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Sunday, September 18, 2016

Panel Vision - Reinventing Iron Man for Iron Man 4

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Edited by Robert Beach 

As I write this, Robert Downey Jr. was photographed earlier in the week meeting with Jon Favreau and a handful of former Marvel behind-the-scenes individuals to discuss a new project. This has gotten the ball rolling in some corners of the Internet to start speculating on whether or not we’ll be seeing plans for a new Iron Man film sometime soon.  

The question of fourth installments, like Marvel’s powerhouse solo franchises Iron Man and Captain America, has loomed large in the distance on the long, slow, march towards the 2020s and Marvel’s Phase 4. It’s a legitimately major concern, especially the chopping and the changing over whether or not Robert Downey Jr. was under contract for more Marvel films. Given this recent swirl of rumors, let’s finally answer what’s going on with Iron Man 4.

The first big thing to note about whatever happens going forward is that it will end up intrinsically tied to the success or failure of Marvel’s current line-up. That’s something we don’t discuss when it comes to Marvel. So much of their success comes from being adaptable rather than predictive. This has already shaped most of phase 1 and 2, though not always for the better, going right back to the starting point of 2008.  

When Marvel started, it was clear they expected Incredible Hulk to be the big hit film of their new universe. That’s why it’s full up with references to Captain America, S.H.I.E.L.D., and Iron Man.  When Iron Man became the big hit, Marvel switched focus and gave us Iron Man 2, which was filled up with its own references to S.H.I.E.L.D., Captain America, and Thor.

Currently, Marvel’s slate of blockbusters for the next three years is littered with options that could fill the boots of Iron Man. Key among them is obviously Spider-Man: Homecoming, which could easily end up the lynch pin of Marvel’s phase 4, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if Black Panther ended up occupying an Iron Man-esque space in the MCU. The big thing about Iron Man’s presence is that he’s Marvel’s most successful and most versatile franchise.  

The films are an action comedy blend with a serious bent towards personal existentialism as the hero’s greatest foe. Iron Man can work as a supporting tech guy, a complex outsider, or a charismatic leader. That’s a hard bill to fit, and as much as I like Spider-Man, Black Panther, and Dr. Strange, none of them are perfectly suited to it. There’s only one Iron Man in the end. Even if Doctor Strange ends up a smash hit, there will probably still be Iron Man films in phase 4, 5, and 6. The only thing that will change will be the amount.

As for what those future films hold, the biggest question looming over the entire enterprise is the fate of its major creative forces. Robert Downey Jr. has transformed beyond the man in the Iron Man armor to the godfather of the Marvel universe, chiefly after he went to the mat to ensure his co-stars received a more fair and equal payout. The myth of Downy as Iron Man has grown way beyond a single actor and a single part. While it’s true Kevin Feige said they would recast Tony if they needed to, I feel like they probably don’t want to recast him. 

As for behind the camera, I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw Jon Favreau come back to direct a fourth Iron Man film. Even though Shane Black was behind the most successful Iron Man film, I get the sense he’s a little harder for Disney to work with than Favreau, hence why Black moved on to other properties like Predator and Doc Savage while Favreau gave us Jungle Book.  Speaking of, the monster success of Favreau’s Jungle Book is probably a good reason for Disney to keep him happy and on contract for future films. Bringing him back to the Marvel family would make sense. 

However, Downey is getting on in years and getting him back to the table for more Iron Man was a struggle in its own right. It’s not like RDJ’s post-2008 career has been full up with non-Marvel success. One does wonder if the reason for that is because he’s been so busy doing Marvel work for the past eight years. So far, he’s been a feature in six Marvel movies over eight years and is still scheduled for three more over the next three. That’s a lot of work for anyone to take on. I wouldn’t be surprised if Downey wanted to move on after devoting that much time to the role. That could mean recasting. Because this is superheroes, there is another option.

Through a combination of concentrated planning and well-crafted coincidence, the Marvel comics universe is full to burst with other heroes who could take on the Iron Man mantel. Historically, that role has fallen to James Rhodes, the War Machine, a fact that’s now only compounded by his disabling injury from Civil War. It’s hard to say what will happen with Rhodey now that he’s taken a major hit. With the demise of House of Lies, it’s not like Don Cheadle is that busy, and he can definitely rock the role. What’s more, it’d be pretty interesting to see Marvel do a full-on military thriller with their heroes, and it’d fit the “superhero vs. terrorist” pitch of Iron Man 1 and 2. 

Alternatively, they could go with Pepper Pots taking on the armor.  Pepper already wore the Iron Man armor in Iron Man 3. In the comics, she had her own suit called the Rescue armor, so there’s plenty of precedent for her taking the mantel. I know that Gwyneth Paltrow said she was done with Marvel, but that’s a point in their favor. She and RDJ didn’t have great chemistry as a couple, and her weird foray into action in Iron Man 3 definitely makes it seem like they’d be better off with a recast. Fresh face, fresh take, and a chance to focus on a woman in the twin worlds of technology and business could be a win. 

More recently, Riri Williams has become our new Iron Man (or rather Iron Heart) While I wouldn’t suggest her as a potential fill in, Marvel has shown recently that they are committed to enforcing their new vision of the Avengers: black Captain America, latino Spider-Man, woman Thor, etc. I wouldn’t be surprised if Riri stuck with us long enough to enter the MCU in some meaningful way.

Finally, Marvel could always bring in Arno Stark. Arno was originally a speculative future character from the year 2020, back when that sounded like the far-off future.  More recently, he was introduced as Tony’s secret brother who suffered from a paralysis, yet he had an armor all his own.  He’s an interesting character, and there’s a part of me that seriously likes the jokey pun of bringing “the Iron Man of 2020” into the MCU for the 2020s. 

Whatever option Marvel goes with, there are still more than enough interesting Iron Man villains Marvel could try. One of the big options with most Iron Man foes is to get more into his roster of Cold War-styled bad guys. I’ll certainly grant that some of them are outdated like the Mandarin, but given the nature of Russia in today’s geopolitical landscape, I think there’s room to return to that well. Even if Marvel didn’t want to adapt its Russian mechs as agents of the Kremlin, they could easily work as more outdated Stark tech bouncing around the former Soviet Union making its way into the hands of bad people. 

Alternatively, Marvel has left several threads of larger threats that could be easily developed in a new Iron Man film. I know that they like to lean heavy on Hydra, but after a decade of beating that dead horse, it’s probably time to move on.  

There’s no reason that evil organizations like A.I.M., the Mandarin, or Roxxon Oil couldn’t be established as new villains of the MCU.  All three groups are long-time Marvel Comics bad guys with tons of incredibly dynamic henchmen. Having A.I.M. put together a team of low-rent Iron Man foes for a throw down could work well. 

Finally, Marvel could probably do well to explore the hordes of kaiju-sized monsters that tended to plague Iron Man, most notably Fin Fang Foom. A lot of comic fans, myself included, had hoped Fin Fang Foom would end up one of the monsters used by the Chitauri in Avengers. Even though he didn’t show up, I do think refitting Iron Man into a kaiju action comedy could be a great way to revitalize the franchise for a fourth installment.  

What’s more, Foom is tied to the Mandarin. Foom is the alien being whose technology the Mandarin used to build his super rings, so he could be tied to the organizational plot points or provide Iron Man a more extraterrestrial threat. 

Honestly, this seems like one of the smartest ways to enact the soft reboot of the Iron Man franchise that a recast would require.  Shooting Tony into space to hang out with the Guardians of the Galaxy like in the comics would be such a dramatic change up from the norm. It’d draw a clear divide in the minds of the audience between RDJ’s era and whoever was filling the role now.  What’s more, it’d be an easy way to excuse Iron Man’s absence from Earth stuff if one of Marvel’s newer heroes ever does manage to supplant him as Earth’s mightiest champion.  

This would also be a smart way to hedge Marvel’s bets on Chris Pratt as well, especially given how in demand Pratt has become. The dude’s been cranking out blockbusters with Herculean consistency, and you know his schedule is only going to get more and more closed off going forward. It’s only a matter of time before he runs out of space for the Guardians.  

Swapping out Star Lord for Iron Man would be a pretty sharp lateral move as they could theoretically occupy the same space while offering a very different set of skills. It’d probably be cheaper to have one or two of the Guardians cameo in an Iron Man film than shelling out for a Civil War-style team-up every time Marvel wants to produce another solo flick. 

This would be the opposite of shooting Tony into space, forcing him to be more involved with every individual super heroic act on Earth, but I think it could work. The great thing about making Tony Stark director of S.H.I.E.L.D. is that it would allow Marvel to keep RDJ on hand in a supporting/cameo role without needing to get into an Iron Man suit. They could pepper him across however many Spider-Man and Captain Marvel sequels they wanted as just “helicarrier Tony.” When they finally pull the trigger on an “Iron Man and S.H.I.E.L.D.” film, the scene of Tony suiting up can have real weight to it. 

The Iron Man films have always carried an espionage element to them, specifically one filtered through a tech lens I like to call “tech-spionage.” Capitalizing on that to turn Tony into the master of global security could fit; Stark already looked to form “a suit of armor around the world.” Making him director of S.H.I.E.L.D. gives you a whole new supporting cast to work with and carry more of the slack for RDJ.   

Alternatively, if Marvel did need to recast Tony, the set-up of him behind a desk could work as a mentor position. Casting him as the director while someone else goes around in the Iron Man suit would be a clever way to have the best of both worlds moving passed Downey’s tenure in the suit. 

This would be a serious power move and a great way to shake-up the status quo going into Marvel’s Phase 4. Consequently, that’s also why it’s probably the least likely to occur, but it’d still probably be a smart way to throw everyone off and redefine what the Marvel universe is going into the 2020s.  

If you’re unfamiliar with it, Superior Iron Man was a comic where Tony had his moral axis inverted. He became a greedy, unethical, megalomaniacal capitalist, turning his tech into an addictive app as part of the book’s attempts to skewer Silicon Valley. It didn’t work as a comic, but the idea of making Iron Man an evil force of gentrification and exploitation on the mean streets of San Francisco still holds up well. 

If Marvel was to recast RDJ, I think this approach might be one of the best ways to handle it. Anyone brought in to fill Downey’s shoes is going to run up against some serious fan hatred. That’s not even taking into account questions of actual performance.  Rather than trying to craft a similar performance, Superior Iron Man would go the opposite route: embracing fan hate of the new actor and turning it into the crux of the new Iron Man’s anti-villain identity.  

Granted, Superior Iron Man couldn’t hold down an entire film by himself. Given how broad the Iron Man supporting cast is, that wouldn’t be a huge problem. Hell, one of the key points in the comic is about Tony’s original personality returning as an AI running its armor; there’d be room for heroes in a movie version. 

There’s no getting around it: the rights to the Fantastic Four have become THE central issue of Marvel’s 4th phase. There are other major questions hanging over the next decade of superhero entertainment, but I’m honestly hard-pressed to think of one that could more easily dominate Marvel’s offerings. 

If the MCU has reclaimed the rights to Marvel’s first family, there’s just no way that doesn’t end up subsuming whatever the structure of phase 4 is going to be. This could mean anything from the Avengers fighting Galactus to Silver Surfer joining the Guardians to Iron Man fighting Dr. Doom. 

Even though Doom is the Fantastic Four’s archenemy, I think introducing him as an Iron Man foe would fit a little better. The problem with Dr. Doom is that he’s such a massive force of personality; it’s impossible to force him to share an origin story. Doom's too weird and all-consuming as a concept.  Making him fight Iron Man would be a good way to keep the focus on Doom’s emergence as a force in the universe without getting bogged down in superhero secret origins as well as super villain ones. 

I mean, Dr. Doom is an evil dictator/wizard/super scientist who refers to himself in the third person. He needs a lot of space for explanation. What’s more, the story in which Iron Man and Dr. Doom get knocked through the past into Arthurian times is one of the few cornerstone Iron Man stories. They’ve yet to adapt, so it just makes sense.  

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