Until fairly recently, there was talk of a major “villain problem” in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Early movies had disposable villains who had few motives beyond your stock-in-trade desires to destroy the world, universe, or villains that were killed by the end of their respective appearances, never to return. Loki was an exception here, though the character’s continued presence was largely based on being an anti-hero.
As the article linked above points out, Marvel’s Phase Three films did turn the tide a bit, shining a spotlight on some very good antagonists: Erik Killmonger, Ego the Living Planet, Helmet Zemo, Adrian Toomes, Mysterio and of course, Thanos. And while I agree with the idea that villains improved in later films, I also think one of the MCU’s best villains has been there since the beginning.
I’m talking about Tony Stark, of course.
Iron Man is the first hero we see in the MCU back in 2008, but consider that the narrator will shape the story-telling around Iron Man and who Tony Stark is. The film is created as a vehicle for Stark, and it was in Marvel’s best interest to shape a quality narrative around him. They did, despite his personality issues and early war profiteering, and even provided a hero’s journey to shield us from the fact that he is indeed the antagonist in many of the 22 films that would follow it.
In the Incredible Hulk, he shows up after the credits to grow his team. In Iron Man 2, both Tony and his late father Howard contribute to the arrival of Ivan Vanko. In Captain America, Howard’s retrieval of the Tesseract from arctic waters inadvertently sets up the Avengers. Iron Man 3 shows how Tony being a jerk toward Aldrich Killian creates yet another villain, while Tony literally creates Ultron in Avengers: Age of Ultron — and winds up killing countless Sokovians in the process.
If you hadn’t caught onto Iron Man being the villain of the MCU by the time we get to Age of Ultron, then Captain America: Civil War leaves no doubt — they even put Tony and Cap opposing one another on the poster.
I mentioned Helmet Zemo as a great villain above, and while he is, he’s also a creation of Stark (via the aftermath of what happened in Sokovia). Zemo is played up as the villain for much of Civil War until the final act, when it’s revealed just how far Stark will go in order to push his ideals on everyone else.
Among the many problematic things Stark does in that film:
- Puts a young woman (Wanda Maximoff) unwillingly under house arrest.
- His creation (Vision) paralyzes his best friend.
- Drags a high school kid (Peter Parker) into a superhero conflict.
- Shoots Sam Wilson.
- Uses the truth about his mother’s death to justify harming both Captain America and Bucky Barnes.
- Breaks up the Avengers.
Stark maintains his antagonist role in Spider-Man: Homecoming, giving Peter a permanent father-figure complex despite him already having one from the death of his uncle Ben. And he endangers him once again in Avengers: Infinity War by taking him into a space war with Thanos. Peter’s desperation for Tony’s approval covers some of this up, but Tony never really goes far enough to stop Peter from putting himself in harm’s way.
In Avengers: Endgame, we get 90 minutes of quips to make you forget all of that, plus another 90 reminding you that Thanos is the REAL bad guy, so you disregard Tony’s misdeeds. Granted, Thanos is also a bad guy, but two wrongs don’t make a right. Stark embraces the good side of his antihero persona in the climax of the film, and with a sad funeral and all, you’d forget the villain narrative altogether.
Or you would, if not for Spider-Man: Far From Home. Here, Stark once again plays double duty as the villain. His actions create the outward antagonist in Mysterio, while both giving Peter access to deadly technology and haunting him for the entire film. “Even Dead I’m the Hero” tries to throw you off the scent, but it’s more narrative-building in Tony’s favor. Hell, even the idea for outing Peter’s identity as Spider-Man in the post-credit scene comes from something Iron Man convinced him to do in the Civil War comic run.
So that’s your evidence, in full.
If we’re ranking things — and we are, because this is the internet — it’s tough to see Stark as anything less than a top-tier villain in the MCU. Maybe not on par with Thanos. But he’s probably better than Loki, and his importance to the overall narrative gives him a leg up on Killmonger as well.
Does that make the movies bad? No. Does it make you rethink how Stark is positioned in this series? That’s really up to you.