If you have not seen Avengers: Endgame quit reading now. Yes, stop, don’t read any further. Click the little “x” at the top of your browser. Or, better yet, find your way to another fantastic article on this website. Once you’ve seen the movie, come back and read the magnificence that I am about to put onto the interwebs. For now, be aware that there are major Avengers: Endgame spoilers below.
Tony Stark and Thanos are two rather unlikely opponents. One is a genius, billionaire, playboy, and philanthropist; and the other is a rock collector, farmer, war lord, and genocide advocate. However, the MCU has woven them together intricately, giving audiences a rivalry trumped by few other franchises. Through paralleling arcs, an intricate backstory, and a healthy dose of CGI, the pair is one of the most satisfying and equal of opponents in blockbuster history.
Before we can gauge just why Tony and Thanos are the perfect pairing of enemies, we must first understand who they are. This goes beyond surface level, and we’ll start by digging into their beginnings and personalities, before moving into their arcs.
Tony Stark, when first introduced, is an alcoholic, self-absorbed, arrogant, playboy. Through the course of the first Iron Man movie, he becomes an alcoholic, self-absorbed, arrogant, playboy with responsibilities. Iron Man (2008) is Tony’s transition from adolescence to adulthood. Tony and Obadiah compete for their spot within Howard Stark’s legacy. However, Tony wins the competition because he chooses to fight for his own legacy, whereas Obadiah only wishes to seize control of someone else’s. Tony chooses to grow beyond, and that’s the start he needs.
In Iron Man 2, Tony learns through rather choppy screenwriting that there has to be a distinction between Pre-Iron Man and Post-Iron Man Tony Stark. Tony didn’t act for a long time and Obadiah created chaos. Tony didn’t act outside of his own self-interest and Hammer/Vanko created chaos. In Phase 1, Tony learns that he needs to act, and this lesson is rounded out in The Avengers, but more on that later.
Thanos is a much harder character to get an initial read on. Rather than starting the story, Thanos hurtles into it when it’s 75% finished. However, Thanos has a reputation that proceeds him. Thanks to lots of exposition between Gamora, Nebula, and the Guardians; as well as his brief appearance in Guardians of the Galaxy, we know that he is fierce and to be feared. Thanos, having lost his planet due to his perceived lack of action, learns the same lesson that Phase 1 Tony does. Thanos understands the need to act and his will to act is heavily explored in Infinity War. The origins of these characters, though they vary in appearance, share this common theme. In other words, Tony and Thanos come from the same place. Both characters develop an arrogance, and a need to be the protector, despite everyone else’s consent.
The similarities don’t end their either. When breaking down these two characters, it is equally important to look at the great shared themes in their overall character arcs. Among these shared themes, the primary staples of these two characters and their journeys are as follows; Fatherhood, Rest, Responsibility.
Tony Stark Phase 1
Tony learns to act and learns his role as the leader in The Avengers. As he struggles with the weight of his newfound responsibilities in Iron Man 3, the signature themes of his character come heavily into play. Despite its criticisms, Iron Man 3 gives us the best look into Tony Stark’s character. The film introduces Harley Keener, and Tony begins his role as surrogate father — though Harley would later be tossed aside to make room for Peter Parker. The film also shows Tony Stark becoming fearful of the evils beyond his reach, though he doesn’t yet know them to be Thanos. It also introduces the idea of Tony’s retirement, which is a major component not only of Iron Man 3, but of his relationship with Pepper.
Tony Stark Phase 2
Iron Man 3 introduces us to the House Party Protocol, which becomes the Iron Legion, which becomes Ultron. This changing entity represents Tony’s “suit of armor around the world“. Tony wants to protect the world, but he doesn’t want to be eternally burdened with having to protect it himself. However, Hydra, Ultron, and then the Sokovia Accords each pull Tony Stark back into the fight. When the Avengers, which was Tony’s Phase 2 retirement plan, fall apart at the end of Civil War, Tony is once again stuck with being Iron Man. Tony wants to end the fight, but he can’t because no one else is present to take up his share of the responsibility. He wants to rest, but he can’t rest idly knowing that the world may need him further.
A huge portion of Tony’s later responsibilities come in the form of Spider-Man. As seen in Civil War, Homecoming, and Infinity War, Peter is Tony’s surrogate son. Tony more or less views him as Tony Stark Mark II. Tony feels responsible for the kid, and wants to guide him through the world order that he has helped foster. Tony’s feels like a failed father when his greatest fear comes true and Peter dies in his arms. Tony later gets a second chance with Morgan, but he can’t ignore his failure to save Peter forever. So, when Tony sets out for the Time Heist in Avengers: Endgame, he does it to atone for his failures as a surrogate father, and to once again shoulder the responsibility he knows that only he can carry.
Thanos failed to save his planet, and that fact haunts him like Uncle Ben does Peter. He doesn’t seek personal gain, or respect, he seeks only what he sees as justice. And at the end of the day, after justice is served, he merely wants to rest. Sound familiar? It’s no coincidence that both Thanos and Tony begin Endgame living blissfully on a farm. Thanos is burdened with the same sense of responsibility as Tony, and it holds him back from the rest he so desires. Both individuals see themselves as the only beings capable of carrying the weight of their responsibility, and so both continue the fight because they know themselves to be the only ones capable of seeing it through.
Thanos also has a strenuous relationship with both Nebula and Gamora, his surrogate daughters. Like Tony, Thanos took the girls in to raise them to be a better version of himself. Also like Tony, Thanos fails because of his heavy-handedness. Despite everything Thanos sees that he has done for his daughters, they despise him. Yet Thanos still loves them. He mourns for Gamora, but sacrifices her because he knows his guilt at failing his responsibility would outweigh his guilt for sacrificing Gamora for the sake of that greater good. Here is the key difference between Thanos and Tony in Infinity War, that Thanos is willing to sacrifice his fatherhood for the sake of the mission; whereas Tony sacrifices the mission for the sake of fatherhood and ultimately fails.
Addiction vs. Obsession
One of the greatest shared traits between Tony and Thanos is also a key distinction between them. Tony Stark is a perpetual addict. In Iron Man 1 and 2, Tony fuels his addiction with substances. In Iron Man 3 and beyond, Tony replaces that substance addiction for his suits. The symbol that he has become becomes his drug of choice and he physically cannot survive for long without it.
Thanos doesn’t suffer from addiction, but the Infinity Stones serve as his obsession. Thanos could survive without them, and this allows him to be more strategic in pursuing them. Thanos doesn’t need the fight like Tony does, and so he is patient. Thanos waits until Hela, The Ancient One, Ego, and even Odin are dead before making his play. The key here is that Thanos has wants, where Tony has needs.
These two characters want the same thing, peace. They both desire rest, wish to be better fathers, and are burdened by a responsibility only they can carry. However, they make different choices and come away with different beliefs when faced with the central themes of their character arcs. Take a look at where Tony and Thanos find themselves at the end of Infinity War. Tony has lost his surrogate child, he’s been crushed by the responsibility he knew that only he could handle, but he finally has rest, because the fight is over. He’s lost, so he is content to sulking in his loss and finding whatever solace he has left in Pepper and unbeknownst to him, Morgan. Tony repeatedly states his need to protect and this drives him back to his suits and his greater addiction.
Thanos, on the other hand, has seen his responsibility through to the end, and has found rest, despite having lost his daughter along the way. He is content to destroy the stones and retire to the farm while the universe reaps the “reward” he gave it. Thanos can live without his obsession.
At the end of the day, both of these characters wish to end the fight. They take no pleasure in destruction and death, but see it as an obligatory detail of their lives. You might start to draw parallels between Thor and Captain America here as well, but they are not as equally opposed as you might think. Why? Let’s discuss.
Thanos and Thor
You might think that Thor has the most skin in the game against Thanos. The Mad Titan killed his brother and best friend right before Thor’s eyes. Thanos proceeded to destroy Thor’s ship and half of an already ravaged population of Asgardians. Thor channels his fury into defeating Thanos and loses the war because he wishes to relish in his victory from their second battle. This is where Thanos and Thor differentiate. Thor cares too much about the fight. He doesn’t seek rest, he seeks victory, and victory to him is planting his axe firmly in the chest of the other guy. Thor fights to win, but Thanos fights to end the fight. Their goals and beliefs aren’t the same, so while their powers may be relatively matched, the fight isn’t really between them at all.
Thanos and Captain America
Captain America is similar to Thanos in the sense that he does not enjoy the fight. However, Steve Rogers’ endgame isn’t the greater good. In fact, Steve has grown to become more selfish (in a good way) by the time the film ends. Steve has dedicated his entire life to the greater good, and he’s finally grown to the point where he can let it go. Unlike Tony and Thanos, Steve plays well with others. Steve Rogers fights Thanos because that is what he does, not out of a direct opposition of ideals. This isn’t to say that Steve agrees with Thanos’ ideals, but that the core of their characters and their arcs do not intertwine the way that those of Thanos and Tony do.
Think about this quote from Civil War: “My faith is in people, I guess, individuals”. Steve Rogers trusts the legacy and the team he helped build. He isn’t so concerned with his own abilities to disregard the strength of others. While he felt that weight in The First Avenger and to some extent The Winter Soldier, he has grown beyond the bounds of his self-perceived responsibility.
The Sum of Stark’s Fears
Thanos is Tony’s worst nightmare. Ever since the wormhole opened in New York, Tony has feared a threat that is too great. When that threat arrives, Tony finds that for once it is too great. The Mad Titan is the first opponent since Steve Rogers to really wound Iron Man. Thanos is everything that Tony is and everything that Tony isn’t. He knows Tony’s heart, because Thanos has had to make the same choices that Tony has, he just happened to have chosen different outcomes for them.
During Endgame, the two characters want only to protect the world as they see fit and to rest. The only thing keeping them from this rest is each other and the sense of duty they share in hopes of thwarting the other’s oppositional view. Tony Stark wins because he realizes that there is only one way to protect his child and to achieve his rest, and that is to wield the gauntlet at the expense of his own life. On the other hand, Thanos of 2014 hasn’t had to make the same sacrifices as Thanos of 2018. Rather, Thanos finds himself facing a more focused and better equipped opponent in the Tony Stark of 2023. The gauntlet is quite literally on the other hand, and Thanos enters unprepared.
The Price of Peace
In the end, Thanos wins in Infinity War and Tony wins in Endgame because they make similar sacrifices. Thanos sacrifices his daughter to serve the greater good, and he attains rest by seeing through his responsibility with the weight of sacrifice already upon him. Tony sacrifices his second chance as a father to atone for his loss of Peter, and chooses to serve the greater good rather than his own self-interest, which Thanos of 2014 is now trying to preserve.
This all echoes from the conversation that Tony has with Howard Stark in 1970, when Howard mentions his greatest hope for his son is that he won’t repeat his father’s pattern of self-interest above the greater good. Tony realizes that the only way to defeat Thanos comes from this sacrifice, though he is no longer protective of his own life as he was in The Avengers. Rather, Tony fears for how others, specifically Morgan, might have to live on without him. By pursuing the greater good, Tony finally achieves his rest.
“Watch the Sun Rise on a Grateful Universe”
The core of these two characters is exposed by how they win. Thanos wins in Infinity War because it isn’t personal. Tony loses because he lets it become too personal. In Endgame, Thanos loses because it has become personal for him. Tony wins because he detaches himself from a personal victory, entering the fight with the same mentality Thanos did on Titan.
Tony and Thanos both get to rest. Thanos disintegrates, feeling the brunt of what he wished to inflict on the universe. Yet as his armies fade, Thanos sits and lets the stones erase him. Tony dies from the force of the Gauntlet’s power, and the universe being restored, he finally gets the chance to stop fighting. The two receive the same end, despite one being a victor and the other a loser.
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