Tony Stark and Steve Rogers weren’t so different, after all.
By Carlos Morales
Warning: full spoilers for Avengers: Endgame ahead!
As part of their plan to undo Thanos’ elimination of 50% of all life in the universe in Avengers: Endgame, the Avengers had to go back in time to various points in the MCU’s history to retrieve each of the Infinity Stones before they were destroyed. Thor returns to the events of Thor: The Dark World to obtain the Reality Stone, where he receives some words of wisdom from his mother: “Everyone fails at who they’re supposed to be. The measure of a person, of a hero, is how well they succeed at being who they are.” While meant for Thor, these words also apply to the other two members of the core Avengers trio: Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, who both fulfil their destinies in the film, by finally realizing that they had each been living lives meant for the other.
A Suit of Armor Around the World
Tony Stark is a problem solver. As far back as when he built his first suit in a cave (with a box of scraps!), he’s been portrayed as a proactive hero, someone who gets ahead of problems and looks to the future for the next solution. He’s always tinkering on his next invention, he constructed suits for Peter Parker and Pepper Potts before they knew they needed them, and he’s been trying to prevent the devastation Thanos would wreak across the universe ever since Wanda Maximoff placed a nightmarish vision in his mind.
Yet Tony has also suffered from something beyond his PTSD: a profound lack of purpose outside of his superhero work. For a man perpetually working to atone for his past misdeeds across the many films in the MCU before Endgame, he’s never let go of his egocentrism. From “privatizing world peace” in Iron Man 2, accidentally creating a supervillain in Age of Ultron, and using the Sokovia Accords as a prop to soothe his guilty conscience in Civil War, Tony’s “solutions” have regularly caused more damage than they’ve fixed.
The reason for this? Because he’s been unable to admit his self-serving obsession with controlling fate has been his repeated downfall. He doesn’t trust other people with his creations, or his fellow Avengers with their duty to protect the world. He’s been perpetually caught between wanting to find a way to “end” the need for Iron Man (“Isn’t that the why, we fight? So we can end the fight? So we get to go home?!”) and not knowing what his life means without being Iron Man (“And then, and then, and then, I never stopped, because the truth is I don’t wanna stop.”)
This all changes in Endgame when failure gives Tony the thing he’s never found before now: peace. In the Decimation’s aftermath, Tony’s purpose becomes raising his daughter Morgan, and as his wife Pepper tells him, “We got lucky.” But what did he do when he realized there was a chance to pull off one last miracle and possibly undo the damage Thanos caused? Go right back into the fray, but this time, he was willing to place his faith in others (in his fellow Avengers to obtain the Stones, and in Doctor Strange’s plan). But even more importantly, after speaking with his father in the past, we see why Tony is able to selflessly make the ultimate sacrifice: because he’s finally let go of his ego. When he snaps his fingers with the Infinity Stones, he isn’t Iron Man because he’s fighting for his own future. He’s Iron Man because he’s fighting for his daughter’s.
I Had a Date
Conversely, Steve Rogers is a man for whom sacrifice comes as easy as breathing; consider when he leapt onto a grenade to save people he barely knew before he even had any powers. As Abraham Erskine tells him the night before being given the Super Soldier serum, “Not a perfect soldier, but a good man.” Ever since WWII, Steve Rogers has been positioned as the moral centre of the MCU, and while he’s filled that role admirably, the tension between who he is to himself and who he is to others had never truly been resolved.
Captain America is an icon, a symbol of the good a single person can do. But after taking off the costume, who is Steve Rogers? After arriving in the modern day, Steve has believed that “moving on,” that trying to find a place in this new world he doesn’t recognize, is the right thing to do, largely because a dying Peggy told him so: “The world has changed, and none of us can go back. All we can do is our best, and sometimes the best that we can do is to start over.” While it’s a beautiful line, it’s also something he’s never truly been able to take to heart.
Part of the reason Steve can’t move on is because the world hasn’t; things from his past like Hydra, Bucky, and the spectre of the life he lost with Peggy repeatedly remind him that while his sacrifice may have saved the world, it didn’t change it. He’s still fighting the same battles, and he’s never offered a good retort to Ultron’s assessment of him: “God’s righteous man. Pretending you could live without a war.” But after seeing Peggy in the past in Endgame, he’s reminded of what Tony told him about ending the fight, about going home, and he finally remembers that he was a man before he was a soldier. As such, after returning the Infinity Stones, he allows himself to be selfish. He was the hero the world needed him to be in the future, but he was only ever going to achieve purpose as Steve Rogers in the past.
Steve took back the life he was robbed of, and finally found peace with the love of his life. And Tony? He never needed to build a suit of armor around the world. Because he already was one.
For more on Endgame, check out the writers explaining Captain America’s fateful choice and why Black Widow’s story ended the way it did. And be sure to click through the slideshow gallery below to see all of the cool Easter eggs, callbacks, and references we found in the movie.