Of all the founding Avengers, Tony Stark was the only one to not have a heroic moment in “What If…?” Season 1. There is a reason for that.
WARNING: The following contains spoilers for the Season 1 finale of What If…?, streaming now on Disney+.
“Not you, Stark,” The Watcher says early in the What If…? Season 1 finale, dismissing an Iron Man variant in favor of that reality’s Gamora as a member of his Guardians of the Multiverse. It’s a small moment in the episode, but it nevertheless says a lot about Uatu’s mindset. Tony Stark doesn’t come across well in any of the alternate versions of the Marvel Cinematic Universe The Watcher has presented. Uatu’s dismissal in the finale merely formalizes an active trend.
The comment in “What If… The Watcher Broke His Oath?” is intended to put Stark in his place; indeed, none of The Watcher’s Guardians of the Multiverse is a Stark variant. Party Thor got the call over any version of Iron Man, which gives viewers a strong idea of Uatu’s feelings on any Stark. And while the producers of What If…? have stated their affection for the character, and intend to portray more heroic Stark variants in Season 2, Season 1 was extremely hard on him.
Iron Man famously kicked off the MCU in 2008, with the casting of Robert Downey Jr. and the improvisational direction by Jon Favreau turning the film into a hit in a year otherwise dominated by Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. The now legendary post-credits scene featuring Samuel L. Jackson planted the seed for everything that followed. It seemed only fitting that Downey would bow out of the series as demonstrably as he entered it, with Tony Stark’s emotional sacrifice in Avengers: Endgame.
However, none of that holds much currency for the first season of What If…?, in which The Watcher reveals time and again how often Tony can fail. It starts with the first episode, “What If… Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?,” in which he’s upstaged even before he’s born by a still-frail Steve Rogers in the Hydra Stomper armor. Of the remaining eight episodes, he’s straight-up killed in five of them — murdered by Yellowjacket, zombified, betrayed by Killmonger, slain by Ultron, and presumably a victim of Strange Supreme’s collapsing reality in Episode 4 – and he doesn’t appear in two others. With the put-down in the season finale, Iron Man is left with a shockingly poor track record in the multiverse thus far.
It’s particularly striking because the other five original Avengers – Captain America, Black Widow, Thor, Hawkeye and the Hulk – have opportunities to be the heroes they always were in at least one episode. Even Party Thor, presented largely as a punchline, steps up and saves the day when called upon. But not Tony, who’s left, at best, a martyr and, at worse, a fool in episode after episode. That seems to reflect Uatu’s opinions of the man; the dismissal gives voice to that, suggesting more disappointment than perhaps a deliberate snubbing.
But it also hints at a more nuanced understanding of Tony’s character. Iron Man’s story was always about redemption: Stark spent the bulk of his life as an arms dealer and all-around hot mess, squandering his immense brilliance for material possessions and permanent celebrity status. His moral awakening in Iron Man comes at great cost, and he fought to live up to it throughout the first three phases of the MCU. Those demons weren’t silenced until the final moments of his life, when he affirmed the hero he had become through his last act.
The fate of his variants in What If…? demonstrates how difficult that can be, and puts the prime MCU Tony’s actions in a far more benevolent light. The number of times he fails in the multiverse looms large – certainly enough to earn The Watcher’s skepticism – but that only further proves how challenging the task of self-improvement was, and how much the prime MCU Tony had to overcome to earn his place as a hero. Season 2 promises to show him in more victorious circumstances, but for now, putting variant Tonys in their place only proves how singular the prime version really was.
Season 1 of What If…? is now streaming on Disney+.
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What If’s Season Finale Puts Tony Stark in His Place