WARNING! THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR! YOU’VE BEEN WARNED!
“You may not be a threat, but you’d better stop pretending to be a hero.”
-Captain Steve Rogers to Tony Stark, The Avengers, 2012
Cap called it in The Avengers. Tony Stark is not a hero. And, while he may not have been a threat at that point, he certainly went on to become one. Tony is a billionaire, genius, playboy, philanthropist that got in way over his head and tried to solve problems he was never meant to. Since escaping the cave, Tony made three crucial mistakes that make Iron Man the most tragic Avenger. He revealed his identity, he lost focus of his mission, and he never stopped trying to fix his own mistakes.
“It is one thing to question the official story and another thing entirely to make wild accusations or insinuate that I’m a superhero […] because that would be outlandish and… fantastic. I-I’m just not the hero type, clearly, with this, uh, laundry list of character defects, all the mistakes I’ve made, largely public… The truth is… I am Iron Man.”
-Tony Stark, Iron Man, 2008
Tony’s speech at the end of Iron Man reveals all. He stated, clearly, in his own words, that he’s not a hero. He wasn’t trying to hide the fact that he was throwing down with Stane the night before, he was telling the truth! He’s got a long list of character defects that immediately disqualify him from being a superhero, let alone trying to lead a team of them. As per Black Widow’s report in Iron Man 2, where it states that he’s compulsive, prone to self-destructive tendencies, and narcissistic, it then proceeds to say that Tony Stark is not recommended for the Avengers Initiative. In that movie alone, he used the Unibeam to blow up a watermelon in an ill-timed house party where he peed the armor and ended up throwing hands with Rhodey! Not very heroic. The only reason Nick Fury came to Stark in The Avengers is because, as Coulson stated, “This isn’t about personality profiles anymore”, and Loki had made him very desperate. So why keep suiting up? Why put on the armor? Because he told the world who he is, and the pressure to be Iron Man will never go away.
Because he revealed himself, Tony now has no choice but to be Iron Man. Iron Man 2 is basically one big consequence to that decision. Whiplash came after him because he knew who he was. The senate came after him because they wanted the suit and knew who he was (or at least Senator Stern wanted it because he’s HYDRA). Hammer spent the entire movie trying to one up Tony because Iron Man was revealed to be his number one competitor in the weapons industry, and there was no way he could outdo that! Even in Iron Man 3, Tony was dragged into the Mandarin scheme by the media, who expected him to do something after Happy got hurt, as displayed by the “When is somebody gonna kill this guy?” comment from the one reporter. Because everyone knew he was Iron Man. And everyone expected him to fight back.
The next big mistake Tony made was losing focus of his mission. At one point in Iron Man, he tells Pepper that he finally knows what he has to do. Yinsen told him not to waste his life, and he decided to scrap the weapons development department of Stark Industries, and then use the Iron Man armor to hunt down and destroy his weapons. So here’s what should have happened. After defeating Iron Monger, the Mk III should have been melted down for scrap, and Tony should have read Coulson’s cover story to the press. He fulfilled his promise to Yinsen, and changed for the better. Stark Industries would go on to use the Arc Reactor technology to give the world clean, free energy, and Tony would go down in history a beacon of our time. The end.
But no, he made the Mark IV. Because Iron Man has to settle East-West relations. Then he’s got to stop Whiplash. Then he’s fighting aliens, which scars him mentally for life. Next thing you know, he’s got 42 suits, and he’s going after the Mandarin, who Rhodey explicitly states is not superhero business. So then he’s tired of being Iron Man. Why? Because he didn’t stop when he should have, so he builds Ultron, to “end the mission, and go home”. But uh-oh, Ultron is a homicidal maniac who can’t tell difference between saving the world and destroying it (where does he get that again?) so he has to go stop him. It’s over right? No, because he didn’t want to stop, as he told Cap in Civil War. Which gets us to Infinity War, where Tony decides to remain aboard Ebony Maw’s ship, headed on a crash course for Titan, despite Pepper begging him to stay, because now he wants to stop Thanos. Wait, he wants to stop a giant purple alien from destroying the universe with Infinity Stones? But his mission was to rid the world of Stark weapons. So how did it go from stopping weapon distribution in his company to fighting freaking THANOS! Because he lost sight of his original mission.
The last thing Tony did wrong was try, and try, and try, to fix his mistakes. Because he’s a genius, everything he builds works. He’s a ‘mechanic’, he solves problems, he makes everything better. But he feels responsible for Whiplash getting the Arc Reactor technology. Heck, he told him how to improve it by doubling the rotations! So that’s a mistake he has to fix. And leaving Killian on the roof. Whoops, created the Mandarin, fix that mistake. Good. Done. Nope, Ultron literally destroyed a city, which was a mega fail! So okay, stop Ultron. But wait, Charles Spencer died in that fight, so okay, sign the Accords, maybe with some government oversight, so many things won’t go wrong. And… Cap doesn’t agree. Let the government handle him? Nah, go to war with him!
The biggest atonement for his sins, however, is through his self-appointed role as mentor to Peter Parker. Because in Peter, he sees a young Tony. Bright eyed, brilliant minded kid with so much potential, and he has super powers! So Tony literally intercepts this kid, who’s on his own hero’s journey, and says ‘I don’t want you to screw up as many times as I did, so I’m gonna teach you how to be a superhero, and then maybe you’ll be better than me!’ Which was a mistake, because as revealed in the ferry scene, Peter was trying to imitate him! Tony had no business being Iron Man in the first place, and he’s reached the point where he’s inserted himself into this impressionable young boy’s life, and tried to teach him things he himself has yet to discover. And how did that end? With Peter apologizing, as he faded to dust in Tony’s arms.
Iron Man is not a hero. He never should have been. Now, Thanos knows who he is, probably because he revealed himself. He’s stuck on an alien planet with nothing but Nebula and a vague hint from Doctor Strange, because he’s ventured so far from his original mission. And now he’s probably going to do something drastic in Avengers 4, because half the universe, including his protégé Spider-Man, is gone, and he has to try and fix his mistakes. This is where his path has led him. A literal worst-case scenario. So if you still think Tony being Iron Man is justified, then that’s your prerogative. But I am wholly unconvinced that, after defeating Iron Monger, he ever should have put that armor on again.