I have been revisiting old MCU movies and realised that on several occasions Tony refuses to accept things that people are handing to him.

  • While purchasing strawberries for Pepper he paid with his watch and asked the man to put them in the car seat.

    Tony sits in his car pulled up at a strawberry stand at the side of the road, the man reaches across with the basket of strawberries

  • When Agent Coulson tries to hand him a file for the Tesseract, he refuses and Pepper has to hand it to him, etc.

    Coulson offers a file to Stark who is rejecting it, Pepper stands to Stark's side ready to take it for him

  • As pointed out in the comments, here is another instance. Marshal is giving him a summon, which in turn is also taken by Happy.

    The Marshal's arm leans into the car and across Tony who is driving to Happy who is reaching up to grab the summons

Given Stark's IQ it feels like there must be a reason for this unusual quirk. Is there any mention of this in any MCU comic or movie that I missed?


4 Answers 4


Tony Stark, the original comics character, was originally based on Howard Hughes. As such his being a germaphobe backed up from this deleted scene for Iron Man where Pepper follows him around giving him hand sanitiser makes sense.

Interviewer: So, Iron Man, where does he come from?

Stan Lee: At the time I (laughs) at the time we did Iron Man I was really feeling a little cocky, I'm a little ashamed of myself, but it was in a time in the war and young people throughout the country hated war, they hated the military, industrial complex, hated everything and rightfully so.

So, I said I'm going to come up with a character who represents everything everybody hates and I'm going to shove it down their throats. You know I was younger then and what do you know when your younger? So I decided to come up with a guy who actually manufactures armaments, he's a multi-millionaire, I fashioned him a little bit after Howard Hughes. And I fashioned him a little bit after me also, he was irresistible to women, you know, the usual. No but I wanted him to be very wealthy and of course like every Marvel hero he had to have an Achilles' heel.

So I figured we'd give him a weak heart, that sounds bright, nobody had a weak heart at the moment. And I had to find a reason for the weak heart so we sent him over seas to where they're having a war and he gets something, a shell stuck in his heart and he needs iron armour to keep his heart beating, you probably already know the story.

The film version was then also further based on Elon Musk as Jon Favreau states in this piece he wrote for Time.

Elon Musk makes no sense — and that's the reason I know him. When I was trying to bring the character of genius billionaire Tony Stark to the big screen in Iron Man, I had no idea how to make him seem real. Robert Downey Jr. said, "We need to sit down with Elon Musk." He was right.

Time, Elon Musk By Jon Favreau

There are lots of theories that this has come about after the events at the start of Iron Man and him having his eyes opened to what his weapons are used for. However, I don't really think that's true. We only really see this pet peeve of his a few times throughout the series, if I'm remembering correctly, and they can all be explained away without having to delve into his psychological state.

  • In Iron Man 3 he refuses to take the business cards from Aldrich Killian.

    He's still very much at the height of his playboy billionaire lifestyle where it's all about partying. A strange man, who would be odd to most, has just gotten into a lift with him accosting them and shoving their ideas on him. Tony is being a jerk and has already dismissed him. He doesn't take the card, not because of a peeve but because he doesn't want to give credit to this man.

    Of course this is also likely the hundredth time this has happened today. As an extremely rich man who is also one of the most famous inventors everyone would want to talk his ear off with their new idea that will revolutionise the world. You soon learn that most of the time these inventions just aren't worth the time of day and so it is better to ignore them.

  • In Iron Man 2 he refuses to take the summons from the Marshal.

    She's giving him a summons to a court hearing about him handing over his suit. He thinks this is a ridiculous thing to even have to think about never mind attend. Using the "doesn't like to be handed things" excuse is a way to avoid taking the summons and so ignore what is happening. Just look at his entire attitude in the court hearing, he's playing it all off as ridiculous because he knows it is; a sham to get him to give up his tech.

  • In Iron Man 2 with getting the man to put the strawberries on the seat for him.

    This is the only one that isn't directly clear. However, I think this ties into the main reason for all of this, he's a billionaire and a celebrity. It's just a way of keeping control and staying above others which he loves to do throughout the MCU. It also could be a small eccentric quirk but with all the other things we see him do with the girls and the partying, that goes against this somewhat.

  • In The Avengers he refuses to take the file from Coulson.

    Again this is a bit of a control thing, he doesn't want to be interrupted at the moment with Pepper. They are celebrating, he's enjoying himself, he just doesn't want to ruin the moment with work. When Coulson rings he uses the "Life model decoy" thing as a way to ignore it, albeit unsuccessfully. Pepper takes it off of Coulson because she thinks Tony is being daft and that he should look over the file as soon as possible.

There doesn't appear to be any greater meaning to this into his psychology and what he saw in Afghanistan. Sure that set him on the straight and narrow but it doesn't appear to have influenced his "handing him things peeve". Every case we see this happen can be explained away under the circumstances that it happens in. Or it's just a general don't hand me things because it comes with obligations attached like with Aldrich. This happens so much that it eventually bleeds into everyday life as well, easier to ignore being handed everything than be selective, that just gives people the chance to slip things in with what you do hand them.

I also want to point out the point made in Flater's comment. I tried to make this point myself on the Strawberry Man point but I didn't explain it well. His comment explains it better than I can though:

Also note Tony's inherently dominant personality, which is often verbal (interrupting, wisecracking, being willfully obtuse, taking the spotlight), but is in principle no different from how he approaches physical interaction: on his terms and no other way.

  • 5
    I thought in the first Iron Man film he said to Rhodey that he didn't like to be handed things when Rhodey is trying to give him the award at the craps table? That would clearly prove he had the peeve prior to going to Iraq.
    – Skooba
    Aug 26, 2020 at 19:47
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    Also note Tony's inherently dominant personality, which is often verbal (interrupting, wisecracking, being willfully obtuse, taking the spotlight), but is in principle no different from how he approaches physical interaction: on his terms and no other way.
    – Flater
    Aug 26, 2020 at 20:06
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    This is not a peeve. It's an eccentricity - an eccentric thing an eccentric person does. A peeve is something that bothers you - like people using the wrong is a pet peeve of mine.
    – JRE
    Aug 27, 2020 at 8:58
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    @JRE Tony calls it a peeve, I'm just using the same terminology as him.
    – TheLethalCarrot
    Aug 27, 2020 at 9:02
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    The germaphobia of Hughes is shown in The Aviator. I would mention the following: Hughes suffered severe injuries in at least one plane crash (Beverly Hills 1946) that may have exacerbated his strange behavior, in particular, this germaphobia. I would also mention that I have second-hand heard (from someone who says he met him) that Hughes was a nicer guy than books would have you believe and why would female movie stars hang around with a jerk given that they were in such demand themselves.
    – releseabe
    May 18, 2021 at 20:08

An out of universe explanation would be that Marvel wanted to draw parallels with Howard Hughes. Both were incredibly smart inventors and rich eccentric personalities. Howard Hughes also had an extreme fear of contamination (would not touch doorknobs, etc.).

I think the original plan was to make this a more prominent feature of Tony Stark, but was ultimately overshadowed by other character traits.

(Also: Tony's father is also coincidentally named Howard...)

Comments asked for source, even though it was just my imagination. But I started googling, and... what do you know? Apparently Stan Lee has confirmed that Howard Hughes was indeed the inspiration for Tony Stark:

Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee has stated that Tony Stark was based on Hughes.

Source1 Source2

  • 2
    For this to be true you'd have to check with Stan Lee's motivations from the comics as the names and also a lot of the personality traits carry over I think. It wouldn't be specific to the MCU. However, I would love to see sources on this rather than idle speculation if you could find some and edit them into your answer to back it up.
    – TheLethalCarrot
    Aug 27, 2020 at 8:37
  • @TheLethalCarrot Like I said in the answer: it is not based on any sources. It's just something that I've always thought: that it appears that the makers of Iron Man tried to mimic HH's personality from the movie The Aviator. At least partially.
    – Opifex
    Aug 27, 2020 at 8:46
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    Welcome to SF&F @Opifex. It would be useful if you could add some sources. Unfortunately, guessed answers will definitely be closed/deleted :(
    – Shreedhar
    Aug 27, 2020 at 8:46
  • I am not saying this is wrong or right, but a reliable source would make things easier
    – Arjun
    Aug 27, 2020 at 9:05
  • @TheLethalCarrot, Shreedar, Baba Yaga: even though it was just my gut feeling, apparently Stan Lee has repeatedly stated that Stark is based on Hughes. All makes sense. I feel it's kinda obvious now why Stark has a germ phobia and does not like to get things handed to him. Source added.
    – Opifex
    Aug 27, 2020 at 9:12

As someone who dislikes being handed things, I want to offer a perspective no else seems to have offered: accepting something implies a fundamental agreement to take an action.

First, I do want to acknowledge the germophobe theory that others mentioned above, in that Tony Stark's character was inspired by the real-life madman Howard Hughes. However, since the idea of germophobia has never been pushed much by Marvel (leaving people scratching their heads and asking questions like this), I wanted to offer a more personality-enmeshed explanation for a phenomenon that I understand very well.

Tony Stark is a fundamentally disagreeable person (as am I). Here I'm referencing the scientific psychological personality trait of "Agreeableness" in the Big 6 or "HEXACO" model created by modern psychology to measure individual tendencies compared to a theoretical average.

People who are highly disagreeable tend to be more interested in technology and making things happen in the world than in making themselves likeable. (This makes being a disagreeable woman super disadvantageous in this culture relative to Tony Stark, but I digress.)

What it means to be fundamentally disagreeable is to be deeply suspicious of social proof, decorum, and seemingly manipulative positivity. All of these are red flags to the low-Agreeableness personality who is more inclined to try to discard that information as low-quality data rather than automatically honor it and risk accepting something that isn't ultimately beneficial to the individual or to society.

Accepting an object from someone creates a debt, an obligation to do something with that object.

If someone succeeds at putting something into your hands, now it's your problem. You can solve that problem in many different ways, but if you're hyperfocused (as I usually am, and as Tony Stark always is) on something else, the chances are very high that you will do one of the following:

  • Try to hand it back to the person -- super annoying if you're fundamentally disagreeable, because that requires investing emotional energy if you don't want to piss that person off.
  • Take action on the object and risk losing momentum -- a real issue for neurodivergents (which, let's be real here, Tony Stark is some version of).
  • Put it down and forget about it (making it problem later-you has to solve, potentially amplified by the passage of time).

Due to the expectations of social niceties, most people would never consider simply refusing to accept a proffered item. That seems rude! Well, that is precisely the kind of idea that a fundamentally disagreeable person can easily consider all day long -- which makes us extremely good at finding novel strategic ways to navigate problems that many people will never consider.

From my perspective as a low-Agreeableness person, I often feel put-upon by people handing me things not just because it sets up an expectation that I should do something, but also that I should interrupt whatever I'm doing so as not to appear rude.

To me, there's nothing about the equation of being handed something that obligates me to take it. Don't hand me my tea; I left it on the table for a reason. Don't hand me a flyer; I'm clearly not interested. Don't open a sparkling water I definitely didn't ask for and then stand there expecting me to take it from you indefinitely. In each of these situations I will tell the person to place that object somewhere else. It's not my job to ferry objects around and interrupt what I'm doing just because you took it upon yourself to "be nice".

Is that rude? I disagree :). What's rude to me is the act of pushing a debt on someone, no matter how small, using social decorum as the means to trick me into it.

The personal lens here may seem excessive but it's meant to give more illumination of the thought process and rationalizations of a fairly quirky character with traits many people don't share.

  • 2
    All of this is not untrue, but is there any indication that this is why Tony Stark doesn't like being handed things?
    – Valorum
    Oct 13, 2023 at 22:04
  • 1
    @Valorum I had the same initial thought, but it does fit Tony Stark's character profile as portrayed in the MCU, and it gives some additional background information.
    – Joachim
    Oct 13, 2023 at 22:09
  • @Joachim - Sure, but if we're going to just guess, then why don't we invent a childhood trauma that makes him averse? Anything's possible if all we're doing is making up our own answers.
    – Valorum
    Oct 13, 2023 at 22:10
  • @Valorum I believe a case has been made here, however, albeit not a very strong one: the OP points out germophobia is not (really) addressed in the MCU (I can't attest to it, but can't remember anything of the sort), and, as mentioned, the profile they describe fits that of Tony (as it does the mad scientist trope). The personal side of it would definitely benefit from some culling, though. (And maybe this type of answer is less appreciated on SciFi & Fantasy SE?)
    – Joachim
    Oct 13, 2023 at 22:20
  • @Valorum Not all character traits arise from childhood trauma. Mine doesn't. To answer your objection more directly, though: this is fiction, not history -- I don't need to justify my interpretation purely through the lens of what the writer chose to explicity share with me. In fact I'd be missing out of the richness of fiction in doing so. Character traits "make sense" to us if an actor or writer portrays them in a way that "feels right" according to the patterns we know in society. This is what makes literature a valid form of social study.
    – nthmost
    Oct 14, 2023 at 0:45

My theory is that it comes from Afghanistan and his time working with Yinsen. Yinsen was his "assistant", he handed Tony things. And then he died and Tony feels guilty about it. PTSD makes him remember Yinsen every time someone hands him something.

  • 1
    Hi, welcome to the site. Is there any indication that this theory is consistent with what the filmmakers actually intended though? With questions like this, the aim should be to identity what the actual reason is -- i.e. the reason the filmmakers themselves had in mind -- rather than proposing theories which make sense on paper, but aren't consistent with the filmmakers' intent. Dec 21, 2021 at 19:25
  • 1
    Hi, welcome to SF&F. If what you're saying is true, then wouldn't it be worse to insist that an assistant (e.g. Pepper) handle things for him? Please provide some evidence that this is the case.
    – DavidW
    Dec 21, 2021 at 19:27

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