark’s journey has remained a clear focus throughout the first three phases, while his first solo outing set the tone for the films that followed.
In Iron Man, Tony is living in his father’s shadow, completely unaware of his legacy beyond a weapons manufacturer. His life changes when he is captured in Afghanistan and saved by Yinsen, who opens his eyes to the true meaning of wealth (Spoiler: it’s having people you love). With a focus now on saving lives (something he’d thought Stark Industries was doing all along) he takes matters into his own hands by becoming a globe trotting vigilante. By the end of the movie, Tony has taken back his company and moved it into a new direction, away from weapons manufacturing, with the trustworthy Virginia “Pepper” Potts by his side.
Pepper, Tony’s love interest is promoted to Stark Industries CEO in Iron Man 2 (2010) when he learns that the arc reactor keeping him alive is also poisoning him. In this sequel, we see Tony continue to grow, learning more about his father’s true legacy and SHIELD. This is further expanded on in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) where we get to actually watch Howard Stark in action. But, all roads lead to the conclusion of Phase One, Marvel’s The Avengers (2012), where Tony once again demonstrates what he’s willing to do to keep others safe by nearly sacrificing his own life to save New York from a nuclear bomb. By the end, he’s found a kind of family in the Avengers.
Family, a theme common in the MCU, is further explored in Iron Man 3 (2013), where we see the aftermath of the Attack of New York. While struggling with PTSD, Tony realizes what and who is most important to him when both Happy Hogan (his former bodyguard played by Iron Man and Iron Man 2 director Jon Favreau) and Pepper Potts (and later Tony’s best friend, James “Rhodey” Rhodes) are put at risk. When he crash lands in Tennessee, he connects with a young boy named Harley, who helps him regroup and go on the attack. Having been influenced by the events and by Harley, he makes a choice at the end of the film to further prioritize family and stop putting himself at risk, destroying the evidence of his obsession.
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) drives home how Tony’s choices affect the world around him. Despite destroying his army of suits at the end of Iron Man 3, he still worries about the safety of those around him and the world at large. Tony has put the weight of the world’s safety on his own shoulders and it leads to the creation of Ultron, who nearly kills all of humanity.
Captain America: Civil War (2016) is the aftermath of Ultron and perhaps one of Tony’s most difficult films since returning home in the first Iron Man movie. Weighed down by guilt, Tony has realized that he needs someone to keep him in check. Although he is no longer an active Avenger, he ascribes this need to the rest of the team, readily agreeing to sign the Sokovia Accords, which would put the Avengers under government supervision. His family is nearly torn apart when Steve Rogers/Captain America chooses his childhood best friend, James “Bucky” Barnes/Winter Soldier, over the team, and later over Tony himself. At the end of Civil War, Tony has lost the family he had gained in Phases One and Two.
We don’t see Tony Stark again until Avengers: Infinity War (2018), where Tony’s deepest fears finally come to fruition, just as he seems to be getting his life back on track, creating a home and family with Pepper and finding a surrogate son in Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Tony loses everything in Infinity War, watching as Peter disintegrates and stranded on a planet far from Earth with no idea of anyone else’s health or safety at home.
It has been speculated that Avengers: Endgame, which opens April 26th, will have a runtime over three hours. Comparatively speaking, trailers have given us only a tiny percentage of that, and that’s assuming that they aren’t utilizing fake footage, like they did with Infinity War. We know, however, that Tony will play a huge role in the events. With Robert Downey Jr.’s contract ending with this movie, it is likely that this film will mark the end of an era and the completion of the journey Tony began in 2008.
There has been speculation that Tony Stark and/or Steve Rogers may not survive the end of what Marvel is now calling “The Infinity Saga” (Phases One, Two, and Three). With Chris Evans’s contract ending with this film as well, it is likely that his story will conclude here too. I’ve maintained since before Infinity War was released that I believe that Steve will not make it out of this Saga alive. While I’ll expand on that in another post, I’d like to explain why I think Tony will live through it.
Tony Stark has a life on Earth, but more importantly, he has a love interest. In Infinity War, he and Pepper are talking about getting married. He is set to begin a new journey with her. I think he will get this ‘happily ever after’, choosing to step away from the superhero thing completely. Considering where Tony started in Iron Man, it makes sense narratively speaking that he would end his arc with the kind of wealth Yinsen described to him in that cave in Afghanistan: family.