THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS
Back when we ran The Marvel Decade here at Midwest Film Journal, I opened the series with an essay about the phrase “I am Iron Man” — Tony Stark’s big reveal at the end of Iron Man. My point was that this line of dialogue wasn’t an entirely triumphant statement but rather the setup for Tony Stark’s ongoing struggle with defining who he is and what he’s capable of by the fears and traumas that haunt him. Struggles that cause his character to routinely seek out the fastest solutions, to ignore others and the world around him, to flippantly disregard the impact of his actions on his friends and family alike.
At the end of Iron Man, we see Stark hide behind the Iron Man identity to shield himself from the festering hole inside — represented by the shards of metal slowly inching their way towards his heart, which the armor’s reactor keep from killing him. In Iron Man 2, his cockiness challenges the support of his friends and family. Likewise in The Avengers, where he learns that being Iron Man isn’t the end-all, be-all solution. Iron Man 3 introduces a Stark whose obsession with Iron Man as a solution has reached peak mania but concludes with him having those shards removed, having come to understand that he can’t solve everything in his life while hiding in his iron shell.
Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War and Spider-Man: Homecoming all feature Stark taking his newfound confidence to extreme extents, trying to find ways to avoid being Iron Man forever and have a life outside of his heroic destiny. Creating Ultron, signing the Sokovia Accords, training Peter Parker — only the last really works out (and even Spider-Man: Far From Home finds a way to posthumously bring the classic Stark irresponsibility to the forefront in a way I wasn’t a fan of but that, admittedly, fits the narrative).
Avengers: Infinity War opened with a Stark who was ready to settle down with Pepper Potts and start a family, but who is back to wearing a portable Arc Reactor just in case he needs it. Split off from Captain America and his other friends, Stark was once again depicted as using his armor as a crutch of sorts.
In Avengers: Endgame, Tony’s adventure concludes. It begins with Stark trapped on a spaceship, drifting without fuel somewhere between the planet Titan and our own solar system. As the oxygen runs out, he records a goodbye message to Pepper, not knowing whether she was killed in Thanos’ universal genocide from Infinity War. He reflects, he jokes and he drifts off before Captain Marvel, sent by surviving earthbound heroes, rescues him at the last minute. The film cuts forward five years, and Stark has at least retired from the hero business to settle down with Pepper and their daughter in a world reeling from his failure as a hero. Events transpire, he returns, and, in the climactic moment, sacrifices his own life with one final, and this time triumphant, declaration of “I am Iron Man.”
It feels different, more meaningful, because this time Stark isn’t uttering the line as a way of convincing himself things are OK, that he’s changed. He’s declaring himself as a man who has realized what is most important and is willing to lay himself down on the line for it — his family, his friends, and the world built around him. Iron Man is no longer a coping mechanism for him or something he can lean on to pass responsibility onto others.
Serial stories exist in a perpetual second-act state where characters revisit their problems over and over and over again. Superhero stories are no different. The comic-book industry routinely publishes theoretical endings for their characters but rarely commits to them; stories where major characters “die” are often much more about their absence and the subsequent defeat of death. Good stories explore meaning after death but have also created a ridiculed reputation that comic stories are fluff because characters never “stay dead.” That is invalid criticism. Stark is now dead — or at least until Secret Wars or something in 10 years — and it’s nice to see how Endgame brings together the the adventures of Stark to have told a nice, long story about one man learning what it means to accept responsibility and care for others above himself. Traditional hero stuff, but lovely nonetheless.
As with all of Marvel’s releases up to this point, Endgame features an enlightening commentary by directors Joe & Anthony Russo, who dive into some of the challenges they faced creating two of the most expensive films ever made. Additionally, several features highlight the departing heroes of the MCU: Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, and Stan Lee. The Captain America feature is particularly great, as it dives into the design of his costume on the big screen.