Iron Man gets better not just by battling enemies but also his friends. Take his conflicts with Steve Rogers for example. Tony and Steve are two strong-headed men with very different philosophies on life.
Early in their relationship, Steve thinks that Tony is nothing without his armor and only fights for personal gain. He believes Tony’s motives aren’t always pure and that eventually he won’t be able to invent his way out of a problem.
Not to be outdone, Tony quickly points out that everything that makes Steve special “came out of a bottle.” Tony thinks Steve is a rigid boy scout who can’t think for himself.
It turns out both men are right about the other and ultimately help each another become better. Tony helps Steve see he needs to slow down a little and enjoy relationships in life, and Steve’s criticisms propel Tony toward selflessness.
The same is true in our own lives. If you never had an obstacle—if everything went your way every time—you wouldn’t grow, but would become the equivalent of a self-centered spoiled celebrity. Without challenges from friends and foes alike, we might not experience the friction that forges improvement. “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another,” wrote Solomon (Proverbs 27:17).
We see this sharpening process throughout the MCU. Tony mostly fights for himself in the first two Iron Man movies. But in The Avengers, Tony gives us a glimpse of his progression when he flies a nuclear missile meant for New York City into a wormhole to destroy the invading alien Chitauri army, not knowing whether or not the effort will kill him.
While the good guys win this battle, it sets up an inevitable showdown with ultimate evil—our first sighting of Thanos happens during a post-credits scene. Despite the victory against the corrupt Loki and the Chitauri, we’re not done yet.
After the near miss with the invading Chitauri, Tony believes the world needs a better defense system: Ultron. He attempts to combine his artificial intelligence, JARVIS, with the artificial intelligence inside Loki’s scepter to create a new program that will be in charge of Tony’s global defense initiative. He does this unilaterally with little input or support from the other Avengers, other than Bruce Banner.
He fails spectacularly. The AI Ultron goes rogue and takes his mission of world peace so seriously that it intends to kill all of mankind in order to accomplish it.
Before the Avengers can stop him, Ultron manages to destroy almost of the entire country of Sokovia. The Avengers eventually triumph, but Tony has a crisis of conscience that leads into the next film. In his attempt to shield the world from harm, his ego was almost the source of the world’s destruction.
Fortunately, Tony grows through this mistake. He becomes humbler and more open to the input of others. In fact, Tony is now so open to input that he agrees to put checks on his ego and reverses his previous stance: he will now turn over parts of his technology and subject the Avengers to government control. Ironically, Steve, normally the poster boy for trusting the government, begins to distrust such external control, which results in the aptly named next movie in the series, Civil War.
Despite the internal conflict between the Avengers in Civil War, we see that Tony continues to grow as a leader by becoming a mentor to Peter Parker. Tony sees Peter as a son. There’s a lot of himself in Peter—the talent, the intellect, and the willingness to be a hero. Peter just needs someone to mentor him. Tony knows it’s necessary for him to take on the mentoring task, just like Christians are to mentor or disciple new believers.
Notice that Tony doesn’t say, “Peter, now that you believe you’re a superhero, my work here is done.” Sadly, that’s what many Christians do. They get someone to repent and believe in Jesus, but they don’t disciple that person. They don’t do anything to support or guide that person as he or she ventures out into real life as an ambassador for Christ.
Tony realizes he must teach Peter skills, character, and wisdom to mold him into a true superhero. As we saw above with Tony taking away his suit for a brief time, accountability is a big part of that process. Christians must do the same by helping people transform into the image of Christ for their good and the good of the kingdom. Any movement, if it is going to survive and thrive, can’t just make converts; it must make disciples.
Meanwhile, the friction between Tony and Steve grows to the point that they come to blows and nearly kill one another in Siberia. But they know they need one another:
Steve Rogers: If I see a situation pointed south . . . I can’t ignore it. Sometimes I wish I could.
Tony Stark: No, you don’t.
Steve Rogers: No, I don’t. Sometimes . . .
Tony Stark: Sometimes I wanna punch you in your perfect teeth. But I don’t wanna see you gone. We need you, Cap.
That friction will cost them in Avengers: Infinity War when a divided Steve and Tony lead separate teams and are defeated by Thanos. The disunity even results in Avenger deaths, including that of Spider-Man.
The lack of unity around shared principles weakens any team, and the Avengers will have to unify to have a chance in the rematch with Thanos. Not only that, but every individual on the team must be at their absolute best to win. Will Tony be at his best?
As Steve feared, eventually there will be a problem that Tony can’t outsmart. Thanos appears to be that problem. Fortunately, by this point, Tony has been sharpened enough to realize what’s going to be required of him. He doesn’t want to die, but he might have to in order to save others.
And there’s a new complication. Tony is now married to Pepper, and they have a daughter together. So when he’s given the opportunity in Endgame to go back in time to try again, we’re left to wonder if he wants to risk his life or mess with time in such a way that it could affect their existence. As Tony points out, “Sometimes when you mess with time, it messes back.”
Yet Pepper knows that Tony has been transformed through his intense struggles. Iron has sharpened Iron Man, and Tony won’t be able to rest until he’s tried to make everything right.
“I lost the kid [Peter Parker],” Tony tells Steve. He has to try to get him back. To do that, he’ll have to go back in time and get the Infinity Stones.
Tony is now ready to use his technology not for his own personal benefit, but to save the world.