Anyone who follows news about Marvel’s cinematic universe probably knows that Robert Downey Jr. has often made it clear that he has no intention to return to the role of Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, after his character’s heroic death in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame. Now, thanks to a new chapter in the MCU, we know — narratively speaking — why his character can’t return. Warning: Spoilers to follow for the most recent episode of What If…?
While Robert Downey Jr. doesn’t lend his voice to What If… Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands — Disney+’s latest episode of What If…? — the story winds up being pretty relevant to his Marvel character’s story. In the alternate timeline presented in the episode, Stephen Strange’s love interest Dr. Christine Palmer is in the car when he has his fateful crash. Rather than Strange losing the use of his hands, Dr. Palmer dies. Strange still seeks out the help of the Ancient One in Kamar-taj, and most of the rest of the events of 2016’s Doctor Strange seem to unfold predictably, until Strange gets the idea to use the Time Stone to resurrect Christine.
As ScreenRant points out, narratively speaking, the episode goes on to demonstrate why we’ll never see Robert Downey Jr. take the skies again as Iron Man. Strange goes back in time over and over again, trying numerous methods to save Christine, and nothing works. He drives more carefully, takes a different route, chooses to not take the drive at all, yet each time Christine dies. The Ancient One appears, explaining that Christine’s death is an “absolute fixed point in time” — in other words, her death cannot be undone no matter what Strange does, or else the universe itself will unravel.
If there are absolute fixed points in time in Marvel’s multiverse, then the death of Robert Downey Jr.’s iconic hero must be one of them. Tony Stark must die for the prime timeline of the MCU to exist. In most likelihood, as ScreenRant points out, this is probably also why the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) is unable to bring Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) back from the dead in Avengers: Endgame in spite of having all six Infinity Stones under his command.
Narratively speaking, of course, we find out what happens if these absolute fixed points of time are somehow changed. Strange’s obsession pushes him to absorb the energy from countless powerful otherworldly entities until he can undo Christine’s death, but sadly he undoes his own universe in the process. By the end of the episode he and Christine are literally the only things left in their universe, enclosed in a large purple jeweled structure, and eventually Christine fades away. In the case of Robert Downey Jr. and/or Scarlett Johansson being knocked free of their “fixed points” in time, the consequences would likely be much less disastrous and just consist of contract negotiations.
Long before Endgame, Robert Downey Jr. was clear about his intention to leave the MCU behind, but that hasn’t stopped interviewers from asking about it pretty often. In one example, speaking on the SmartLess podcast, Downey was asked about his Marvel work by fellow actor Jason Bateman. Downey responded succintly, “Yeah, that’s all done.”