In the wake of a crushing defeat at Thanos' Infinity Stone-clad hands, the heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe will face their greatest challenge yet in Avengers: Endgame. But who is the greatest hero in the MCU? Over the next couple of weeks, SYFY WIRE will be debating who deserves the title of The Most Important Avenger. Our first contender is Iron Man, the hero who started it all.
Technically, Iron Man wasn't the first Avenger. That honor belongs to Captain America, as his first film's full title makes clear. Iron Man wasn't the second Avenger, either. Captain Marvel inspired Nick Fury — and even gave him the idea for the name "Avengers" — back in the '90s, well before Iron Man ever took flight. And yet, without Tony Stark, there would be no Avengers.
That's certainly true in the real world, as 2008's Iron Man is the film that started the entire MCU. If Iron Man had bombed, or if Robert Downey Jr. hadn't given such a charismatic performance as Tony Stark, we wouldn't be here today talking about the 22nd film in the series.
In the decade since Iron Man's premiere, Downey has played the character in eight more films, with Endgame poised to be his tenth overall. Only Chris Evans' Captain America comes close, though two of his MCU appearances were mere cameos. Iron Man is the MCU's founding father and perhaps its most recognizable face, and there's no singular hero who is more important to the franchise.
But Iron Man doesn't need to resort to meta-arguments to prove he's the most important Avenger. Within the fiction of the MCU, Tony Stark is still the person who established what it means to be a superhero. Captain America was a historical anomaly, a superpowered soldier who fought for the U.S. Army in World War II before disappearing into the ice. Captain Marvel briefly returned from space to fight off some alien invaders, but the entire incident was so hidden from the public that there are only a handful of people who even knew she existed. Not the case with Tony, who famously declared "I am Iron Man."
This prompted Nick Fury to reach out about his then-nascent "Avengers Initiative," and although Tony would initially be accused of "not playing well with others," he soon became the heart — or at least the arc-reactor — of the team.
Tony's not all the way there when the Avengers film starts. He's a headstrong longer who thinks he knows the right answer to everything and should be the one calling the shots. However, sometimes the most heroic thing a person can do is change, and Tony does that, boasting the best character arc and development of anyone in the franchise. Given what a headstrong playboy Tony was when audiences first meet him, it's remarkable how quickly he's willing to let Captain America "call it," putting aside their initial differences and ceding command to the battle-hardened captain.
Even though he isn't the leader of the Avengers (well, until Captain America goes rogue in Civil War), Iron Man is still the team's driving force. His charisma and savvy help the team bond, and he's instrumental in giving the Avengers a good public face. Tony is also the one bankrolling the Avengers — he built the tower they used as a home base, and he built their new upstate headquarters. Tony is literally giving them a place to assemble.
Structurally, Iron Man is the most important member of the team, because he provides so much of the framework the team needs to operate. Sure, Thor commands the power of thunder, Vision has an Infinity Stone in his head, and Scarlet Witch can control people's minds, but Iron Man knows how to maintain property and build a brand.
Tony isn't just building the Avengers new bases though, he's also building up the Avengers. It's Tony Stark who brings Spider-Man into the fold, acting as a mentor to young Peter Parker. We've seen other Avengers help rookie heroes out — it's kind of part of what being on a superhero team is — but Tony's commitment to Peter Parker is in a class of itself.
In thinking about Peter's future, Tony is once again looking towards the future of the Avengers in a way that no other hero really does. In Civil War, Tony does everything he can to try to bring Captain America into the fold and to get him to sign the accords. Though they come to blows, Tony was attempting to make the Avengers a better group, trying to prevent a future crisis or more collateral damage. For the Avengers to last, they need to be more than just a group of superheroes. There needs to be accountability.
With everything Tony has done, it's clear brings so much more to the Avengers (and the MCU at large) than just the ability to fight crime in his Iron Man suit, but those heroics are nothing to scoff at. He's battled warlords, rooted out violent corporate corruption, and saved the president. Here's a man who was a selfish playboy before becoming a hero, yet grabbed on to a nuclear missile and flew it through a portal into outer space in order to save the day at the end of the first Avengers. He nearly died, but there was no hesitation.
That's not the only time Tony flies into space. In Infinity War, he leaps into action to protect the world from Thanos. Iron Man is the last hero standing in the initial fight against the Man Titan, and he manages to draw a "drop of blood" despite limited resources and horrible odds.
There's perhaps no greater endorsement of Iron Man's status as the most important Avenger than Captain America's word. In Infinity War, Cap calls Tony "Earth's best defender." It's not hyperbolic, as over a ten-year career as a superhero, Tony truly has cemented himself as the greatest hero around. He is the Avengers' iron-clad rock.