Hollywood star Robert Downey Jr turns 56 on April 4. The actor, who has been acting since the age of five, has delivered several memorable characters on screen. However, one of his most influential contributions to popular cinema is his decade-long stint as Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Tony Stark.
The MCU basically started with him. In 2008, when Marvel Studios wasn’t a multi-billion dollar empire, it collaborated with other studios to make the first Iron Man film. Despite serious opposition from Hollywood executives, Jon Favreau cast Robert Downey Jr. The actor had battled a drug addiction and was arrested as well, and during that time, he was slowly gaining back his status as a serious actor in Hollywood.
With Iron Man (2008) we first saw the “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” Tony Stark, even though those words would be spoken later. When we first saw Tony saving his life from terrorists by making a suit made of Iron, we witnessed history being made. At the end of the film when he said, “I am Iron Man,” audiences wouldn’t know until 11 years later what they meant. At that point, history was made.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe or MCU is the highest grossing franchise of all time. Over the last 13 years, we have watched the films blossom into something else entirely. But it all started with Robert Downey Jr. After appearing in nine films excluding cameos, Robert retired from his role in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame. In a plot that broke millions of hearts, Tony Stark sacrificed his life to defeat Thanos. He used the Infinity Stones and dusted off Thanos and his entire army in a moment of poetic justice.
He also said, “I am Iron Man.” It was an appropriate move for Tony Stark, but that meant that we would potentially never get to see the character again. For most MCU fans, it was a time of mourning.
Spider-Man: Far From Home that released the same year, only made us sadder about Tony Stark’s loss. Set after the events of Avengers: Endgame, it saw Peter Parker try to live his life without his father-figure and continue his legacy. In a way, the film was a three hour eulogy for Iron Man. It was a fitting end to MCU’s phase 3.
With the advent of Phase 4, the attention has shifted further away from Tony Stark. The Covid-19 pandemic delayed all MCU productions by a year, which gave fans time to mourn the character. WandaVision managed to keep the spotlight on the show’s characters. Apart from a Stark Industries missile, there was no mention of Tony Stark or Steve Rogers at all. People were busy theorising about Wanda’s altered reality, and Evan Peters’ casting kept everyone distracted.
We are three episodes into The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and till now the only connection to Tony Stark is one bank manager asking about the billionaire paying the Avengers, and a surprise cameo by Don Cheadle as James Rhodes, Tony’s best friend. However, TFATWS is a Captain America legacy show. So we can’t and shouldn’t expect it to focus any more on Tony. In a way, that is what Marvel wants, to start afresh and for fans to give as much love to the newer superheroes.
So the question remains, have we forgotten Tony Stark? The answer, simply is, no, we haven’t. Despite Phase 4 being about new beginnings, it is not about erasing the memories of the past Avengers. The final war with Thanos is often mentioned in these shows, and we recon will continue to be done so in the future films and shows to come. Everyone knows that the battle belonged to Tony Stark more than anyone else. Also, Marvel recently announced a series titled Armor Wars led by Don Cheadle. We are sure that the show, through Rhodey, will address more about Tony and his family after his death. Moreover, with Marvel slowly assembling the Young Avengers, who knows if Tony’s daughter Morgan ends up becoming one. In a nutshell, MCU will always be Iron Man’s legacy in some way or other.
What about public memory? For better or worse, the fans haven’t forgotten about Tony Stark. Case in point, during the first episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Sam Wilson and his sister Sarah went to get a loan from the bank. The bank manager then asked if the Avengers got paid by Tony Stark, to which Sam said no. Even though it was not a shot at Tony but a comment on systemic racism faced by a Black person in America, fans went on Twitter to hate on Tony. A lot of people criticised the character for not paying his colleagues despite being a billionaire. This sparked a debate with defenders saying that it was the government’s duty to pay the Avengers. They said that Tony built the Avengers tower, their weapons and even took care of the day-to-day needs of his colleagues. They were all living rent-free under his roof.
This debate died down, rightly so, after many on Twitter talked about the scene being about systemic racism, and by making it about a White character, they were trivialising the issue. There are still people tweeting about the issue.
However, Tony doesn’t just get hate online. If you look for #TonyStark or #IronMan online, you will find that most fans are talking about missing the character, writing fan-fictions about him being alive and even blaming 2020 for being a result of his death. “The world really went to hell after Tony Stark died,” is one of the most popular memes about the character.
It is safe to say that social media has kept Tony Stark alive. By giving people the agency to talk about the character anytime they want, they have created their own ways to remember him. It is not just the fans, Robert Downey Jr has constantly kept up his image as Iron Man on his social media handles. From quoting dialogues and wearing clothes, to announcing his company FootPrint Coalition that works in sustainable technology for the environment, Robert is living his life like Tony Stark. It is a popular opinion that he was born to play the role and in a way he keeps reminding us of that.
To sum up, Tony Stark and Iron Man will continue to remain Robert Downey Jr’s most influential role to date. As long as there is MCU and social media, Tony Stark’s legacy will be kept alive. And who knows, the actor might just make a come-back as Iron Man, because in his own words, ‘never say never.’