Connect with us

Entertainment

Tony Stark and the rebirth of the cool hero

Published

on

Welcome to Summer Cooldown, our weeklong tribute to all things cool in pop culture. Through our role models of chill and our misguided attempts to emulate them, to the DGAF heroes so defiantly uncool they’re ice cold, we’ll attempt to define the undefinable and celebrate the characters and questions that shaped us.


Being cool ain’t what it used to be. Just ask Tony Stark.

There’s never been an easy definition for “cool,” really. For most of us, we know it when we see it. Cool is the Ocean’s Eleven gang, or Morpheus from The Matrix, or any of the various versions of James Bond. Going further back, it’s Clint Eastwood and the so-called “King of Cool” himself, Steve McQueen.

That’s how it’s traditionally been, anyway: manly men, tough and emotionally distant. They’re in this to fight the bad guys and look badass doing it. That was Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man in 2008 through and through. His beef with Obadiah Stane was mostly personal, and while he had a bit of an awakening by the end, 2008 Tony Stark was a self-absorbed, womanizing playboy.

You’re meant to see Tony at every stage of the Infinity Saga and fantasize about what it would be like to spend a day in his shoes.

He was rich, famous, fashionable, and the smartest guy in the room. He was, by all definitions at the time, supremely cool. He also looks nothing like the character that many of us tearfully said goodbye to in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame.

The kinds of movies that used to center the Tony Stark-circa-2008 breed of cool hero started to appear less and less in the late aughts. I’m talking about the Blades and the earlier Fast/Furiosi, movies featuring an ultra-masculine hero cut from the Eastwood mold. They haven’t disappeared completely, but the ways we look at the role they play has changed.

The notion of “cool” is something we’re meant to relate to in an aspirational way. And Hollywood has finally started to recognize that there’s a wider and more diverse group of people interested in seeing other, more personalized visions of cool represented on the big screen. Even the manly man heroes have shifted.

Let’s look at two examples that, together, arguably stand as the biggest one-man-army action movies of the past 10 years: Taken and John Wick. Neither Liam Neeson’s Bryan Mills or Keanu Reeves’ Wick are the kinds of guys most of us would want to hang out with. They’re wounded, broken individuals who may get the respite of a marginally happy ending, but it’s always colored by their loss and heartbreak.

They’re badasses, no question. They kill bad guys in great numbers and they look stylish as hell while they do it. But in more recent years, these roles have mostly been reserved for anti-heroes. They’re still that classic vision of cool, but with a bloody asterisk hanging over their heads. 

Tony Stark and the rebirth of the cool hero

Image: MARVEL / PARAMOUNT / KOBAL / REX 

Back to Tony. Think about his arc across the Infinity Saga. He’s a total playboy in Iron Man, but in those first two movies he’s forced to directly confront his own role as a weapons manufacturer in making the world less safe. His struggles with alcoholism in Iron Man 2 grow out of the anxiety he feels over the weight of the responsibilities placed on his shoulders: Now he’s Iron Man, in possession of this great and potentially terrible power, and everyone wants a piece. He just wants to get away.

Iron Man 3 is where everything breaks. By then, Tony’s lived through the events of The Avengers and witnessed firsthand the destructive potential of heroes and villains duking it out while a helpless public is dragged along for the ride. He’s quite literally dealing with PTSD in that third movie.

These movies tell us that cool can be flawed, too.

It’s a vital moment in the context of the entire Infinity Saga. Here we have Tony Stark, the first and coolest Avenger we ever met, surrendering his ultra-masculine tendencies and showing vulnerability as he wrestles with his demons. By the end of Iron Man 3 he’s done his cool-guy savior thing and beaten the bad guy with style. But the changes wrought by what he’s been through are still there, and they serve as a guide for his continuing arc, all the way through to Endgame.

Remember, cool is aspirational. You’re meant to see Tony at every stage of the Infinity Saga and fantasize about what it would be like to spend a day in his shoes. It’s easy to look back at 2008 Tony’s womanizing ways and find them repugnant now, but back then it was a comedy beat, played for laughs. By the time we get to the Tony of Iron Man 3, a new sense of cool has surfaced, one that leaves room for humanity and vulnerability alongside charisma and effortless style.

Age of Ultron comes next, and it brings Tony face to face with a worst-case scenario, where even winning amounts to a major loss — the destruction of Sokovia. Captain America: Civil War pits him against his own friends because Tony, still the smartest guy in the room, thinks having superheroes obey the global powers-that-be — in effect, relinquishing any control over deciding on right vs. wrong — is the best option for avoiding a future Sokovia.

Through all of this, he’s still trying to save everyone in his bullheaded, cool-guy way. And he fails. A lot. The heroes prevail in Age of Ultron… but in the face of a threat Tony is directly responsible for creating. In Civil War, Tony still thinks he knows best, to the point that he recklessly escalates the conflict. These movies still sell his cool factor, but they don’t let his flaws off the hook. 

That’s so important! These two movies tell us, outright, that cool can be flawed, too. Tony is every bit the aspirational figure he’s always been, but we get to see him as a human being who thinks and feels and — when he fucks up — suffers.

Tony Stark and the rebirth of the cool hero

It’s only when Thanos shows up and threatens literally everything in creation that Tony realizes he was in error. In a split-second act of selflessness, he leaves behind his happy life of domestic bliss at the start of Infinity War to embrace his inner heroism and take the fight directly to Earth’s aggressors. Finally, in Endgame, Tony makes the ultimate sacrifice when he knowingly gives up everything to stop Thanos for good.

It’s a massive arc in which Tony transforms from selfish playboy into the literal savior of the universe. He couldn’t have done it without help — a fact that he’s well aware of and fully embraced by the late stages of the Infinity Saga — but he’s the one in the end, the sole hero who fixes (and personally sacrifices) everything with a snap of his fingers.

In every one of those movies, even as that sprawling arc is playing itself out, Tony is coded as an aspirational figure. Whether he’s cracking jokes or saving the day, you want to have a beer with him, or just outright be him. He is the epitome of cool. 

But it’s his whole arc that matters most. In the end, Tony’s entire fictional MCU life stands to define our modern notion of cool. He’s selfless and virtuous, but scarred — and, in many ways, defined — by his imperfect history. He’s human. Tony has made mistakes like anyone else, but he’s learned from them and become better for it. And in the end, he gives up everything because he knows he’s the only one who can save everyone.

That’s the aspiration these days. Those are the things that make him cool, and those are the same elements that define many other examples of on screen cool in 2019. It’s not enough to serve up a stylish badass who is otherwise an empty vessel for bad guy murder. The thing that most of us truly want, deep down, is for our life to have some kind of meaning. Tony’s journey showed us that it’s possible for anyone.

I can’t think of anything cooler.

Uploads%252fvideo uploaders%252fdistribution thumb%252fimage%252f92135%252f339e6f7d af98 47bc 8287 ecf7baa2ca58.png%252foriginal.png?signature=n1ybkzjprf0qeg0kpymwbxt4u5e=&source=https%3a%2f%2fblueprint api production.s3.amazonaws

Continue Reading
Advertisement Find your dream job

Trending