On A Tangent

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Howard Stark: Genius, Billionaire, Playboy… Narcissist?

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Welcome back to Marvel Mondays, where Leah gushes about all things Peggy Carter and contemplates cutting her hair so as to better cosplay our favorite leading lady.

This week on Agent Carter was less action and more exposition, giving us a little breather after the shocker that came at the end of last episode.  Tuesday’s episode also saw the return of Howard Stark, genius, billionaire, and everyone’s favorite scoundrel.

“”And what does it say now?” asked Arthur. “Mostly harmless,” admitted Ford with a slightly embarrassed cough.” – Douglas Adams, HHGTTG

…well, perhaps not everyone’s favorite.  Howard Stark is a pretty polarizing character, even in the fictional Marvel world.  Today’s review is going to dissect what we saw of Howard, look at Peggy’s fantastic upbraiding of him, and take a guess at why it is that many viewers — and Peggy herself — just can’t bring themselves to dislike Howard, despite all his faults.

When we last saw Howard Stark, he was having a suspicious conversation with Jarvis about pulling Peggy into his schemes.  This episode reveals the motivation behind that conversation.  Where we might have assumed something sinister, the answer here is, in fact, the most obvious. Howard, as usual, is out for his own ends.  In short, Peggy has been employed for the purpose of keeping tabs on his gadgets, to the point that she actively has to steal from the SSR. And boy, is she mad when she figures out what Howard is up to.  Rightly so, because Howard has been deliberately manipulating her to save his own neck, and in the process has put her job, her status at the boarding house, and her life on the line. By the time we discover all this, I think most viewers are wanting to punch Howard Stark as much as Peggy does.

Our opinions of Howard Stark are also troubled by the Marvel Universe at large. I’m no comics buff, but I know from the commentary I’ve read that Howard Stark is at best a cold father to Tony, and at worst, an alcoholic.  Even the glimpses of him we’ve gotten from the Iron Man films do not paint Howard in a flattering light.  Tony feels estranged from his father, considering himself unable to live up to the expectations that Howard had for him.

But the Howard we see here is not yet the Howard of the Iron Man trilogy, nor is he a completely heartless monster, despite his many faults.  Though he does not trust Peggy with the full knowledge of his actual mission, he still believes in her capability.  If nothing else, Howard Stark is a man who recognizes Peggy’s competence and intelligence where her colleagues readily dismiss her.  He is also, arguably, a man who really does want to see a world made better through his innovations.  While Peggy accuses him of only being in it for the money — which is not entirely untrue — there is also good reason to suppose that Howard isn’t just concerned about profit.  His defense of preserving Steve’s blood is surprisingly sincere, and leaves us as viewers to debate the truth of his claims.  It is likely that Steve does mean as much to Howard as he did to Peggy. But, then again, it doesn’t cover up for the fact that he is still, at the core, self-interested. And as Peggy rightly points out, he should not be able to get away with using people for his own ends. Their fight produced my favorite quote from the episode, as Peggy refutes Howard’s attempt to justify himself through her vehement reaction: “You don’t get to use my reaction to your lies as a reason for your lies.”  Howard still has a lot to learn about trust and culpability, and sometimes the art of persuasion isn’t going to be enough to save him.

So which one is Howard Stark: a narcissistic liar, out for himself, or a genius inventor who truly does want to better the world? Or a mix of the two, struggling to overcome his own faults to reach his full potential? It is ultimately up to us as the viewers to decide.

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