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The entire Iron Man MCU timeline finally explained

It's been said many times, but without Iron Man, there wouldn't be a Marvel Cinematic Universe. There were other well-received Marvel comic book movies: Blade, the original Sam Raimi-directed Spider-Man, X-2: X-Men United. Still, Iron Man changed the game, showing the potential of a shared cinematic universe built on the back of genius jerk who built a suit of armor in a cave out of a box of scrap. Tony Stark is in many ways the beginning of the MCU, even though his own story came to an end in Avengers: Endgame.

But what happened in between? With more than 20 MCU movies and counting, not to mention tie-in television shows like Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and Agent Carter, it's easy to lose track of where Iron Man fits into everything. Not to worry; we're bringing up the holographic schematics and outlining how Tony Stark goes from a genius weapons designer with no heart to Iron Man, a self-sacrificing superhero with a heart of palladium. This is the entire Iron Man MCU timeline, finally explained.

Howard Stark's life during wartime

Before we talk about Tony Stark, we need to talk about his father Howard. Beyond the elder Stark's role in shaping his son's mindset and intellect, Howard Stark also knew and interacted with a decent chunk of the Marvel Cinematic Universe himself. 

In the 1930s, Howard Stark hits the world stage as a genius industrialist who goes on to found Stark Industries. Shortly after, Howard joins the Strategic Scientific Reserve, a predecessor to S.H.I.E.L.D. that's interested in using super-science to defeat HYDRA. That leads him to Professor Erskine, which, in turn, leads him to meeting Steve Rogers, the first and only true success of Project Rebirth. After Steve goes rogue from his performing duties in order to rescue Bucky and the rest of the Howling Commandos when they're captured by HYDRA, Howard helps Sharon Carter outfit Captain America for the mission, and even pilots the plane to get Cap there.

As "the Army's number one weapons contractor," Howard is tasked with building equipment for Steve Rogers, which, of course, includes the Captain's famous vibranium shield. Howard also works on studying some of the Tesseract-powered weapons that Cap brings back from a HYDRA base. By the end of the events of Captain America: The First Avenger, Steve Rogers is missing, and Howard finds the Tesseract in the Atlantic.

Howard Stark's life during peacetime

After World War II, Howard Stark goes on to have all sorts of adventures (as seen in Agent Carter), but most pertinent is his founding of S.H.I.E.L.D. in 1949 alongside Sharon Carter and Chester Phillips. The Strategic Scientific Reserve is folded in as S.H.I.E.L.D's science division, and new areas of super-science are explored.  One of these projects is Project P.E.G.A.S.U.S., a joint collaboration with NASA and the United States Air Force which explores the use of the Tesseract as an unlimited energy source. In the '60s, he designs the Arc Reactor with Anton Vanko before deporting him and replacing Vanko with Obadiah Stane as his partner in Stark Industries. In 1970, Howard conceives Tony with his wife, Maria, while continuing to work as an industrialist and S.H.I.E.LD. scientist. In 1979, he breaks off with another of the MCU's premiere super-scientists, Hank Pym, after Hank finds out that S.H.I.E.L.D is trying to copy his Pym particles.

Finally, Howard's life comes to an end when he's murdered by a brainwashed Bucky Barnes, who's working as the Winter Soldier in 1991. His death is fixed to look like an automobile accident, and Obadiah Stane takes over Stark Industries.

Tony Stark, billionaire jerk

Tony Stark basically comes out of the womb a genius. At age 4, he builds a circuit board. At age 6, he builds a V8 engine. By 17 years old, he graduates summa cum laude at MIT, and seems poised to take over Stark Industries whenever Howard feels ready to pass the buck. Unfortunately, after Howard's assassination, his partner Obadiah Stane takes over Stark Industries until Tony turns 21 and takes back his company. From there, it's a wild ride of building new technology and weapons for the American military for the next decade, while pissing off just about everyone in the scientific community. In 1999, Tony meets Ho Yinsen, Aldrich Killian, and Maya Hansen, and doesn't make a good impression on any of them. When viewers officially meet Tony Stark in 2008's Iron Man, he's at a weapons exhibition in Afghanistan to showcase "The Jericho," a missile system that uses repulsor technology to increase effectiveness. On the way back from a successful presentation, Tony is kidnapped by a terrorist organization known as the Ten Rings that want him to build them their own Jericho missile.

The explosive kidnapping leaves Tony with some shrapnel buried near his heart, kept temporarily at bay with the use of an electromagnet powered by a car battery. With his fellow captive Ho Yinsen, Tony upgrades the electromagnet in his chest into an arc reactor to keep his heart safe. Then he builds a mobile suit of weaponry to escape the Ten Rings, although Ho Yinsen unfortunately doesn't survive the escape.

Tony Stark, Iron Man

When Tony returns home, he realizes the error of his weapon-dealing ways and tells Obadiah that Stark Industries won't be making any more weapons technology. Obadiah's against the decision, and so is Colonel James "Rhodey" Rhodes, Tony's best friend and a true-blue military man. Unfortunately, Tony's new conscience comes with a cost; the board of Stark Industries basically ousts Tony on the basis that his new sense of empathy is just PTSD from his kidnapping. As it turns out, Obadiah's been playing both sides, both in terms of the Stark Industries board and the global weapons market. While pretending to serve as a father figure to Tony, he actually led the board's betrayal, and he's been selling Stark Industries tech to terrorist groups the whole time. Without actual control over Stark Industries and knowing that plenty of his tech is already out in the world, Tony upgrades his Iron Man suit to be sleeker and more colorful, and embarks on a quest to take down any terrorist groups using his weapons.

After a successful mission, Tony makes a plan with his secretary, Pepper Potts, to hack into Stark Industries and find out where the rest of his weapons have gone. However, Obadiah incapacitates Tony, steals the arc reactor in his chest, and places it in a suit of his own design that's inspired by Tony's first one. Tony replaces his missing arc reactor with the prototype that he'd saved from the desert and suits up to battle against Obadiah's "Iron Monger." He defeats Obadiah, saves the day, and then announces to the world that there's no secret identity needed: he is Iron Man.

Iron Man 2: still a billionaire, only sometimes a jerk

While Tony's onstage admitting that he really is Iron Man, half a world away, Anton Vanko passes away after telling his son Ivan that Tony's life should have been his. Ivan uses an old blueprint of the arc reactor designed by his father and Howard Stark in order to build a replica of the super-battery. Six months later, Tony's turned his newfound superhero celebrity into an excuse to bring back the Stark Expo, as well as take credit for basically every good thing that's happened in America since Iron Man appeared. Not everybody's happy with a private citizen basically walking around like a human missile, though, and Tony's subpoenaed to appear in front of Congress to defend his right to bear the world's biggest armory.

Tony talks his way out, but he learns that Justin Hammer and Hammer Industries are trying to fill the void left by Stark Industries after they left the weapons game... which includes trying to copy the Iron Man suit. Tony's got problems of his own, since he's suffering from palladium poisoning from the continued use of his arc reactor. Tony names Pepper the new CEO of Stark Industries, while Ivan finishes his arc reactor-powered Whiplash outfit. Ivan attacks Tony during a race in Monaco, but Tony's able to suit up and defeat him. Justin Hammer gets Ivan out of jail, and the two agree to team up to take down Tony Stark and Stark Industries.

Iron Man 2: From palladium to a new element

Suffering from palladium poisoning and flush from his victory over Whiplash, Tony goes off the deep end during his birthday party. He puts on the Iron Man suit as a party trick and starts blasting away, only for Rhodey to show up in another one of Tony's suits to try and stop him. Tony and Rhodey battle it out to a draw, and Rhodey flies off to give the "War Machine" suit to the U.S. military. Hammer gets the job of outfitting it with new weapons, while Nick Fury, the head of S.H.I.E.L.D., gives Tony his come-to-Jesus talk telling him he needs to grow up and figure out how to fix his palladium poisoning. Tony figures out that his father designed a replacement for palladium in the '70s, but lacking the technology to build the new element, he buried the design in the schematics for the Stark Expo.

Tony discovers it, builds the new element, and upgrades his suit just in time to interrupt Ivan's master plan: he's built a fleet of Iron Man-esque drones for Hammer Industries that only he controls, as well as remote control over Rhodey's War Machine armor. With the help of Happy Hogan and Natasha Ramanoff, who had been working undercover at Stark Industries under the name Natasha Rushman, Tony frees Rhodey from Ivan's control, and the two of them defeat Whiplash together. With the day saved, Rhodey keeps the War Machine armor, while Tony accepts a role as a consultant for the Avengers Initiative from Nick Fury.

Iron Man, the Iron Avenger

Tony next appears in the post-credits scene for 2008's The Incredible Hulk, telling General Thaddeus Ross that a "team" is being put together. That "team" is the Avengers, which Tony officially joins in 2012's The Avengers, after Loki steals the Tesseract from Project P.E.G.A.S.U.S. Tony teams up with Captain America and Black Widow to capture Loki in Germany. After the team nabs Loki, Thor shows up to scuffle with Cap and Iron Man before agreeing to team up against whatever Loki's plotting. The team heads to the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier, where Tony and Bruce Banner, a.k.a. the Hulk, get to work analyzing Loki's mind-controlling scepter.

Loki's henchmen ambush the Helicarrier, freeing the trickster god and sending the Avengers team into disarray. The team comes back together just in time for a massive battle in New York, centered around Stark Tower where Loki's attempting to open a rift to bring in an invading force of alien Chitauri warriors. The Avengers stem the tide, the World Security Council launches a nuclear missile, and Iron Man drags the missile through the wormhole into the Chitauri fleet, seemingly sacrificing his life to destroy the invaders. 

Luckily, he's totally fine.

Iron Man 3: the Anxious Avenger

In Iron Man 3, which takes place six months after The Avengers, it's revealed that Tony Stark is definitely not fine. He's nearly crippled with anxiety following his excursion through the wormhole and the Battle of New York. In the meantime, he's dealt with his manic energy by investing in Damage Control, an organization originally created by S.H.I.E.L.D. to store dangerous artifacts, and spending his free time building dozens of Iron Man suits in case he ever needs more firepower for a future earth-shattering crisis. One obvious crisis that doesn't take long to pop up is the Mandarin, a mysterious terrorist leader who's been supposedly instigating bombings throughout the world. After Happy Hogan is injured in one of the Mandarin's bombings, Tony calls him out — which leads to Tony's house getting blown up.

Tony flees to Tennessee, where he meets Harley Keener, a young boy with a gift for engineering. Together with Harley, Tony fixes up his suit and learns where the Mandarin is hiding. Unfortunately, there's a bigger game at work: The Mandarin is just an actor playing a part designed by Aldrich Killian and Maya Hansen to give a narrative for their failed Extremis tests. After unraveling a conspiracy involving the vice president and Killian's plot to kill the president, Tony, Rhodey, and Pepper are able to defeat Killian and save the day. Tony undergoes heart surgery so he no longer needs the arc reactor in order to live, and seemingly retires from the hero business.

Making a mess of things in Avengers: Age of Ultron

Tony Stark doesn't end up actually retiring, since he's right back in the Avengers lineup in 2015's Avengers: Age of Ultron on the hunt for HYDRA leader Baron Strucker. Iron Man flies into the castle where he's hiding and gets mind-zapped by Wanda Maximoff, one of two super-powered siblings groomed by Strucker for his evil plans. While under Wanda' spell, Tony sees a vision of his fellow Avengers dead and a Chitauri army headed for Earth. Once he wakes up, Tony does what he always does when confronted with a possibly terrible future: he builds a suit of armor. This time, however, it's not for him; instead, Tony wants to build a "suit of armor around the world," which is basically an artificial intelligence that can protect Earth from anything. Tony and Bruce crack the code on making it, and together, they create the AI dubbed Ultron with the help of the Mind Stone in Loki's scepter.

Determining that human beings are the problem with the Earth, Ultron tries to destroy the world with the help of the Strucker children, Wanda and Pietro. The Avengers show up to stop him, of course, but Wanda unleashes another one of her telepathic attacks against nearly the entire team, which leads to the Hulk going on a rampage that only Tony and his Hulkbuster armor can stop. After that, it all comes to a head in the fictional country of Sokovia, as Tony builds Vision, yet another artificial intelligence, using the Mind Stone and his J.A.R.V.I.S. program as a personality matrix. Together, the Avengers and Vision save the day, Ultron is blown up, and Tony quits the team at the end of the film.

Coming to blows with Captain America in Captain America: Civil War

While the Avengers are doing their business, Tony's trying to cultivate a new breed of entrepreneurs by paying off the tuition costs of every single MIT student in 2016's Captain America: Civil War. His generosity comes under a dark cloud, though, when he runs into Miriam, the mother of a man who died in Sokovia during the Ultron event. She reads Tony the riot act about his lack of responsibility, and when General Ross later shows up to suggest that the Avengers come under the official purview of the United Nations, Tony supports it. Steve Rogers, however, is very much against the Sokovia Accords, and the two men struggle to reconcile their differences.

Bucky, the Winter Soldier, is freed from custody by Helmut Zemo as part of an extremely complicated plan to avenge the death of Zemo's own family in Sokovia. Steve gathers a team to help Bucky evade capture, while Tony gets his own team together, consisting of Black Widow, War Machine, Vision, Black Panther, and Spider-Man. A scuffle with Steve's team at the airport turns serious when War Machine is crippled by an errant blast from the Vision, which sends Tony into serious mode. He arrests Steve's team — minus Bucky and Cap, who've escaped — sends his own team home, and pursues Cap and Bucky to Siberia alone. Zemo's plan comes to a head when Tony discovers that his parents actually died at Bucky's hand rather than in an automobile accident. After a brutal battle, Cap and Bucky escape, minus Cap's shield, but Cap gives Tony a cell phone with his number on it if a time comes that they ever need to reunite against a greater threat.

Moving boxes in Spider-Man: Homecoming

Two months after the events of Captain America: Civil War, Tony's biggest headache is fending off Peter Parker's desire for his mentorship. Peter's increasingly desperate to get Tony's attention once the younger hero discovers that the Vulture, a weapons-dealing supervillain, has been selling high-tech weaponry he scavenged from the wreckage of the Chitauri invasion. Iron Man bails Spider-Man out twice, first with the help of a remote-controlled drone, and the second time in person, trying to convince Peter to slow down and be a local hero before looking to join the Avengers. After the second time, when Iron Man's intervention is the only thing that keeps the Staten Island ferry from sinking, Tony confiscates the high-tech suit he'd given Peter.

Even without the suit, Peter can't help but be a hero, and he ultimately stops the Vulture from stealing a shipment of Stark tech. As a reward, Tony gives Peter the offer he's been begging for: a chance to join the Avengers and get a brand new Iron suit. Peter surprisingly turns him down, and Tony, looking for a way to distract the reporters from an announcement that's suddenly no longer happening, proposes to Pepper Potts.

Going to Infinity War and beyond

When Avengers: Infinity War begins, Tony is happily married to Pepper and having dreams of what their child might be. Their happy reverie is interrupted when Doctor Strange arrives to request Tony's help in repelling the invasion of Thanos' Black Order, who have come to Earth in search of the Infinity Stones that Thanos needs to wipe out half of the universe. Strange and his Time Stone are kidnapped by Thanos' henchman Ebony Maw; Tony Stark and Spider-Man, newly decked out in his Iron Spider outfit, hitch a ride on Maw's spaceship.

After freeing Strange and blasting Maw into space, Tony, Peter, and Doctor Strange head to the planet Titan to prep for Thanos' pursuit. There, they run into Guardians of the Galaxy members Peter Quill, Drax, Mantis, and Nebula. A plan is hatched... and then Thanos arrives to turn that careful plan into ashes. With the rest of his allies down, Tony uses the full force of his nano-technology-powered suit to draw a single drop of blood from Thanos before the Mad Titan stabs him through the abdomen with Tony's own sword. Doctor Strange gives up the Time Stone to save Tony's life, leaving Thanos to quickly complete his Infinity Gauntlet and snap half the universe into non-existence. Tony survives, but Peter Parker turns to dust in his arms, and only he and Nebula are left alive on Titan, seemingly with no way home.

The death of Tony Stark

After Thanos' devastating victory, Nebula and Tony leave Titan in Quill's ship the Benatar, but they don't have the supplies or the fuel to actually make it all the way back to Earth. Carol Danvers, a.k.a. Captain Marvel, intercepts their ship and gives them a lift home. Once he arrives, Tony realizes that his 50/50 odds of everyone in his life surviving came out pretty well: Pepper, Happy, and Rhodey all survived the Snap. For the next five years, the only thing on Tony's mind is building a life for himself, Pepper, and their infant daughter Morgan, as Tony finally manages to retire the way he kept promising he would. Or at least he retires until Scott Lang reappears from the Quantum Realm with a theory that they could go back in time and save everyone who died because of Thanos.

After some hemming and hawing, Tony builds a working time machine model, rejoins the Avengers, returns Cap's shield, and organizes a strike team of the surviving Avengers to go back in time to retrieve the Infinity Stones and build a new gauntlet before Thanos destroys them in the present. The mission goes smoothly, and Tony even gets a chance to have a heart-to-heart with his dad in the past. From there, all it takes is one snap of Hulk's mighty fingers to bring everyone back. However, a past version of Thanos battles his way to the future, and only Tony Stark, by sacrificing his life to use a new Infinity Gauntlet, can finally get rid of him.

The legacy of Tony Stark

Tony Stark dies to erase Thanos and his world-conquering army from the past, finally making good on Ho Yinsen's plea that he not waste his own life. He dies, and the rest of the MCU lives (mostly). But just because Tony Stark dies doesn't mean that his story dies with him; Tony leaves three extremely qualified members of the next generation to succeed him. His daughter, Morgan Stark, takes after him in a number of ways, and a genius-level intellect seems to run in the family. His young mentee, Peter Parker, grew up with a hero worship of Tony Stark and spends most of Spider-Man: Far from Home trying to live up to the legend of Iron Man. Finally, Harley Keener, the young boy that Tony related to in Iron Man 3, appears at Tony's funeral, signifying that the Marvel Cinematic Universe hasn't forgotten Tony's first young protégé.

Even before the next generation are able to take on the weight of the legacy he leaves them, Rhodey and Pepper both have high-tech battle suits and a knack for doing the right thing. Just because Robert Downey Jr. is done with the role for the foreseeable future doesn't mean that the legacy of Iron Man won't continue to reverberate throughout the MCU going forward.