While Iron Man 3 represents the first chapter in Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, picking up from where last summer’s The Avengers left off, it also marks the last film on Robert Downey Jr.’s contract with the studio. It may be a while before Disney and RDJ announce a deal but you can rest assured, one is coming.

Tony Stark is integral to the future of the franchise and Disney knows full well that Robert Downey Jr. is to Tony Stark and The Avengers what Johnny Depp is to Jack Sparrow and Pirates of the Caribbean. He’s quite literally the face of the franchise, and responsible for helping launch it with the original Iron Man in 2008.

Iron Man kicked off Phase One and five years later, Iron Man 3 is set to launch Phase Two. For Phase Three however, a new character in Ant-Man will lead as the first Phase Three film, but that doesn’t mean Iron Man 4 can’t fit in there somewhere along with Doctor Strange after The Avengers 2. And when that happens, count on Robert Downey Jr. starring.

Due to the nature of the franchise where the studio, media and fans look so far ahead, the topic of re-signing with the studio or having Stark recast continues to be raised in interviews with Robert Downey Jr., director Shane Black, President Kevin Feige and others involved with the production. “Tony’s going to carry on. Avengers 2 already has a release date,” says Feige about the future of the character.

In an interview with French magazine Premiere, Shane Black talked about the approach to tackling the third part of a trilogy and what it means for the future of the series and character arc.

“It is always complicated to deal with a third part. Your job is first to answer this question: what remains to tell this story? The challenge is that your film is not just a new episode of the adventures of Iron Man, but the continuation of something, a new chapter had to be told. This is the problem that I had felt with  Lethal Weapon 3 and 4. Happened in the fourth, one felt they had nothing to tell. The film was more like an episode of TV series. I have the feeling that the story that we have developed for Iron Man 3 actually concluded a trilogy. While leaving the door open to a fourth…”

With Downey’s contract over, would he do Iron Man 4? Roughly translated via Google, Black seems optimistic:

“There has been a lot of discussion about it: ‘Is this the last Iron Man for Robert?’ Something tells me that it will not be the case, and will be seen in a fourth, or fifth … But I can be a little excited…”

Robert Downey Jr. has joked an teased about how good of a position he and his agent are from a negotiations standpoint, how he loves the character, and appreciates what the fans want from him. A new contract would likely see more space in between starring appearances so RDJ can pursue other work, but include him in Avengers sequels. If Iron Man 4 is in the cards, it won’t be a for a while.

The trick is to do something new, keeping the stories unique and fresh. Iron Man 3 does that by reinventing the character, blending the line between “man and machine” as the official synopsis points out, thanks the Extremis virus he is injected with, granting him new abilities. He also leads his own small army of Iron Man suits, the Iron Legion, and if rumors, concept art and toy descriptions describing a space suit are of any indication, Stark my find himself flying into space and meeting the Guardians of the Galaxy.

Follow Rob on Twitter @rob_keyes and let him know if you want RDJ to sign for Iron Man 4!

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

Iron Man 3 releases May 3, 2013, Thor: The Dark World on November 8, 2013, Captain America: The Winter Soldier on April 4, 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy on August 1, 2014The Avengers 2 on May 1, 2015 and Ant-Man on November 6, 2015.

Source: Premiere (via CBM)