Best Of Frenemies


“Sorry, Tony. You know I wouldn’t do this if I had any other choice… but he’s my friend.”

“So was I.”

For the faithful that exchange in the Captain America: Civil War trailer brings chills; it’s the perfect distillation of the emotional stakes in the upcoming Marvel Studios film, and a culmination of almost ten years of longform storytelling. For others that exchange fell flat as they wondered just what movies established Captain America and Iron Man as best pals of any sort. That’s an understandable point of view if you’ve not been invested in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, although I think it’s still very short-sighted. It presumes there’s only one kind of friendship, the very broad bro-down sort of relationship that Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson have. But the relationship between Steve and Tony Stark is more complicated, and fits better under the term ‘frenemies,’ and - as so many things do to my obsessed mind - recalls the strange, complex and bitter relationship between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. That friendship, you’ll recall, ended with a deadly duel. Will Civil War end the same way?

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is perhaps the greatest artistic achievement of the year, and I say that without even having seen the Broadway show. I have devoured the soundtrack, though, and I have become lost in the world of Revolutionary American politics and personal love and animosity; the show is about events at the end of the 18th century but feels so endlessly applicable to life in the first decades of the 21st. Part of that comes from the show’s musical idiom - by telling this Founding Fathers’ story in hip hop, Hamilton has recontextualized these men and their struggles. But more than that, the birth of America is one of the richest periods of history, filled with flawed and idealistic men doing their best - and sometimes their worst - to create something new and meaningful. This period has the sweep of myth but is populated by heroes with feet of clay… not unlike the universe that Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and others created.

At the center of the show Hamilton is the relationship between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, men fated to have their names forever intertwined in history. Young Hamilton comes to New York City, an ambitious immigrant from the Caribbean, and seeks out Burr, hoping to get advice on his future. The two strike up a friendship defined by similar backgrounds and goals, but separated by a chasm of difference in attitude and approach. Hamilton is brash and excitable, given to quick flurries of cutting words and boisterous proclamations; Burr takes a slow-and-steady approach, preferring to keep his opinions to himself in order to avoid making rash choices and standing on the wrong side (politically) of any issue.

Throughout the Revolutionary War and the early days of the republic these two men are united by a common goal - winning independence and founding a new country - and they eventually become partners in the law, each man filling in for the weaknesses of the other in America’s first murder trial. But within this relationship there is ever a competitive streak, partially due to the very nature of their personalities but also exacerbated by their absolutely incompatible approaches to life. As Hamilton barrels forward, often torching his own happiness with his writing, Burr sits quietly. Burr finds Hamilton’s style destructive and ill-advised, Hamilton comes to think that Burr is a man of low quality, standing for nothing but himself. Their ideologies and approaches make that chasm between them increasingly insurmountable, and each small political slight - Burr runs against Hamilton’s father-in-law for New York State Senate, Hamilton endorses Thomas Jefferson (a man he despises) against Burr in the presidential election) - becomes a festering wound in the other man’s pride. Eventually these small steps and many incendiary words lead the two men to the dueling grounds at Weehawken, New Jersey, where Alexander Hamilton was felled by a bullet fired by a guy whose advice and friendship he had so desperately sought thirty years earlier.

As told in Hamilton*, the relationship between Burr and Hamilton isn’t the kind of standard best pals connection Hamilton had with men like John Laurens, or the deeply respectful father/son relationship he had with George Washington. Like all things in life - and like all things in the lives of truly great people - it was deeper and stranger, murkier and twistier, divided between respect and rivalry, warmth and hot murderous rage. As told in the Marvel Cinematic Universe the relationship between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers is similarly thorny and complex, refusing down-the-middle characterizations, but no less deep and strong.

The two fictional characters were intertwined long before one of them was even born. The friendship between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers is forever colored by Captain America’s friendship with Tony’s dad during WWII; Howard Stark would regale his son with tales of Cap’s wartime heroics, much to the young man’s agitation. When Cap was unfrozen from Arctic ice it was as if a piece of Tony’s past had returned. Howard had been dead for twenty years but now here was a walking, talking reminder of Tony’s dad.

Thus are laid the seeds for a deep rivalry and equally deep connection between these two men. For Tony Stark, fighting for his adult life to emerge from his father’s shadow and find his own way in the world, Captain America is an avatar of all he has gotten past over the course of two Iron Man films. In The Avengers Tony has to make peace not just with Cap’s ideals and tactics, but what he means for Tony himself. For Cap Tony Stark is not just the flawed son of his friend but the flawed face of modern America - perhaps too selfish, too flashy, but still good and strong and giving underneath it all. The arguments the two men have in that film are intensified by Loki’s staff, but they come from an organic place. 

The key to the friendship between these two men comes at the end of The Avengers; after much back and forth (and saving one another - it’s no mistake that Cap and Iron Man are teamed up during the assault on the Helicarrier) Tony comes around to Cap’s way of thinking, the idea that sometimes you must lay your body on the wire to save the day. Unable to outwit the situation, Iron Man flies a nuke through the Chitauri portal, intending to sacrifice his life. What follows, and what we see in Age of Ultron isn’t a BFF relationship but a strong, intense working friendship. We see Tony deferring to Cap as the leader of the team (a huge deal for anyone familiar with the Iron Man films) and we see Cap’s death - and disappointment in him! - as the impetus for Tony’s ill-fated Ultron project.

So yes, Tony Stark and Steve Rogers aren’t hanging out knocking back beers and talking about their woman troubles, but they have a shared respect, and more than that a deep connection forged in the fires of a unique shared experience - being Avengers - that almost no one else can understand. They’re rivals, yet equals, just as two ambitious Revolutionary era orphans were rivals, yet equals.

In Hamilton the breaking point for Burr was the 1800 presidential election; tied in electoral votes with Thomas Jefferson, Burr saw his old friend Hamilton engaging in a smear campaign against him in the House of Representatives, where the president would be chosen. For Burr this was personal treason of the highest order - Hamilton and Jefferson had been the bitterest of enemies while in Washington’s cabinet, and here he was supporting the Virginian. Hamilton, meanwhile, felt that he was standing with a man he did not like but who at the very least had a clearly defined set of principals. What followed was a series of escalations that led to the fatal duel.

A similarly peculiar mix of ideology and personal conflict seems to be behind the events in Civil War. Steve Rogers and Tony Stark find themselves on opposite sides of a debate about superhero oversight, and the debate turns violent when personal matters - in this case something to do with Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier - get in the middle of it all. What had been political becomes deeply, bitterly personal, and what’s more the political disagreement takes on the tone of betrayal on a fundamental level.

There’s no way to truly map Hamilton/Burr on Cap/Iron Man (although god knows I’ve thought about it. Hamilton’s fiery nature and his involvement in the establishment of the national bank aligns him with Tony Stark… but his impoverished beginnings and his almost pig-headed commitment to his rigid ideals lines him up with Steve Rogers), but the greater outline of the frenemies relationship applies to both sets of men. Just as Burr and Hamilton were dedicated to the goal of establishing America, Tony and Steve are dedicated to the goal of making the world a better and safer place. Just as the Revolutionary rivals worked together in law and legislature, the contesting champions join forces to be The Avengers. As George Washington cautions young Hamilton, winning is easy but governing is harder, and it’s here, when the threats are no longer exterior - no longer aliens or robots or Redcoats - that the ideological cracks become crevasses, and it’s when the political becomes personal that the bridges become burnt.

Seeing Hamilton and Burr standing across from each other, pistols at the ready, it’s easy to discount the idea that they were ever friends. But it was their friendship that took them to Weehawken that day, it was their friendship - unorthodox as it was - that made each political double-crossing sting more. While there is no way to map Hamilton/Burr on Tony/Steve, it’s hard not to compare Burr and Stark here - men willing to accept political disagreements but impossibly wounded when it turns personal. We’re months out from seeing how Captain America: Civil War wraps up this conflict, but comic fans know how Cap did - or rather, didn’t - make it out the original Civil War. Could there be one last, grim, correlation between the stories of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton and Tony Stark and Steve Rogers?

*I keep saying “in Hamilton” because, despite the fact that the show is based on Ron Chernow’s biography of the Founding Father it’s important to remember that the musical streamlines the story and the people, rendering Burr and Hamilton essentially fictional characters adapted from real men. It’s important to remember that this editorial is about the Broadway show, not the real men.