Has Marvel really ditched Iron Man from the MCU? Don’t count on it

<span>Photograph: Marvel Studios/Allstar</span>
Photograph: Marvel Studios/Allstar

It’s a Hollywood ploy as old as time – and one that probably explains why the Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger still have acting careers. If your venerable old action saga is struggling to recoup the greenbacks it did in the early days, just bring back the guy (and let’s face it, it always seems to be a guy) who made it such a success in the first place.

This is the whole reason movies such as Terminator Genisys and Terminator: Dark Fate exist (for better or worse). But if Marvel fans had hoped that the suddenly struggling superhero mega-saga might be restored to its former glories by bringing back Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man, they will now have to look elsewhere for their returning comic book messiah. Marvel supremo Kevin Feige has put the kibosh on the idea in an interview with Vanity Fair to discuss the latest phase in Downey Jr’s much-garlanded career, pointing out that to reintegrate this version of Tony Stark would ruin the finale of Avengers: Endgame, in which the character sacrifices himself for the greater good.

“We are going to keep that moment and not touch that moment again,” said Feige. “We all worked very hard for many years to get to that, and we would never want to magically undo it in any way.”

There has been speculation ever since Marvel began introducing elements of the multiverse in recent films that Downey Jr could return via some kind of alternate reality switcheroo. After all, the current on-screen version of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is a variant of the one killed by Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, while Zoe Saldana’s Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy is actually an earlier version of the alien superhero murdered, also by Thanos, in the same film. So why not bring back the MCU’s most famous face, especially as this would effectively allow the studio to have its cake and eat it?

Feige’s argument is a fair one. If moments of high movie drama need to be earned, it is never a good idea to undermine them by signalling that death is not the end. The advent of the multiverse makes anything theoretically possible, yet there is a superior set of rules that’s based on not pissing off your audience, rather than quantum mechanics.

There is also a certain irony to the idea that restoring Downey Jr’s Iron Man would be a much-needed panacea for the MCU’s current ills, because the saga’s success was always based on the concept that characters are the stars of comic book movies, not the actors playing them. Few had heard of Aussie hunk Chris Hemsworth before he started playing Thor, or twinkle-toed Tom Holland before he signed up to portray Spider-Man.

In many ways the Marvel method seemed to mark a welcome break with the old-style, marketing-led casting approach. Schwarzenegger as Mr Freeze in Batman & Robin will always be recognisable as the Austrian oak rather than Batman’s ice gun-wielding nemesis, despite all that fake-frozen makeup. Let’s say nothing about Stallone as a version of Judge Dredd who kept taking his helmet off (sacrilege!) in 1995. But Holland’s masked wall-crawler is Spider-Man first and foremost, likewise with Hulk and Captain Marvel. There were no complaints when Marvel changed the actor playing (admittedly a different version of) Captain America.

On the other hand, the MCU is definitely missing Iron Man, and it almost seems a little unfair that after unprecedented success across a score or more of movies, the character is now effectively unusable. While DC is able to rejig its cavalcade of superheroes with new actors and storylines because nobody really cared much about the DCEU versions of Batman, Superman et al, Marvel is unable to do the same because fans spent so long buying into Downey Jr’s Iron Man that the idea of anyone else in the suit would seem like a betrayal.

Perhaps the studio had better get over itself quick and cast someone else as a multiversal variant before the character’s absence becomes so entrenched that nobody ever dares bring him back, like the sports team that retires a shirt. Downey Jr made a great Tony Stark, but this shouldn’t mean we have to wait for the MCU to finally fail before we get to see the character soar again. I hear Tom Cruise has a thing for speeding through the clouds at 30,000 feet.