While the character has always had his fans in the comics world, it’s pretty safe to say that the general mainstream population had no idea who Tony Stark was until he burst into theaters in 2008’s Iron Man—garnering both great reviews and Marvel-Cinematic-Universe-founding box office numbers. And much of that success is due to the man playing him; while Nicolas Cage and Tom Cruise were both considered/vying for the part, it’s hard to imagine that the character would be quite as captivating without Robert Downey Jr.’s brand of swagger and rambling snark.
Marvel was understandably concerned that Stark would come across as a Batman knockoff (the characters do have a large number of similarities) when they were building the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and as a result allowed quite a bit of freedom in his on-screen development. The endgame leaves us with a host of funny details that make the MCU version of Tony Stark more of a stand-out than your average action hero….
The choice to be consistent with these odd little quirks are a large part of Tony Stark’s charm. Here are just a few that we can easily track across his five features so far:
Using Food as A Reward System
There are many points where Stark uses food to reward himself or others for a job well done, or to take his mind off of troubles. His first action once he’s back from his time as a prisoner in Afghanistan is to pick up a whole bag of cheeseburgers and eat them before his big press conference. Later, Tony tries to take a pie of New York pizza off of Obidiah Stane following a disastrous Stark Industries board meeting. (Obidiah seems to understand this reward system and withholds most of the pizza from Tony when he refuses to give him the arc reactor specs.)
When Tony believes he is dying in Iron Man 2 and goes off the deep end at his own birthday party, he wakes the next morning and treats himself to an entire box of doughnuts. (Nick Fury interrupts this hangover celebration to get him back to work.) Then, when he meets his new super friends on S.H.I.E.L.D’s helicarrier, Tony breaks out a bag of dried blueberries as he pals around with Bruce Banner. When Cap comes in to scold him for antagonizing his science buddy and stealing S.H.I.E.L.D. intel, Stark points out that Fury is definitely hiding something from them. When Bruce agrees with him, Tony offers up his bag of blueberries; Bruce gets a reward for coming up with the correct (Tony-approved) answer. Cap is not offered any blueberries because he’s being a grumpy naysayer, and then is only offered them as a form of teasing.
And then, as the Battle of New York winds down, and Stark is frightened awake (back to life?) by the Hulk, his first instinct is to suggest that they all go get shawarma. They just saved the world together, so food and bonding over said food is clearly in order.
Flashing the Peace Sign for Photographs
In the very first Iron Man film, Tony is driving with a group in soldiers in Afghanistan and they want to take pictures with him because he’s famous and cool and seems very nonchalant about the whole thing. One soldier puts up a peace sign, and Tony teases “no gang signs” before telling him to throw it up there in the picture. But he does mutter under his breath that he would be out of a job if his weapons company was expected to survive during peacetime.
All of those soldiers are shortly after murdered when their envoy is attacked for the purpose of kidnapping Stark.
Following that, Tony constantly throws up peace signs when there’s a photo op. Some fans have theorized that this is a tribute to that soldier in the first film, representative of Stark’s change of heart and the new direction he takes his company once he returns from his captivity. Whatever the reason, the followthrough is certainly worthy of note.
Hiding the Arc Reactor From Plain Sight
Tony Stark comes back from Afghanistan with a reactor embedded in the center of his chest to prevent a piece of shrapnel from diving into his heart. It’s a pretty substantial vulnerability to have, and an obvious one at that. So Tony painstakingly hides it from the general population; whenever he’s in public he’s wearing more than one shirt, usually a tie, anything to block its glow. But when he’s around people who have all the intel on his situation, suddenly he’s wearing shirts that let the outline of the reactor through—which suggests that it’s a very conscious decision to dress for the right crowd.
It’s clearly at the forefront of his mind, and provokes his self-protective instincts; in Iron Man 2, before Stark knows that Natasha Romanov is one of Nick Fury’s people, he quickly buttons up as she enters the room to prep him for his party. He can’t afford to slip up and have the information leak on the internet; in this era, the information would be viral in a day, and every villain with a grudge match would know exactly where his weak spot was. And Tony knows what results from that—after all, Obidiah Stane dug the reactor out of his chest to power his own armor.
Music as an Aid
It’s clear that Tony Stark considers AC/DC’s greatest hits to be his personal theme music; their songs are played heavily in the first two Iron Man films, and he uses them for his intro music to both the Stark Expo and the fight between Loki and Cap in Germany. He’s decked out in a Black Sabbath shirt for half of The Avengers as well. But more to the point, Tony clearly prefers music as a work aid, particularly when he’s in shop mode. He’s playing Suicidal Tendencies when Pepper interrupts him in the first film, and drags out the Christmas classics in the opening of Iron Man 3 when he’s testing out the Mark 42 armor.
There’s an extra layer of resonance to this because most of the bands Tony seems to be a fan of are from the right eras to be music he would have enjoyed as a teenager. So we can imagine fifteen-year-old Tony Stark listening to Black Sabbath and Suicidal Tendencies… and see that grown up Tony Stark still enjoys the albums that powered his youth.
California Health Nut Culture
While Tony eats his fair share of junk food, there is a definitely Los Angeles health vibe to his usual fare when it comes to food. And this makes sense because he’s based where trends like juice cleanses and vegan cookies tend to originate. During Iron Man 2 he discovers that chlorophyl is one of the few ways to help filter palladium toxins out of his bloodstream and drinks it by the quart… but you have to know that chlorophyl is something that a human being can access and drink before getting on that green diet. It’s the sort of thing you’d find at a smoothie bar that puts shots of wheatgrass in everything.
There’s the pilates crack he makes to Steve Rogers on their first meeting, the fact that he teases him with those dried blueberries (which he brought as a preferred snack instead of something like, say, potato chips), and then that beautiful moment when he can’t recall precisely what he had for breakfast that morning, and JARVIS helpfully informs him that they were “gluten-free waffles, sir.” Why would Tony Stark need gluten-free waffles? He doesn’t have Celiac Disease, and it’s unlikely that he has inflammation issues or anything else that would prohibit him from eating a lot of wheat products. But he probably got wise to it because his neighbors have all gone gluten-free and they swear by it. Maybe Pepper was giving it a try, and he joined in for the hell of it.
Has A Bodyguard/Chauffeur, Still Drives Himself Everywhere
There are very few scenarios when we see Tony Stark being driven anywhere by anyone. Most prominently, he takes the backseat when he arrives home from captivity, and doesn’t have use of one arm. But the majority of the time, he either keeps Happy Hogan (his bodyguard and sometimes chauffeur) in the passenger seat, or makes him takes a separate car to race him.
Part of the logic to this is that Tony is clearly an adrenaline junkie of the highest degree, and also owns a lot of cars because he’s crazy rich. But there’s a level of control freak to that characterization that was probably only heightened by his kidnapping—which happened when he was in a vehicle that he didn’t drive. In addition, his parents died in a car crash (which is turns out was orchestrated by HYDRA, but Tony didn’t know that when they passed). The Iron Man armor is a natural extension of that; it gives Tony the illusion of control.
Possible Germ-phobia/Issues With Interpersonal Physical Contact
Being famous means that a lot of strangers probably want to shake your hand. Being a famous playboy means that a lot of strangers probably want to touch you without asking first. Tony Stark clearly has a problem with this, and a certain measure of self-protection that comes with it. His phobia clearly has triggers, as he doesn’t seem bothered in certain situations, or when in the company of people he trusts. But when it is triggered, it results in a very specific cue: “I don’t like being handed things.”
While this could be shrugged off as a way for Tony Stark to avoid things that bother him or gross him out (he calls it a “peeve” when he’s offered a subpoena), but Pepper Potts treats it as an aggravating given that she has to work around (as she does when Coulson wants to hand Tony some SHIELD files in The Avengers). In addition, Stark was a character inspired by Howard Hughes, a genius historical figure who was well known for compulsive behaviors. This particular issue of Tony’s is likely a nod toward Hughes’ influence on the character.
Emmet Asher-Perrin doesn’t mind being handed things (usually), but she does play her music too loud when she’s working. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.