Now that Iron Man 3 is in theaters a lot of rumors and news are flying around about Robert Downey, Jr.’s involvement in future Iron Man movies and the Avengers franchise as a whole. Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige has already stated that the Iron Man actor can be as ever-changing as James Bond has proven. But Marvel will forgive fans if we can’t imagine anyone but RDJ in the role. To my mind when Tony Stark says “I am Iron Man” I believe that of the actor and the fictional character he portrays.
Aside from the issue of who would play Iron Man in further movies is the question of just where Tony Stark’s story can go following the events of Iron Man 3. I think there’s a way to tackle both of these issues, though, while staying true to the character and utilizing elements from one of the character’s best storylines.
Spoilers for Iron Man 3 follow.
Further Avengers films aren’t under the same pressure as another Iron Man film would be. There’s no need to justify Tony’s presence, and a lot of the fun of seeing that character is seeing how the personal growth that Tony undergoes in the Iron Man films meshes with the earth-shaking events of the Avengers films. To put it more simply, Avengers is about Tony being largely reactive, whereas the Iron Man movies are about Tony being proactive.
So an Iron Man 4 needs to give the fans, and Robert Downey, Jr., further developments in Tony’s character in order to justify its own existence. A reboot of his origin story would be a backwards step (especially considering how the Avengers films continue to progress), and killing him off would feel cheap. But what else is there to explore after four films featuring Iron Man?
The events of Iron Man 3 leave Tony without his armor, without the arc reactor in his chest, and ready to move on with his life with Pepper and Stark Industries. On an emotional level, he still considers himself Iron Man, but now lacks the acoutrements that physically make Iron Man.
And personally, I think this is fine. We’ll see him fight again. We’ll see the armor. They’ll handwave a reason to do so at some point. What the ending of Iron Man 3 really gives us is an opportunity to see Tony Stark the Iron Man become Tony Stark the Futurist.
In the early 2000s Marvel Comics, Warren Ellis, Mark Millar, and other comics writers crafted a more well-defined science fiction aspect to Tony Stark’s character. Here was a man who wasn’t just a playboy or warrior or industrialist. He was a futurist. A genius inventor whose mind raced along at several times the speed of yours or mine and was constantly crafting responses to possible futures and scenarios. In his head, Tony Stark was literally building the future of mankind.
Downey, Jr. and the current Iron Man films have embodied this aspect of the character perfectly. He creates a new form of energy reactor “with a box of scraps!” in the first film, forges a new heavy element in the second film, and has an entire fleet of remote-controlled Iron Men in the third. Now that Tony doesn’t feel the need to obsessively tinker with Iron Man technology he has the time to focus on Stark Industries and what he and it can do to make the world a better place. This thread runs quietly throughout the films. In Iron Man 2 he takes credit for being a deterrent that has brought peace to warring regions of the globe. (This is a very spurious claim on his part, but he believes it, and that’s the important part.) And in The Avengers he demonstrates that Stark Industries has become the leading name in clean, renewable energy.
Around ten years ago in the Iron Man comics Tony began demonstrating this motivation in earnest, and the longer that this character development went on the more proactive he became about problems he perceived in the world at large.
And that’s when it all began to fall apart. Suddenly Tony was implementing drastic solutions to problems that no one else could visualize. (He secretly shot the Hulk into space because Bruce had gone on one too many rampages over the years.) Further, he had branched out into constructing organizational solutions to social issues, something that despite his genius intellect he had no previous experience with. (He essentially strong-armed all superheroes in the U.S. to register their secret identities and powers with him and the government or else face imprisonment. The ensuing chaos split families in two and eventually caused the death of Tony’s closest friends.)
Despite constant protest, Tony’s obsessive focus kept him on his wayward path. He was convinced he was right because he knew was a genius. It was just that no one else could see the social apocalypse that would result if his plans weren’t implemented. And Tony is so charming that you believe he’s right, even if everything else is falling apart.
Charm and obsessive focus is already a key element of Robert Downey, Jr.’s portrayal of Tony Stark, and we’ve seen across multiple movies that he has a compulsive need to lose himself inside a project, whether it’s creating Iron Man, being an egomaniacal playboy, hunting down the Mandarin, unraveling his father’s secrets, or drinking like a fish and ruining his birthday party.
Iron Man 4 could have a field day depicting this kind of Tony Stark. The one using Stark Industries to legitimately better the world but who goes too far. The one who gets this close to becoming an arch villain. It would echo key themes from the previous movies, be a natural progression for Downey’s portrayal of the character, and be a new emotional struggle for the character that an Avengers movie wouldn’t have room to depict.
Plus, such a story would give Tony ample reason to begin training a protege as Iron Man. (And it would be a cheeky callback to Iron Man originally being depicted as Tony Stark’s bodyguard.) And bringing Tony back from the edge in a story like this would allow the actor to bow out gracefully while establishing a new Iron Man with his or her own struggles, villains, and emotional progression.
Let’s not James Bond-ify this, Marvel. You’ve already done the hard work of redefining the concept of superhero movies. Keep going.
Chris Lough is the production manager of Tor.com and was so happy that Tony saved Dummy at the end of the movie.