The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a powerhouse franchise that has become a worldwide phenomenon, helping to usher in an of era comic book adaptations that left other big name studios scrambling to catch up. Marvel's first success was 2008's Iron Man, a film that starred Robert Downey Jr. as playboy millionaire Tony Stark, and laid the groundwork for a new series of interconnected characters and plots.
What the studio created has grown exponentially since then, with Phase 3 gearing up to usher in Marvel's Golden Age, producing and releasing 10 movies -- 11 if The Inhumans moves forward as expected -- from 2016 through 2019, ending with the two Avengers: Infinity War films in 2018 and 2019, respectively. One film that has been noticeably absent from the roster is Iron Man 4. Despite Downey supposedly being in negotiations for the film back in 2014, there has been no word on whether or not this is one of the Marvel’s three unannounced 2020 movies, if it will come after that, or if it will be made at all.
With no official word on Iron Man 4, we can only speculate as to the possibility of the film's status in terms of development. However, there are a few signs that if another Iron Man film does move forward in 2020 or beyond, it may do so without Downey as the titular hero. The actor has been playing Tony Stark for nearly eight years, and while he has always seemed very much at home in the role, it is possible he could simply be burned out on playing the same character.
Even if Downey is still willing to come back as Stark for another movie (or two), the timing of it all may stand in the way. Assuming that Iron Man 4 is one of the films released in 2020 -- which is a large assumption considering how many other properties Marvel could fast track between then and now -- Downey would be 54 at the time of filming. In comparison, Chris Evans would only be 39, and Chris Hemsworth 37. Many actors might not let age impact their role choices, but Downey seems set on leaving the franchise gracefully. Back in 2013 the actor speculated that he may retire from the character, in an effort to go out on top.
In a 2015 interview with Empire Magazine, he spoke about returning for Captain America: Civil War and the possible end date for his ability to play a superhero.
"I also recognize that I’ll be turning 50 by the time I promote this movie. The clock is ticking down on the amount of memories and participation that I would allow myself and not embarrass the medium with."
We already know that Marvel Studios president of production Kevin Feige sees Stark as a James Bond-like figure, admitting he may recast the role. It would certainly be more affordable to cast a newer, more up-and-coming actor, as Downey was the highest-paid actor in 2015, according to Forbes. At a certain point it become may become prohibitive from the studio's perspective to continue shelling out massive paychecks to actors when, as Downey's frequent co-star Samuel L. Jackson has said, "Those movies have very little to do with us. They have to do with the event... they’re not dependent upon [the actors]."
As such, contracts are another indication we may be seeing the last Marvel films with Downey. While most of the Marvel stars have been locked into long-term contracts spanning multiple movies, he remains the outlier, consistently re-signing with massive profit-sharing deals for just a few movies at a time, presumably ending with the Avengers: Infinity War films. Another agreement could be reached, though it's equally possible -- and increasingly likely -- that another actor may takeover the role of Tony Stark/Iron Man.
To some, Iron Man without Robert Downey Jr. is unthinkable, as he has personified the character for so long and has been such a critical part of the development of the franchise. Tellingly, in that same interview with Empire, Downey said of Whedon, who has recently parted ways with Marvel: "It’s funny, nobody really ever goes away entirely from the Marvel universe." It will be interesting to see whether or not those words remain true for the actor.
Captain America: Civil War hits theaters on May 6, 2016, followed by Doctor Strange – November 4, 2016; Guardians of the Galaxy 2 – May 5, 2017; Spider-Man – July 28, 2017; Thor: Ragnarok – November 3, 2017; Black Panther – February 16, 2018; The Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 – May 4, 2018; Ant-Man and the Wasp – July 6, 2018; Captain Marvel – March 8, 2019; The Avengers: Infinity War Part 2 – May 3, 2019; Inhumans – July 12, 2019; and as-yet untitled Marvel movies on May 1, July 10 and November 6, 2020.