'The Avengers 2' without Robert Downey Jr.? It's possible even if it's unthinkable

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Image Credit: Marvel Studios/Paramount Pictures

The final title card in Iron Man 3 declared, “Tony Stark Will Return.” It’s a reassuring promise (and one that shows that the character’s not-so-secret identity has gained just as much popularity as his superhero alter ego). But it’s not necessarily a guarantee that Robert Downey Jr. will also return.

The massive opening weekend for Iron Man 3 was immediately followed by uncertainty about Downey’s future in the franchise. With the completion of the third installment in the trilogy about the Armored Avenger, Downey fulfilled his contractual obligations to play the character.

So the big question here is, will Downey be in The Avengers 2?

The follow-up to last summer’s mega-hit The Avengers is set for a May 1, 2015 release (and will mark the end of Marvel’s Phase 2, which also includes Iron Man 3 and upcoming sequels to Thor and Captain America). Though it may be hard to imagine getting this gang of superheroes back together again without Downey as their ring-leader, that is a possibility, one that EW and other websites have reported on around Iron Man 3‘s release. On a recent episode of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, Downey also acknowledged that he is preparing to “renegotiate” with Marvel.

Downey confirmed for GQ that he was paid $50 million for The Avengers (including box-office bonuses and backend compensation). It’s a paycheck reportedly much bigger than his superhero co-stars’, due to some smart renegotiating by Downey’s reps after the first Iron Man film became a huge success, and it’s also probably much bigger than Marvel would like it to be.

According to Deadline, Marvel would consider recasting its superhero films if contract negotiations go south. Indeed, the studio has found new actors for roles in the past: Don Cheadle took over Terrence Howard’s role as Rhodey in Iron Man 2 when Marvel and Howard reportedly couldn’t come to an agreement about his pay for the sequel. And Zachary Levi will replace Josh Dallas as Fandral in Thor: The Dark World due to Dallas’ commitment to Once Upon a Time.

Replace supporting actors, sure, but recast Marvel’s flagship superhero? (I may have just opened up a debate about whether Iron Man has really replaced Spider-Man as their flagship character — hell, have at it in the comments section.) It certainly doesn’t seem like a good idea. Iron Man pulled the character out of relative obscurity and into mainstream fame, largely thanks to Downey’s performance. The Tony Stark of these movies — the first time he’s been in a live-action project — is beloved for his charm, wit, ego, and defiance, and a lot of that was enlivened in the character by Downey.

Pepper Potts defended her man on the matter: “Personally, I think it would be very hard for someone to step into Iron Man, because it is so Robert,” Gwyneth Paltrow told EW in our recent Iron Man 3 cover story. “You’ve got pathos, you’ve got humor, you’ve got a facility with language and improvisation and an incredible pain underneath it all. It’s difficult to replicate that.”

Now, you may be inclined to point out that the role of Batman has been filled by several actors. Spider-Man got a new face last summer. Superman is getting another new one this summer. And James Bond and Doctor Who have built their franchises on a revolving door of actors. Several years, maybe decades down the road, I can certainly see another actor putting on the suit for a fresh take on the character.

But The Avengers 2 isn’t a reboot. It’s a sequel, building on character arcs and storylines carefully crafted throughout Marvel’s Phase 1 and 2. The Avengers wasn’t great just because we got to see all these superheroes battling aliens together. It was great because we got to see them go from fighting each other — both with words and fists — to being teammates.

My favorite relationship in The Avengers is the one between Iron Man and Captain America (Chris Evans). Remember that awesome “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist” moment? Steve Rogers’ noble 1940s manner clashed repeatedly with Tony Stark’s 21st century ego. The World War II super-soldier accused the modern entrepreneur of always and only looking out for Number One. But then when Iron Man made his first real sacrifice — re-directing and carrying a nuke aimed at New York City to the alien ship just beyond the portal to outer space, which all likelihood would be a one-way trip — no one looked more concerned for Tony’s life than Cap.

That sacrifice was felt throughout Iron Man 3. One joy of watching the threequel was seeing how Tony had dialed down his ego enough to make it believable and evident that the events of Avengers had changed him, but he was still the arrogant, quippy Tony Stark we know and love. For fans of the franchise, it’s rewarding to see this kind of character development carried through multiple films. To insert a replacement actor into that development would be jarring and risks breaking the audience’s connection to these characters.

So here’s hoping Marvel and Downey’s renegotiations for Avengers 2 are nothing like a Loki versus Thor fight.

What do you think, PopWatchers? Can The Avengers 2 work without Downey? Is he replaceable? Could you see the character in a cameo role? Which Avengers stars are expendable, and which can the sequel not do without? Did Iron Man 3 feel like a definitive end for the character or did it leave his story open for many more chapters to come?

Follow Emily on Twitter: @EmilyNRome

Read more:
Joss Whedon: ‘I’m not getting $100 million on ‘Avengers 2′
‘Iron Man 3′ does WHAT to The Mandarin? — SPOILER ANALYSIS
Franchises That Traded Faces: ‘Bourne,’ ‘Spider-Man,’ ‘Batman,’ more — GALLERY
How did ‘Downton Abbey’ end up getting a shout-out in ‘Iron Man 3’? It’s quite simple, really…

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