Fathers everywhere will invariably see themselves in Avengers: Endgame. Now, men relating to these movies isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon, but this time around, the analogy between being a father and being a superhero who saves the world is a little bit more literal. Some of your favorite Marvel dudes become dads in this flick, but that doesn’t mean you’ll totally agree with everything these dads do. Specifically, the parental actions of Marvel’s newest father, Tony “Iron Man” Stark are somewhat debatable. When all is said and zapped, did Tony do the right thing as a father? For the first time, the supercharged Marvel movies are having a very public conversation about fatherhood and responsibility.
Spoilers ahead for Avengers: Endgame.
The big news in Endgame isn’t all the confusing time travel, or the crazy action, or slick callbacks to the giant franchise. Instead, it’s the fact that the most famous Avengers of them all — Tony Stark — becomes a father. Early in the film, as we flash five years past the point where half the population of the universe was wiped-out, Tony (Robert Downey Jr.) and Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) have settled down in a country house and have a four-year-old daughter named Morgan. Tony is done with the Iron Man gig. When the remaining Avengers drive out to convince him that they have a second chance at defeating the big purple baddie Thanos, Tony, clutching his daughter, tells Captain America: “I’ve got my second chance right here.”
Make no mistake. This is the best moment in the movie. Part of why we love Downey Jr.’s beloved Tony Stark is his ability to destroy people not only with his awesome super suit but his words. Tony’s point to Cap, that a second chance isn’t about changing the past, but holding onto the future, is important not only in the context of the Marvel Universe. It’s important in life. Tony Stark has become a better version of himself and his reticence to let that go feels right. His daughter tells him that Pepper sent her out to “save” Tony from the awkward conversation with the other Avengers.
“I’m saved,” says Tony.
Of course, this all happens at the beginning of the movie. And, eventually, Tony realizes that he can, in fact, figure out the whole time travel problem, and help the Avengers skip through time and pluck the handy Infinity Stones from their own personal pasts. In terms of movie thrills, this one delivers. Look! Captain America fighting himself in 2012! Two Caps! WOW. Cool.
But, the more interesting time travel sequence involves Tony meeting his own father Howard in 1970, and, without revealing who he is exactly, telling him about his future granddaughter. Poignantly, Tony meets his father just prior to his own birth, which allows him to see his father in a different light, and thank the young dad-to-be for all the life that is yet to come. Tony tells his father that “he only remembers the good stuff,” which is nice but also reinforces a common trope in popular fiction: Dads are treated as something that has happened, rather than present characters (see: Black Panther, Bruce Banner, Star-Lord, and Peter Parker). Luke Skywalker’s dad was Darth Vader. Hamlet’s father was murdered. Dads who are active and current fathers have a hard time mattering in popular fiction, which is why I was so frustrated to see Tony Stark join the ranks of wonderful — yet tragic — fathers.
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For most moviegoers, the death of Tony Stark in Avengers: Endgame will make any tears you shed for Peter Parker in 2018 seem like nothing. Tony dies saving the entire universe. Literally. Which, of course, includes Peter Parker, his ward, and Morgan, his young daughter. At the end of the movie, it’s clear Morgan will be raised by Pepper with the help of Happy (Tony’s longsuffering bodyguard played by Jon Favreau) and probably a smattering of other Avengers who offer to babysit. But Tony’s death in the movie still represents a choice and that choice results in him not being there for his kid.
Other superhero dads in the movie are luckier. Both Ant-Man and Hawkeye get to have their superhero cake and eat it, too. Their families are saved, and they don’t lose their lives in the process, so everyone wins. Because it works out for those two super dads, it’s easier to get behind their decisions (and also easier to excuse Hawkeye’s murderous vigilantism.)
But with Tony Stark, it’s harder to accept. For the first time in a Marvel movie, I think fathers will relate to Tony, and not in a wish-fulfillment way, but instead, in a real, and humble way. The difference is, I think, that most fathers wouldn’t have made the decision Tony made. In real life, fathers don’t value Spider-Man more than they value their own child. (Or if they do, they need to be arrested.) The point is, that with its biggest adventure yet, Avengers: Endgame flirts with presenting the emotional experience of fatherhood more realistically than any other superhero movie has ever done before. Which is why it’s so crushing that Iron Man had to end up a martyred father. Will Morgan ever really understand? Would your kid?
In other words, why couldn’t Tony have just been Iron Dad?
Avengers: Endgame is out in wide release.