[Heavy spoilers for Avengers: Endgame abound. Read at your own risk.]
Days before I turned 18 years old, I was on vacation with my parents. Every memorial day weekend for years on end, it was always Charlotte, North Carolina for the Coca-Cola 600. It doubled as my birthday trip. That year like many other years, we ended up at Concord Mills Mall to shop and see a movie.
That year, we looked at the list of movies that were about to screen and settled on a film that had come out a couple of weeks before that we weren’t actively looking to see, but we had heard good things about it. So why not?
It was Iron Man.
At the time, I didn’t know it was going to be the last movie I would ever see with both of my parents before they would begin their long spin towards divorce four months later.
I also didn’t know how much that movie was going to crack my world open.
“I am inevitable,” says the Mad Titan Thanos in the all knowing voice of a wise father mixed with an 18 year old college freshman who has taken one philosophy class.
Despite the fact I have steeled myself for the expectation of what comes next for the past several years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I don’t think I was adequately prepared for what was about to happen.
Kelly Sue Deconnick on the red carpet for Captain Marvel talked with a reporter about cross identifying. In that women all our lives have had to identify with male characters because there historically haven’t been a lot of women characters to identify with in film. Especially in action movies.
Before Carol Danvers finally joined the MCU, I had Tony Stark to cross identify with.
Tony is such a weird character to relate to, especially when people in my online communities especially in the wake of The Winter Soldier and Civil War picked Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes to glom onto. For some before that, it was Loki.
Steve is the ultimate force of good. The final boss of “Ess Jay Dubyas.”
Bucky, the broken experiment. A victim of illegal testing and powerful men needing a pawn.
And Loki, the trickster with a heart and daddy issues somewhere under the horns.
It’s not that I don’t like those characters, but none of them ever spoke to me the way Tony did.
Honestly, I never stood a chance.
“I’m just not the hero type. Clearly.”
I always remember how I felt watching that final scene in the first Iron Man movie, where Tony is given cards from SHIELD to cover for the incidents with Obidaiah Stane. It seems to go well, until journalist/one time fling Christine Everhart grabs onto a string and begins pulling, prompting one of my favorite final lines in a movie ever.
“The truth is… I am Iron Man.”
Even though I know the movie nearly beat for beat at this point and know what’s coming, I still get a rush when Tony says those four final words. When I was nearly 18, I had never seen a superhero movie willing to take such a risk. At nearly 29, it feels like watching a lightning bolt that was going to change everything.
And it did.
Iron Man 3 was the first time I can remember ever seeing something resembling my mental illness portrayed on screen.
My brain is plagued with anxiety and fear. I stay up all night, especially when I get hyperfocused. I never know when I’ll collapse into an attack and it just feels like everything is careening at high speed while simultaneously coming to a screeching halt.
Sometimes, I will be stuck in it, feeling like a burden to my loved ones. Sometimes, I snap out of it when sense reigns over me.
When Tony runs to his suit after he feels the world close in on him and JARVIS tells him he’s having a panic attack, I gasped in the theater. The thing that I live with was something a superhero had to live with too.
With a pause, Tony goes “…ME?!”
Oh honey, more than you’ll know.
I still get mad about how Tony was treated as the villain in Civil War by the movie and the fandom, especially when Steve reveals in the heat of battle that he knew Bucky had killed Howard and Maria Stark.
He should be allowed to grieve. He should be allowed to be angry.
But that was unreasonable. Bucky was a victim, you see. Can’t you just be reasonable and be cordial with the person who broke your entire world?
Between my parents pushing the anger and sadness I felt over their divorce down to the point it took me years to process it and the man I once loved pushing me into the shadows, I don’t blame Tony for pushing forward into his anger, even when both he and Bucky both felt pain over what had been done to them. As I learned this past weekend, it apparently also takes me seven years to forgive. Right now, I’m on year four.
The older I get, the more I understand why I gravitated towards Tony Stark so much.
Despite how outgoing I appear, I only have a few people that really see me for who I am. Especially on my worse days.
I offset everything with sarcasm and reads.
I have a complicated relationship with my dad.
I have dealt poorly with my mental health over an extended time period that it comes out badly before I actually deal with it properly.
I will drive up to places blasting bangers to announce my arrival.
I accidentally push people away and I’m bad about talking about my problems.
I’m a creative problem solver.
I’m fiercely protective of my own.
Carol Danvers also saved my life at my lowest possible moment.
And underneath it all, there is a heart that refuses to quit, even in the worst moments.
Everything since the first Avengers movie seems to have been fallout from the moment Tony grabbed the missile and launched it into space. Ultron, Sokovia, The Accords. He was haunted by his PTSD to the point he lost his friends. Lost Peter.
Steve in a badly written scene said that Tony was not the type of person to lay down on the wire and make the sacrifice play.
Obviously, both Steve and Joss Whedon would be wrong about that.
“I am inevitable,” Thanos says with a smug grin before one final snap. One that he could only achieve by pushing the most powerful fighter on that battlefield away with the Power stone.
One that inevitably proves empty.
Instead, there is an empty gauntlet and a rainbow of stones on Tony’s hand. With one last look, he says the four magic words.
“I am Iron Man.”
And like a miracle and devastation from The Wicked + The Divine, it all comes down to one final snap.
On a bed of flowers, the proof of Tony Stark’s heart floats downstream away from those he left behind.
His family. His friends. His team.
The arc reactor was physical proof of the heart in his chest, but now there was so much more to prove the depths of his love. It wasn’t just him anymore.
In the weeks before Endgame, I contemplated getting an arc reactor surrounded by flowers to commemorate Tony. When I wasn’t certain if he was getting out alive.
Now it seems… well… inevitable.
In the immediate aftermath though? I settle for an American Cheeseburger.
Tony Stark is not a real person, but my heart still breaks for him. For losing him. For losing this strand connected to the person I once was to the person I am now.
I think about the me from 11 years ago, not knowing the journey life would take her on. I wish I could give her a hug and a warning. Maybe tell her to stick with therapy instead of acting like everything is alright.
Still, you can’t mess with the timeline or you break the journey that brought you here. You take from the stories you can to find your strength. You’ll find characters you love who will help carry you through. Ones you realize you wouldn’t have if things hadn’t turned out the way they did. Sometimes that comes from a comic book coming in the mail after the biggest heartbreak of your life or just trying to pick a movie with your parents while on vacation.
You’ll never know what will stick with you, but you do whatever it takes to find the proof of your heart and keep it alive.