Is Tony Stark the true villain of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (MCU)? Seriously? Believe it or not, that’s an actual question posed by multiple fan and entertainment sites. Counter narratives like this are popping up all around the Internet, recasting long-revered protagonists as conniving antagonists (across a wide swath of beloved films). It’s a growing trend, which goes something like this: was “blank” really the villain?
This re-casting of heroes as villains is an odd, dark side of fandom and media criticism that’s suddenly flourishing. But why?
Our film and TV protagonists (generally) represent the best of us. They demonstrate bravery and selflessness amidst terrible circumstances. So, it’s bizarre to read stories that question whether a hero like Stark is secretly responsible for all the woes of the MCU, or perhaps Tom Cruise’s Maverick was a secret national threat in Top Gun, or even reconsider Grandpa Joe from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as a selfish manipulator of children. It’s kind of heartbreaking, right?
Are we so desperate for clicks that we’re willing to destroy our favorite movie symbols?
Run this Google search: “Who’s the real villain of this movie?” and you’ll be shocked at what comes back. Ranker, for example, has a list of 16 film heroes citing heroes as villains: Rose in Titanic, The Good Witch Glinda from The Wizard of Oz, Ferris Bueller himself… even Mrs. Doubtfire. This is getting out of hand.
Re-casting our heroes as villains seems cynical, at best, and harmful, at worst. Think about that kid who falls in love with Marvel comics, sees all the new Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films, and then stumbles onto an article suggesting Tony Stark is the true villain of the MCU — what does that do to an impressionable mind?
Granted, from a certain point of view Stark has done some weird, questionable stuff, as documented by Slate. He sold weapons of war to a terrorist organization in the first Iron Man, later he created an autonomous artificial intelligence that almost destroyed a country in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and most recently he brought Spider-Man — a teenager — to a massive super-brawl in Captain America: Civil War. But if you only judge his actions then you’re missing half the point. Stark’s intent has always been solid, he only did what he believed was necessary, albeit in an often dangerous and unilateral way.
The important point is that Tony Stark is deeply flawed, but he’s not a villain. Neither is Grandpa Joe, who endured a life poverty and indifference, but the luck of golden ticket renewed his faith in a higher power. Maverick was cocky and arrogant, and his actions did get people killed, but he was a military officer striving to perform his duty under threat of war.
Instead of villifying these characters we should celebrate their flaws, because it makes them relatable and human. What fun would it be if Stark never made a mistake and was perfect? Most people would call that boring or predictable. Marvel has defined Stark as a dynamic and unpredictable individual — it’s a big reason why he’s so interesting.
Turning the lens around, it’s apparent why such articles are being written. Competition in fandom and entertainment media is fierce, and it’s always a challenge to come up with new material. Unfortunately, it’s far too easy to write such hit piece articles, inflating minor plot points or throwaway lines that may or may not reveal some negative underlying truth. It’s not productive, nor is it healthy.
Such articles, lists, and takedowns are pure speculation. Fandom and entertainment media thrive on speculation (it’s why seemingly half of the superbowl ads this past weekend were film and TV promos). But it can go too far, and it’s hard to see the value of such content, beyond the clicks counted at these sites.
It’s absurd to think that any filmmaker is out there secretly writing their heroes as villains, except in very, very specific cases. Studios spend millions building franchises, it would make little sense to reveal them as villains — even if this is rather commonplace in comics. Fans and media would be better served to explore character themes and motivations, searching for their hidden wants and desires — this is what drives a character’s actions, not some nonsense about ulterior agendas or secret plots.