Okay. I was really nervous about posting this, mainly because I’ve read a bunch of differing opinions and thought, “What if I’m horribly wrong about this?” But I’m gonna throw this out into the world and quit re-thinking it into a mess.
For the record, I’ve never read any of the individual comic books on Tony or Steve. This is entirely about what I’ve observed about the two of them throughout all of the MCU. In my mind, their general attitudes and motivations are entirely consistent, but I’ve seen arguments discussing their inconsistency. Also the movie isn’t on DVD yet, and my observations could just be mis-remembered stuff.
Steve Rogers, and Tony Stark, are the two of the more consistently written characters in the MCU, (well, they are generally consistent, as regards their motivations), so lets talk about that. The last time I spoke about how Natasha’s motivations were consistent across all her appearances in the MCU, and Steve Rogers’ grief for his lost life. I have yet to discussed Tony. This is strictly about the MCU versions of these characters.
Unlike Steve, Tony had access to both parents, and I say access, because although they were present, his relationship with his father was a contentious one, although his relationship with his mother seemed healthy enough. Even though both Steve, and Tony, seemed to get on well with their mothers, the presence of Tony’s father seemed to make all the difference, here.The presence of Tony’s father gifted him with a poverty free lifestyle, but this was offset by his father’s disappointment, coupled with wealth, intelligence, a wish to not be like his father, and a juvenile sense of rebellion, which wasn’t helped by his father comparing Tony’s lack of a moral center, to Steve’s moral certitude.
Its not that Tony doesn’t admire Steve. (Who doesn’t?) But Steve is the man to whom Tony kept being compared and found wanting. Before he became Iron Man, usually the only person who paid for his mistakes was himself. It’s not that Tony makes the same mistakes, over and over, so much as he makes brand new ones, because Tony’s moral compass points to himself.
Tony is an inherently selfish person, whereas Steve tends to approach issues from a place of service to others. Its not that Steve can’t be selfish. Witness his overwhelming need to save Bucky, but that his actions often are of benefit to others, besides himself. Tony does work to try to overcome this selfishness over the course of several films, recognizing that it is wrong, (mostly due to the influence of Pepper and Rhodey,) but without the moral certitude of Steve Rogers, its extremely difficult. I’m going to argue that this is Tony’s only redeeming feature because Tony isn’t likable beyond his redemption arc.
Tony grew up with the idea, like a lot of very wealthy people, that the world is theirs and they can do whatever they want in it. He knew no real checks on his behavior, beyond what little conscience he possesses.He feels guilt, recognizes when he makes mistakes, wishes to atone for those mistakes, and thinks he can save the world, and his friends.
Unfortunately, Tony’s idea of salvation seems to involve taking away the freedom of others, when he’s the one who fucks up. In Iron Man 3, it is Tony who makes the mistake of impulsively challenging the Mandarin to a public duel, and then locking himself, and Pepper, in his bungalow, without Pepper’s permission.. In his efforts to keep Pepper safe, he puts her life in danger. In Iron Man 3, he mostly fails in his efforts to save Pepper, who ultimately ends up saving herself, from the Mandarin.
In Ultron, his response to having created Ultron, and getting The Avengers asses kicked, is for the Avengers to hide themselves away on Hawkeye’s farm. Luckily this doesn’t result in endangering Hawkeye’s family, but Steve himself tells Tony that the reason for all this is, its impossible to fight a war before it happens, which is essentially what Tony tried to do when he created his global peacekeeper, which is a direct reaction to the events in The Avengers.
In Civil War, Tony’s response to the atrocity in Africa, committed by Wanda, is to lock her up for her safety, without informing her, and then rope the Avengers into legal shenanigans with General Ross and the UN. He is perfectly willing to violate the freedom of others, (mostly by locking them up), to save the world from his mistakes. Tony needs oversight but doesn’t want to sacrifice his freedom alone. He wants company.
Tony understands the need for oversight, because he is ultimately the one who needs it. Due to his moral shakiness, he lacks the ability to police himself, resents being policed by others, yet seems to crave the oversight, nevertheless. Like Gilmore Hodge, (who doesn’t respect Peggy until she beats his ass, in Captain America:The First Avenger), Tony is Dr. Erskine’s bully, who has known power all his life, given even greater power, but lacks the moral compass to use it correctly. He doesn’t do this because he’s malicious, but because of his lack of moral center (and innate selfishness). He only sees the choices that are directly in front his eyes. He is astonishingly shortsighted. His disrespectful and offhand manner, with people he considers to be of no use to him, (and even those he does) is what ultimately led to the creation of the Mandarin, in the first place, and even his nemesis in Iron Man 2. Basically, Tony is a dick, who creates his own enemies, (something he learns to his detriment in Iron Man 3.)
Tony fails when he tries to be moral, and doesn’t seem to learn from that failure. It is Tony who needs to be reigned in, and held in check because he’s never developed a strong enough moral center to do it himself. Tony seeks morality outside himself.
Contrast that with Steve, who is Tony’s opposite, in this regard. Steve grew up sickly, and in poverty. He’s always had to be determined, stubborn, and self sufficient, especially if he was to survive the streets of 1920’s Brooklyn. Rather than a critical father, Steve had Bucky, who was an unfailing example of loyalty and friendship. Bucky shows Steve how to be a man through example, not by preaching or critiquing, and Steve looks up to him as someone to be admired. He learns how to approach the world through Bucky’s example of a firm moral center, and possibly his mother’s example of service to others, as she was a nurse. That there is something in Steve that is innately selfless, helps this process.
Steve continues to serve others by joining the military, (although one could argue that its for selfish reasons, its a selfish reason that benefits others, too) where he learns discipline, and respect for authority, but also learns to question that authority. Steve is very individualistic, unlike Tony, who only appears to be, with his glib and offhand manner. Steve is willing to break rules and commands. His upbringing taught him a certain amount of self-discipline, honed and sharpened by military service, but it is his moral compass that guides his actions. Steve generally doesn’t looks outside himself to be told the correct thing to do. He is centered, and righteous, and because of this is capable of making peace with his mistakes, without compounding them or acting entirely impulsively during their fallout.
Steve has learned to discipline himself. As Captain America, this is second nature to him and he feels no need to seek outside controls on his behavior. This is the reason Steve is against the Accords. Steve believes that only oneself is responsible for the decisions one makes, and will rely on no outside authority to tell him what’s right or wrong.
In The First Avenger, Steve’s sense of loyalty drives him to go against orders to save Bucky. He could have stood down and accepted his orders, but his sense of morality wouldn’t allow him to simply leave Bucky and his unit to their fate.Once again, it can be argued that this decision is a selfish one, but its a decision that ends up ultimately benefiting Bucky and his entire unit.
Steve quietly states to Natasha, during Civil War, not just that the Accords could decide to NOT send them into situations he knows The Avengers could fix, but, “What if they send us someplace we don’t want to go?” For Steve ,the Accords simply allows someone else to make his moral choices for him, and he finds that idea repugnant. Steve has a level of moral certainty in his actions and decisions, that Tony lacks, and is very used to governing himself. It’s not that Steve doesn’t respect authority. He does. He just doesn’t believe that Authority is infallible, and he will not worship at its foot. He will accept any, and all, of the consequences of his decisions, which is why he’s careful when he makes them. This is what his speech to Wanda was about. (She made choices. She must accept that with the ability to make choices she must accept the fallout of those choices. Doesn’t this sound like responsibility?)
Steve also seems to have an unfailing ability to understand his future actions in a way that Tony does not. He is capable of seeing beyond his immediate choices to act, to what the repercussions of those choices might be, up to a point. We witness this when he decides to go after Bucky in Civil War, understanding that if Bucky is still the Winter Soldier, a lot of people are going to die. Steve is willing to shoulder these burdens himself, while Tony, as was argued in The Avengers, likes to make choices that result in no sacrifice for himself.
Steve understands that any decisions he makes could have negative consequences, and understands this with a depth that Tony doesn’t. Steve is fatalistic in this regard. He believes in the adage that in trying to save everyone, you end up saving no one. He understands that people may get hurt or die, and is willing to make that sacrifice himself. Tony’s experience in The Avengers movie was very possibly his first real brush with self-sacrifice. Yes, it profoundly affected him, but once again, because he lacks moral certitude, he doesn’t actually learn from this, and it is the fallout from what happened to him in The Avengers, his selfish attempt to prevent that from happening to him again, that results in the creation of Ultron, (and eventually The Vision.)
Steve, unlike Tony, is never disrespectful to people just because he can see no use for them, or because he can get away with it. Suffice to say, under Steve’s aegis, the Mandarin would never have been created. Even when seeking other’s help, Tony operates from a place of insecure superiority. He basically bribes and insults Spider-Man into joining his cause, while requiring his help. Steve would’ve just asked. (Actually, Steve wouldn’t have asked because he would’ve seen Peter as a child first, and not got him involved in his fight. He also did his best not to harm Peter, once he assessed who and what he was dealing with. It was Tony who put Peter in danger, by bringing him into a fight in which Peter had no stakes.)
Tony, when governing himself, makes horrible mistakes, because although his intentions may be good, his moral center is simply not there. In attempting to follow one goal, he tramples over the rights of others, and seems only capable of seeing one goal at a time. He is impulsive, with a tendency to go with whatever choice immediately presents itself to him and then scrambling to keep up with the aftermath, as in Avengers Ultron. And witness his behavior in Civil War, when Rhodey is accidentally injured in a fight Tony started.
Tony could’ve stood down and let Steve explain things and be on his way, but his ego wouldn’t allow it. In trying to save everyone, (or so he says) Tony becomes little more than the government’s lapdog and the very thing Steve warned him would happen under the Accords.
Tony also impulsively attacks Sam, who was not the cause of Rhodey’s injury. This comes back to haunt him later when he needs to get information from Sam.
His shortsighted rudeness is what created the Mandarin and created the enemies who come for him in Iron Man 2. This shortsightedness is a pattern he follows throughout Iron Man 3, Avengers Ultron, and Civil War, while he frantically runs around trying to clean up the aftermath of his initial decisions. In the first two movies he rebounds, but it’s the rebounding that seems to negate whatever lessons he’s supposed to learn, and by the time of Civil War, he’s lost Pepper, nearly loses his best friend, Rhodey, and loses The Avengers, entirely.
Zemo’s plan to tear apart the Avengers was a success because Tony lacks the ability to discipline himself. Contrast Tony’s response at finding out about his mother’s death, with Black Panther’s decision to stop seeking vengeance for his father’s death. Not only does T’Challa stop himself, he learns to do so from observing Tony. He acknowledges the mistake he made in trying to kill Bucky, and atones for that mistake by offering Bucky respite. Tony’s mother’s death happened decades ago, and the person he believes did it was ultimately not even responsible for that death, (that would be Hydra) but because Tony has never dealt with his feelings regarding her death, and lacks self discipline, he attempts to displace his sense of guilt onto The Ex-Winter Soldier.
Tony isn’t evil, though. He does understand when to approach certain situations with humility, and he certainly means to do the right thing, but has no idea how to go about it, and the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.
It is often loss that spurs Tony to make impulsive decisions too, and this is something that he does throughout all his films. In the first Iron Man movie, after Yinsen’s death, he destroys the Ten Rings’ weapons, after which he decides we will no longer make weapons of any kind. His righteous indignation to Coulson’s death pushes him to challenge Loki and fully commit to the Avengers, and his challenge to The Mandarin is spurred by Happy’s near death, in Iron Man 3. When Tony is confronted with the death of Miriam’s son, in Civil War, it is that which informs some of his decision to sign the Accords, and put Wanda in lockdown without informing her. When Tony loses his shit, he makes impulsive choices that are based on the emotion of the moment.
Contrast that with Steve, who, when he loses Bucky, and everything he’s ever known, settles into a profound depression, but doubles down on the physical discipline. When things go wrong, when someone makes a mistake, when people get hurt, Steve’s response is to deal thoughtfully with the aftermath, counsel people, (as he does Wanda in Civil War), to do better. Not violate their rights. As in Winter Soldier, when he talks Bucky down from killing him, Steve persuades. Unlike Tony, he doesn’t bribe, coerce or challenge.
I suppose, given who we’re discussing, that there are all kinds of interpretations of these two characters. In some corners, Tony is seen as either a lovable scamp, or an abusive, manipulative, dick. Steve could be considered a fine upstanding example of moral fortitude, or a joyless dolt, with a stick up his butt.(Yes, I’m well aware that Steve is kind of a dick to a few people, in The Winter Soldier, so there is that.)
This is not to say I’m a huge fan of Steve. I just like observing the character motivations I see in these movies. Am I only seeing what I’m looking for. Possibly. But I think my argument holds up well to scrutiny. We’ll see how I feel about all this when I re-watch Civil War on DVD.