Tony Stark and Asshole Heroes

I was watching a review of Transformers 4: Age of Extinction, and it really reminded me of what a contemptible piece of crap Cade Yeager was. Sam Witwicky was arrogant and annoying, but Cade is both those things, plus… just horrible and selfish to everyone he comes across, especially the employee he leeches money from and the neighbors he steals from. Plus, he violently attacks some innocent people with a baseball bat, just because he’s failed to pay his mortgage because he’s a terrible inventor who refuses to get a real job. And somehow, we are supposed to be rooting for this selfish maniac.

And I kind of wonder… if that is because of Tony Stark.

Because I can think of another movie with a similar protagonist from a few years later, in 2017: Tom Cruise’s Nick Morton from The Mummy. This guy is also a character with zero redeeming characteristics; by the end of the movie, he has done ONE good thing, grand total. The rest of the time, he’s a selfish ass who hits-and-quits women he’s stealing stuff from, sells artifacts on the black market, and… really doesn’t do anything to make us like him. Like, at all. The movie acts as though we care whether he lives or dies, but I for one couldn’t have cared less, because he never said or did anything to make me care.

Back to Cade Yeager for a second, the way he’s shot and his “inventor” persona makes it pretty clear that they wanted us to get a Tony Stark vibe from the movie. As for Nick Morton, the entire Mummy movie was a blatant attempt to copy the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s formula…

So, were these characters DELIBERATELY made into assholes because Tony Stark is an asshole? And Hollywood, being Hollywood, missed the point and thought that the public was just dying to see more assholes?

Because yes, Tony Stark is kind of an asshole. He is arrogant, and a pretty awful person at the beginning of the MCU. Just remember that: at the beginning. Now, Tony is a good asshole protagonist for four reasons:

  1. He changes. His character evolves even over the course of the first movie…
  2. … but even then, he was never an asshole as much as these guys were. Tony has good qualities and a good heart underneath it all, so he’s not just an asshole.
  3. He’s an entertaining asshole. He’s witty and clever and wildly intelligent, and this causes us to like him despite his bad behavior.
  4. Robert Downey Jr. A lot of the character’s charm is due to Downey, and it can’t just be copy-pasted with any actor.

So let’s examine these other two protagonist assholes.

First, neither of these characters change. The closest we have is that Nick does a sorta-unselfish thing at the movie’s end, but it’s for a woman he wants to bang, so it isn’t very impressive. Oh, and Cade decides it’s okay for a creepy guy to bang his underage daughter. That was apparently his arc. Very impressive.

Do either of them grow and develop from their hardships? Do we see them becoming less selfish, more caring, moving away from the bad behavior we saw at the movies’ beginnings, recognizing that they were assholes? Nope. Never.

Second, Tony is depicted as a selfish womanizer who sells weapons at the movie’s beginning. But he’s not shown being actively cruel to anyone, violent towards the innocent, and he sells weapons to the US military because he incorrectly believes that they’re the only recipients, and that he’s doing a good thing by selling those weapons. When he discovers otherwise, he immediately shuts down the weapon development, and works to help others.

Despite his external assholery, Tony Stark is shown from the very beginning to be someone who does want to help others and do the right thing. He doesn’t always succeed in knowing what that is, but a consistent behavior through all his MCU movies is that he wants to help and protect others.

Cade Yeager… doesn’t show any signs of that; he’s a violent thug who leeches off everyone around him. Nick Morton is just a literal soldier of fortune who wants to steal stuff for purely selfish reasons.

Third, neither of these characters are as impressively witty as Tony Stark. Not witty at all, really. Therefore, they do not entertain us.

Neither one is very smart, either — we’re told constantly that Cade Yeager is an inventor, but he’s not a very good one. He just makes wobbly robots that don’t do anything very well, as evidenced by the hilariously bad “painting” robot. There’s nothing to dazzle us and make us go “wow, he’s so smart.”

Nick Morton? Not smart at all, really.

Finally, Robert Downey Jr. Downey is a genuinely great actor with immense charisma and personal charm, and the Tony Stark character — as a lovable asshole — really only works because he is so charming.

Mark Wahlberg? Not a great actor, not charming. Tom Cruise? Well, people tell me he has charisma, but his giant toothy grin and staring eyes creep me out. And he certainly doesn’t have the talent or charisma to make anybody like Nick, since absolutely nobody was impressed by his performance.

So, just my rambly thoughts about how these asshole protagonists absolutely failed at trying desperately to be Tony Stark. All I can assume is that some Hollywood nitwit saw Iron Man and concluded, “Audiences love Tony Stark! He’s an asshole! That means people love assholes! And the bigger an asshole a hero is, the more people love him!”

Thanks, Hollywood. How about you un-learn that little lesson?

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