Phase Two of the Marvel cinematic universe is about to kick-off with Iron Man 3 – meaning superhero fans are on the cusp of an interconnected set of film experiences unlike anything seen on the big screen before. In addition to Iron Man 3, 2013 will include Thor: The Dark World, then in 2014 Steve Rogers will return for Captain America: The Winter Solider and the studio will debut an entirely new set of heroes in Guardians of the Galaxy – all leading up to The Avengers 2 in 2015 (along with Edgar Wright’s highly-anticipated Ant-Man project).

Of course, along with titular characters, Marvel films often introduce important supporting players (such as Black Widow, Nick Fury, and War Machine) – a trend that we already know will continue in Phase Two. As a result, the Marvel stable of movie heroes is growing rapidly, causing some fans to wonder what the future might entail for some of the original cast members – especially franchise hype man Robert Downey Jr.

Downey has kept busy in his Marvel role since debuting in 2008 as Iron Man – churning out four Tony Stark starring roles in five years (not including his Incredible Hulk cameo). As a result, with no sign of Marvel reducing the amount of movies they intend to explore through their shared universe, industry insiders have begun to speculate on the in-demand star’s future interests. Tony Stark hasn’t prevented Downey from taking other projects (Sherlock Holmes, Due Date, etc) but it has, without question, significantly limited the number of non-Marvel films he can accept each year.

Now, in an interview with GQ, speaking about the injury he sustained on the Iron Man 3 set, Downey suggests he’s starting to wonder how many installments in the series he’ll headline – before the ride is no longer fun:

“[The injury] got me thinking about how big the message from your cosmic sponsor needs to be before you pick it up. How many genre movies can I do? How many follow-ups to a successful follow-up are actually fun? Because, as quiet as it’s kept, I come from a family of very innovative writers and directors and actors and artists, and the circle of friends they were in were the people I heard having pun-offs playing poker at two in the morning, and it was just the most comforting aspect of my childhood. So there’s this kind of legacy of souls from what I consider to be a very particular time in entertainment, and I’m sensing a return to that—it’s what me and the missus are doing next. It’s not unlike: I heard Brady signed on for three more years with New England, and then he’s done being a QB, because he’ll be 40. I’m 47, and I’ll be 50.”

After GQ posted their interview, the Internet responded with fans and insiders speculating that Downey may not have simply been waxing poetic – that he was actually hinting at walking away from Tony Stark after The Avengers 2.

First off, it’s important to note that the quote was framed by Downey talking about his injury – which led the actor to consider the strain of blockbuster movies and his aging body. Future Marvel productions could easily take precautions (more stunt doubles, CGI models, etc) to ensure that similar injuries don’t occur – whether the actor signs-on for two or twenty-two more Marvel films. Furthermore, as Downey ages, his role doesn’t have to be as physical – as the character could, down the road, spend less time in the Iron Man suit and more time advising and supporting younger Avengers heroes. For that reason, while the quote focuses heavily on Downey’s age and physical limitations, odd-are that, should the actor walk away from the Marvel universe, it will be because he’s burned out on the character.

Keep in mind, this isn’t the first time the actor has addressed questions about his future with the franchise and, looking at the bigger shared universe strategy, it’s much more likely that Downey isn’t going anywhere. Instead, as we’ve asserted numerous times on the Screen Rant Underground podcast, Marvel will utilize their steadily growing roster of characters to take some pressure off of the main Avengers – rotating them in and out as the series presses forward. This isn’t to say that the Phase Three Avengers team-up will only see Ant-Man, the Guardians of the Galaxy, and Doctor Strange together but, depending on cast member interest, it’s possible that Marvel might, for example, hold-off on Iron Man 4 until Phase Four – allowing Downey (in this case) a lengthy break.

After all, only one month ago at the Iron Man 3 press day, Downey told us that he would likely be back for The Avengers 2 (even though his four picture deal concludes with Iron Man 3) because he likes being a “company man.” The actor further added that there are still elements of the character that he wants to explore:

“There’s, to me, that kind of wish list or grab bag of things. ‘We haven’t been able to get this in the movie yet—maybe this time we’ll get to—!’ or whatever. I put so much onus on Iron Man 3. Iron Man 3 was supposed to answer all the questions for the audience, cure all of my uncomfortable moments in the past with playing this character, and get in every idea that fell by the wayside in the last three movies. And then we shot the movie and I still feel there’s a couple other things we’ve gotta do.”

Looking at the bigger picture, it’s pretty clear that Downey isn’t done with the character yet. Marvel Studios head, Kevin Feige has previously claimed that Marvel is prepared to recast key roles if necessary (a la James Bond) but everyone knows that wouldn’t be ideal – especially in the case of Tony Stark. Assuming Disney is willing to give the actor some time away from the Marvel universe, Downey could easily get excited about returning to Tony Stark for future installments – assuming they were a bit more spread out than the pre-Avengers movie slate. In fact, a year ago, Downey stated that as long as Marvel was cognizant of the series’ quality, he’d be interested in showing up for Iron Man adventures.

Rushing out an Iron Man movie every three years would be hard on the cast, franchise, and shared universe storyline and, at this point, it’s unlikely that Disney even intends to punch out Thor, Captain America, Hulk, and Iron Man movies in each “Phase” of the shared movie universe. Considering the amount of new (and less-grounded) characters that are on the horizon, Feige has stated that the filmmakers are keenly aware of franchise fatigue – as well as the dangers of over-saturating the market with too many superheroes.

Ultimately, Downey’s interest in non-Marvel projects may be a non-issue – allowing the actor to jump back into Iron Man armor at key moments (i.e. an inspired solo story or an Avengers team-up). The right amount of money will be a factor in any future Marvel movie appearance but with other actors taking key roles in the Marvel universe, Downey will have less responsibility on his shoulders. Should the actor be given more time for “artistic” personal projects, it’s easy to imagine that Disney will be able to work with Downey on acceptable compensation.

After all, while Marvel is notorious for low-balling potential cast members, Disney is known for rolling out dump trucks full of money for key stars – such as Johnny Depp who gets well-over $50 million for each Pirates of the Caribbean installment. Money will definitely be a factor but it’s probably less of a deal-breaker than Downey’s interest in diversifying his schedule.

As a result, will we see less of Downey in Phase Three of the Marvel cinematic universe? Probably. Is he going to be entirely done with the series after The Avengers 2? Not likely.

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Iron Man 3 releases May 3, 2013 and The Avengers 2 on May 1, 2015.

Source: GQ

Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick for more on Iron Man 3 as well as future movie, TV, and gaming news.