Intermission: Iron Man social

Robert Downey Jr. may be leaving the Marvel universe, but is that really the end of Iron Man?

So Robert Downey Jr. says Iron Man 4 isn’t in the cards.

That’s to be expected, actually: Downey is already the highest paid actor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and once he’s checked the final two boxes on his original multi-film contract (largely expected to include Avengers: Age of Ultron and Avengers 3) they’d need to negotiate a new one — with the superstar actor now in a position to demand a lot more money for his work. Plus, with Guardians of the Galaxy — featuring a cast of characters even more unknown to mainstream audiences than Iron Man was before his first movie — having toppled Tony Stark as the studio’s biggest (non-Avengers) debut feature, it’s probable that Marvel is feeling more confident than ever that they (as in “The Marvel Brand”) have become a bigger draw than any one actor.

Granted, it’s possible that Marvel could simply find another actor to play Tony Stark going forward. But while that worked when swapping-out Edward Norton for Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk, it’s all but certain that audiences would be much more resistant to recasting a character who remains in the eyes of many the “flagship” hero of MCU. Plus, well… I’ve been saying for a while that I fully expect Age of Ultron to go for something resembling a “downer” or negatively game-changing ending (in keeping with the “Part 2 Is the Sad One” rule established by Star Wars) and killing-off (or incapacitating) the one-time Top Dog of the franchise would be one way to do that.

BUT! Whatever becomes (or doesn’t become) of Tony Stark, one thing is for certain: Marvel will want to keep the iconic Iron Man armor flying for as long as possible. And if Downey/Stark won’t be doing the honors, here’s a few scenarios from the comics that might allow that to happen:

PASS THE TORCH
In the original comics, James “Rhodey” Rhodes was actually Iron Man before he was War Machine. On two separate occasions, Rhodes donned the Iron Man armor in order to keep the crimefighting going when Stark was out of commission and/or presumed dead (in this period Stark’s identity was still a secret, with the official story being that Iron Man was his bodyguard). When Stark came back the second time, he gifted Rhodes a custom armor of his own and War Machine was born.

To my mind, this makes the most sense: Rhodes is already an established part of the MCU in the personage of Don Cheadle, and he’s set to appear in Age of Ultron as well. Going from “the other Iron Man” to the real deal could be a big onscreen moment for the character, and would add an interesting new dimension to the Avengers team-ups as the others adjust to an ally who’s new but also not.

IRON MAIDEN
As far as I’m concerned, Gwyneth Paltrow doesn’t get enough credit for how much she brings to the Iron Man movies and the first Avengers as Pepper Potts. She takes what should be a thankless role (Tony Stark’s stern but nurturing girlfriend) and makes it into a slyly funny counterpoint to Boys’ Club of oddities around her. We’ve already seen her wear and use Tony’s armor in Iron Man 3, so why not let her inherit the mantle? If nothing else, it’d be highly talked-about.

In the comics, Pepper has her own suit of armor and codename, “Rescue” — likely because there was already a villain named Iron Maiden. But if it were up to me, they’d let Pepper use it for the movies.

THE NEXT GENERATION
In the comics, teenaged superhero Iron Lad turned out to actually be the teenaged version of time-traveling supervillain Kang the Conqueror, come back to change his own future and prevent becoming evil.

Obviously, I don’t expect that convoluted setup to make it to the screen in this capacity, but a younger Iron Man? I’ve heard worse ideas. What’s that kid from Iron Man 3 up to?

EVIL TAKES OVER
That “Iron Patriot” identity James Rhodes takes up In Iron Man 3? It came from the comics.

As part of several storylines spinning out of the Secret Invasion event, the government disbanded the Avengers and handed control of the “franchise” over to businessman Norman Osborn (yes, as in The Green Goblin), who surmised that a “new” hero combining Iron Man and Captain America would be a symbolic coup for his new team — which was mainly comprised of other supervillains like himself, of course.

Sure, the Marvel Cinematic Universe can’t use Osborn, but why not keep the idea of a bad guy usurping the armor? It’d be unexpected, carry a lot of symbolic weight, and it might provided as good an excuse as any to get (just for one example) Sam Rockwell’s tragically-underused turn as Justin Hammer back into the series.

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Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.

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