This isn't going to be an introduction to the Steve Rogers/Tony Stark pairing. I don't want to be repetitive, and elspethdixon has already written a truly fantastic Ship Manifesto that is far better than any introduction that I could write. I encourage all of you to check it out! Instead, I'm going to explore an issue that can be seen as an argument against their viability as a pairing, but which has come to be one of my favorite arguments in favor of it.
Just in case you aren't in the mood to read two essays, here's a quick and dirty couple of paragraphs about each of the boys, just for context for this essay.
Just before the U.S.'s entry into WWII, Steve Rogers tried to join the Army and was found to be too frail. Instead, he volunteered for the Super Soldier program and, via an experimental serum, was transformed into the peak of human physical perfection. The serum and its creator were destroyed before more Super Soldiers could be created and Steve became Captain America, a rallying symbol. Then he got frozen in a block of ice and woke up in the present day, pretty much immediately joining the Avengers, who had only just formed.
Steve is very idealistic. He truly believes in and lives for--and to defend--the right to personal freedom. He can be very inflexible and stubborn, but he's a genuinely good man.
Tony Stark is a billionaire industrialist who made his fortune as a munitions manufacturer. Then he got blown up by one of his own landmines and taken captive by...er, bad guys. (It'd take too long to explain. Trust me.) He built a suit of armor to both sustain his life and to allow him to escape. Back in the U.S., he started using that armor to protect others.
Tony has a lot of issues. He's presented as very sexually promiscuous, although another essay could be written arguing that point. He's an alcoholic. He has self-esteem issues. And control freak issues. Lots of control issues. He's also incredibly brilliant, especially when it comes to engineering, and he's loyal to a fault.
Steve, Tony, Ideological Conflict, and Balance
In some ways, Tony and Steve are an odd couple. The embodiment of idealism and freedom and the embodiment of capitalism, in bed together? But for me, the fact that they keep coming back to each other despite differences in ideology and some serious arguments is one of the most compelling things about their relationship. There is something more basic than ideology that draws them together, and they find in each other a balance that both of them need.
The first time they have a really serious confrontation, one that isn't due to a simple misunderstanding, is during the Iron Man storyline known as "Armor Wars" (Iron Man #225-232). Tony discovers that an old enemy, the Spymaster, has stolen some of the Iron Man tech and has sold it to one of Tony's major nemeses, Justin Hammer. Hammer then equipped a number of supervillains with the tech.
Tony is tortured by the idea of his inventions causing the injury and death of hundreds or thousands of innocents. He becomes convinced that this makes him personally responsible for every one of those acts and that the only way to stop it and to prevent it from happening again is to eliminate every scrap of his Iron Man tech from the world (excepting his own suit, of course). He decides that this must include Iron Man tech that was legally sold or used in projects he developed for allies, lest one of his enemies capture that tech and use it against him. He also totally refuses to explain why he is doing what he is doing to anyone. He doesn't even tell the West Coast Avengers (of whom he is a member) until his quest is nearly done.
One of the groups whose armor he disables are the Guardsmen. These guys are the guards for a maximum security prison for supervillains. Cap realizes that they are likely Tony's next target, so he follows Tony and steps in to try and stop him when Tony starts destroying the Guardsmen's armor. But he has to turn his back on Tony to save one of the Guardsmen when the young man refuses to take off his helmet (exposing himself to sleep gas with which Tony has flooded the prison) and begins to suffocate. While Cap's back is turned, Tony delivers a shock that paralyzes him. (Iron Man #228)
It would be hard for the captions of the next couple of panels to be more slashy. They read: "But as he reaches across Steve Rogers, their eyes meet...and hold. No words are spoken. None are needed, for both men know that a bond has been broken today... A bond as old as their friendship... As deep as their innermost thoughts. A dear and precious link--that may never be whole again."
Their first serious conflict, this is also the one they seem to have the hardest time coming back from. Several issues later (Iron Man #238) they are only able to agree on a kind of truce, to affirm that, though their friendship may never recover, in their superhero-professional identities they are willing to lay their lives on the line for each other. Afterwards, Tony thinks, "That didn't settle much. But I guess it's something, though I still feel kind of empty."
As time goes on, it becomes easier and easier for them to come back to each other. But this first time, they don't really reconnect until after the next conflict I will address: the execution of the Supreme Intelligence.
As the ultimate hero, the ideal to which virtually all other heroes in the Marvel universe look up to, Captain America doesn't kill the bad guys. Ever. Period. There is some debate in both canon and fandom about whether or not he did so during World War II, but that's a subject for another essay. In the modern timeline, killing isn't even a last resort for Cap.
Tony is a little more pragmatic about the issue. He doesn't want to kill anyone, and if there is any other option, he won't. But if the bad guy is a proven risk to enough people and the only way to be certain that said bad guy won't repeat their actions is to kill them, Tony is absolutely willing to take them out for the sake of public safety. We're not even talking in the heat of battle here; he will sit down, think about it for a while, and then go out to execute the bad guy when it's been proven necessary.
Given that these two fight some of the biggest threats in the omniverse on a team together, they've clashed on this issue more than once, although something usually happens to give them a non-lethal out. But occasionally there is no out, and I think the best example, and the example that best highlights Steve and Tony's relationship, is the (apparent) execution of the Supreme Intelligence.
Capsule summary: The Supreme Intelligence is a partially organic artificial intelligence who is/was the ruler of the Kree. In order to improve the genetics of the Kree, it secretly engineers an interplanetary war and arranges for billions of Kree on dozens of worlds to be killed by a giant bomb. In the aftermath of the war, the Avengers, one of the surviving Kree, and a few other teams and some individuals discover that the Supreme Intelligence was responsible. The Kree asks them, "I beg you... Do what I cannot... Make the Supreme Intelligence pay for his crime."
The Avengers are divided on the issue. They argue about it for a couple of panels, even debating whether the Supreme Intelligence counts as a life form, a true artificial sentient (interestingly, the Vision, an android, argues against this). But in the end Iron Man pulls rank as the only original Avenger present. He takes six Avengers with him to kill the Supreme Intelligence. Seven stay behind with Cap. (Avengers #347)
What strikes me about the scene is that Cap lets them go. He could stop them. His group of Avengers wouldn't hesitate to back him up if he chose to stop Iron Man's group from going to carry out the execution. But he doesn't even argue that hard against it, and when Quasar asks if he should stop them, Cap tells him "No, let them go."
He knows that the Supreme Intelligence committed a terrible crime. He knows that it deserves to pay for what it did. But Cap can't countenance its execution. Not killing is one of his highest principles and it isn't in Cap's nature to compromise. He tries to give himself an out here; he argues that it's up to the Kree to take care of it and that Humanity and Earth are safe and it's not their business anymore. But the Kree have been decimated and annexed by the Shi'ar; they aren't in any position to deal with the Supreme Intelligence.
Allowing Iron Man to lead a group of Avengers to execute the Supreme Intelligence gives Cap a way to resolve the conflict. The Kree get justice, the universe is made safer, the Supreme Intelligence pays for its crime, and all Cap has to do to maintain his principles is disapprove.
But what about Tony?
He's organized and facilitated an execution, and while he feels it was necessary and justified, he isn't happy about having done it. He's argued with a man he respects deeply and believes himself to be reduced in Cap's eyes because of his actions.
The tension between them is unbearable for them both. Cap is demonstrably miserable in the aftermath of the event. And Tony, who is operating out of L.A. at this point and who returned there for business reasons immediately after the execution, flies all the way back to New York for the sole purpose of finding Steve and mending fences with him (Captain America #401). He doesn't apologize for his actions. He clearly still believes they were necessary. But... "There's no one I'd miss more than you," Tony tells Steve. And, "I'm not as perfect as you. Forgive me."
And Steve does forgive him for his part in the execution (and, by implication, for the Armor Wars), despite Tony's lack of repentance. Steve even apologizes for letting their ideological differences hurt their friendship and tells Tony, "I miss having you as my friend."
Tony leaves, then, and Steve decides he doesn't need Clint to cheer him up anymore and heads back to the mansion, where he finds that friends he'd presumed missing in action have returned. The last panel makes it pretty clear that resolving things with Tony is as important to Steve as discovering that friends he'd thought lost are alive after all.
It doesn't seem to matter that neither of them has backed down from the ideological positions that brought them into conflict. They choose to put those differences behind them because they need each other, not just as allies, but also as friends.
Their conflicts do occasionally result in their opinions actually shifting (if not entirely changing), though.
In a storyline I won't bother recounting here, Tony takes advantage of being drawn into a supervillain's mental control of everyone on the planet to both defeat the villain...and to erase knowledge of his secret identity from the world's minds (Iron Man/Captain America Annual, 1998). He quickly re-reveals himself to friends of his choosing, which restores their proper memory of events.
Cap, after getting his own memory back, is royally pissed off. He tells Tony, "You chose to control the way they think, and in doing so, violated their freedom." Tony argues that erasing the knowledge of his identity from the minds of villains has made people safer and made it possible for him to do more good. But it wasn't only his enemies that were affected.
In the middle of the argument, they get a call from SHIELD and have to run off to investigate a related case on a Caribbean island. They snark at each other in a really amusing way all through their battle with AIM (Advanced Idea Mechanics) agents upon arriving on the island. After defeating the agents, the islanders bedeck them with leis. Which is totally not important, but explains some really amusing scans.
Anyway, it turns out the islanders have all chosen, of their own free will, to undergo a process with cures them of chronic physical injuries, diseases, and disabilities, but which combines all of their minds into a single group consciousness as a side effect. Shortly after learning this, Steve and Tony also discover that MODOK (Mobile Organism Designed Only for Killing, the leader of AIM) had previously planted a device in the islanders' city which uses the psychic abilities endowed by the groupmind to not only turn them all into his slaves, but also to generate a tangible form for himself.
They defeat MODOK, although Tony is badly injured in the battle, but the device that allows the groupmind to be controlled is still in place and can't be removed without killing all the islanders. Tony pokes at it for a while and figures out how to turn it off...but it will also dissolve the groupmind and reverse the treatment that gave the islanders their physical well being.
Presented with this option, the groupmind is clear: "No! You... You cannot be serious about reversing our treatment! We all came to Zenith willingly, and I promise you, now that we have tasted physical and mental perfection, we would rather die than revert to the frailty of mortality!" and "we will not accept the loss of the right to choose our own destiny! To live or die on our terms! How dare you deny us that freedom?"
Tony manages to key in the program before collapsing, but he doesn't have the strength to execute the command. The choice falls to Cap: "Subvert the will...the freedom...of these people," Tony tells Cap, "or watch them die once AIM reaches the island."
Cap hesitates, but he executes the program.
In the aftermath, watching SHIELD agents lead away the now-sickly islanders, Tony says, "Tough day. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness all took a thrashing. Still friends?"
Cap replies, "Never stopped being." He goes on to say that he still doesn't agree with what Tony did, but he understands more why he made the decision, and the two of them shake hands. Later, Tony re-reveals his identity to two other friends, and sees a moment of betrayal on their faces, and he realizes he understands a bit better where Cap is coming from, too.
Both Steve and Tony can get very entrenched in their belief systems, which isn't healthy, no matter what your beliefs are. Confronting each other forces them to consider the other viewpoint. And while plenty of people are happy to tell Tony that he's wrong (and they often do), almost no one is willing to do this for Steve. Being Captain America, emphasis on the capitals, engenders a degree of respect and deference in people--both ordinary people and Avengers--that renders them extremely reluctant to speak against him. Cap is so charismatic and eloquent that he has been known to talk villains into surrendering. Hell, he once talked an evil artificial intelligence into killing itself.
But no matter how good a man Cap is, he still needs someone to force him to think about his convictions. Faith that can't stand up to questioning isn't worth having, as they say. And this is something that Tony does for him that no one else seems to.
For Tony, it's not so much that he needs someone to question him--plenty of people do that constantly--as it is that he needs to be reassured that disagreeing doesn't mean that he's lost a friend. Maybe that "Still friends?" is flippant. But maybe it's not; Tony infringed on a freedom that Steve takes extremely seriously and their argument was pretty vehement. Either way, Steve's response reassures Tony that here is a friend who feels strongly enough for Tony that even an argument like this one--deeply felt, and not entirely resolved in the end--isn't enough to shake the friendship. And because Tony can trust Steve that way, it's safe to acknowledge that maybe he wasn't entirely in the right either. After all, if he'd lost Steve, it would be agonizing to admit that it was for nothing, that he'd been wrong all along.
Which leads us neatly into the most severe ideological argument yet: the Civil War.
Civil War is a divisive storyline in Marvel fandom. It's also very complex. You could probably write a thesis on it, so I'm not going to discuss it in any depth. That isn't the point of this essay, anyway. I'm going to give a capsule summary of the broad set up, and then I'm going to discuss three events significant to the topic I'm exploring.
Capsule summary of the set up: The federal government passes a law called the Superhuman Registration Act which requires everybody with superpowers (whether innate, acquired, or technological) to disclose their secret identity (if they have one), register their identity and powers, undergo training, and effectively serve as a military unit. This includes children. For various complicated and debatable reasons, Tony registers and steps in to lead the pro-Registration superheroes. Steve steps in to lead the anti-Registration superheroes. The pro-Registration heroes proceed to attempt to round up the anti-Registration heroes, and the Civil War commences. Tony does a lot of really awful shit for, once again, debatable reasons and Steve reacts. No one does nearly enough thinking or talking to each other, and the entire Marvel universe devolves into a cluster fuck.
When the dust clears, Steve has first surrendered and then been assassinated by supervillains, Tony has been made Director of SHIELD, and quite a few people are dead, including almost all of Tony's emotional support system.
But despite the fact that they were on opposite sides of a very emotional war, Steve and Tony kept reaching out to each other.
First, there's Iron Man/Captain America: Casualties of War, which has been described as "a slash fic with a fistfight instead of a sex scene". In pretty much the middle of the Civil War, Tony calls up Steve and asks him to meet in the ruins of Avengers Mansion (destroyed during the events that result in the Avengers breaking up pre-Civil War).
They each try to convince the other to come over to their side of the Registration issue, bringing a lot of their own history--both personal and superhero-professional--and Avengers history into the discussion. It gets heated. They have a lot of history. Tony actually breaks down in tears, asking, "What can I do to make it stop?" And when Cap tells him to denounce Registration, Tony's response is, "It's not about me. Losing me wouldn't stop it." He asks Cap to come over to his side instead. Cap refuses and turns to leave, and Tony grabs his shoulder to stop him.
At which point they blow up at each other, discard armor and shield, and proceed to beat each other up.
When the fight is over, they look at each other for a long moment. Then they look away, hanging their heads. "We should have talked sooner," Cap says. And Tony replies with a simple, "Yeah."
Both of them desperately wanted to convince the other. They don't want to be on opposite sides of this conflict, and the fact that they are hurts them both. That last comment:, "We should have talked sooner", hurts the reader more than the fight, because you are left with the certain impression that if only they'd had, they could have bridged even this chasm.
Second, there's their meeting in Yankee Stadium (Iron Man volume 4, #14). Tony's chauffeur and one of his closest friends, Happy Hogan, has just been beaten into a coma. Tony tinkers with a cell phone and a bit of off the rack hardware for a minute and taps into the communications for Steve's people, who have gone underground, and requests a "military parley", just him and Steve.
Steve not only answers the call, he agrees to the meet. Tony's there to ask a question, he says, and he needs to see Steve's eyes when he asks it. He asks if Steve or his people had anything to do with what happened to Happy. Steve assures him they didn't, and says that if they had, Steve would have tied a bow around them and hand delivered them to Tony's penthouse. Tony questions whether Steve can trust his people ("And Castle? What... About... The Punisher?") and there is a pregnant pause...
...which is interrupted by Cap's team arriving and attacking Tony.
As Cap is forcibly transported away by his people, he yells, "No--" and you realize that he knows exactly what this attack is going to do. Not only have they lost another chance to talk about this, to maybe stop it from going further, but Tony will be convinced that Steve's people were acting under orders and that he can't trust even Steve's word now.
Without Steve's influence, even from the opposite side of the battle lines, how far will Tony take this now?
Nor is my evaluation of Steve's influence on Tony a shipper's overstatement of canon. A quote of Tony's from Fallen Son #5:
"How you could be my rudder, steering me when others couldn't... I don't know if I can do it without you... I certainly won't do it as well."
Tony needed Steve and he knew he needed him. Even when they were supposed to be adversaries, Tony kept reaching out, trying to bridge the gap. With all the pressure of the Civil War bearing down on him, it was Steve to whom Tony looked for strength.
Nor was that lasting trust one sided. After Steve's death, a letter from him is delivered to Tony (Captain America volume 5, #28 and #30). The lawyer that gives it to Tony tells him, "He [Steve] said in spite of everything, you were the one man who could do what needed to be done...if he fell." Of the letter itself, we only get to see the last paragraph in full: "I'm trusting you to do two things: Don't let Bucky [Steve's former partner] drift back into anger and confusion. He has a chance at a new life - help him find his way. Save him for me. And as for Captain America, the part of it that is bigger than me - that's always been bigger than me - don't let it die, Tony.
America needs a Captain, maybe now more than ever. Don't let that dream die."
Despite the fact that Tony represents the system that Steve was opposing, he was still the man to whom Steve entrusted the care of his family (Bucky) and the ideals of his country (Captain America, the symbol).
Most telling of all, in a way, is the closing salutation:
Steve has not yet returned to the land of the living, but we remain confident that he will, eventually; this is comics, after all.
Although periods of conflict between Steve and Tony show both many of the ways they need each other and the strength of the bond that brings them back to each other again and again, it's not all conflict. They need each other just as much in happier times. A case in point is the reformation of the Avengers after the team was disbanded in Avengers Disassembled.
The instigating event for the reformation of the Avengers is a supervillain breakout at the prison known as the Raft (New Avengers #1). Several superheroes arrive on the scene to help try and contain things, including Captain America, Iron Man, Daredevil, Spider-Man, Luke Cage, and Spider-Woman. When the event is over, Steve approaches Tony and asks him to reform the Avengers with him (New Avengers #3).
On one level, this makes sense. Of the official founding members, Thor is missing and Hank and Jan are living in England at this point. Steve are Tony are the only founding members available, so it's natural for Steve to approach Tony about reforming the team.
There's another level to this, though: We quickly learn that it is possible for the team to be reformed without a charter (which they always had, whether from the American government or the U.N.) because Steve, personally, is licensed with the authority to do so. He could have put together a new Avengers team at any moment he wished. There's even precedent: the Avengers have disbanded and reformed before, notably in Avengers #298. And given that he tells Tony that they left a void when they disbanded, that they unbalanced things, he clearly believes, and has believed for some time, that it's necessary. But he waited.
Maybe he was waiting for fate, for an event that brought a set of heroes together, as he tells Tony. But given the frequency with which large-scale crises take place in the Marvel Universe and in the history of the Avengers, I find it hard to believe that something major didn't happen in the weeks that they were disbanded. It seems far more likely that Steve just didn't want to do it alone.
There have been more than 50 different members of the Avengers over the years, including both Spider-Man and Spider-Woman. But it is Tony that Steve approaches to restart the team. Tony is the obvious choice, being a founding Avenger, but that very obviousness speaks to the bond between them. And then there is the way that Steve approaches him. He never speaks in the singular. Although it is his authority that makes it happen and his initiative that gets them going, he always says "we" to Tony, never "I". Even more, the "we" is clearly Steve and Tony, not "the Avengers". He says, "We need the team together to do it." This is something he wants to do with Tony.
With the other members of the team, Steve asks them to join. He's very firm, but it is only a request, and when Daredevil refuses, Steve accepts. He wants them all on the team, but they aren't essential. Tony is, to the point that when Tony finishes that first conversation by saying, "I'll think about it" Steve jumps in with "Great! I'll go assemble the team." Either he knows Tony that well, or he wasn't willing to risk Tony saying no. Regardless of which it is, you can tell that if Tony had said no (and held out until Steve accepted the no), it wouldn't have happened, never mind that there's no reason it couldn't have been done without him
In many ways, Steve and Tony are two sides of the same coin. America's ideals and its capitalist pragmatism. Its dreams and its reality. But a coin needs both sides to be complete. The sides of it aren't opposites; they are complements. Steve and Tony need each other to remind each other to think, to consider the other side of any issue. And they need each other to prove that differences, no matter how great or small, can't destroy love--whether platonic or romantic.
And in case you're thinking that none of this necessitates romantic interest...well, here's a couple of links to Tony and Steve waxing poetic about each other.