Tony Stark’s Problem of Mortality
By Edwardo Pérez
[NOTE: Major Spoilers ahead for Avengers: Infinity War.]
Every character in Marvel Studio’s MCU film franchise (nineteen films and counting) is fascinating, not just in the awesome array of superpowers they possess (which makes the stories and special effects fun) but in the way each character has to wrestle with the stress that comes with the job of saving the world. After all, being part of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes isn’t always easy – to a person, every character is a tortured soul fighting (sometimes together, sometimes alone) against overwhelming odds, trying to save the world (and the people they love) from human, alien, and god-like villains. And, in the midst of this, they often have to decide who lives and who dies (which is what Age of Ultron and Civil War were essentially about).
This problem of mortality extends not just to the civilians they’re protecting and the villains they’re defeating, it also extends to themselves. Do they sacrifice themselves for the sake of others? Or, do they risk the lives of others for the sake of one Avenger? What is the life of one Avenger worth? And, what happens if and when an Avenger dies? Indeed, for all their abilities and skills and knowledge, every Avenger is mortal – because even a fifteen hundred year-old god like Thor can die.
Clint Barton (Hawkeye) is a clear example of this, as we learn in Age of Ultron that he’s got a wife and two kids hidden away – and because he’s injured at the beginning of the film, he begins to contemplate if he really wants to continue doing his job (because coming home to a really nice house in the middle of nowhere, with a great family, is more appealing than risking his life for strangers). It seems to be why Hawkeye and Ant-Man (who has a daughter he loves seeing) are absent from Infinity War. As Black Widow explains, Hawkeye and Ant-Man made a “deal” (that’s never fully explained).
Indeed, we could go through the entire cast and see how every character chooses to deal with this dilemma in their own way (perhaps especially Thor, who loses everyone he loves in the opening scene of Infinity War, swears vengeance on Thanos and nearly gets it with Stormbreaker). Yet, for all the intriguing (and wildly different) viewpoints the stable of Marvel characters offers, the main perspective we’re meant to see the larger MCU narrative through seems to be that of Tony Stark.
Like Jack Shepard in Lost or Bill Adama in BSG, Tony Stark is part of an ensemble and not always the featured player (like in the Thor, Guardians, Ant-Man, and Captain America films – with the exception of Civil War). However, the narrative of the Avengers is really about the journey of Tony Stark/Iron Man. And, in Infinity War, we see how Tony’s journey has perhaps always been about how he chooses to deal with his own mortality.
There’s a palpable, nervous energy to Tony Stark in Infinity War, from the first moment he appears, walking with Pepper Potts through a park, to his emotional, closing scene with Peter Parker – where Tony mourns not just Peter’s tragic death but the apparent failure to stop Thanos from literally killing half the universe with the snap of his fingers. (Unless it’s all part of Doctor Strange’s plan and the deaths are temporary, which is what seems likely, given who lived and who died at the end of Infinity War and the film sequels that Marvel/Disney have planned. From a financial perspective, there’s no way so many marquee characters stay dead).
Still, for Infinity War, Tony’s anxiety is born from the realization that he’s mortal – a feeling he’s been nursing since the first Avengers movie, where he almost died in the film’s final battle in New York. Prior to the first Avengers film, Tony as Iron Man was able to cheat death; after all, it’s literally why he became Iron Man in his first film, the Arc Reactor in his chest keeping him alive and allowing him to continue his (largely consequence-free) billionaire playboy lifestyle, while occasionally saving the world. But, as Tony tells Pepper in Iron Man 3, “Nothing’s been the same since New York. You experience things and then they’re over and you still can’t explain them. Gods, aliens, other dimensions. I’m just a man in a can.”
Tony may have once embraced life in a careless way; like most of us when we’re young, we tend to believe we’re immortal, or we at least see death as something that’s far away, especially if you’re an arrogant billionaire with a genius-level IQ who likes to tinker with robotics. By Infinity War, however, Tony has become obsessed with his mortality. Yet, because he’s Iron Man, he’s had to find a way to balance the competing instincts of life and death, what Sigmund Freud calls our life drive (Eros) and our death drive (Thanatos – not to be confused with Infinity War’s villain, Thanos). (By the way, I’ve written about Freud’s life/death drives before on this website in a blog about Angry Birds, but the topic seemed worthy of exploring again in Infinity War, especially through Tony Stark.)
For Freud, the two drives aren’t just competing, they’re essentially cyclical: life comes from death, so life seeks to return to death (and on and on it goes). Thus, it’s not so much a struggle as it is a goal: we have an instinct to die, so we engage in behavior that might cause our own death, like invent an Iron Man suit and fly a nuclear bomb through a wormhole in space or hitch a ride on a ship bound for another planet so we can fight the most powerful being in the universe.
Of course Tony, like most of us who experience a near-death event, decides he wants to live, not die – though it’s fair to say that such an experience might make death seem attractive, or, it might make you feel invulnerable and perhaps more reckless. After all, Tony may want to live, but he’s still Iron Man, a hero who likes to save the world in very risky ways (because even though he promised Pepper in Iron Man 3 that he’d pretty much retire, he didn’t). This presents a problem for his mortality, as he’s pulled in both directions.
So, it’s significant that in Infinity War, Tony and Pepper are engaged and Tony is dreaming of being a father (a life-drive event). Pepper assures him they’re not pregnant, yet Tony insists that a dream he had (in which they are pregnant) was real. (This suggests another way Infinity War’s ending could be fixed: the whole film is nothing more than Tony dreaming, like the way Iron Man 3 was essentially Tony telling the story to Bruce Banner. Certainly, the banter between Tony and Pepper at the beginning of Infinity War at least hints as this possibility).
With Peter Parker, Tony gets the chance to be a father figure (like he was to Harley in Iron Man 3), anticipating every adolescent, teenage-male impulse (and scolding Peter when Peter defies him), wanting to shield Peter rather than let him be part of the team (until Tony realizes Peter is the future of the team). It’s touching to see Tony protect Peter with an Iron-Man-like Spidey suit (Iron Spider?), anoint Peter as an Avenger, and then hold Peter in his last moments before he turns to ash and is carried away by a breeze on Titan. (Because Tony and Peter have embraced this father/son relationship since Civil War, Peter’s death had a fair amount of emotional weight to it in Infinity War.)
It’s also significant that Tony wants to be a father – that at 53, Tony is finally ready to set aside his womanizing, alcoholic, playboy lifestyle to spend time with a child. And, there’s a defiance to Tony’s demeanor, not just with Pepper but with everyone he seems to encounter, from Doctor Strange to the Guardians of the Galaxy and especially to Thanos. It’s as if everyone he interacts with represents (on some level) his life coming to an end and he’s not going to let it happen (like the Ancient One in Doctor Strange, Tony wants to stretch out one moment into thousands). It’s almost as if Tony’s fear in Infinity War is that the arrival of Thanos signifies his inevitable death, the very thing he’s been trying to avoid since the first Avengers film.
Indeed, Tony’s narrative arc from Avengers through Infinity War can be seen as being about how he reconciles his life drive with his death drive, or how he attempts to solve his problem of mortality. Does he pursue life and all its pleasures? Or, does he seek his own death by engaging in dangerous behavior? What’s significant for Tony is that he tries to do both, because when you have the means to pursue any pleasure you want and create life-saving nanobots you can carry with you wherever you go (as well as an Iron Man suit you can fit into a wristwatch or a pair of sunglasses) you can pursue life and death at the same time.
For Tony, he’s sensed since the Avengers battle in New York that he’s headed toward the end of his life and he’s been struggling with that realization ever since. And, in Age of Ultron, as the Scarlet Witch showed him in a vision, Tony also feels that he’ll somehow be responsible for causing other people’s deaths, which is also part of Freud’s analysis when it comes to how the death drive functions – because we don’t just try to bring about our own death, we also sometimes cause the death of others (subconsciously and/or through aggressive behavior). This fear and stress is what seems to guide Tony throughout Infinity War, most notably when he encounters Doctor Strange, whom Tony treats not just as a rival (as their witty, acerbic banter suggests) but as if Strange were the angel of death coming for his soul in the same manner as Thanos.
Much has been said about the parallels between Tony Stark and Stephen Strange (and most of it is on point) but Tony differs in the sense that he’s alive only because he used technology to cheat death – though, to be fair, Doctor Strange has no problem violating natural law if it helps him cheat death for others (it’s how he beat Dormammu in his own film). And, one has to think that Mordo, unless he was turned to ash by Thanos, is still going to demand payment from Stephen. (Otherwise, Mordo’s end-credits scene in Doctor Strange means nothing.)
What’s significant is that Tony’s narrative arc had progressed to the point that he was able to remove the shrapnel near his heart and remove the gadgetry that literally made him Iron Man (as seen at the end of Iron Man 3). And he seemed to be content with it being removed, with being fully human again, realizing that he didn’t need an Arc Reactor in his chest in order to be a superhero. As he says in the closing scene of Iron Man 3, “You can take away my house, all my tricks and toys. One thing you can’t take away … I am Iron Man.”
This makes Tony’s choice to put back the reactor in his chest (sometime before Infinity War, which Pepper seems upset about) also interesting. It’s as if he feels he needs it to live, that without it, he’s just another mortal man. (Unless it’s really part of dream Tony’s having and the fact that the reactor is in his chest is our clue.) So, is Tony embracing life or death with a new Arc Reactor – or is he cheating both?
Similarly, as always, Tony’s updated the Iron Man suit to the point that it now uses nanotechnology, which he utilizes near the end of Infinity War to heal himself after being heroically stabbed in the gut by Thanos. In other words, the nanobots also allow Tony to cheat death. Yes, Doctor Strange made a deal with Thanos to spare Tony’s life in exchange for the Time Stone. But, Tony didn’t take chances or trust Thanos (and maybe didn’t even trust Doctor Strange) because Tony always has a backup plan (usually an Iron Man suit nearby). Because, above all else, Tony needs to feel protected: he needs to feel like he will survive whatever battle he fights, even if he has to cheat. It’s telling that Thanos seems to recognize this need in Tony, as Thanos seems to sincerely tell him, “You have my respect, Stark. When I’m done, half of humanity will still be alive. I hope they remember you.”
Of course, many of us fear death (like Tony) and want to cheat it: from the ancient dream of a fountain of youth to cryogenics and genetic engineering to transhumanist science and philosophy (and Tony’s nanobots), humanity has perhaps always dreamed of (and continues to dream of) immortality. (Certainly, when you realize you’re closer to 50 than 40, you begin to dream of it quite often.) Is this our main solution to the problem of mortality? Is extending life indefinitely the way to reconcile our life and death instincts?
But the quest for immortality is at odds with the death drive – and the dream of immortality doesn’t really embrace the life drive, but rather subverts it. After all, immortality isn’t creating anything; it’s prolonging what’s already been created and forever delaying the drive to return back to the state of death we originated from (perhaps it’s even a perversion of creation, of the cycle of life, as bioethicist and anti-transhumanist Francis Fukuyama might argue – and as Mordo might agree).
Another way to look at the Freudian drives is to see death as being the point of life, the goal we’ll all achieve and the final event that gives meaning to everything that came before it – which seems to be Freud’s point in recognizing the death drive. And yet, our advancements in technology (as Tony/Iron Man illustrates) have made death obsolete, because if we create anything in this mode (like a reactor in our chest cavity) we create the possibility of indefinitely sustained life. Death becomes meaningless and so, too, does life – both Freudian drives become cheated.
This is what happens in Infinity War. Indeed, we may end up seeing the resurrection of every character who died in Infinity War when the fourth Avengers film comes out next May, which makes everything in Infinity War pointless, or at least hollow, especially if everything that happened could be undone with another snap of the fingers – like if Peter Dinklage’s dwarf, Eitri, makes another Infinity Gauntlet and someone else uses it to undo what Thanos did and turn Thanos to ash.
Of course, if we consider all eighteen prior films, death has been meaningless for many characters, most notably Steve Rogers, Bucky Barnes, and T’Challa. So the deaths of Spider-Man, Black Panther, most of the Guardians of the Galaxy—including Gamora, who Star-Lord could bring back by taking the soul stone to the planet Vormir and exchange it for her—and everyone else who turned to ash are likely temporary, and thus meaningless.
And it’s a shame because I actually liked Tony’s death at the hands of Thanos; it felt heroic and it felt real (for about four seconds). It also felt earned, as if Tony had finally realized his time was up and he needed to sacrifice himself (which, he may end up doing, eventually) for the sake of the universe. Indeed, he seemed to realize this necessity the moment he lost contact with Pepper as he left Earth’s atmosphere.
So, if there is meaning in Infinity War, if there’s a way to solve the problem of mortality, it’s in the choices that many characters make when it comes to deciding who lives and who dies. For example, Thanos is willing to trade the life of his daughter Gamora for the soul stone, and he’s willing to eliminate half the universe in order to save it. (At least, that’s his argument.) As Thanos says, “The hardest choices require the strongest wills.” It’s not an easy choice and, despite Josh Brolin’s excellent performance, it’s difficult to sympathize with Thanos, especially if you’re a parent.
However, Thanos isn’t the only one making a hard choice. Infinity War places similar sacrificial choices in front of many characters. Gamora gives up he location of the soul stone to Thanos in order to stop Thanos from torturing her sister Nebula. Scarlet Witch refuses to kill Vision in order to protect the mind stone attached to his head. T’Challa rallies the entire nation of Wakanda to fight in an epic battle against the armies of Thanos in order to give Shuri time to save Vision. Tony tried to save Peter from falling from space to Earth early in Infinity War by giving him the Iron Spidey suit. Star-Lord seemingly blows the whole plan to defeat Thanos when he realizes Thanos killed Gamora. Doctor Strange won’t trade the time stone for anyone’s life… until he trades it for Tony’s life. Eitri chose to make the Infinity Gauntlet for Thanos believing that Thanos would spare the lives of the other three hundred dwarfs on Niðavellir. And, in the opening scene of Infinity War, Thanos gives Loki the choice between killing Thor and handing over the Tesseract. At first, Loki doesn’t seem to care if Thor is killed, but eventually he relents and gives up the Tesseract, which leads to Thanos killing Loki.
By the way, it’s worth nothing that all of these choices could be looked at from a utilitarian and deontological perspective. Indeed, as Steve Rogers claims (and as Vision later reiterates), the philosophy of the Avengers is clear: “we don’t trade lives.” So, Captain America sees a duty to save everyone, just as they tried to do in Sokovia in Age of Ultron (though, even Quicksilver saw the need to sacrifice his life in exchange for the life of a little boy). And from these moral perspectives, Doctor Strange’s decision is baffling because he had plenty of utilitarian and deontological reasons to let Tony die (which is why it must be part of a larger strategy, an “end game” as he tells Tony).
Logically, from a utilitarian perspective, Tony and Vision had the right idea: just destroy the time stone and mind stone. Had they done that, Thanos would’ve been stopped. But, Strange wouldn’t allow the time stone to be destroyed and no one wanted to kill Vision in order to destroy the mind stone (until Vision eventually convinces Scarlet Witch to kill him, which, by that point, was too late). So, Thanos gets all six stones and half the universe dies. Were these choices (to save Tony and Vision) life-instinct choices or death-instinct choices? Were they part of Doctor Strange’s glimpse into the future? Do they solve the problem of mortality?
However we interpret them, the decisions in Infinity War to save one person (usually the person you love most) and risk the lives of half the universe create an interesting interpretation when it comes to Freud’s life and death instincts and the problem of mortality. Is saving the person you love a life-drive decision (because your loved one is saved) or a death-drive decision (because saving them causes others to die)? Or is just a clever way to cheat? Indeed, Infinity War seems to be asking not which instinct we should follow, but rather if we should follow either of them at all.
In the end, Infinity War seems to reject both Freudian drives, suggesting that what matters is not which instinct we choose to follow, but rather that we make a choice – because choice seems to be the only way for life and death to mean something. If we go through every character’s choice listed above, we see that because Thanos chose Gamora or Loki chose Thor or Gamora chose Nebula (and so on), their lives and deaths had meaning. Even the people Thanos obliterated with his snap could be seen as having meaning, if we consider (in Thanos’ logic) that they’re being sacrificed for the sake of the rest of the universe (because they were chosen to be sacrificed). Indeed, if Tony succeeds in reversing all of this, the meaning of everyone’s lives and deaths will change.
Near the end of the film, Thanos visits a young Gamora in what appears to be a soul world inside the soul stone. She asks him “did you do it?” He replies, “yes,” after which she asks him “What did it cost?” He looks at her for a moment and says, “Everything.” Whatever you think of Thanos, it’s a devastating scene (mostly because the young Gamora is heartbreaking), showing that even Thanos (like most of the audience in the theater) is a little bummed-out in the aftermath of his actions, leaving us to ponder whether any one life (including our own) is worth saving or sacrificing for the sake of others.
This is what makes Infinity War (and the MCU films in general) so compelling. For all the hype and special effects, for all the humor and cultural references, for all the layered complexity of the narrative, at root and linking every character in the sprawling film is the basic choice we all face, perhaps on a daily basis: Do we endeavor to preserve life or do we seek to destroy it? And, what meaning do we bestow through the choices we make?
This is also what makes Tony Stark so compelling, as he’s the perfect symbol of humanity: when you consider his embodiment of technology and how his reliance on science mirrors where our world is at right now, there’s no better reflection of a twenty-first century human. Indeed, when you strip away all the bravado, all the wealth, and all the knowledge and skill, he’s just “a man in a can,” a flawed mortal like any one of us, willing to fight for what he loves (even if he has to cheat) because he’s afraid to lose it. It’ll be fascinating to see what he chooses to do next.
Edwardo Pérez is an Associate Professor of English at Tarrant County College in Hurst, Texas. He also manages his philosophical website lightsabertoss.com.
Avengers: Infinity War. Marvel Studios/Disney Studios, 2018.
Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Dover Publications, 2015.
Iron Man 3. Walt Disney Studios. DVD, 2013.