Crafting Compelling Character Arcs—Iron Man

This article was originally published in The Writer’s Everything, Issue #008.

In Avengers: Endgame, Tony Stark utters the now-iconic words that first opened the door eleven years earlier to the flood of record-breaking content that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

What were they? “I am Iron Man.”

If you’ve seen the movie, you know exactly what moment I’m speaking of, as well as what a profound and moving moment it truly is.

If we look at it from a thematic standpoint, however, we find that it is more than just an emotional and heart-wrenching end to a three-hour-and-two-minute action extravaganza. It was the conclusion to a deep, meaningful, well-crafted character arc.

To fully understand the significance of the final act of one of the greatest superheroes of all time, we have to go back to his debut appearance in Iron Man.

The Starting Point

In this introductory film, Tony Stark is depicted as egotistical and self-centered. He’s too busy having a good time to bother accepting an award from his best friend, and when a journalist calls him out on his shady business practices, he chooses to seduce her to his bedroom rather than face the truth of her statements.

Tony Stark is the type of person who will always put himself first. The idea of sacrificing himself for anyone else doesn’t even cross his mind. That is the starting point of his character arc.

The First Step

Tony Stark takes the first step towards his profound development as a character when the convoy that he is riding in is attacked by an extremist group, the Ten Rings. They demolish Tony Stark’s Humvee with his own missile, capture him, and force him to build more weapons for them lest they kill him.

In that moment, the concerns that he had shrugged off so easily in the previous scene, concerns about his business practices, become very real and very significant to him personally.

This is not, however, the turning point for Tony Stark as a character, the moment where he transitions from pursuing his wants to working towards his needs. Rather, that moment comes next.

The Turning Point

Up until Tony’s escape from the cave in which he was being held captive, his goals were still wholly self-centered. He wanted to free himself from captivity and get back to his old life. The needs that his character would come to discover were nowhere on his radar.

But then he develops a friendship with Professor Yinsen. Yinsen sees past Tony Stark’s facade, realizing that he, with a little effort, has the potential to be a great man. Their friendship is the turning point that sets Tony Stark on the path to redemption.

Don’t Waste Your Life

As Tony Stark’s prototype Iron Man armor is charging up, much too slowly for him to stop the terrorists at his door, Yinsen decides to sacrifice himself. He runs out with a machine gun, creating the distraction Stark needs to be
able to get his suit operational.

Yinsen’s dying words to Stark are a plea: “Don’t waste your life.”

Yinsen put his faith in Tony. He demonstrates the belief that Stark’s life is worth more than his own, and it is that sacrifice, that confidence, that forms the driving force behind everything Tony Stark then does as Iron Man.

Teetering On The Edge

In the early days of his newfound career as a superhero, we find Tony Stark teetering on the edge. One foot is behind him, planted firmly in the safety of his old life, his old aspirations, and his old ideals. The other foot is hovering above a ravine, the selfless, self-sacrificing, self-fulfilling life that he never realized he needed.

It isn’t until his mentor, Obadiah Stane, steals his technology for his own selfish ends that Tony Stark finally takes the leap, learning to fly, metaphorically speaking. When presented with the opportunity to put his old arc reactor back in his chest and save himself, leaving Stane to his evil endeavors, he instead chooses to confront Stane. By the time the battle reaches its climax, he heroically and selflessly chooses to stop his enemy at the cost of his own life.

Not The End

This, of course, is the conclusion to Tony Stark’s character arc in Iron Man. It is not, however, the end of his character development in the MCU. Throughout his next eight appearances, he struggles with making the best choices in his new position as a hero and, later, a leader and mentor.

In Marvel’s The Avengers, Captain America calls Iron Man out for not being willing to make the sacrifice play, as well as for being nothing without his suit. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, Iron Man unintentionally creates a malicious, rouge A.I. in his attempt to protect the world. Then, his overreaction to his own mistake leads to the split and near-destruction of the Avengers.

With each appearance, however, we see his pride and vanity being slowly chipped away, until he reaches his final chronological appearance in Avengers: Endgame, and his character arc comes full circle.

A Fitting Conclusion

Tony Stark goes into the battle with Thanos knowing that there is only one possible solution. Even so, he is not aware of the sacrifice play that their current course of action will require him to make.

Finally, the time comes, Doctor Strange signals him, reminding him that this is the moment of truth, and Tony Stark acts. He shows us all exactly who he is, using the infinity stones to save the universe in spite of the deadly effect of his wielding them.

In his dying moment, the script shows us that he looks to Pepper Potts, the words “I’m sorry” crossing his mind before he breaths his last breath. He has fully embraced his character needs. He’s completed a transformation, a complete, one-hundred and eighty degree turn-around.

He is no longer egotistical and self-centered. He no longer puts himself first with no regard for others. What matters to him are his friends, his family, and the universe, and he has them all at the forefront of his mind, even in his dying moment.

A truly outstanding example of a terrific character arc achieving a wonderful, touching, and fitting conclusion.


The Writer’s Everything

This article, as well as many others, have been featured in previous issues of my writing journal, The Writer’s Everything, in which I, along with occasional guest contributors, provide essays, guides, encouragement, motivation, writing prompts, character bio development kits, and anything else that can help you turn your dream of becoming a writer into a reality.


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