Understanding the Entire MCU as One Man’s Redemptive Journey.
Undoubtedly, Captain America fans will take their patriotic stand, and Thor fans will “doth protest too much” (“methinks”, at least). But the stark reality of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) meta-narrative is a ‘Stark reality’. Avengers: Endgame, the most recent film in this twenty-three film “Infinity Saga” (that includes Spider-Man: Far From Home), confirms the idea that Tony Stark (a.ka. Iron Man) is indeed the central figure around which this cinematic universe is built. To be more specific, every one of these films, in some sense, is simply one tile in the larger mosaic of Tony Stark’s redemptive journey.
Okay. Settle down. I can hear the pushback already. This certainly does not mean these individual ’tiles’ (especially the non-ensemble films) do not make sense apart from Stark. They are truly stand alone movies. But when taken together, they can ultimately be understood as vehicles through which we are introduced to key players in the ‘Stark saga’. But if true, what’s the point of this overarching storyline? That’s simple… redemption.
Think for a minute about the Tony Stark we meet in the MCU’s first movie, Iron Man (2008). Now think about the Tony Stark to whom we say goodbye in Avengers: Endgame (2019). He is a profoundly different man. Besides being brilliant and successful, the younger, pre-hero Stark is arrogant, materialistic, impulsive, emotionally stunted, and extremely self-involved (to the relational detriment of those around him). He lives to get. His orientation is fundamentally self-grasping. But in the climax of Endgame, we witness a man who, in spite of the family he’s gained, chooses to be self-giving instead, paying the ultimate price in order to save the world.
It’s true that all of the main characters in the MCU have interesting, and often redemptive, story arcs. But only Tony Stark weaves his way through (in some way and to differing degrees) every film in the saga (even a chronologically earlier film like Captain America: The First Avenger includes a Stark (i.e., Howard), a tie-in that is ultimately significant for Tony’s journey). Additionally, it’s obvious from the four and ‘a half’ Avengers films (that’s including Captain America: Civil War) that Tony’s journey dominates the dramatic momentum. While Captain America and Thor are pivotal players, again, they ultimately serve Stark’s story. Here’s how.
As Iron Man, Tony forged his chance for redemption; a chance to rise above his arms-dealing, ‘death merchant’ legacy. He had a chance to rise above the playboy vanity and recklessness of his youth. He had a chance to be a genuine hero. But unlike Captain America and Thor, Stark’s heroic heart was a slow-going work in progress. That’s not to say the former duo did not evolve as heroes. But courage, strength, nobility, virtue, etc., these almost seem to flow more from ‘nature’ than ‘nurture’ with the likes of ‘Cap’ and Thor. For Tony, the many different versions of his armor were a tangible metaphor revealing the character’s quest for the heart of a hero. It’s that quest which Steve Rogers (and to some extent, Thor) ultimately served. Rogers became a heroic inspiration, guide, and counterbalance to Stark. But Captain America represents only the most significant of these kinds of shaping influences. All of the Avengers would go on to play an important part in Stark’s journey of redemption.
Some may point out that Tony Stark was ready to sacrifice himself in the very first Avengers film (his “one-way trip” through a portal above New York City). But after surviving, his subsequent inner-turmoil seemed to reveal that although Stark knew what a hero should do, he hadn’t made genuine peace with the price of that offering. Such inner-turmoil was not surprising given the many traumatic events Stark experienced, beginning when he was a teenager with the untimely death of his parents. In working through these issues of trauma and identity and safety and heroism, Tony pursued many paths (e.g., Ultron as a “suit of armor around the world”, mentoring Peter Parker, a family with Pepper Potts). But in the end, all these paths led to Thanos (a character who embodied, in some sense, Tony’s own dark nature).
Critically, Endgame depicted many ways in which Tony made peace with his past: a healthier view of his own knowledge and its limitations, reconciling with Steve Rogers, and (with the help of Pym particles and the Quantum Realm) being able to say goodbye to (and in a way, reconcile with) his father. But in the end, it was love that built the final ‘bridge’ on Stark’s redemptive path. Through vulnerable and vital connections to people like Pepper, Peter Parker, and his own daughter, Tony was finally prepared for his sacrificial act. How? Only when Tony truly gave his heart fully to others, was he ultimately able to see beyond what he would lose, to what would be gained by those whom he loved.
In Avengers: Infinity War, Doctor Strange understood everything came back to Stark. Of the over fourteen million possible outcomes to the conflict, there would be only way to defeat Thanos: Stark sacrificing his life. Though it seemed absurd at first, this is why Strange was willing to give the Time Stone to Thanos in exchange for Tony’s life. He saw in advance the end of the hero’s path and the fullness of the hero’s destiny. Tony knew what he must do because he finally knew who he was. As he told Thanos just before his final decisive act, “ I am Iron Man”. The first time he openly confessed that (at the end of Iron Man), the declaration was driven by a spirit of self-promotion. But this final confession was driven by a spirit of self-sacrifice.
Thus, in light of all this, it isn’t surprising that the final, post-credit piece of Endgame is simply a sound: the clanging of Tony Stark’s hammer, forging his original armor. It’s a subtle, but powerful bookend, reminding us of the profound journey of a man who not only succeeded in forging his own heroic identity, but in the end, also in saving the world; better still, the universe.
Postscript: As a follow of Christ, Tony Stark’s journey is a familiar one. It is my journey. It is the journey of everyone in my spiritual family. No, it is not a journey of self-redemption. But it is the redemption of the self through the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Though superhero movies can inspire, only Jesus actually laid down his life in order to save the world (better still, the universe). For all who embrace the rescue Jesus accomplished, there begins a redemptive journey from a life of self-grasping to a life of self-giving. Like Tony’s path, it is not an easy journey. But also like Tony’s, it is love that makes the decisive difference in this process. God’s love through others to us, and God’s love through us to others. But it all begins with God’s love to us through Christ. May Tony’s fictional journey point you to the ‘Hero of heroes’ and the redemptive path that God makes possible in real life.
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