The Futurist Is Here: Tony Stark and the Failure of the Future

At the beginning of Captain America: Civil War, Tony Stark is drowning in guilt. Confronted by a bereaved mother who lost a child in Sokovia—for which Stark is responsible, as the creator of Ultron—and flailing in the wake of a breakup with Pepper Potts, Stark is unmoored. Because he’s not good at self-regulating (see also: his addiction issues), he latches onto the proposed Sokovia Accords as a way to regulate the Avengers and hopefully prevent future Sokovias. Stark’s reasoning is understandable and even sympathetic. He is not a villain and he isn’t trying to take over the world, he just wants a framework to assume responsibility for sending the Avengers into the world to fight, thus removing that very responsibility from the Avengers’ shoulders.

And also someone to clean up the coffee grounds.

Of course, that leaves the Avengers open to the machinations of others in turn, which is the basis of Steve Rogers’ objection to the Accords. Their ideological differences come down to this: Tony Stark wants oversight, Steve Rogers sees oversight as a potential for abuse of power. Both their positions are understandable. Following the fall of SHIELD and learning of the indescribable torture suffered by his best friend, Bucky Barnes, who fell into the hands of a corrupt and evil organization, Rogers is acutely aware of the worst case scenario when agendas are put ahead of people. But Stark is a creature of corporate culture, used to operating in a system of checks and balances that come from the boardroom, where a board of directors and a chairman oversee the actions of the CEO, and considerations about “the people” rarely, if ever, enter into it.

In and of itself, oversight for a group like the Avengers is probably a good idea. And Stark is right that without checks and balances, they’re really not that different from the rogue agents they fight around the world. But Rogers is also correct that they need safeguards to protect the Avengers from the changing agendas of politicians, and that they are the best authorities of their own power. Again, the specter of Bucky Barnes looms in the background, a constant reminder of what happens when superhumans fall into the wrong hands.


But the divide goes beyond considerations of power and authority. There is a deeper ideological rift in place, and it’s one that is insurmountable for Tony Stark. In The Avengers he says, “We are not soldiers,” but that’s not really true. He is not a soldier, but Rogers is, and so is Clint Barton, Thor, Rhodey, and Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, as freedom fighters, fall on that end of the spectrum, too. And Rogers is certainly running the Avengers as a paramilitary response unit. The comfort he offers Wanda Maximoff after the mission in Lagos goes south is a soldier’s comfort—you have to learn to carry this burden, because if you don’t, next time it might be even worse. The same words could apply to police officers, first responders, or surgeons who have to reconcile that they can’t save every patient.

Stark, though, can’t reconcile that, because he isn’t a soldier. That doesn’t make him bad or wrong, but it does reveal his blind spot. The Accords put the Avengers under UN control, which means they won’t ultimately be responsible for the decisions that send them into the field. Rogers points this out: “This document just shifts the blame.” Rhodey accuses him of being “dangerously arrogant” for presuming to know better than the United Nations, but Rogers has a point. Oversight, in and of itself, does nothing to address collateral damage. The Accords come up because of collateral damage, and yet they do not seem to do anything to actually prevent more collateral damage. They’ll just pass the buck the next time it happens.

You’re grounded.

That’s all Stark is after, though. Desperate to assuage his guilt, he wants somewhere to offload it, and the Accords give him plausible deniability the next time something goes wrong. The mistakes Stark make in Civil War are because he can’t see anything beyond his own guilt. Natasha Romanov even says something to this effect: “Are you incapable of seeing past your own ego for one goddamn minute?” Stark means well, but his support of the Accords is more about him than considerations for anyone else. And certainly his burden of guilt is enormous, as he’s responsible for creating Ultron, who laid waste to an entire country. The Avengers must shoulder guilt when innocent people die in the wake of their battles, but Stark seems to be looking for a way to offload that burden—he wants to “cut the wire”.

“The Futurist is here,” Clint Barton says from a jail cell. “He knows what’s best for you, whether you like it or not.” Of all the Avengers, Barton is the one who has figured out the work-life balance the others seem incapable of attaining. He has a home and a family, a whole life away from the world of the Avengers. He’s achieved the thing Stark wants with Pepper, and as a father he has a unique moral authority within the group (something he shares with Scott Lang). Stark is a Futurist, planning and building his way to incredible possibilities, but Barton is the one actually fighting for the future, in the form of his children.


Barton is the normal, human heart of the Avengers, and his open contempt of Stark is tinged with a sense of weariness that suggests he always knew it would be Stark who caused the inevitable problems in their super-group. He sounds like a father—which he is—chastising a child, and Stark reacts like he’s been slapped. Like he’s only just realizing that he has forever damaged the dynamics of the original Avengers, that he is not their eccentric benefactor, but their downfall. Everything he did to keep the Avengers together, in the end, only drove them further apart. Steve Rogers isn’t blameless—he put Bucky Barnes ahead of everyone else, and he pays a price for that, too. But at the end of Civil War, Rogers is in the wind with his team, perhaps more free than we’ve ever seen him before, while Stark sits in a big office. Alone.


14 thoughts on “The Futurist Is Here: Tony Stark and the Failure of the Future

  1. Molly

    But aside from the guilt and Pepper remorse, isn’t it also true that Stark also sees the Accords as the lesser evil when he tells Steve that sooner or later it will be done to them and at that point they won’t have any leeway? That’s a pragmatic approach even though the Accords just pass the responsibility to another party. Like Natasha says, better to have a hand on the wheel than be blindsided by political machinations. Without Zemo’s involvement, the scene with Natasha in the church implies that Steve would’ve left the team rather than actively fight against the Accords. And even in the scene with Tony after Bucharest, Steve’s almost persuaded to sign the Accords. Tony basically tells him that they’ll amend the Accords to suit their purposes. That hypothetical scenario where some evil governmental agents would abuse the Avengers for their own agenda, is kind of a straw-man since by the very exceptional nature of the Avengers they wouldn’t allow themselves to be used in such a way.

    Additionally, I don’t find the debate between the two sides as paramount since after Vienna, they’re all basically playing to someone else’s tune, including Cap. So with Zemo in the mix, I don’t find Stark as the most responsible person for the team breakdown. He’s the loser but as you say, Steve’s emotions and unwillingness to compromise and communicate also make him equally responsible for the rupture.

    If the movie would’ve been only about the Accords, then the team vs team debate would be more compelling. But because of the Zemo plot to frame and manipulate Bucky in order to push Steve’s buttons, the ideological conflict becomes irrelevant since Cap acts mostly on his feelings for his friend and by that point, he doesn’t care that he operates above or outside the law. Accords or not, Steve would’ve gone after Bucky either way.
    Meanwhile the communication breakdown between the two sides, works to Zemo’s advantage. In that scene with Sam, after getting Bucky back, when Steve debates what to do next, they both agree that Tony either won’t be able to help them or won’t believe them. But why don’t they attempt to contact with Natasha and fill her in of their suspicions? Mistakes are made on both sides, mistakes Zemo’s counting on because he has studied the Avengers so very well.

    1. Molly

      P.S.: Just wanted to add that Stark’s driven almost entirely by his emotions since I referred above that Rogers is emotionally compromised. Didn’t want to imply that Stark’s somehow less emotional.

      1. Molly

        I don’t disagree with either of your readings of Rogers and Stark. By the end he’s not in control, Ross had even threatened to put him in jail. But for the meta-reading’s sake, if Steve had stayed and there wouldn’t have been the Bucky factor to distract him, he could’ve dealt with a bully like Ross. Precisely because he’s bad at following orders and can’t avoid to involve himself when he sees a situation going south. In Winter Soldier, he had no problem dealing with Pierce and exposing the dirty secrets of Shield / Hydra. And Hydra represented a much bigger problem than Ross’ petty power plays. So why not deal with Ross in the same way? I think that’s where my problem with the reasoning behind Steve’s rebellion stems from. Why not expose Ross and the Guatanamo-like Raft and bring the public opinion back on your side. People generally abhor abuses of power if they’re told about them so why wouldn’t they abhor a third party bossing the Avengers to do their dirty business? But the initial debate doesn’t reach any of these points because Zemo hijacks the narrative. To a certain degree, even Ross’ later overreach is because of Zemo. Sure he didn’t need him in the first place to set his agenda but it sure helps. Now he can tell the world: “Look how unstable the Avengers are. A single man with a grudge managed single-handle to tear the Avengers apart. Are these the safest hands supposed to protect us? Look how easy they felt apart and disregarded the public’s concerns”. It writes itself, doesn’t even need a spin.

        As for Stark, it’s not only that he’s not a soldier who hasn’t learned to compartmentalize but that at the end of the day, Tony’s just a base human in a tin can who shouldn’t have been left to play in the first place. And I don’t think that Steve realizes this or at the very least the movies don’t show it. It doesn’t help that most the scenes between them are antagonistic. I get that they’re work-related friends but that doesn’t make them close friends like they’re portrayed in the comics.They also have different understandings of what a friend is which is why Tony sees Steve’s actions as a betrayal while for Steve, his actions are a consequence of his unshakeable bond and duty towards his true and oldest friend. And here again the non-soldier Stark’s view is play since both in Ultron – in the shack scene with Nick – he refers to the Avengers as his friends, and in Civil War, he also refers to Steve as a friend. But I don’t think that Steve sees him in the same way. He sees him as a team-mate who tends to withhold things from his other team-mates or at most as a comrade in arms. Steve connects so quickly with Sam and Natasha and even Wanda, because as you said, they too come from the same place. But Tony and Steve never really ever connect outside the battlefield. He sees Tony through the eyes of the soldier and to a certain degree expects him to act like a one.

        P.S.: Thanks for your reply. Your posts have been great and I’m not disagreeing with them overall.

      2. That’s a great read on the Steve/Tony relationship. Also worth noting that Age of Ultron shows Steve has bonded with Thor, another soldier, over Tony. I do think Tony thought they were closer than they actually were.

        The events of Civil War is basically one of those car-crash weeks where EVERYTHING goes wrong all at once and just gets completely out of hand. Sure, Steve could have stood up to Ross and worked to make the Accords more palatable. But he was distracted–by Peggy, by Bucky, by Zemo. Individually, he could have handled any of those challenges, but all at once it was too much. He prioritized Bucky and everything fell apart as a result. Also, he’s still searching for his place in the modern world. At the end of Age of Ultron, he thought being an Avenger was it, but he learned through Civil War that there are things he cares about more (mainly Bucky). So now he’s got to go off and have his Nomad phase and learn about just being Steve Rogers, not “Cap”. And for Tony, it traces back to his line in Ultron: “He’s the boss, I just pay for everything.” He’s very paternal in Civil War (“grounding” Wanda, treating Steve like a rebellious teenager), but he’s not actually cut out to run the Avengers in the long term. (That his recruit for the big showdown was a FIFTEEN YEAR OLD KID ought to be a clue.) Phase 3 has a subtext of Steve Rogers learning to be more than just the Cap, and Tony learning why he isn’t in charge. They had to have this fight and this disastrous week to put them on their paths.

    2. It’s not any one which way, and you’re right that there is a lot of other stuff going on to contribute to the breakdown. But I think the initial appeal of the Accords lies in Tony’s desire to offload his guilt, and it’s the only way he can cope because he *isn’t* a soldier and so he can’t do that same emotional math that Steve does. Their discord is rooted in that basic ideological difference. Tony’s early decisions are informed by his inability to process his own guilt, which he can’t handle because he’s never absorbed Steve’s lesson about compartmentalizing, which circles back around to him not being a soldier.

      I do think it’s clear by the end, though, that Tony has lost control of the Initiative and it’s already going beyond the bounds he imagined for it. He’s horrified to find the renegade Avengers imprisoned in the Raft, and it’s clear when Bucky is arrested they have no interest in due process. Steve saw that slippery slope, but Tony thought he could control it. It looks like he can’t.

      Also, I’m not blaming Tony for the whole thing. Steve definitely did his part, and so did Zemo. This is a companion piece to the earlier one about Steve, in which I look at Steve’s history as an individualist who is bad at following orders. They’re each making decisions from emotionally compromised positions. My read is that Tony is compromised by a guilt he can’t process.

    3. Doctor White

      Calling it a ‘tin can’ and Tony a ‘base human’ sounds more than a little demeaning. He’s an unparalleled genius and a creator of everything he’s accomplished. And saying he should never have left the office is a bit of a cold statement. He’s done his fair share to save the world from utter disaster, even if he’s also risked it.

  2. Agent K

    Tony sits alone in his office…as the hero. Hear me out.

    All this analysis comes from an audience perspective but I was more interested in the perspective of the public in the movie. To them? Steve Rogers is a traitor; a criminal who sided with a cold blooded assassin and injured dozens of good police officers just doing their job. The public has no knowledge of the nuances or complications. Captain America just showed the world they were right to be afraid of the superhumans. Iron Man is on their side, the good guy they can trust, the foundation for the New Avengers. Now isn’t that an interesting state of the world for when the big war finally hits?

    1. Oh I think to the public within the MCU Iron Man is unquestionably the hero. But I also don’t think it’s that black and white. For one thing, Bucky’s identity is out there, so everyone will know Cap chucked it all away to save Bucky Barnes, which is understandable, even if you think it’s wrong. Also, I imagine at least some of the Zemo stuff will get out, because people will be asking questions. So it will be, at least to some degree, known that there was more going on. I definitely think Tony has the higher ground with the public, but I also think Steve will have his share of defenders. Especially if the Avengers end up hamstrung and useless.

      1. Emily

        I wonder what the olive branch from Steve means to Tony at the end. We know what it means to Steve – he’s saying he still thinks Tony is one of the good guys, one of those people he places his faith in. And we know that Tony has lost faith in the Accords and Ross, but how he regards the phone is nicely ambiguous. His pride wouldn’t let him call it for anything less than a cataclysm, certainly.

      2. I just think it’s kind of funny that Tony’s olive branch was old pens, and Steve’s is a flip phone. They communicate through outdated technology.

      3. Yeah…that’s sort of an unintentional insult, which is, I think, how Steve takes it. Tony is incapable of seeing past Steve’s Captain America facade, and the pens are just a little piece of show and tell demonstrating that.

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