The Role of Ego (No, Not the Living Planet) in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Ego is a motherfucker. At least it can be if you aren’t too careful. I say this as someone whose profession (fantasy author) requires ego to function. You have to be egotistical enough to believe that what you’re putting down on the page is something special enough that someone else (hopefully a lot of someones) is going to want to read. Let that ego consume you though, and your work will suffer. You won’t see the flaws in your writing that need to be improved, you won’t be able to take feedback or apply it to the page. To be a good writer, in my opinion, you need a perfect blend of ego and empathy. Empathy drives good character writing and while folks might come for the story, they stay for the characters. That blend of ego and empathy is something I think about a lot, because it doesn’t maintain balance, it oscillates and you have to be ever vigilant to make sure ego doesn’t tip the scales over.

Like pretty much everyone else, I had a lot of at-home time this past eighteen months and one of the more constructive things I did was rewatch the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) in preparation for WandaVision. What struck me throughout was the ways in which ego plays a pivotal role from the very first scene in Iron Man through to the penultimate climax of Avengers: Infinity War and finally, that incredible scene with Tony Stark and Thanos in Avengers: Endgame. I could write an entire series on ego and the MCU, but three heroes really stood out to me in the ways ego did (or didn’t) impact their character arcs and the world around them. Peter Quill, that 80s wannabe-David Hasselhoff meets Kevin Bacon; Wanda Maximoff our sitcom, spell-slinging heroine; and the figure that kicked things off and snapped his fingers on the curtain call: Tony Stark.

I want to start with Tony, because his arc has enough bend in it that it needs a protractor, but let’s take a look at Starlord first. In many ways the two Guardians of the Galaxy films are some of my favorite MCU movies, and fall into the same category as Thor: Ragnarok; they’re essentially straight up comedies in an otherwise dramatic (albeit one known for moments of levity) movie universe. Starlord is funny because he’s such a damned egomaniac and narcissist that he’s completely lost any sense of self awareness, and the rest of the cast lets us know they know he’s an egotistical ass time and again. It’s a fun conceit from the jump, save that Peter gets put into situations that should prompt a change in that self absorption and… they really don’t. He tells everyone how special he is and then learns he is, in fact, special. He’s not just human, but also Celestial—essentially a demigod with massive powers. When he learns this from his father (a dude named Ego, no less) it’s confirmation of what he’s known in his heart of hearts all along. Of course, Ego turns out to be a maniacal monster and repeat fillicider who aimed to eradicate all life save his own. To Peter’s credit, he turns against Ego and with the rest of the Guardians puts an end to this would-be terrorist. Unfortunately, that’s about where Peter’s growth stops. Throughout the rest of his time as Starlord on camera we get some infinitesimal growth, sure, but none of it penetrates the egotistical outer shell that is the Quill in Peter Quill.

I want to try to find some empathy for Peter, but it’s hard. His Mom died before his eyes, he never knew his father (until he did and found him to be a monster), he was abducted by aliens… it’s a lot. I get it. Still, it couldn’t have happened to a bigger narcissist, could it? (Of course, Tony’s backstory isn’t all that dissimilar in some ways and yet he didn’t make the same decisions… put a pin in that folks, we’re coming back to Tony in a minute.) Peter’s Mom told him he was special, the alien that abducted him treated him as his second in command and son for no discernible reason, and his father turns out to be a demigod. Starlord, Peter’s alter ego, is so convinced of his specialness, that he misses reality when it’s staring him in the face, to universal tragic consequence. Don’t believe me? Let’s break it down…

Avengers: Infinity War spoiler review Star-Lord

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

In Avengers: Infinity War Gamora pulls Starlord aside, believing him to have grown enough to handle what she’s about to ask of him. She knows the location of one of the Infinity Stones Thanos seeks and she knows if he is able to read her mind, he’ll find it. Not willing to risk Peter’s safety by spelling things out for him, she makes it clear that she cannot fall into Thanos’ grip or else the universe will be in jeopardy. Forcing Peter to promise to kill her if it comes to it, she leads the Guardians to Knowhere in search of answers. Instead of answers, they find illusions crafted by Thanos and when the Guardians confront the Titan they come out on bottom. There’s a moment, several breaths really, where Starlord can fulfill his promise to Gamora and end her life before Thanos uses it for his nefarious ends. Instead, believing he’s different, special, Peter hesitates and when he’s finally able to bring himself to do the deed: it’s too late…Thanos has bested him.

Later, after Thanos murders Gamora for the Soul Stone, Iron Man, Dr. Strange, Spider-Man, and the remaining Guardians come up with a plan to trap Thanos, remove his gauntlet containing the Infinity Stones he’s stolen, and end his plan for universal decimation. It’s here, where Peter, playing what amounts to a bit part compared to some of the others, shows us he’s still learned nothing. These would-be, ragtag Avengers have got Thanos right where they want him with Mantis putting him in a trance while Iron Man, Spider-Man, and the rest have just about ripped the gauntlet from Thanos’ fist when Peter realizes that Gamora is dead, murdered at Thanos’ hand. His reaction seems reasonable, after all the Guardians of the Galaxy series has shown us their evolution from one-sided infatuation to true caring, but I don’t fully buy it. Especially not for a superhero. Again, rather than realizing that acting solely on his pain, while real, is ultimately selfish, and self-serving, Starlord repeats his mistake of earlier and goes full-on man-child. Waking Thanos from the stupor he’d been put into, Peter lets the Titan escape from the last real chance any of them had to contain him in his growing power.

This raises the question… can superheroes be heroic when their ego gets in the way? Achilles would certainly like us to think so, but at the risk of upending superhero discussions, I’d like to posit that heroism is an act, not a state of being. Peter’s act (while ensuring the rest of the movie still has a story to tell) isn’t heroic and it doesn’t end heroically either. After this Thanos will gain the rest of the Infinity Stones and commit genocide on a scale that boggles the imagination via The Snap. That Peter is one of the ones dusted seems poor recompense for his actions and he dies full of ego believing he’s special, having learned nothing.

Phew. That’s a lot. Let’s flip the script then and look at another character and the influence their ego has on the rest of the MCU.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

Wanda Maximoff saw her entire world upended by a bomb—several really—but it was the one that didn’t explode, the one with Tony Stark’s name engraved on the side, that set her on a dark path. And really, who could blame her? One moment she’s watching sitcoms and eating dinner with her family and the next she and her brother are trapped in the rubble of their apartment, with the bodies of their now-dead parents, for days. It’s the stuff of nightmares and it’s small wonder that Wanda later joins Hydra, an organization that offers to aid her in taking down Stark and his weapons trade. She does this not only because she thinks Stark is evil, but because she wants revenge; here we see some of the early seeds of ego developing in Wanda as she begins to transform into the Scarlet Witch. When Hydra fails and Ultron comes calling, he confirms everything she (and her brother) believe about Iron Man and the Avengers. Her willingness to join forces with Ultron is intriguing. She’s proven her mettle so she has every right to be confident in her abilities and believe Ultron might need her help in fighting off this superhero attack on her world. It’s tempting to see this as another step in Wanda’s budding ego, but I think this is more about her being misguided—she’s still growing up and learning who she is after all (unlike Quill and Stark who are both adult men). She wasn’t wrong, per se, about Tony’s faults, but she also hasn’t been witness to his ongoing transformation. Ultron confirms everything she believes to be true so of course she buys in; however, when his true motives come to light, she doesn’t hesitate to change sides. This, to me, is the pivotal moment in who Wanda will become. Unlike Peter, she does change, and does so at great personal cost—losing her brother and sole remaining family member—after she’s far, far down a dark path. If Wanda was driven and guided by her ego, she would have doubled down with Ultron; after all he wasn’t trying to kill her the way Peter’s demigod father was. If anything, she had more to fear in betraying him than she did by staying by his side, but instead, she realizes she’s wrong and she flips the script, joining the Avengers to save civilians and right some of those wrongs she’s been an unwitting participant in.

Where Wanda really shines is the years between the defeat of Ultron and Infinity War. She’s shown herself to be one of the most powerful Avengers, yet we don’t see Wanda pushing to the fore looking to show off. Rather the opposite. We see her hanging back, studying the others, being quiet and considering, unafraid to take both advice and orders. We see her building a new life with Vision. All of this is only possible because of the absence of ego. That’s not to say Wanda isn’t confident, but she’s considering. She doesn’t just rush to choose sides in Civil War, and when she does, she does so knowing full well what the costs will be to her. Her character growth pays off in the penultimate MCU film, where she sacrifices everything she’s built with Vision to deny Thanos the final Infinity Stone. Yes, she says goodbye, yes she takes a moment, but it’s not hesitation and when she acts, she does so because she understands there are things in this universe bigger than herself. Destroying Vision is something Peter never could have done and it’s something the old Tony never would have considered. The lesson Wanda took from the tragedy and trauma she witnessed as a child isn’t that she was special because she survived, but rather that life isn’t a guarantee. Her entire arc has built to that moment when she kills the love of her life to save the universe. That Thanos is too powerful by this point to be denied doesn’t diminish her act, but it does lead her to committing her gravest mistake…

Avengers: Infinity War spoiler review Wanda Scarlet Witch

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

WandaVision is an article unto itself and I’m going to disappoint some readers here by not going deeper, but I don’t think Wanda’s ego was at play in the miniseries. I know, I know, that’s a big statement and maybe I’m letting her off too easily, but I don’t see ego. What I see is a person overcome by grief, losing the last bit of family (found family at that) to her own hand and worst of all: Vision’s death didn’t change a damned thing. Sit with that for a moment. Add to that the lack of support she has in dealing with all of this after Thanos is defeated and it’s the perfect set up to making poor decisions. Those decisions are magnified relative to the amount of power she has, power that she has to believe could (maybe) fix things and in that moment of belief, makes an awful decision that harms thousands. There’s no excuse here, but there are reasons. Like I said, building an argument either way is an article unto itself, but I think Wanda has proven she isn’t an ego-driven superhero. She’s a woman who came from tragedy, who knows what it’s like to be powerless, and who has tried to use her powers (sometimes mistakenly) to right that imbalance. She made a terrible mistake in WandaVision, but when she came to her senses—again already far down a bad path—she turned around, and her story isn’t done yet. If Peter Quill had even twice as much ego as Wanda Maximoff, Thanos would still be out hunting for the Soul Stone with the Avengers and company in hot pursuit.

So we have two opposite examples of ego in the MCU with Starlord, the egotistical and unrepentant and the Scarlet Witch, driven less by ego and more by her desire (not always well-attuned) to do what’s right. That brings us to the character with the biggest arc so far in the MCU and the one with whom we’ve spent the most time, all the way back to the original Iron Man. I’d give a wrestling announcer-like introduction, save Tony Stark would love that too much. This is another one that could be its own series, dissecting the growth of Mr. Stark from Elon Musk-like billionaire playboy to superhero with a savior complex to suspicion of superhero autonomy to reluctant warrior and ultimately… the kind of hero willing to lay down his life that others might live. It’s a pretty incredible arc, one that deserves more attention than I’m going to give it today, but I do want to draw attention to those key moments where Tony’s ego shifts and the ultimate payoff that allows… one that the original character in Iron Man never would have been capable of.

Iron Man Jericho Missle scene

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

When we first meet Tony Stark he really is the stereotype of an egomaniac. Even being kidnapped and nearly murdered in tandem with the realization that his weapons are being sold to the highest bidders regardless of morality (hint: morality is often inversely related to the killing potential of the weapon being used) isn’t enough to fully shake off that billionaire playboy mentality. It takes events in The Avengers—where Stark sees New York City decimated, innocent lives destroyed, and in the climactic end battle nearly dies himself, frozen in space—for Tony to lose much of (I think all would probably be asking too much given where the dude started) his ego. Key to this are several other factors. First, there’s his relationship with Pepper Potts which has a few facets we should unpack. Pepper likes Tony, but she doesn’t need him in the same way he needs her. We can see this over the course of the movies as she begins to run the company and push back against some of his decisions, challenging him to change or else (and at one point that “else” is her walking away when he doesn’t uphold his side of the relationship). This challenge, along with his personal growth makes him want to be a better partner for her and also gives him personal stakes beyond himself. Second, there’s his growing relationships with fellow superheroes that help him to understand he’s not alone and if he is special, so are a lot of others. There’s his relationship with Bruce Banner based upon each other’s prodigious intellect where he cedes the floor to Banner several times. In the first Avengers movie, Tony also takes a step back and let’s Cap call the shots and lead the team. There’s also a subtle relationship between Iron Man and Black Widow, two heroes looking for redemption (Iron Man: “We create our own demons.”; Black Widow: “I’ve got red in my ledger. I’d like to wipe it out.”). Finally, the lingering PTSD that’s been building since Iron Man 3—where Tony displays classic symptoms such as inability to sleep, panic attacks, etc.—and his near-death experience open Tony to the idea that it isn’t all about him. Still, as I said at the top of this piece, ego is a motherfucker, as tricksy as Loki themself. Even when you recognize it, you can’t always recognize how deep the tendrils go. Tony is driven to create a power that could protect the world (in the face of his PTSD, it seems likely the attraction here was so he wouldn’t have to do so himself). But ego being what it is, Tony doesn’t create a power that protects, but rather one that seeks to destroy: Ultron.

It’s Age of Ultron that truly shatters Tony’s ego… it doesn’t remove it, but it fragments when he realizes that his hubris nearly brought about the very thing he hoped to prevent (I’ll note that I think this is his interpretation, but also fear and untreated mental illness played into his decision making… not an excuse, but mitigating factors worth considering). It’s fitting that Tony’s biggest moments of change come from facing his greatest mistakes. Initially when seeing what his weapons business did to innocent people, experiencing that destruction first hand, and then again with creating Ultron and nearly destroying humanity. This leads to a bit of an over-correction on Tony’s part: He knows he can’t trust his ego and extends his egoism unfairly to all superheroes, but takes it a step further by putting the responsibility in the hands of others rather than himself when he signs onto the Sokovia Accords and kicks off the events in Civil War. (Author note: I am on Cap’s side here, but we’ll set that aside for now.) This is another critical juncture for Mr. Stark—a time when he recognizes that his ego and hubris are fundamental parts of himself that must be taken into account. Beyond that, he realizes he’s not the only one with great power and he seeks to contain their egos as well through the Accords. It’s around this time that relationships also play a critical role in Tony’s development. First, there’s a sundering of his relationship with Pepper Potts and second, there’s a mentoring relationship begun with Spider-Man. Tony’s arc is more pronounced than the others because of how much time we get to spend with him, but I’m struck by how similar he and Starlord’s stories are, with the difference being that Stark has a modicum of self awareness that leads to change and Quill does not. The Iron Man of Infinity War would have winced and then smiled sardonically at the Stark in Iron Man… in fact the way he treats Starlord gives us a good indication of how such a time travel-y scene might have looked.

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

The final evolution of Tony Stark is of the parental figure willing to sacrifice his happiness to preserve the happiness of those he loves. I think it’s losing Spider-Man to The Snap that does it, but also finding his way back to Pepper Potts because he’s no longer so bent on maintaining his aura of infallibility. I wish the movies had spent more time on their relationship here, because I think it’s pretty critical and does a lot to refute some of the lies of toxic masculinity. It’s only when Tony taps into his emotions, allows himself to be vulnerable, and strives to make himself worthy of another person’s love that he is truly ready for a relationship. The Hulk aside, every Avenger is left broken after losing Infinity War… every Avenger save Iron Man. Iron Man no longer, Tony is now a father for real and clearly quite in love with it all. I think it’s that love for another, for several others, that allows him to come back for the events of Endgame despite having the most to lose. By this point Tony Stark has gone from arrogant playboy to true hero, embodied by the fact that he doesn’t believe he can fix things on his own. He’s not even sure the remaining Avengers, together, can fix anything, but he’s willing to try. I don’t think Iron Man ever stops believing he’s special, and I don’t know that we can fault him there, but he’s a hero who knows viscerally there are limits to his powers and yet, at the end of it all, Tony Stark is willing to blast past those limits, damn the consequences. Certainly not for himself, but because he understands there are things bigger than himself worth fighting for. That we should all be so brave.

So, there you have it, my friends. I think superhero stories are, at their heart, allegories. Sometimes of warning, sometimes of example, sometimes of hope and this one is no exception. I don’t know that the writers of the MCU set out to create some sort of grand moral allegory, but I do believe we can all take something from the story they’ve put together. I know that I’d rather a world where we believe everyone is special and worthy of consideration, where it’s never too late to choose a new path, and a world where we’re all willing to sacrifice something, even our lives, for others.

Ryan Van Loan is a debut Fantasy author who served six years as a Sergeant in the United States Army Infantry (PA National Guard) where he served on the front lines of Afghanistan. His forthcoming novel, The Sin in the Steel was purchased by Tor Books publication as a series.

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