Tony Stark is a screw-up.
He’s a genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist, and he’s saved the world a bunch as Earth’s first modern superhero, but he struggles to learn a lot of important lessons. When he does, he makes mistakes that swing in the opposite direction and put all his friends in danger. The Stark of the comics may be an alcoholic, but movie Stark’s vice is different. While Iron Man 3 has him obsessively constructing more suits, his armour is really just an externalization of his true addiction: control.
That isn’t to say he wants to control everyone and everything at all times, though he does have one heck of a narcissist streak. Control as a concept is something he needs, even as something of a hedonist. The first thing we see him do in Iron Man (chronologically speaking; the film opens in medias res) is gamble, i.e. invest in an uncontrollable outcome, but control of his daily life is soon stripped away from him while he’s visiting the Middle East. His rudimentary Mark I armour is an attempt to win back that very control It’s a basic dramatic concept that could apply to any story, but as the Marvel Cinematic Universe wears on, his relationship to control grows more complex, and it appears to be headed in an interesting direction in Spider-Man: Homecoming.
“What if somebody had died?”
“I was just trying to be like you.”
“I want you to be better... I’m going to need the suit back.”
“But I’m nothing without this suit!”
“If you’re nothing without this suit, then you shouldn’t have it.”
The film’s new trailer, no doubt having cut around some of this conversation with Peter Parker, gives us a pretty clear indication of where Tony Stark’s head is. He’s a far cry from “The suit and I are one” in Iron Man 2, owing to his world being knocked off balance in The Avengers and his subsequent scramble to regain some form equilibrium in Iron Man 3, but despite having thrown off the reins of his titanium alter-ego, the crutch that was The Iron Man found its way back to Tony Stark in Age of Ultron and Civil War, even costing him his relationships. In the latter, he obsesses over the first moment when events outside his control turned his life on its head – the death of his parents, the trauma of which he’s still actively trying to correct – a pivotal point from where his life would truly begin.
Before ever encasing himself in metal, the first armour he put on was an emotional one, distancing himself from anyone that could potentially give his life meaning in case that too was taken away. By the time he replaced this armour with The Iron Man, the world (and the universe) had changed so much that his next mission became armour for all. A quick-fix solution to conflict itself that came back to bite him in the form of Ultron, until he realized he needed to give up control entirely. And so came the Sokovia Accords, the central point of contention in Civil War wherein he not only decided to give up control, but to take it away from others.
Giving up control while simultaneously being brought back to the moment it was first stolen from him – Bucky’s unwitting murder of his parents, kept secret by Steve – was a deadly combination for him to have to face, but meeting young Peter Parker along the way seemed to offer up a new kind of opportunity. A fresh start so to speak, one he probably needs now that the Avengers are scattered.
The line about being nothing without the suit is an important question for a still-in-high-school Spidey, for whom establishing an identity seems to involve joining The Avengers and little else, but it comes at a strange time for Tony. Granted, anything about the events of the film and any developments in the year since Civil War are little more than speculation at this point, but it was in Captain America’s second sequel that he found himself unmade. The foundations of both Tony Stark, the man, and Iron Man, Avenging leader, were put in jeopardy as he tried to kill the man who left him an orphan, while at the very least attempting to seriously injure his friend, Captain Rogers.
Today, a little over a year later, he’s imparting suits and stern advice to a young science prodigy, holding him accountable for almost killing people during his superhero antics. It’s an extension of the power/responsibility dilemma that made him support the Accords in the first place, but this time he doesn’t seem to be turning a blind eye to the responsibility of others and the say they ought to have in it. His ultimatum comes alongside what is likely a standout line of the trailer (“I want you to be better”) because while he’s taking back control from Peter in order to protect people, the impetus very much involves the desire for Peter to be able to hone that control in the first place. He has, after all, been running around with Stark tech for fourteen months.
Tony has failed innumerable times, and will probably fail again before Robert Downey Jr. is done with the role (for all we know, he may even see Spider-Man as his mistake at this point in the trailer), but the difference between the Tony Stark of prior films and the Tony Stark of Homecoming is his relationship to control now extends to another person and theirs. An individual he feels responsible for; a protégé he can guide towards not screwing up as much as he did, giving him a chance before making decisions on his behalf, as he helps him find balance in his own life.
With great power, and all that.
This is the Tony Stark we’ll see this July. It’s exciting to have no idea where he’ll go from there, especially when faced with a villain whose Gauntlet can strip not only him, but entire galaxies of any sense of balance or agency. I wasn’t sure Iron Man would feel like an organic part of Spider-Man: Homecoming, but now I can’t help but feel like he belongs there, symbolically passing the baton.