The 22-film three-phase Marvel Avengers franchise has become one of the biggest cultural phenomena of modern cinema. Over the last few months, we’ve been charting how the traits of the various characters would translate into a contemporary business.
Fittingly, that series concludes with the final film in the sequence: the billion-dollar box office event that was Avengers: Endgame.
(And since you’ve now had six weeks to see the movie, expect some massive spoilers in this article!)
Tony Stark – CEO
Eleven years ago, the chief executive of a multi-billion-dollar business empire faced the world’s press and, in four monosyllables comprising just ten letters in total, identified himself as the most adored celebrity the world had ever known.
In late April 2019, knowing deep down that what came next would end in his death, he uttered those same four words to more than 100 million people, and in doing so completed his transformation from self-absorbed maverick billionaire playboy to an inspirational emblem of hope to whom the world could, and doubtless will, build monuments.
I am Iron Man.
They may have been the same on both occasions, but their meaning could not have been more different.
When Tony Stark reveals at the end of Iron Man that he is, indeed, the super-cool armoured guardian of humanity whose bravura is captured for eternity on news cameras around the world, he does so out of pure vanity.
He declares his dual identity because he craves recognition and cannot bear to be denied the adulation and feted superiority that come with it. It’s an admission born not of necessity, but of vainglory: self-seeking, self-serving, self-indulgent.
All the things, in fact, that the 2008 version of Tony espouses best.
When he repeats those four words as he faces down Thanos in a final, fatal showdown to determine the destiny of half the world’s population, they come from a place of self-recognition and acceptance, and convey a sense of redemption.
From his initial showdown with Obadiah Stane, through the crushing events of Sokovia, the battle with Ultron, open civil war with Steve Rogers and the first defeat by Thanos in Infinity War, the last words we hear from Tony Stark are those of a man who has finally come to understand the value of teamwork and the responsibility of leadership.
Here is a man with a far greater purpose than the simple self-preservation that previously defined him, and he is content because of it. A man who is, finally, heartbreakingly able to be the hero he always wanted to be.
“Bring back what we lost,” he tells Rogers when he agrees to join the attempt to reverse the Thanos snap. “Keep what I found. At all cost.”
And we learn, as he knew, that the personal cost to Tony Stark of achieving that end is unimaginably terrible.
But then, saving the universe and half of humanity is a serious business that requires an extraordinary boardroom, and, like all businesses, world preservation requires those board members to find a way of integrating and balancing a wide and often explosive array of talent.
It’s about matching yin with yang, checks with balances, creativity with caution and power with guile. Given the strength – both literally and figuratively – of the characters who sit around the big table at S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, how, then, does the Avengers boardroom stack up?
Steve Rogers – Chairman of the Board
If Stark is the CEO, then Rogers, surely, is the wise old head in the big chair who brings context and consideration, planning and strategy. He knows how things were done in the old days because he was there, and he knows how things are done now, because, well, he’s still here now.
We talked at length about Steve Rogers’ singular attributes in our previous blog Captain America: Old Style Values in a New World but by the time we get to the business end of Endgame, he’s also been on a journey of personal discovery defined by grief and loss.
Five years after the Thanos snap, he’s looser and goosier. Adaptable and versatile, the prospect of Steve Rogers completely morphing from his buttoned-up by-the-book persona into a loose cannon is still unthinkable, but the morally uptight Cap who never cussed and always had a plan has all but disappeared.
In his place stands a man prepared to work on the fly – ‘Let’s go get this sonofabitch’ – as long as the broad risk-benefit calculation tallies the right way.
After the spitting anger and resentment between them that casts a long shadow over Stark’s return from where Infinity War left him – near death and drifting in space with Nebula – Rogers and Tony hand-off the hands-on leadership role to one another throughout Endgame, each acknowledging when the other brings more to the party.
This, then, is how they have both learned to co-exist and to find a way of leading the Avengers that transcends the individual in the interests of the bigger picture.
Businesses that have a CEO-Chairman relationship that works like this always have a much better chance of success.
Natasha Romanov – Chief People Officer
For a stone-cold assassin of some talent, Black Widow would seem to be an odd choice for a people role. Yet she is the unifier and peacemaker in the Avengers boardroom, finding consensus in conflict and solutions in chaos.
Without her, you get the sense the whole shooting match could and probably would dissolve into an ill-tempered soup at any moment.
As in all boardrooms, disagreement and dispute are only ever lurking around the corner of a misplaced word or controversial strategy. In many businesses this is highly divisive and potentially toxic: conflicting agendas lead to inertia and long-lasting resentment.
Romanov is the go-between. She may be lethal with her fists and feet, but it’s her soft pragmatism that often wins the day in tense situations as she takes on the role of human buffer between characters who would otherwise seek only to dominate.
Bruce Banner – Chief Technical Officer
For the whole of the story arc, Banner has been fighting his own internal war, desperately trying to rid himself of the Big Guy who resides within. Until now.
In Endgame, Banner has found inner peace and an acceptance of self by learning to co-exist with his terrible alter ego and channel that monster’s rage into something greater than he could be on his own. And with that comes purpose and a willingness to innovate.
The Banner we’ve come to know and love through the past decade has always been risk averse, always more likely to find a reason not to do something that could end in failure, even when the exponential benefit of success could be extraordinary.
That can be wearying in a team that needs to find creative solutions to big problems. But the five years that span the time between Stark’s return to Earth and the final battle have given us a more rounded and circumspect Banner.
“First Hulk lost, then Banner lost. Then we all lost,” he says of the Thanos snap. In that context, suddenly the downside of building a time machine that might not work – something the old Banner would have surely considered too risky – doesn’t seem like such a big risk after all – and an innovator in the room will always give a team forward momentum.
Thor – (former) Chief Security Officer
The truth is, the Thor we meet in Endgame is so emotionally broken, having discovered he is no longer the most powerful being in the universe and having lost everything as a result, that he’d be on enforced compassionate leave from any right-thinking modern boardroom.
In failing to go for the head when he had the chance, he blames himself for Thanos’ triumph. Even the satisfaction of taking Thanos’ head when given a second opportunity offers no salvation or redemption, because all that was lost is still lost.
This proves to be the final straw that buries him in a pit of self-loathing and self-pity, adrift in a grief so profound that his mental health is as brittle as parchment.
But in a fashion we have come to expect from Steve Rogers and his fellow Avengers, that military saw that ‘no man gets left behind’ means Thor will have his chance for redemption in the past (and, in the process, discover who he is rather than who he is supposed to be).
Ultimately, though, Thor’s time in this particular organisation is done and he’s moving on to a senior role in pastures new – pastures where the relationship between the top two dogs may not be quite as clear as it finally became for Cap and Iron Man.
All of which is as it should be. The events of Endgame mean a boardroom shuffle is necessary. There are three places up for grabs and there are no clear candidates to take them. Let battle commence!