According to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit has gone through 50 iterations. The most recent model is the Mark 50; it’s based on the comic books’ “Bleeding Edge Armor,” which Stark stores inside his bones.
The MCU’s Mark 50 isn’t quite as fantastical. Instead, the suit is stored in the arc reactor affixed to Stark’s chest. Once activated, it dissipates to cover his body.
In Avengers: Infinity War, the Mark 50 possessed “nanotechnology,” which means it served whatever purpose the plot needed it to serve. All Stark needed to do was think of his desired weapon, and the suit replicated it: shields, lasers, battering rams, cannons, and more. A multi-sourced unibeam delivered by floating projectors? No problem.
There’s a name for this narrative trope: It’s called “New Powers As The Plot Demands.” When a hero deals with escalating, increasingly apocalyptic threats, he or she must acquire new superpowers and capabilities to match them. Added excessively, they risk turning the hero into an invulnerable, unrelatable god. It compromises the narrative stakes; the author must introduce increasingly monstrous threats to make the hero’s defeat seem believable, which in turn forces the hero to acquire even bigger powers and advantages. It’s an arms race with no end.
We’re not yet there with MCU’s Iron Man. But the Mark 50 looked excessively sleek when compared to the prior models, and it made me nostalgic for them.The MCU’s Iron Man used to celebrate DIY scrappiness. Obadiah Stane said it best in the first Iron Man, when his entire team of scientists couldn’t build a functional, miniature arc reactor: “Tony Stark was able to build this in a CAVE!” With a box of SCRAPS!”
And the scientist’s retort was equally telling: “Well, I’m sorry. But I’m not Tony Stark.”
Iron Man was the celebration of an exceptional, unique individual, able to create and innovate under the worst possible conditions. And the proof of his ambition and brilliance was ironic: That he often built things that didn’t work. Working on the cutting edge necessitated trial-and-error.
A few, early examples: The Mark I was unwieldy and bulky. When Stark tried to fly it, the suit shorted out and sent him tumbling out of the sky. Later, the Mark II’s jet boots launched Stark into the ceiling on their first test run. He took the Mark II out for a flight before Jarvis ran full diagnostics, and it iced up when he flew too high–a problem he accounted for when building the Mark III. The entire Iron Man 2 plot concerned Stark’s use of palladium in his arc reactor, which was slowly poisoning his blood and killing him. The suit, even when it appeared to be working flawlessly, had a more insidious, catastrophic flaw that needed ironing out.
Putting on the suit used to be a lengthy ordeal. The Mark I required two people and a boot-up system. The Mark II required Stark to partially dress himself and partially rely on machines. The Mark III and two of the subsequent models were entirely automated, and required massive mechanical arms to screw everything together.
In Iron Man 3, the Mark 42 suit flew onto Stark in segments, often in the wrong order and not all at the same time. All of these early suit-up sequences were visually appealing and engrossing. You could see how the pieces all fit together and interacted with each other to create the appearance of seamlessness. The ingenuity was baked into the construction.
The protracted suit-ups, requiring special equipment, meant that Stark was in danger whenever he appeared in public without his armor. There was urgency in Iron Man 2 when Whiplash attacked him on the race track; Happy Hogan and Pepper Potts drove against traffic to toss him his suitcase armor. Stark panicked in The Avengers when the Helicarrier started exploding, and he ran from Bruce Banner’s lab to quickly suit up.
This duality between the freedom of the Iron Man technology and Stark’s desperate reliance on it is central to his character. He wanted to build weapons to keep America safe, until shrapnel from his own weapons burrowed into his chest. He once thought he had attained dominance over technology; now, he had to rely on it to keep him alive.
For several years, the suit was a physical representation of Stark’s complexity. It was a paradoxical sign of weakness and strength; it kept him from dying, but it also could kill. He used the suit it to fly and gain freedom, but he was also literally encased within it. He made himself into a weapon in the service of peace.
But in recent years, the Iron Man suit has lost this figurative poignancy in the MCU. It has become a narrative get-out-of-jail free card, rather than an obstacle that creates as many problems as it solves. It started in Iron Man 3, when Stark could simply step into his suit from a standing position. Iron Man 3 also ended with Stark getting the shrapnel taken out of his chest, erasing the most literal reminder of his sins.
By the time we reached Captain America: Civil War, the armor had lost most of its symbolic importance. But at least it still looked mechanical, with turning gears, shifting parts, and screws. The latest armor in Avengers: Infinity War looked more like magic than technology. And it worked brilliantly the first time we saw it–no experimentation or struggle necessary–despite being on the cutting edge of what’s possible.
But perhaps even the filmmakers are aware that the Iron Man armor has gone too far in its capabilities. One of the teaser trailers for Avengers: Endgame depicts Tony Stark, trapped on a powerless spaceship with a busted up Mark 50 helmet, recording what he believes to be his last words. Stark is the emotional bedrock of the Marvel Cinematic Universe; his standalone film kicked everything off, and if the trailers for Avengers: Endgame are to be believed, he’ll also be the one to close it out.
We don’t want to see Iron Man’s latest, coolest, unknown super ability in Avengers: Endgame. Ideally, the character will come full circle. In Infinity War, he boasted the power to create whatever his mind commanded. Now he’s broken and adrift. It’s as though he’s alone in his cave again. And as before, he has just his ingenuity, and an even smaller box of scraps, with which to achieve survival.
Avengers: Endgame debuts on April 26, 2019 and will mark the conclusion of The Infinity Saga. Check out our theory roundup for the movie as well as our review of the new tie-in merchandise. Because if you’re in the market for a Wakanda-themed doormat, we have some great news for you.