John Slattery portrays the older Howard Stark in the MCU and, while Dominic Cooper’s younger version has a larger role in the first Captain America than any movie where Slattery plays Howard, the veteran actor does appear in four films.
In the first Iron Man, only fleeting pictures of Howard Stark are glimpsed, so when video footage of Iron Man’s father becomes an important piece of the legacy angle in Iron Man 2, character actor John Slattery was brought in to illuminate Tony’s upbringing. After what seemed like a potential one-time assignment, Slattery would continue to pop up as Howard Stark at unexpected times and places.
Slattery is an even more aged Howard Stark in the Ant-Man prologue, where his character is still working at SHIELD with Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter. The two met during Captain America: The First Avenger, but the younger Howard in that film is played by Dominic Cooper. Howard goes from arguing with Hank Pym in Ant-Man to being the firm but caring family man in Captain America: Civil War’s flashbacks, secret tapes, and visual reimaginings. Tony uses Binarily Augmented Retro-Framing to recreate his last moments with his parents before they are killed by the Winter Soldier.
And then Tony’s relationship with his father comes full circle in Avengers: Endgame. He time travels to 1970 to nab the Tesseract when he bumps into Howard. No billion-dollar therapeutic technology can work as good as going back and spending time with your deceased father. In this sentimental sequence, Slattery elevates the paternal, loving side of Howard, even though his son is yet to be born and he doesn’t know who he is really talking to.
As Howard, Slattery exemplifies the Stark persona – he is a muffled version of the super-Stark, Tony. While that may sound undesirable, in this case, Slattery is perfectly compatible with encapsulating the Stark DNA while dialing down the largest personality in superhero history. Howard is brilliant, bold, brave, and somewhat egotistical, whereas Tony is a bombastic genius and is always the center of attention among the universe’s greatest heroes. Tony’s heroism is passed down from Howard as well, and Tony takes the hero gig to an extreme level.
Making sure to exude those qualities on a lower tier is a specific task that Slattery handles wonderfully. The casting team is to be applauded as well because both Robert Downey Jr. and John Slattery operate in their own sections of a kind of Venn diagram, with just some overlap between them. In a lot of ways, Robert Downey Jr. is the Iron Man/Tony Stark type and John Slattery is the Howard Stark/Roger Sterling type. Sterling was Slattery’s iconic role on Mad Men, where he played a hysterical, sarcastic, and suave businessman – kind of like if a Stark worked for a corporate advertising agency.
Slattery brings his distinctive big shot attitude to some of his other film roles too. In Clint Eastwood’s Flags of our Fathers, as a U.S. Treasurer, he convinces soldiers that war bonds are just as important as their other duties. In Spotlight, he plays deputy managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr. of the child abuse case in a small but important role overseeing the spotlight team. His character has an interesting connection to All the Presidents Men, where Ben Bradlee Sr. was played by Jason Robards; a more substantial role that won Robards an Oscar. Slattery is also an office man in Charlie Wilson’s War as a CIA director. He and Philip Seymour Hoffman get to hurl insults at each other in a few superbly acted scenes.
His most moving (and uncharacteristic) performance comes in a small independent drama called Bluebird. Slattery trades his suit and tie for worker boots and a pickup truck in a rural snow-covered town, where he struggles to keep a tragic accident from destroying his family.
John Slattery’s Top 5 Movie Roles
1. Richard in Bluebird
2. Director Cravely in Charlie Wilson’s War
3. Howard Stark in the MCU
4. Ben Bradlee Jr. in Spotlight
5. Bud Gerber in Flags of our Fathers
Despite being a character actor with few starring roles, Slattery has made his mark in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as well as on television shows. He recently shined in two Amazon Studios anthology series, The Romanoffs and Modern Love. In the film world, Howard Stark will remain as one of John Slattery’s top performances, mainly due to his surprising and memorable appearance in Avengers: Endgame.
After Iron Man 2, few would have bet that John Slattery would show up in three more films, so at this point, his future in the MCU is anyone’s guess.