Back in 2008, when the Marvel Cinematic Universe was barely a twinkle in studio head Kevin Feige’s eye, Robert Downey Jr. took a wild ride in a suit of armor and comic book movies changed forever. Marvel may not have created the first shared universe, but the degree of planning and minutiae the House of Ideas put into their films went above and beyond anything casual audiences had seen before. Iron Man was their breakout hit, and beyond a doubt, Tony Stark was their first true star.
At the same time, RDJ has been portraying the head of Stark Industries for 9 years now. While not the longest-lived contiguous superhero - that honor goes to Hugh Jackman, who's played Wolverine for nearly 17 years - there comes a time when every actor decides to move on to different roles. Even the Infinity Gauntlet can’t grant the perpetual youth and interest required to carry Iron Man into the relatively distant future of the shared universe. Marvel has teased some world-rending (and possibly character-killing) events during and after The Avengers: Infinity War and The Avengers 4.
So... should Marvel infuse Iron Man with fresh blood as they move into Phase 4?
Of course, the MCU has been dealing with major character issues for years, including contract negotiations with Chris Evans' Captain America, Downey Jr.'s own continued commitment, and replacing Terrence Howard with Don Cheadle as War Machine, among others. 20th Century Fox itself is facing similar growing pangs with Hugh Jackman's imminent departure. The simple truth is: actors sometimes tire of long-term characters, and contracts don’t last forever. Marvel Studios is, without a doubt, prepared for a world where their archetypal Tony Stark hangs up his metal pants.
Much like Wolverine, Thor, or Captain America, Tony Stark isn’t just any character; he’s the face of Iron Man. Marvel doesn’t (necessarily) have the advantage of Fox's X-Men universe and its perplexing, rebooted timeline, either. Hiring a new Tony Stark would only serve to confuse and even anger many fans, especially since Downey Jr. brings a very specific style, look, and acerbic wit to the character. While any old actor might be able to lace up the iron boots, filling them properly is another story altogether. As a result, Marvel and Disney have to be extremely cautious moving forward with any ideas of an Iron Man-less universe or even just one sans Tony Stark.
If the tech magnate does die or move on during after Phase 3, the studio is reportedly prepared to carry on without him (and others), as they've set up the next generation of superhero torchbearers, such as Black Panther, Doctor Strange, and Captain Marvel. Kevin Feige has even acknowledged that, as iconic has the classic lineup is, there will come a time when he has to replace or retire one or several of them, taking inspiration from long-running franchises such as Sherlock Holmes and James Bond. As one of the founding Avengers and a long-term character, though, Marvel would be foolish to cut Iron Man out of the picture completely – and a lack of forethought isn’t one of the studio's defining characteristics.
Honoring logic or Robert Downey Jr’s dwindling contract might not please the fan base, but it will give the studio a few more contingencies. On the publishing side of things alone, the House of Ideas already has a long tradition of legacy characters, including some who have been or are being groomed to step into the Golden Avengers’ metallic exoskeleton. It's merely a matter of finding the right fit for the heavyhearted job on the big screen.
In fact, a Stark-light world currently exists in the Invincible Iron Man comic book. After Tony wound up in a near-comatose state at the conclusion to Civil War II, two surprising characters picked up the Iron mantle: teenage genius Riri Williams and former archfiend Victor Von Doom. In addition to numerous one-off and short term metal-clad superheroes, Mary Jane Watson recently donned the Iron Spider armor, and ace scientist Toni Ho has been zipping around the U.S.Avengers as Iron Patriot.
The cinematic universe itself offers several solid options to carry on Iron Man's super-suited heroics, including the previously established – if gravely injured – Colonel James Rhodes and Stark’s CEO and love interest, Pepper Potts (although she’s yet to don her Rescue armor on-screen). Unfortunately, as far as Pepper Potts goes, Gwyneth Paltrow is unsure about her return to the MCU. In addition, Cheadle’s Rhodes isn’t exactly a spring chicken himself, and may not wish to sign on for an extended run after several years as War Machine already. Unless Disney wants recast either character – something which would be difficult to explain (again) without a continuity-rending film like X-Men: Days of Future Past – Marvel may be forced to hit the books for inspiration.
Speaking of which, they do have several viable new iron heroes. Even though Doctor Doom isn't an option, since FOX still owns the character rights, Riri Williams would be a fantastic choice. Aside from recasting Tony Stark, which gets into that treacherous, Young Han Solo territory, or creating an entirely new Iron Man, the best option seems to be using an existing, younger character like Riri. With Tony's artificial intelligence acting as guide and benefactor to the young tech wizard, Invincible Iron Man could easily be a dry run for transitioning whichever new face Disney chooses for their future Iron Man (especially since Downey Jr. is on-contract for several more years).
If the studio does use a legacy character, though, picking a teen or young adult actor like Tom Holland is the ideal way to go. Robert Downey Jr. was the perfect veteran talent to kick off Marvel's cinematic endeavors, but their shared universe is thoroughly established now. Any new Golden Avenger should be a brash, up-and-comer, who could fulfill the role for at least a solid decade or so like Downey Jr. before them. After all, even if there are dozens of viable Iron Man-esque characters capable of carrying on his good code name, if not filling his shoes, they need to at least approximate the talent of their predecessor.
In the long run, the question of should Iron Man be replaced is less-relevant than when will Marvel be forced to replace him. Theoretically, Robert Downey Jr. could run around as Tony Stark for another decade or two, receiving a continuous CG-youth makeover to make him look roughly the same age. As impressive as technology is these days, even the most advanced digital effects that money can buy never quite look as legitimate as the actor themselves. If (and when) Downey Jr. chooses to leave the snarky mogul behind, Disney owes Tony Stark a proper retirement.
However, if they do choose to keep an iteration of the classic hero around, the House of Ideas needs to ease their fans and the next Iron Man (or Woman) host into their suit of armor. It would only seem appropriate for Disney, while Robert Downey Jr. is still on retainer, to use Tony Stark as a mentor, much like his role in Spider-Man: Homecoming and his artificial intelligence has done for Riri Williams in Invincible Iron Man. Not only would it be an appropriate curtain call for the legendary character, but it would mark an appropriate passing of the torch. Combined with a tactful and tactical re-envisioning of Iron Man, this will allow the MCU to retain one of its key players, in one form or another, for years to come.
- Avengers: Infinity War / The Avengers 3 (2018) release date: Apr 27, 2018
- The Avengers 4 / Avengers: Endgame (2019) release date: Apr 26, 2019