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Robert Downey Jr. has been playing Tony Stark since 2008’s Iron Man, making him not only the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s longest-tenured superhero, but one of the longest-running protagonists in the superhero movie genre. While it looks like Iron Man 4 won’t see the light of day, Downey’s Stark isn’t going away anytime soon, as he’ll be appearing in Captain America: Civil War and the Avengers: Infinity War movies. However, there will inevitably come a day when Downey decides to hang up the armor, and when that happens, we can likely expect Mr. Stark to go away for a while.
Captain America: Civil War co-director Joe Russo noted as much to Forbes, saying that it’s "almost impossible" to replace Downey, and there will need to be some distance between him and the new actor. Russo explained:
I think if and when he is done with the character, I think you will find that Iron Man might disappear for a while. I think the only way that you could reboot that character is to give a generational gap that would allow another actor to at least have a chance to redefine that character without the enormous spectre of Robert hanging over it. There are so many characters in the Marvel universe that can pick up the ball and run without it through the next phase or two before you need to see Iron Man again, frankly.
Recasting in the MCU is nothing new. Mark Ruffalo took the Bruce Banner/Hulk reins from Edward Norton starting with The Avengers, while Don Cheadle took over as James Rhodes/War Machine following Terrence Howard’s exit. However, thanks to Downey’s Tony Stark performances, Iron Man has been propelled to an A-list hero, and Downey has been a crucial component to the MCU’s success. Having him play Iron Man one year and having someone new take over the role only a year or two later might feel weird to some fans.
This isn’t like the ‘90s when there were three different big screen Batmans (four if you count Kevin Conroy) in the span of five years. Not only are superhero movies more popular than ever, but Downey has done wonders for Iron Man over the last eight years. Anyone who takes over is going to have a difficult time measuring up, so Russo could have the right idea by having Stark go off an extended vacation/retirement so enough time passes before someone new brings their own interpretation of the character.
Fortunately, it’s like Joe Russo said, the MCU will be in good hands if Iron Man disappears. Heroes like Doctor Strange, Black Panther and Captain Marvel are gearing up to become the new leading heroes as Phase Three wraps up and Phase Four begins. Sure it will take some time for them to reach the same level of popularity, but just like with Iron Man, audiences will surely start seeing their appeal and grow to enjoy watching their cinematic adventures.
Not to worry, though, fans! Downey’s Iron Man won’t be leaving us in the near future, and you can see him in action next in Captain America: Civil War on May 6.