“Iron Man,” the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is just 10 minutes old when Tony Stark—arms dealer and self-proclaimed genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropist—makes a sales presentation to America's military brass.
“They say that the best weapon is the one you never have to fire,” he tells the assembled generals. “I respectfully disagree. I prefer the weapon you only have to fire once. That's how Dad did it, that's how America does it, and it's worked out pretty well so far.”
You might not think it, but that little speech contains one incredibly revealing word: a word that informs who Tony Stark was and will become, a word that infuses the Marvel Cinematic Universe with much of its meaning.
The word: Dad.
Over the course of three Iron Man movies, two Avengers flicks and an extended role in “Captain America: Civil War,” Tony (played by Robert Downey Jr.) tells us, in word and deed, about his father, Howard: How much he loved him, fought with him, idolized him and rebelled against him. Tony's story reminds us that, for good, ill and often both, dads matter.
"One father is more than a hundred schoolmasters," 17th century priest and poet George Herbert once said, and it's true. Even as the role of fathers have been culturally downplayed—and as men themselves increasingly forget or abandon their roles as fathers—studies show that fewer things impact the lives of children more than their dads.
That influence can manifest in any number of ways, of course: Loving, engaged fathers tend to raise loving, caring kids. Overly demanding, angry dads can unintentionally teach their children to be timid or encourage rebellion. When our kids grow up, many of us dads are thrilled with the intentional lessons they embraced—and dismayed, even shocked, by what else we might've passed on. No father is perfect, and our relationships with our own fathers, and with our own sons and daughters, can be complex.
We see that complexity play out in Disney's Marvel movies again and again. Fathers, it seems, are way more important than those pesky old Infinity Stones.
Marvel's Cinematic Universe reminds us just how important fathers are, and those reminders can be poignant and powerful.
Consider Thor: When we first meet him in his titular movie, he's a hot-headed, hammer-wielding galoot who never thinks much past the next battle or feast. Odin, Thor's powerful father, shows some tough love and casts him out of the very kingdom he's supposed to inherit. Through this period of discipline, Thor learns humility, respect and compassion, and he becomes a more worthy heir and son.
“Guardian of the Galaxy”'s Peter Quill has his own daddy issues. He never knew his birth father until meeting him in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” and discovers his biological pops (Ego) is a god-like living planet bent on cosmic ill will. During the film Peter realizes, to his shock, that the guy who raised him, a blue-skinned pirate named Yondu, actually loved him like a son.
"He may have been your father, boy," Yondu says of Ego. "But he wasn't your daddy."
In this year's “Black Panther,” King T'Challa grew up idolizing his father, T'Chaka—until he learns that T'Chaka made a decision that threatens the future of T'Challa's kingdom. As much as he loves and honors T'Chaka, T'Challa realizes he must forge his own path and right his father's wrongs.
Those themes of fatherhood extend powerfully even into “Avengers: Infinity War.” There, the movie's main villain, Thanos must face his adopted daughter, Gamora, who's now fighting against him. Those familial bonds prove more powerful than either expect.
Tony Stark's back in “Infinity War,” too, but he's no longer so much the conflicted son as he is a father-figure himself—mentoring a young Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spider-Man. Their relationship was one of the best parts of last year's “Spider-Man: Homecoming”: Like T'Chaka, Tony's far from perfect. Like Yondu, he struggles to express his feelings for the boy. Like Odin, he shows the wayward Spidey a little tough love in “Homecoming,” taking away Peter's suit.
"I was just trying to be like you," Peter says.
"I wanted you to be better," Tony tells him.
Doesn’t every son, at some point, want to be like his father? Doesn't every father want his kids to be better?
Marvel's Cinematic Universe reminds us just how important fathers are, and those reminders can be poignant and powerful. But they don't tell us anything we don't already know. We don't need a superhero movie to tell us who our first hero should be.