Stark vs. Rogers: The Central Conflict of the Marvel Cinematic Universe
The central drama of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, an incomparable cinematic epic now over a decade old, is the clash of worldviews between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. The MCU has always been about internal struggle, not external. This is an extension of the Marvel Comics worldview, because the Marvel funny books have never had strong villains. Stan Lee didn’t see the world in black and white: everything was inked with shades of grey. Marvel heroes tend to be their own worst enemies: Daredevil, the Hulk, Moon Knight, Spider-Man, and Wolverine exemplify this best. Marvel rogues’ galleries are essentially window dressing for Marvel heroes: they’re punching bags for the protagonists and not much else. When they grow beyond this role, they almost always become anti-heroes.
This is seen perfectly in the Black Panther film. Killmonger is the best antagonist the MCU has seen so far, but he isn’t really a villain. He’s a romantic, even tragic, anti-hero of Jacobin intersectionality. The same can be said for Thanos. Both of them want to do horrible things for good ends – or if not good ends, then at least rational ends. They each have a particular goal, a goal they deem good, and they are willing to justify their horrible means with this good end. This may be a hateful rationality, a utilitarian or consequentialist rationality, but it is still a rationale.
Contrast this with Heath Ledger’s Joker. In general, the Joker is a villain the MCU could never sustain, but Ledger really pushed the character to the moral limits of even Batman’s bizarre world. The Joker does evil simply for evil’s sake. He claims to be a nihilist because “it’s fair,” but that rhetoric was designed to seduce Harvey into a psychopathic rampage: it isn’t what he really believes. He represents a better class of criminal, someone who doesn’t steal for the money but rather for the stealing. He loves crime for crime’s sake. The Joker is an Augustinian villain within a Manichean universe. The famous story of Augustine and the pear tree makes all too much sense of the Joker: “I was being gratuitously wanton, having no inducement to evil but evil itself.” Or, as Johnny Cash put it more recently and succinctly, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.”
The MCU is not Augustinian or Manichean. It is fundamentally materialistic and Freudian. Everything must be psychologically motivated. This is why there are no true villains in the MCU, and it is also why there are also no true heroes. There are antagonists and protagonists, not heroes and villains. The MCU and Game of Thrones belong to the same moral universe, in which there are no shining knights. Everyone becomes tarnished.
There is one exception to this rule: Captain America. Steve Rogers is not a product of Stan Lee and the Marvel universe. His origins go back to WWII. He was formed in the same tradition as the classic DC heroes.
The DC universe was stitched together haphazardly over many decades. I first argued the significance of this in The Federalist after Infinity War premiered. The DC universe, in some sense, doesn’t even really exist. In order to force what are essentially individual universes for each major hero into a unified whole, they’ve had to retcon, explode, and reboot many times over the years. Each major DC hero has their own cast of peripheral characters, sidekicks, elaborate rogues’ galleries, and even their own fictional cities. A Batman story is significantly different from a Flash story because each hero has developed their own ethos.
But Stan Lee created the Marvel universe rapidly, basing all his heroes in New York. That way Spider-Man could easily stumble into a Fantastic Four story and vice versa. Lee designed it as a unified product, and Captain America was brought into this continuity from the outside, literally thawed from the ice of a different era.
The key to understanding the conflict between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers comes from the first Avengers. The team has no cohesion, everyone is bickering aboard the SHIELD Helicarrier, and then this dialogue emerges:
ROGERS: Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?
STARK: Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.
ROGERS: I know guys with none of that worth ten of you. I’ve seen the footage. The only thing you really fight for is yourself. You’re not the guy to make the sacrifice play, to lay down on a wire and let the other guy crawl over you.
STARK: I think I would just cut the wire.
ROGERS: Always a way out… You know, you may not be a threat, but you’d better stop pretending to be a hero.
STARK: A hero? Like you? You’re a lab rat, Rogers. Everything special about you came out of a bottle!
Watching this scene in the theater, I wanted to stand up and shout at the screen, “That’s not true!” Because Captain America: The First Avenger already made crystal clear that Steve was special. Abraham Erskine, the scientist who created the super soldier serum, explains to Steve why he was picked for the super soldier enhancements, and why those same enhancements created the Red Skull:
“The serum was not ready. But more important, the man. The serum amplifies everything that is inside, so good becomes great; bad becomes worse. This is why you were chosen. Because the strong man, who has known power all his life, may lose respect for that power, but a weak man knows the value of strength, and knows compassion.”
Erskine chooses Steve because he was special apart from the stuff in the “bottle” (interesting choice of words coming from an alcoholic). The super soldier serum enhanced what was already there. Technology didn’t change Rogers into Captain America, it revealed the hero inside. In Civil War, Rogers proves this by completing his narrative circle. In The First Avenger, Bucky has to save a pre-serum Rogers from a bully he has no chance of beating. When taunted to give up, Rogers replies, “I could do this all day.” By the end of Civil War, Rogers is defending Bucky, now the Winter Soldier, from another bully: Iron Man. When told to stay down, his reply is almost identical: “I can do this all day.”
The Russo brothers have stated that the title of Winter Soldier actually has a double meaning. It clearly refers to Bucky, but more importantly, it refers to Rogers. The term winter soldier refers to the ultimate patriot, born of hardship and pain, in contrast to Thomas Paine’s “summer soldier.” Paine writes, “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country.” Rogers is the winter soldier: an evergreen tree, “planted beside the river of truth,” that can’t be conquered by changing seasons.
Stark is the exact opposite. He is the definition of the sunshine patriot, born out of privilege and excess (ironic that he shares the name of the “Winter is coming” family from Game of Thrones). The Iron Man technology cannot make him into a hero, and he finally begins to see this while mentoring Spider-Man. He designs an amazing suit for Peter Parker, but in Spider-Man: Homecoming, he realizes that Peter is simply too immature and takes it away temporarily. Peter protests that he’s nothing without the suit. Stark firmly replies, “If you’re nothing without this suit, then you shouldn’t have it.”
What truly matters is the person under the technology, and in Homecoming, Peter proves that he is indeed more than the suit. But in many ways, Stark has not done this yet. He’s closer to virtue than he was in Iron Man, but that’s not saying much since he starts cinematic life as a drunken, promiscuous weapons supplier for terrorists. Take away any of those vices and he becomes a better man, but the bar is pretty low.
Until Thanos shows up, Stark is essentially the central antagonist of the MCU. The three Iron Man films are essentially just Stark trying to clean up his own messes. Underrated MCU antagonist Aldrich Killian, played by Guy Pearce in Iron Man 3, is literally a product of Stark’s immaturity. In both Avengers films he is an obstacle to unity, but more importantly, he creates the psychopathic A.I. Ultron. Then his guilt over the fallout from Ultron causes him to be one of the central backers of the Sokovia Accords.
The creation of Ultron and the Sokovia Accords define Stark philosophically: he’s a leftist. He believes, despite all evidence to the contrary, that he can solve every ethical problem. He created the Iron Man suit to escape his terrorist kidnappers, terrorists his irresponsible business practices emboldened. And because of this, Rogers rightly identifies that Stark has never faced the Kobayashi Maru, the no-win scenario that cannot be solved. Of course, Rogers did face this decision at the end of First Avenger, and he made the same choice as Spock in Wrath of Kahn. He laid down his life for his friends.
Stark accidentally creates Ultron because he’s trying to solve the problem of planetary defense against invading alien races. Instead, he winds up playing Dr. Frankenstein. Then he backs the Sokovia Accords because of a grieving mother who blames him, rightly, for the death of her son in Sokovia. His rationale for the Accords sounds like the thought process of an adult, but he’s still evading responsibility and naïvely holding to his belief that every problem has a technocratic solution. His reasoning for the Accords is: “We need to be put in check!”
It speaks to the virtue of the other Avengers that they don’t reply with severe indignation. “Who’s we, kemosabe?” Tony is the one who needs to be put in check. But instead of owning up to his sins, he tries to force his friends to violate their consciences, and as a result, he almost gets his best friend killed and ultimately destroys the Avengers. In other words, he does exactly what Zemo wants him to do. This is the reason the third Captain America film is titled Civil War: because as Lincoln said, quoting Scripture, a house divided against itself cannot stand. In his greatest speech – the Lyceum Address, not Gettysburg – Lincoln argued that foreign powers posed no real danger to the nation: “All the armies of Europe… could not, by force, take a drink from the Ohio.” He concludes that the greatest danger will always be from within. External tyrannies are not a real threat to American freedom. Death by suicide is the only way the nation could ever fall.
Zemo knew the Avengers were too strong to fight head on. He won by pitting brother against brother, and he was only able to do this because Stark is not virtuous. He tricked them into committing suicide because he understood that Stark has no self-control. Technology cannot simulate self-control: it merely amplifies what’s already there. In Infinity War and Homecoming, Stark has showed maturity, but it’s amazing how many horrible things had to happen first. It may take the second sacrificial death of Steve Rogers to finally shake him out of his narcissistic arrogance.
The one born in sunshine will live in darkness.
The one born in darkness will live in the light.