'Captain America: Civil War': The Mystery Behind the Movie's Surprise Reveal

An important piece of Marvel history was revealed in the new 'Captain America' movie, but does it match up with the comic book source material? (Spoiler: No.)
Courtesy of Dale Eaglesham/Marvel Entertainment

Captain America: Civil War didn't just push Marvel's Cinematic Universe into unfamiliar new directions and introduce new characters — it also solved a mystery that many obsessives might have been asking about for some time, even if they didn't expect an answer anytime soon: What did happen to Howard Stark? Spoilers for Civil War to follow.

The character has been more of a presence in Marvel's movies and TV shows than he is in the comic books, showing up in period pieces Captain America: The First Avenger and Agent Carter, and in flashback or archive footage in Iron Man 2 and Ant-Man. He is, in movie mythology, someone who's critically important to the creation of both Captain America and SHIELD as a whole, as well as eventually inspiring his son to become both a genius inventor and a superhero.

It's no surprise, then, that his death was the result was nefarious shenanigans. Indeed, it turns out to be the result of the somewhat credibility-straining coincidence that Howard was killed by the mind-controlled best friend of his son's future crime fighting teammate at the command of a spy organization that his son will go on to fight decades in the future. (Look, giant green monsters, inter dimensional beings and alien invasions are one thing, but I draw the line at unlikely coincidences, okay?)

This connection between Tony Stark and Bucky Barnes is a new development, created specifically for the movies; in the original comic books, Stark Snr.'s death is more vague in terms of cause, but no less embroiled in larger mythology matters — and the legacy he left behind even more tangled than anything on offer in the Cinematic Universe just yet.

Let's start with the basics: according to 1993's Iron Man Vol. 1 No. 288, Howard and Maria Stark died in a car accident that would later inspire Tony Stark to become the inventor and businessman that audiences would come to love. The faulty brakes that were responsible for the accident were reworked by Tony, and the car manufacturer purchased by his company, to prevent any future deaths — a curious start for an arms manufacturer, but origin stories rarely make sense.

In later stories, it would be suggested that the accident was, in fact, no accident. 1998's Iron Man: The Iron Age posited that Howard and Maria were killed by agents of what would become Roxxon Oil, a corporation that would go on to cause trouble for the Avengers and other Marvel superheroes in later years, while 2001's Citizen V and the V Battalion No. 1 would suggest that a group of WWII vets called the V Battalion were somehow involved.

Adding a further wrinkle to the situation, 2010's SHIELD No. 10 featured a scene in which Howard Stark told a fellow agent in the "Brotherhood of the Shield" that his death would be faked to explain his disappearance on Shield business. This, however, would seem to be at odds with the fact that a body was found, and that Maria was also seemingly killed in the accident. Unless, of course, that too was part of the faux accident, and both of the senior Starks are out there still…

If the idea of Howard leaving his son alone in the world after falsifying their own deaths seems somewhat out of character, it probably shouldn't; in addition to the character's comic book connections to both SHIELD and the origin of Captain America — oh, and secretly working with a man tasked with keeping the universe safe from cosmic threats — Howard Stark had one last secret to be revealed from beyond the — potentially fake — grave: his son with Maria was "designed" in utero with extra-terrestrial input and implanted alien technology that transformed him into a great genius… oh, and that son wasn't Tony Stark.

Instead, the previously unrevealed brother to Iron Man was Arno Stark, hidden from the world since his birth. Tony Stark, it turned out, had actually been adopted by the couple following Arno's birth, a secret that had remained unknown to him for almost his entire adult life. (All of this was revealed in the 2013 storyline "The Secret Origin of Tony Stark," which ran in Iron Man Vol. 5 Nos. 9-17.) If he could allow others to implant technology he didn't understand in his unborn child — whom he then placed in hiding, before replacing him with an adopted child who he lied to for years — suddenly the idea of simply faking his death and abandoning his family doesn't seem so unthinkable.

But does that mean there's a possibility that the comic book Howard Stark is actually alive out there? By this point, he'd be pretty old… but no older than Steve Rogers, who's still running around and fighting crime. In a world where Marvel already has three separate comics featuring Iron Man in a starring role on a regular basis (Invincible Iron Man, International Iron Man and All-New All-Different Avengers), is it really that difficult to imagine an Iron Man, Snr. comic book at some point in the future…?

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