I once said that Tony Stark/Iron Man was one of the most beaten and maltreated comic book characters of the current era. It does not appear to be a wrong assessment. Captain America: Civil War showed just how far the mighty had fallen, though the comics blazed the trail long ago.
Once, Tony Stark was a self-contained, reasonable, calm character. Even when he was angry, he did not fly off the handle for more than five minutes – at most. Debonair, dashing, and as chivalrous as any knight of the Round Table, you could not catch Tony Stark or Iron Man being rude just for the sake of doing it. In fact, even when someone deserved an impolite comment, he did not deliver it. He possessed a sense of humor, certainly; the difference is that it was not nasty and/or derogatory.
But that was another era, a period when the people of United States were at least trying to maintain a just society. Once, it was understood here that using foul language in public was serious business. Now, it is the current parlance. Once, it was understood that all women were to be treated as though they were worth a million dollars. Now, they are sized up like mares at a stock fair.
Tell me again how much we have improved.
All these gadgets, computers, cures, and medical techniques are mostly useful. But does that mean we have to treat each other like trash and call it affection?
It is no such thing. But the new Tony, the modern Tony, the oh-so-up-to-date Stark, would not believe that if you showed him a thousand statistics to prove the truth of it. He would go right on as he has always done.
The thing is… he was getting there. He was improving. Then, after the Battle of New York and the Battle of Sokovia, he got scared out of years of growth. He was reduced once again to a narcissistic, petulant child. How do I know this?
He kicked Bucky Barnes when the other was already down.
You do not do that. Not even to your worst enemies, not even to the people who are the slime of the Earth, or the trash in the gutter. You never, EVER kick a man when he is down, unless he is on his way up to kill you. Bucky was not doing that.
But Tony kicked him anyway.
How the mighty have fallen. How the invincible have become so weak. Bucky had just lost his robotic arm and was down for the count. There was no reason – none whatsoever – for what Tony did. Other than that he wanted to do it. Other than the fact that he wanted to treat an abused man living with a guilt greater than he could ever bear like slime. The only reason to beat a fallen man is to feel superior to him – when, in fact, it is the other way around.
From Iron Man to Marvel’s The Avengers, Tony Stark was a changed man. His sense of humor was still nasty and derogatory, he still had issues with authority, and he still had no filter between that “big brain” and his mouth. But he was not the selfish playboy we saw at the beginning of Iron Man.
Then, in Iron Man 3, he slid back again. Oh, he did not go back to his philandering ways. Pepper had no need to “[take] out the trash” anymore. He was hardly drunk, and he did a bang up job rescuing his girlfriend. Literally, there were, like, a lot of bangs when he fought to get her back. (Yes, I am using Tony’s phraseology to make a point.)
And then he threw it all out the window in Age of Ultron. He abandoned his responsibilities because he was afraid he could not handle them anymore. And instead of being sensible about it, instead of telling his friends and seeking their collective guidance, he tried to put a Band-Aid over his fears.
The result was a digital revolutionary bent on “global extinction.” People died because of Ultron, who was Tony’s mistake. The PR war on him, which for the most part had changed to adulation over the last few years, returned in full force. Grieving people blamed him for the deaths of their loved ones, and he was seen as a monster again. Maybe, if Pepper had not gotten mad at him, he would have kept his footing better.
But he did not stop jetting off in the Iron Man armor to save the world, and so she did get mad at him. (*Author pinches the bridge of nose and sighs deeply.*) You know, Gwyneth Paltrow and Natalie Portman both lack the sense God gave to dead plants. They landed parts in a veritable gravy train, and then they decided they only wanted to ride it halfway. The others are all either signed up for several movies or are extending their contracts so they will have billions by the time they absolutely have to hang up their superhero costumes. But these ladies do not want to stick around because the films are based on comic books, and they are for kids, so how can they be art?
Did no one ever tell these women you do not, under ANY circumstances, look a gift horse in the mouth? They had the easiest gigs on the planet, which paid some of the biggest bucks in the world – and they threw it away. Not even Robert Downey Jr., who says he is getting on in years and may soon hang up his armor, has done that.
The fact is, by the time we see Tony in Civil War, he is on tenterhooks. He is carrying guilt over the fact that Ultron was his bright idea, which got 177 civilians killed, plus one Avenger. Every time he gets into a fight innocent people die, and their relations or activists of one stripe or another all want to hang him for it. They wait for him in hallways, throw pictures and stories at him, and how can he protest that he did not want their relatives to die? What he wants and what he has are two very different things.
There is a true life parallel to this. If there is a battle which involves U.S. troops and there are civilian casualties, the U.S. soldiers are almost always the ones who receive the blame. It does not matter that the guys who were shooting at them held women or children in front of their bodies as human shields; it does not matter that the enemy holed up in a hospital run by international doctors who voluntarily went into a war zone. The only thing that matters is the U.S. soldiers were there, and civilians died.
Wars are hell. People die in wars – soldiers, civilians, men, women, and children. If bullets, bombs, close combat, shells, or knives do not get them, then disease or starvation will; or bad water, or accidents. But will those within and without America who hate the U.S. ever face the fact that wars have always been like this? That it is “well war is so terrible, else we would grow too fond of it”?
No. It does not matter to the academic/journalistic crowd in the slightest because it is not part of their agenda. They hate the U.S. military, all branches of it, and they want it utterly destroyed. The truth and The Truth have no hold on them whatsoever because they have forsaken both for their insular and personal agendas. (Now you know why Cap would not sign the Accords.)
Throughout history, people living or working in war zones have risked death. In the West, nations have done their utmost, in recent years, to limit civilian casualties. Then America clashed with the Soviet Union’s proxies in Vietnam, and found that their new enemies had no such scruples. Viet Cong soldiers routinely used nearby civilians as human shields, suicide bombers, or they threw them into other monstrous war services which Americans found horrific and barbaric. But the Viet Cong, the real culprits, were never to be held liable for what they did. Instead it was the American soldiers trying to fight them, forced to shoot through innocent people by an immoral enemy, who were held responsible.
That is going on again in Iraq and Afghanistan, as merciless enemies with no regard for life use women and children to do their killing work. Or they abuse them in other ways. But once again it is the big, bad Americans who are the enemy. It is their fault all this is happening; they should never have gotten involved. Not even to save the lives of those the enemy is using as expendable tools.
In Civil War, this is what Tony is dealing with. He is dealing with the hatred of people who have either been taught to accuse him and the Avengers for their losses, or who simply want to blame someone other than the real culprits for the death of their loved ones.
Neither attitude is right. Both are lies fabricated for various reasons. The one that will be trotted out is that grieving people always want someone to blame for the death of a loved one. That is true, but only up to a point. Once rational thinking takes over, grieving people realize they are holding grudges against a person or persons who were not responsible for their loss. Wanda and Pietro learned this in Age of Ultron when they fought alongside the Avengers; Tony did not kill their parents. The person who stole and fired his missiles into their apartment did.
It is a lesson Tony forgot. Or, perhaps, he never really learned.
Yes, Tony built Ultron. But Ultron chose to do what he did. Last time I checked, Tony was two for three; JARVIS and FRIDAY both turned out to be competent and sane AIs. This means that Tony’s responsibility for Ultron’s actions only goes as far as his creation. After that, the lives lost are on Ultron’s head.
And Tony certainly had nothing to do with Loki’s invasion of New York. But do you want to bet he has been held responsible for those killed in that battle, too?
As Cap said, saving as many people as one can does not mean that everybody gets saved. This is what the talking heads will not accept. They will not accept that sometimes you do all that you can, all that is humanly possible to do, and still innocents die. Some give their all to the fight, as Quicksilver did, but that does not mean no one else dies. It does not mean there are no more injuries, that there is no more pain. “Life is pain, Highness,” Westly said in The Princess Bride, “Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.”
Yes, they are. They are selling a recipe for control, for power.
Few people these days are willing to recognize that. Some simply do not know enough to recognize it. The heroes do the best they can, and sometimes, their best is not enough to protect everyone. Yet these people still have to blame someone else for what the real bad guy(s) did. It has to be the rescuer’s fault; it has to be the soldier’s fault. It can never be the actual culprit who is responsible.
The thing is that Tony is just as infected by this philosophy as most other people are today. He blames Bucky and Bucky alone for the deaths of his parents. Under the grip of strong emotion, anyone could succumb to that temptation. If that was the only reason for Tony flying off the handle at the end of Civil War, it would be more forgivable.
But it was not. Tony never stopped thinking during that fight. I believe it is literally impossible for him to stop thinking, and in most circumstances, that is not a bad thing.
In this case, however, it was.
Bucky was a man abused until he could be programmed and controlled. The kernel of his soul which he could still call his own was banked and hidden; else the cold wind of the Russian arm of HYDRA would blow it out. He fought a war for the survival of his soul for seventy-five years. It was a war which consumed all his time; he could not fight to stop HYDRA’s programming or commands. He was one against an underground army. Those are lousy odds, physically speaking. Spiritually speaking, Bucky fought and managed to remain in control of at least part of his soul.
But it was a war which took all his time – allowing HYDRA to kill hundreds by using his hands.
As a side note, in the comics, it was hinted that Bucky did not like killing women. Just before Cap found out he was alive in the books, Bucky took Sharon Carter captive and agreed – hesitantly – when his handler told him to kill her if he had to. He did not kill her, thankfully, but he would have if she had been a danger to his mission.
This is HYDRA’s legacy. They forced Bucky to do their killing for them. A man who robs a bank commits a crime. A man who robs a bank because some coward is holding a gun to his wife’s head a mile away commits a crime on behalf of someone else. And that is worse than if the man with the gun had gone in and robbed the bank himself; he has forced another man to do what he is too afraid to do. There is no audacity in stealing from a bank, but there is even less valor when a man threatens someone else’s life unless a different man commits the crime.
Bucky was not threatened with death. He was mentally and emotionally torn apart, turned into a cold, calculating hunting dog which would obey orders – whether he liked them or not.
Tony would not admit that. I do not know why. It is understandable for him to lose himself to fury for at least half of the fight. But by a certain point he could have ended it. He could have shut down the suit and agreed to the fact that the real killer of his parents was HYDRA. He did not.
Because someone had to pay? Because Bucky did the deed? So did Natasha. The one Avenger who knows precisely what Bucky is going through, Natasha was subjected to the same programming that Bucky was. And she had it beaten into her from childhood. She had even less defense against it than Bucky did.
And what about Clint? Loki invaded his mind, turned him into an automaton, and had him kill several dozen people over the course of three days. Some of those people were fellow SHIELD agents. It is conceivable a few of them were his friends. Loki did to Hawkeye in minutes what it took HYDRA and the Red Room years to do to Bucky and Natasha.
Yes, in Tony’s case, the deaths were far more personal. And that explains his leaping anger and initial assaults. But that was no reason to continue the fight.
It was no reason to kick Barnes when he was down.
Just like Clint, the faces of those he killed while on HYDRA’s chain will always haunt him. Like Natasha, he will be doing penance for committing other people’s crimes for the rest of his life.
Yet somehow this is not good enough for Tony?
It was personal and understandable – until Tony kicked a downed man. That was not the action of a man infuriated beyond reason. That was the act of a man determined to kill.
This is why Cap attacked and would not let up on Tony. This is why he tells his friend, “I can do this all day.” He does not want to do it all day. But he will if that is the only way he can save Bucky’s life and Tony’s soul. Because of all the things Tony has flushed down the toilet, the most valuable thing he almost threw away was his soul at the end of Civil War.
Cap stopped him. He stood between Tony and the abyss, then he carried his friend back from it. He jumped into the breach, not for thanks or for a reward. He did it because Tony is his friend, a friend so determined to blame the man HYDRA made into a weapon that he was unwilling to show him the same mercy and understanding he had previously shown two others with similar histories.
Tony repaid Cap’s selfless act with bitterness and bile, babyishly claiming he did not deserve the shield which Howard Stark had made for him. So Cap left it behind, because it was not worth his friend’s soul to keep it. Tony stopped growing up in Iron Man 3, but it was in Civil War where he made his greatest regression. He humiliated himself by acting like a spoiled, angry child, averse to admit that he was wrong, and Cap was right.
He played right into Zemo’s hands, all the way around. Tony played right into Ross’ hands as well. Ross knew Tony was unprepared for the ire of brainwashed, self-absorbed, grieving people bent on blaming a hero for a criminal’s work. He banked on the belief that Tony would be willing to roll over to registration to make the pain “go away.” Zemo bet Tony would take out his vengeance on Bucky, infuriating Cap and making the super soldier determined to get revenge for his childhood friend’s injury or death.
What Zemo never could understand, however, was Captain America himself. “How nice to find a flaw,” he said when he noticed that there was green in Steve’s blue eyes. (*Author scoffs.*) As if Steve thought of himself as an angel! Cap has never thought of himself as anything but a simple kid from Brooklyn. He never said he was perfect. Others say it about him, but he knows he is not. He is a man. And men in this world are not perfect – though some of them may come awfully close.
Cap battered and fought Tony not out of anger but in an attempt to knock some sense into his friend. He had no intention whatsoever of killing the son of Howard Stark. He had every intention of protecting him from himself. So when the beatings on Tony’s helmet did not work, Cap pulled the plug on his suit. His goal was to make sure his friend did not become a murderer. He had already lost Bucky to HYDRA. He was not going to lose Tony to them, or to that demon others named Helmut Zemo.
By the end of the film, when Stan Lee arrives with a package for ‘Tony Stank,’ he seems to be working that out. Tony may lack the vocabulary to express what he is thinking about, but he is thinking. Otherwise, he would not have put Ross on hold. He would also have torn up the letter after reading it and trashed the phone.
Where Cap’s shield is, we do not know as of Civil War’s end. But without Steve Rogers to wield it, the shield is just a shiny discus hanging on a wall or lying in a box. One of these days, Tony will look at it and realize that. If he thinks deeply enough (a rare feat for him in the films), he may just figure out how close he came to throwing away his immortal soul.
And when he remembers that, when he discovers what exactly he did wrong, he will realize that there was someone “standing in the gap” for him. Not to hurt him, and certainly not to kill him. To save him, Steve fought the hardest, most grueling, worst battle of his life. He threw his soul into the rift to protect Tony’s. And he held, even when his friend churlishly berated and belittled him for it.
Everyone misreads the kid from Brooklyn. Even the stupendously brilliant Tony Stark does not ‘get’ him. Not yet, at any rate. Maybe, just maybe, he will learn what type of friend he has in Steve Rogers.
Only time – and more movies – will tell us that, though.
The Mithril Guardian