It’s been a couple years now since the release of Avengers: Endgame (2019). Like many fans of the MCU, the movie still resonates with me. The quote “I am Iron Man” has been resonating in a particular way for me that I think many fans of the MCU have missed. Spoilers for Phases 1, 2, and 3 of the MCU.
The MCU as it is now, stands as a monolith of cinema. For over a decade it has been a constant presence in our theaters. As a result, there is an entire generation of cinephiles for whom the MCU was their first introduction to superhero movies and to comic book movie adaptation. Or at least, a very early introduction. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that for many people, they don’t have a full grasp of the history behind the genre.
It used to be that an almost mandatory trope of the superhero genre was the idea of secret identities. For most superhero stories, a central part of their struggle was balancing the two lives they led. The effort of keeping anyone from finding out who they were was a major aspect of what they did. It’s hard to overstate just how core this trope was to the genre, it was omnipresent to the extent that fans of the genre expected it without question.
Then came Iron Man (2008). For the bulk of the film, Iron Man as a character wasn’t a public figure but since it was an origin story, this wasn’t a big deal. When the public got wind of the suit, Tony Stark was handed a neat and easy way to maintain his secret identity. Fans of the comics even recognized it as a cover story that he used for a long time in the comics. When Tony stepped up to the podium, the entire audience expected him to go with the cover story. It was what was standard in the genre.
Instead, he said “I am Iron Man.” Theaters exploded in much the same way the reporters on the screen did. It was an unexpected twist, but one that worked with the character. It fit his personality to not hide behind a mask. This then paved the way for the MCU to largely do away with secret identities. It still comes up a little bit, but Spider-Man comes off as immature for insisting on it in comparison. Again, I need to emphasize how major of a shift in the genre this was, and it all pivoted on that one quote.
Then came Iron Man 2 (2010). This brought forth a different question: Why is Tony Iron Man? Why can’t he just make the armor and have someone else fly it? Why does Tony need to fly the suit himself? It’s not a central part of the movie, and this individual movie leaves the question unanswered (and suffers for it). But it sticks in the audience’s mind. It leaves them questioning, why Tony needs to be on the frontline himself rather than just being tech support.
The Avengers (2012) answers that question. Most people have their attention drawn to the fact that Tony is willing to risk his life to stop the nuke at the climax of the movie. This is a moment that shows what kinds of risks Tony is willing to take, but it doesn’t say why it has to be him taking those risks. Any soldier could have done the same thing if they were flying the suit.
There’s a different scene that told me it needs to be Tony in the suit. When the Helicarrier is crashing, Tony goes to one of the engines to repair it. In the middle of the sky, he climbs into an engine to start it up and nearly gets chopped to bits for his troubles. It had to be someone in a suit of power armor doing that repair. And I’m not sure anyone but Tony could have done it. It’s because Tony is in the suit that the Helicarrier was repaired. At that point, I believed Tony when he said you couldn’t just put anyone in the suit and make them Iron Man.
When Iron Man 3 (2013) came around we got a different part of the equation. When Tony was taken away from his suit, he is still able to preform. Even without his suit, he’s still a superhero and still able to make things happen. The movie drives this home by repeating “I am Iron Man” just after Tony destroys his suits. Making it clear to anyone who missed it that if you take the suit away from Tony, he is still Iron Man.
His personal story continues unabated in this direction for the rest of Phase 2 and 3. During this time we see him grow to become more concern about protecting people. He wants “a suit of armor around the world”. The times he’s failed wear on him, but he sees a spot of hope in mentoring Spider-Man.
This all comes apart in Avengers: Infinity War (2018). In this movie, he fails to protect everyone. He fails worse than he ever has before. He also fails in mentoring Spider-Man. Tony can only watch hopelessly as the young man crumbles to dust in his arms. For all of his cleverness, for all of his sacrifice, for all of his trials and tribulations, he could do nothing. I think the end of Infinity War is Tony at his lowest. Then, we get to Endgame.
Endgame, as fitting it’s name, is a movie about closing story arcs. There are a tone of story arcs that come full circle in this movie. Even for many characters who live, it marks the end of one period of their life and the beginning of another. It is only fitting that they put an endcap on Tony’s story in as many ways as possible.
So, they give him a chance to deliver the line one more time. There was clearly a lot of writing effort that went into the set up. The whole movie builds up to Thanos delivering the line “I am inevitable” by teasing the line early in the movie. In the scene itself, the music swells with dramatic tension and Thanos pauses to savor the moment. He thinks he has just won. In that brief moment, as far as Thanos knows he is omnipotent.
When there is a dull thunk as he snaps, the spell is broken. Thanos is confused as he realizes the Stones are gone and turns to Tony only to see Tony holding the Stones. In that moment, Tony has bested a god. He has gazed into the abyss and the abyss blinked. Tony pauses for a moment like Thanos did. But, unlike Thanos, this isn’t to savor the moment but to harden his resolve. In that moment, he transcends being Iron Man and becomes a man of iron will.
He solidifies himself as the man who makes the sacrifice play. He solidifies himself as the man who does what others cannot. He becomes the suit of armor around the world. He is the one who protects the ones he loves. In that moment, there is no other being in the universe that could take his place and do what he is doing. It has to be Tony. It’s the epitome of everything that his character has become over the course of the decade of movies we have been watching. And this culmination is tied together with the quote “I am Iron Man.”
Just as the quote marked the beginning of a new era of superhero movie, it marked the end of it as well. I don’t know if we will ever see the level of build up into a single movie again. I know many studios plan to try, but I doubt anyone will succeed anytime soon. Because they used the quote “I am Iron Man” to bookend the entire saga, I can’t help but see the quote reverberating through the whole thing.