The time has finally come! Perhaps the most compelling story being told in real-time today is that of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As much as this grand project is very much ongoing, the recent opus directed by Joe and Anthony Russo represents the end of an era.
And no, I am not referring to just Phase 3 of the MCU. All of the last eleven years of Marvel’s cinematic conquest can be looped into a story arc for Earth-199999 (the universe that the MCU canonically takes place in) which revolves around the rise and fall, ebb and flow, rage and grace of two brilliant men: Tony Stark and Steve Rogers.
Tony and Steve’s journeys clashed frequently from Iron Man to Avengers: End Game, so let’s review how their struggle played out, and what its absence now paints in their wake.
Back in 2008, Iron Man brought viewers into the life of genius-billionaire- playboy-philanthropist Tony Stark, who despite being an adapted character from the minds of Stan Lee and others at Marvel, seemed entirely unique and wholly intriguing. Iron Man is portrayed in cinema by Robert Downey Jr., who brings new life into the hero and exemplifies every one of those four descriptors perfectly.
From a philosophical view, Iron Man is an interesting figure. Even with the smallest wealth of knowledge regarding Ethical Theory, just one look at the type of man Stark is will give you an immediate picture of how his ethics likely line up. To no little surprise, Tony Stark’s debut into our hearts came with a fifth tag: Utilitarian.
Stark is so overtly utilitarian that Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill ogle over him in their graves. While today, Utilitarianism is frequently confused with pragmatism, its origins spring primarily from two men who were concerned with the Greater Good. Remember all that stuff the Neighborhood Watch Alliance was spouting at the end of Hot Fuzz? That’s Bentham. Ever hear about the Trolley Problem, and how everyone believes they would make the “right” choice? That’s John Stuart Mill.
See, Utilitarianism is defined by the consequences of any particular action. What good will come out of one decision versus another? Which decision can I make that will result in the most good? These are all the right questions for a utilitarian to be asking, and what makes Stark such a great utilitarian is that he asks these questions through radically varying lenses.
As we are first presented to him, he has little regard for what’s beyond his own interests. Tony begins his story with Egoism, what I would call Utilitarianism Variant A. In both moral theories, one might ask themselves what will do the most good, but as an Egoist, the scope is changed to be exclusively self-serving. This seems like the Tony Stark of Iron Man‘s Act One to a tee, so while he may not emerge as a Utilitarian right away, his methodology is always consistent.
So of course, his scary and life-threatening predicament in Act Two of the film – being trapped in a cave by terrorists, forced to provide them with deadly weaponry and other inventions – changes the way his mind works. His mentor whilst in captivity, Professor Yinsen, dies in the process of Tony’s escape, solidifying the cost that was paid for Tony’s survival. We can see this death of a mentor affecting Tony deeply, as he begins to think about the physical costs of his actions.
By the end of the movie, after defeating the Ten Rings terrorist circle, Tony Stark takes a calculated gamble by announcing to the world that he is, in fact, Iron Man. Not only does he want to save people who need saving, he rationalizes the choice to reveal his secret identity in real time, assuming the role of a symbol of peace that society can look up to. Without seeming like some mysterious god, like so many other supers, Tony forms a connection with what we can see as “his potential consequences”.
Tony continues his career as a utilitarian fairly simply through Iron Man 2, but to get a better idea of how his ethics bring him strife, we have to flip the script towards America’s Sweetheart. Steve Rogers is biologically younger than Tony, but has lived much longer in truth.
As an extremely brief synopsis of some comic book logic for the uneducated, Steve grew up in the 1930s, fought in World War II as America’s first super soldier – where his super strength derives from – before being frozen in ice due to his ship crash landing in the Arctic. He stays frozen for many years, but is found after 70 years.
Before being given the super-soldier serum, Steve Rogers is a scrawny kid from Queens with a heart of gold, and a good sense of justice. He learns from a young age what it means to be saved, and the extent to which the individual can rescue another. Along with his childhood friend Bucky Barnes, Steve enlists in the army to fight the Nazis. Specifically due to his morals, he is chosen to go through a scientific experiment which would give him ample strength to be the protector he wants to be, a move which clues the audience in to paying attention to the Captain America Ethical System for the next nine years of the MCU.
So, what is Cap’s theory? Put simply, Steve Rogers seems himself and other supers as having a moral duty to saving folk who need saving. This duty gives us a clear answer to the philosophy which most closely resembles Steve: Deontology.
Deontology, made popular by 19th century thinker Immanuel Kant, is a system of ethics that is based on duty. It focuses on the universality of whatever action you might take. This means that we should – to quote Kant’s Categorical Imperative – “Act only on that maxim for which [we] may at the same time will that it should become universal law.” For example, if I wanted to kill someone, under Kant, I should have to think about whether I would want murder to be completely legal.
In a way, we can think of Deontology basically as The Golden Rule which we teach our kids.
And teach kids Cap does, being perhaps the most admirable of the MCUs cast. Chris Evans does a fantastic job portraying the man whose morals never seem to fade for anyone, giving off strong, if not radical ethics lessons. Steve even becomes a group rehab leader!
So, when The Avengers comes about in 2012, what do Steve and Tony think about each other? To put it simply, their physical disputes embody the differences in their moral compasses, and the quarrel that progresses from them for the next seven years afterwards is consistently as loud as a philosophical debate held between John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant.
At different moments in The Avengers, The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), and Captain America: Civil War, the two biggest names of the superhero team find faults in each other. Tony frequently makes decisions based on the greater good, whether it is attempting to exterminate a threat which Cap believes should be spared, or even going so far as sacrificing himself at the end of The Avengers. Of course, his sacrifice is only present in intent, as he is able to escape certain doom before it closes in on him.
Each of these times, Steve is frustrated with Tony’s persistent “lapses of judgement”. It is clear to see that he takes issue with Tony’s obsession with consequence, such as the death of Tony versus the death of New York. Steve wholeheartedly believes that there is always an option that will yield the optimal outcome, and that by focusing on the consequences of binary outcomes, the best solutions lay hidden from those who jump to strategy.
Nothing better represents than the Sokovia Accords in Civil War. The document is a UN-implemented law which Tony Stark advocates for. It is created in the wake of the events of Avengers 2, stating that The Avengers shall become government-sanctioned, and that they may only intervene in a country when all involved parties agree to their involvement.
This angers Steve to no end, who finds that many of the Avengers Initiative superheroes disagree with him. He believes that the time it will take the UN to govern them will cost lives, something he cannot stand for. So when T’Challa – secretly the Black Panther – loses his father T’Chaka due to a terrorist attack on the very UN meetings that will decide on the Accords potential implementation, Steve goes rogue with a collection of unofficial supers to fight Tony and the Accord supporters, in order to complete their current mission of bringing T’Chaka’s killer to justice.
Cap’s team includes himself, his friend Bucky Barnes (The Winter Soldier), Scott Lang (Ant-Man), Clint Barton (Hawkeye), Wanda Maximoff (Scarlet Witch), and Sam Wilson (Falcon). Noticeably, all of these characters have lost family, or see Cap as the only family they have, an idea which fuels Steve. If he cannot keep those he loves most safe, how can he help others? His followers seem to notice this. Furthermore, as an aside, T’Challa only supports Team Iron Man because he believes that The Winter Soldier is the one who killed his father. Once that air is cleared, T’Challa happily becomes one of Cap’s closest allies.
The main fight of the third Captain America movie occurs between the heroes which the audience has fallen in love with. Such a fight involves much more tension as it relates to methodology. Going further than sympathizing with a villain, the audience is pressured into validating both sides of the argument.
But there is still a winner of the fight, and of philosophies. It may have been obvious from my framing, or from the title of the movie which this occurs in, but Steve Rogers wins in the end, with Tony bested physically, and close to caving in mentally as well.
A few years later, by the time Infinity War hits in 2018, Tony has not forgiven Steve. He still believes that his idealistic tendencies and refusal to come out of hiding are choices which do not benefit the people of Earth. This is brought to a head when Thanos finally comes like a loan shark searching for his Infinity Stones instead of cash. Cap and Tony end up fighting him separately, just minutes after one another, and both of them fail.
Alright, so since End Game is still new, here’s the Spoiler Warning. But like, still go watch it, it serves as a thrilling conclusion to this battle of ideals, among being the no-exaggeration biggest cinema event in history.
In Avengers: End Game (2019), the world is in despair in the wake of Thanos’ victory. He wiped out half of all life in the universe, and casting aside all of the time-travel shenanigans that make up the movie’s second act – which actually serve as a beautiful re-imagination of moments from the past ten years – the climax comes in the form of one last bout with the purple Titan.
Tony faces Thanos alongside Steve and the rest of the surviving Avengers, now with a daughter to think about. His final act is to – you guessed it – succeed in sacrificing himself to kill Thanos and his army, but this time it’s different.
The choice seems inherently utilitarian, but at a closer inspection, Tony’s reasoning is a direct result of what Steve has told him to aim for over and over again. Tony is not looking forward to the most lives he can save, like times past; not exactly. Obviously he wants to save the planet, and give his daughter a world to grow up in, he is actually looking into his past when he gives his final words: “I am Iron Man,” a repetition of his last words in the franchise’s first movie.
As he looks into his past, my interpretation is that he is seeing the duty to protect his family and friends, the same duty that Captain America has always seen. This duty has less to do with defeating Thanos, as Tony is smart enough to realize that there may be more threats to the world even after Thanos. So instead of focusing on those unknown futures, or even the consequences of defeating Thanos, Tony Stark spends his final moments upholding a duty, and willing that the actions he takes can become universal. Instead of making risky decisions which he wouldn’t wish on anyone else, Tony sacrifices himself while coming to the greatest appreciation of those around him, including his wife, daughter, father, and surrogate son.
So, what does the end of Tony Stark and his potential conforming to Cap’s ideals imbue in viewers? Are we being urged by Kevin Feige to read up on Kant and adopt Deontology? Or are they simply presenting how two friends traversed through their lives, one in a traditional hero’s journey to proper understanding of the world, and the other with steadfast, sturdy gusto that never gave in to external beliefs?
I think that the MCU’s Infinity Saga, and the story of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers simply serves to make audiences more aware of the morals, ideas, and motives behind our actions. Naturally, given my literature and philosophy backgrounds, I think this is an excellent message to take away from the most profitable film franchise of all time.
But what do you think, random reader? Am I right, or do Cap and Iron Man’s thoughts not matter to the plot as much as I’ve presented? Feel free to continue the conversation, and look forward to further questions regarding these disparate ethical theories, whether they reign true or not.
Next, I will be diving into the postmodern Eastern take on superheroes, My Hero Academia, a brilliant ongoing manga and anime.
As always, happy watching, and remember: every ending is open to discussion.