Robert Downey Jr. isn’t contractually obligated to appear in any more Marvel films as Tony Stark. That’s the only concrete fact as of right now, even as contract negotiations are underway to bring the actor back into the suit for The Avengers 2 and 3. Those seem fairly likely, but it’s unclear how committed to Iron Man 4 Downey Jr. would be.
Marvel head Kevin Feige has vaguely promised more stand-alone Iron Man movies, hedging the claim by adding, “Who will be in that movie and who will be a part of that movie? Who knows. And how far down the line will it be? Will it be right after Avengers 2, will it be a few years after Avengers 2? Who knows. For as advanced as we are in terms of the advanced planning that we do, we’re already looking out to 2015, 2016 and that’s further than most people look out. Beyond that, we’re still not sure.”
And why not? Sony has already rebooted Spider-Man, Warners has hinted strongly at re-casting and continuing with a new Batman, and with the billion-dollar paydays, it seems unwise to let a little thing like who’s playing who block the path. Rhodey and Hulk can attest to that.
The thing is, no one has embodied a superhero as thoroughly as Downey Jr. has with Tony Stark. Maybe Hugh Jackman with Wolverine, but he was also a part of a pack that led to early X-Men success. If the Marvel movies are tentpoles for Disney, Tony Stark (and thus Downey Jr.) is the tentpole of the Marvel universe.
So let’s say they don’t get him back for Avengers 2. What does Marvel do then? If you were running things, would you recast or write the character out?
And if they get Downey Jr. back for two Avengers sequels, how much time should they let pass before recasting for new stand-alone projects? Should they continue the storyline, or start all over with a reboot?
For my money, they should offer Downey Jr. the sun if it brings him on board for two more Avengers, and if he’s set against being Tony Stark beyond that, they should do something radical: forget about the character for a while. The accounting and marketing teams probably won’t like that, but by that point we will have been through 20 years of superhero movie dominance. That coupled with the potential of the audience rejecting an unfamiliar face claiming to be Tony Stark so soon after Downey Jr. so completely encapsulated the role could be disastrous both creatively and commercially.
In the minds of millions, Robert Downey Jr. is Tony Stark. Even if they move ahead with a new version, what actor would even be ballsy enough to try to follow that act? Will Judd Nelson be available?
But, seriously, Feige’s shortened long-term vision is looking pretty smart considering the variables. For now, let’s hope they have a Brink’s truck large enough to pull Downey Jr. back to The Avengers Initiative.