Mentorship roles

Full disclosure: while I had doubts about the new Spider-man movie re-threading the same old plots, the new trailer has assuaged those doubts and I’m eagerly waiting to see it.

Full Disclosure 2: I’m a big fan of Iron Man, specially RDJR’s portrayal of how messed up is Tony. For this post, I will be talking only about his MCU version and not the comic version.

The latest trailer of Spider-man: Homecoming was released and for once I feel like I’m actually watching the Spidey version I grew up with. I’ve never been a big fan of the Raimi films and I liked the first Garfield’s movie, not so much the second. This one feels like proper Spidey. However, I have seen in the interwebs a point of contention: Tony Stark’s role.

We know that Tony is for most of the time, a hypocrite. Most rich superheroes (with maybe the exception of Batman) tend to be so. It’s part of their appeal as it shows them as fallible persons and thus they are more relatable than boy scouts like Superman, but I digress, that’s a topic for another post.

Besides the contention of why Iron Man is in the movie, the hotly debated thing is the attitude he takes with Peter, scolding him and taking the suit, telling him what to do or don’t do, especially in lieu of a mistake by Spidey that almost ended in tragedy if it weren’t for Tony’s opportune help. This exchange is the highlight:

Tony: “What if somebody had died?”

Peter: “I was just trying to be like you.”

Tony: “I want you to be better. I’m going to need the suit back.”

Peter: “But I’m nothing without this suit.”

Tony: “If you’re nothing without this suit, then you shouldn’t have it.”

Pretty telling uh? Most people criticizing it come from two points:

1)What’s Tony without the suit? (answer: genius billionaire, playboy & philanthropist)

2)Tony is being a hypocrite because he has messed up as much or even more than Peter. Basically, Tony’s whole story is a redemption arc for his past failures (Vanko, the weapon illegal sales) while he creates new ones and most of his own villains (Stane, Killian, Ultron, Cap’s Avengers). He had no one to take his suits from him and teach him a lesson. He took down his own team! This camp blames him of ‘Do as I say and not as I do’.

Fair points, but I disagree with them, and not because I’m a fan of Iron Man. But because to anyone that has seen the Iron Man Trilogy + Avengers Duology knows, this is fairly consistent with Tony’s personality. In fact, I contend that is the next logical step of his character arc, gearing to the time when RDJR finally steps down.

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Tony is defined by a set of very personal characteristics:

  • It’s an addict: to women, to alcohol, to adrenaline, to technology. But he is a recovering addict sobering up after his latest fiasco (Sokovia and the Avengers’ Civil War). Right now, he is in the equivalent of the AA for superheroes.
  • It’s haunted by regret: Tony messes up a lot. He is not perfect as Steve or honorable as Thor. But he is self-aware enough to admit that and humble enough to try and fix it (whether he fails more than succeed is up for the jury). Most of his career as a superhero has been about owning his disasters and trying to fix them while at the same time grow as a person and helping to create a better world (e.g. free clean energy for all).
  • He has confronted his own mortality and that of his friends: that experience has put a lot of perspective on his own actions.
  • He has proved that he is more than his suit: Iron Man 3 is basically an ode to the idea that Tony is Iron Man because of his resilience, smarts, and bravery. The suit is a piece of metal that can be controlled by anyone. Iron Man is really what Tony is as a person.
  • He lost his parents when he was a teenager and his relationship with Howard was strained at best. He doesn’t know how to interact well with others because he has issues… lots of issues.

If we consider that, then his role in Peter’s life is clearer: he is the surrogate dad that has come from a bad place in his life, has a lot of regrets and is trying to connect to this kid to exorcise his own ghosts while at the same time being the mentor he never had. And as a teacher/mentor, I  can tell you: it’s never easy and often you come off as a hypocrite because you are trying to teach the younger generation the lessons learned from being imperfect and creating more problems than the one you solve.

He is not taking the suit from Peter as a hypocritical punishment. He is taking it to teach him two lessons that Tony himself had to learn the rough way:

  • The suit doesn’t define you. Again, Iron Man 3 explained that particular point of view of Tony. Peter doesn’t need a suit to be Spidey. His powers are not dependent on it. He is smart enough to have developed his own webbing way before Tony entered his life. Peter is a genius. But above all, Peter is Spidey because he is a teenager that knows right from wrong and has the will to act in consequence to help others. He learned that the hard way with Uncle Ben. But it is a lesson that resonates: acts have consequences and helping others help you as well. What Tony wants Peter to learn is that he doesn’t need a fancy suit to be Spider-man; he is Spidey because of who he is and what he does. He needs to realize his own potential as human being. I think many teachers can relate to that.
  • Be prepared. Superheroing is most of the time an act of improvisation. But that doesn’t mean that you have to jump into action without a care in the world. If you are fighting in a ferry, you have to be careful that the ferry won’t sink. Be observant, be smart.

Both are lessons that took Tony 5 movies to learn (Avengers 1 doesn’t count for this particular arc).

Tony takes this mentorship role with Peter because at first, he felt guilty from drawing him into the conflict with Steve. That exposed Peter to a life way different to just dealing with petty criminals in Queens. That Peter is trying to tackle bigger challenges after that taste of the big leagues makes Tony feel guilty and worried that Peter might get seriously hurt or worse (he already has Rhodey to feel guilty about). But later it seems that he has grown fond of this kid that in many ways is a reflection of Tony’s potential at the same age. And Tony knows what is to be addicted to the adrenaline and dependant of a suit. He doesn’t want that for Peter.

As Tony said to Peter in the trailer, he just wants him to be better than he is or has been. Tony is not scolding Peter for messing up, that’s on par of the course of a superhero’s life. Tony is scolding Peter for acting like Tony has done before. He is trying to protect Peter from heartache and regret, to show him the ropes while at the same time saving him from committing the same mistakes that have left Tony’s personal life a total wreck. In a certain way, Tony is trying not only to protect Peter, to teach him and even sponsor. He is seeing this kid as his natural replacement when he finally steps down from the Avengers. Tony sees in Peter untapped potential to be the greatest hero of all: a kid with the spirit of Captain America and the genius of Iron Man.  Tony, as a futurist he has right now an eye on the future and he knows he probably will die (and many others) protecting Earth. Thus part of his legacy would be a new, younger superhero to take the mantle fo the Avengers and protect Earth in the future. And for Tony that means to be as tough as he can, in his own screwed up version of parenting, with Peter.

This takes me to the second part of this posts: mentors in fiction, like in real life are imperfect people trying to do right. Take a look to the ur-example of Obi-Wan Kenobi and the Skywalkers. Ben, even with his tempered wisdom still fails as a mentor (and it is hinted that Luke has as will with his own nephew). That’s part of the crux of the Skywalker saga. And yet Ben gave it all in order to serve a higher ideal, out of love for all living beings in general and Anakin (and by extension his family) in particular.

Ned Stark was a lousy mentor to his own children because his vision of honor, while commendable, didn’t fit the worldview of the rest of Westeros, leading Jon, Sansa, Arya and Bran to learn to be clever than him in order to survive (Rob never learned the lesson and the result was a very messy wedding). But Ned Stark was for all intents and purposes a good dad that loved his children above all.

You can write a whole psychology book on how Batman has messed up his kids. And don’t let me start with Green Arrow (my favorite superhero) and his relationship with Roy. In fact the only mentor that is nigh perfect that I can think of is Splinter from the TMNT, but then their story is not about learning, but about facing challenges as a family.

My own novel in editing, Tempest Blades is centered around this idea (at least the first volume): Fionn my main character and from whose POV most of the story is narrated was a flawed mentor to a friend, which has had dire consequences for his life (and for the plot). He is reluctant to get back to that role because he knows he is not a good mentor, but the only way to save the day is to lead this new group of heroes and teach them enough to be sure they survive long enough while cleaning up his own mess. He gets into heated arguments with his proteges, he doubts, he fears. But at the end of the day, he does it because he knows because it is the right thing.

In a certain way, I have drawn from my own experience as a teacher at the same school where I was once a student to write Fionn. Being a teacher or a mentor is a tough job full of heartache and frustration but as well with rewards that you can’t measure. It’s a job that fills you with pride and a clean conscience. But most important it’s a job than when it is well done, leaves a legacy behind. And in the greek ideals, your legacy is the only thing you really have once you are gone.

So yeah, again I’m in Tony’s side this time.

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