Robert Downey Jr. Should Stay Away From Marvel

Robert Downey Jr. returning to Marvel would be admitting his career needs the franchise, the franchise can't go on without him, and that his character's death ultimately meant nothing.

By Nathan Kamal | Updated

robert downey jr marvel

Robert Downey Jr and the Marvel Cinematic Universe have had a complicated but very mutually beneficial relationship. When RDJ was cast as Tony Stark in what would become the ground zero of the world-conquering franchise, he was at something of a career low; within five years, he would be the highest-paid actor in the world. For its part, Marvel Studios built its entire tone from his sarcastic, quippy vibe and anchored its universe around him, to incomparable success. But if Robert Downey Jr returns as Tony Stark to Marvel as he is reported to be considering, everything he accomplished there will mean nothing.

Well, not nothing exactly. After all, Robert Downey Jr was paid uncounted millions for the 11 Marvel movies he appeared in. It undoubtedly revitalized his career to an arguably unparalleled level in the history of Hollywood comebacks. But that success and career rescue came at a cost: to many audiences, Robert Downey Jr will always be Marvel’s Iron Man.


Robert Downey Jr. Iron Man

There is nothing wrong with being associated with a brand (particularly such a successful one), but it is fair to say that Robert Downey Jr is inextricably linked to Marvel to many people. For every person who could name Iron Man on sight, is there another that remembers his acclaimed portrayal of Charlie Chaplin in the 1992 biopic Chaplin? That would recognize him from Soap Dish? Or as the bad guy from that weird sequel to The Fugitive? Since he played Sherlock Holmes (perhaps his other most known modern role), the detective has been played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Will Ferrell, Henry Cavill, and Ian McKellen. He doesn’t own that in the same way he does Iron Man. 

Not Iron Man

If Robert Downey Jr returns to Marvel, it will irrevocably cement him in the public mind with Tony Stark, regardless of anything else he ever plays. Worse, it will tacitly admit that the actor needs the franchise to sustain his career as a leading man. The abject failure of Doolittle, the only movie he has released since Avengers: Endgame is a worrying sign that audiences are not willing to follow him anywhere (especially if it involves dragon flatulence as a key plot point). 

Moreover, Robert Downey Jr returning to the Marvel Cinematic Universe would be as bad for the franchise as it is for its former tentpole actor. If Marvel brings back RDJ as Tony Stark, it will admit that it needs him just as much as he needs it, which must be a hard pill for the Walt Disney Company to swallow. Almost from the franchise’s beginning, Marvel has worked overtime to ensure that no single person is irreplaceable, but bringing back Iron Man would prove that it’s anchored to one character.

Since Robert Downey Jr had his final moments of on-screen heroism in Endgame, Marvel has been working overtime to replace its actors. Tom Holland’s Spider-Man was presented as Iron Man’s chosen heroic heir in Spider-Man: Far From Home. Chris Evans passed the shield of Captain America to Anthony Mackie. Hailee Steinfeld is the new Hawkeye, Florence Pugh is the new Black Widow, and Tatiana Maslany is shoring up the Hulk end of things. The studio is even preparing to get more direct and explicitly replace Iron Man with Dominique Thorne’s Ironheart.

None of that is a bad thing from a narrative standpoint, and it certainly makes sense when Disney is looking over the ledgers and realizing how much it would have to shell out to renew contracts for established stars. If it has to bring back Robert Downey Jr in any significant way, Marvel loses a lot of leverage.

But more importantly than Robert Downey Jr’s career momentum or Marvel’s famously frugal payroll, if Iron Man comes back in anything but archival footage, it diminishes the price he paid to exchange his life for the entire universe against Thanos’ supposedly ecological but ultimately murderous campaign. Marvel has set its universe up well with any number of time travel or Multiversal shenanigans that can ensure no death is permanent, not to mention the longstanding comic book traditions of resurrection. But just because Marvel can do it does not mean it should.

When Robert Downey Jr said goodbye to Iron Man with an unquestioning sacrifice after a journey from a selfish, entitled jerk to the most human of heroes, it was one of the most emotionally affecting moments in all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe not only because he was leaving all of his friends, family, and even foes behind. He was also leaving us, the audience who had come to know and love him, in the best and most noble way possible. If Iron Man can come back at any time, what did it matter what he gave up?