Robert Downey Jr. has become synonymous with Marvel hero Iron Man (A.K.A. Tony Stark) ever since the character’s first big screen appearance in 2008. The hero has since evolved into the most bankable and recognizable character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, Downey’s contract with Marvel Studios expires after the upcoming Iron Man 3, leaving his continued involvement in the role up in the air.

Previously, Downey said that he would be hesitant to turn his back on the character. Of course, that statement was predicated on the continued high quality and warm audience reception to Marvel’s cinematic efforts, and after The Avengers, audience goodwill is surely at an all-time high for the studio’s second slate of films.

Now, in an interview with Empire (via Comic Book Movie), Downey has again responded to the possibility that he may eventually hang up his metallic hat:

“Let’s just say that the only thing I ever let go of had claw marks in it. There’s a little bit of soul reclamation going on. I feel that the first time I played Tony, I did it best. Sorry! The affinity with Tony now is: How do you sustain something? I’m not stupid, I like to play ball, I love the company, I love the character, and the business side of things, I’m not too picky about that either.”

Funny that Downey should mention the business side of things. The billion-dollar success of The Avengers gives him tremendous leverage in renegotiating his contract, should he choose to do so. However, he does seem far more at ease with the idea of letting someone else step into Stark’s shoes than in previous comments.

“[Recasting] would probably be the best thing in the world for me. You know, ego…but sometimes ego just has to be smashed. Let’s see what happens. I take the audience very seriously – I feel bad when I see folks doing movies and the audience is like, ‘Don’t do that anymore.’ I don’t have to overstay my welcome…”

If the actor bows out, Marvel would likely go the recasting route as the studio seems intent on keeping Stark around for a good long while (or at least through The Avengers 2). Kevin Feige had this to say about the character’s involvement in Phase Two:

“Tony’s going to carry on. ‘Avengers 2′ already has a release date!”

Audiences have thus far responded overwhelmingly well to Downey’s take on Tony Stark, and it could be argued that the actor is largely responsible for the success of Iron Man. So it’s largely in Marvel’s best interest to keep him onboard for as long as possible. We expect Downey to at least appear throughout Phase Two (potentially helping to kick off the cosmic side of things in Guardians of the Galaxy).

However, if he does decide to part ways with Marvel, who would you like to see step into the role? Let us know in the comments.

Iron Man 3 is directed by Shane Black, from his and Drew Pearce’s screenplay. It stars Robert Downey Jr., Ben Kingsley, Don Cheadle, Gwyneth Paltrow, Guy Pearce, Jon Favreau, Rebecca Hall, William Sadler, James Badge Dale and the voice of Paul Bettany.

Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe begins when Iron Man 3 releases May 3rd, 2013, followed by Thor: The Dark World on November 8th, 2013, Captain America: The Winter Soldier on April 4th, 2014, and Guardians of the Galaxy on August 1st, 2014. It concludes with The Avengers 2 on May 1st, 2015.

Source: Empire [via Comic Book Movie]