Why ‘The Avengers 2′ Could Be Better Off Without Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man

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"Why ‘The Avengers 2′ Could Be Better Off Without Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man"

At Deadline today, Editor In Chief Nikki Finke has an extensive report on the contract negotiations for The Avengers 2, with a particular focus on Robert Downey Jr.’s quest to earn himself a bigger payday in the wake of Iron Man 3. She writes:

I’ve learned he’s already made $35 million from the actioner, which grossed $680 million worldwide in its first 12 days. He should exceed his biggest payday to date — that $50M from The Avengers which I’ve learned was more like $70M-$80M now that the film is all in. But it’s really Avengers 2 where he’ll clean up big-time — if he wants to reprise the role. He’s hinting to some media it may be time to retire Tony Stark. And saying to other outlets that Marvel better show him more money for Avengers 2. ”I don’t know,” he said on The Daily Show. ”I had a long contract with them and now we’re gonna renegotiate.” (“You are Iron Man! You are!” cheered Jon Stewart.) I’ve learned that Marvel and therefore owner Disney are going to run into big trouble on that sequel because the upfront pay, backend compensation, break-even points and box office bonuses aren’t pinned down yet for several big stars and castmates. This is major hurdle that Walt Disney Co Chaiman/CEO Bob Iger hasn’t even mentioned to Wall Street or shareholders though he’s already been hyping Avengers 2 for more than a year now.

First and foremost Marvel does not have Downey in place yet. ”They need him, and they don’t have him. He’s got a lot of leverage,” one insider tells me.

Whether Marvel needs Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man from a business perspective is one matter. Whether they need him for creative reasons is another one entirely.

Iron Man, released in 2008—a relatively recent date, though one that feels positively ancient given the changing role of superheroes in popular culture in general and Marvel’s dominance of this dominating genre in particular—was the first movie in Marvel’s current exercise in multiple-movie, multi-genre long-form storytelling. That didn’t necessarily mean that the character of Iron Man, inveterate tinkerer and playboy Tony Stark, had to be the cornerstone of that story. But he worked, in part because the funny, self-absorbed Tony allowed Marvel to run a wet rag over the very crowded chalkboard of prior movie superheroes. Rather than a blandly noble guardian in the mold of Superman, or a campy guy in a cape, as Batman was all too frequently on screen before Christopher Nolan got to him, Tony was a reluctant, self-interested hero, someone was more enamored of the badass nature of his trauma-acquired powers than interested in how he could use them for the greater good, who frequently made himself a target and ventured into the fray only when his interests were directly threatened.

Watching Tony—and by extension, the trope he represented—rub up against other superheroes from other schools was part of the fun of last summer’s The Avengers. He treated Captain America, an exemplar of old-school do-gooder superheroics, like a hopeless square. Steve Rogers, who’d grown up wanting to serve so much he submitted himself to an experimental medical procedure so he’d have the opportunity to do so, and who returned to service after decades entombed in ice, was disgusted by Tony’s self-centeredness. Even though they were technically allies, Tony couldn’t resist baiting Bruce Banner almost from the moment they met, asking him “What’s your secret? Mellow jazz? Bongo drums? Great big bag of weed?” And he treated Thor like an oddity, even coming to blows with the man who would end up working with him.

But part of what’s been interesting about Marvel’s use of Iron Man to teach audiences to expect new and more enjoyable things from superhero movies, and the personal arc of Tony Stark himself, is that he’s come to the conclusion that these other kinds of superheroism are worthy of respect. In The Avengers, Tony ended the attack on New York with a startling and uncharacteristic act of potential self-sacrifice, guiding a nuclear missile away from New York and into a wormhole, where it blew up an alien command center, a journey from which it was not necessarily certain that he’d safely return. Tony’s trip through the wormhole convinced him that he was “a man in a can” in a much larger world, a revelation that, much more so than his introduction to Thor, left him profoundly shaken, giving us a proxy for awe about the existence of Asgard, rather cuing us to treat the residents of that other realm as objects of high camp. And as the frame device for Iron Man 3, which involved Tony and Bruce having formed a friendship that involves Tony treating Bruce as his shrink, suggests, Tony’s reconciled himself to introspection.

So if Tony Stark’s been a successful device to convince ourselves to invest in once-enervated superhero tropes, isn’t it time to give the archetype that he represents a break before it experiences a similar desiccation? It would be fascinating for The Avengers 2 to see what happens when Captain America, who came up in the military tradition, tries to take the lead in an Avengers mission, filling Tony’s informal shoes with a much more formal approach, or to see Bruce, whose tendency is to hang back and listen more than he talks, and who worries about losing control, tasked with being something more than a mindless beast or a useful geek. It would also be nice, frankly, for Tony, the hero with whom we’ve spent the most time, and whose arc is most complete, to step aside so we can have more quality time with Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, twin mutants who are rumored to be coming to The Avengers 2, particularly because Scarlet Witch would be the first woman with actual superpowers to get to join the team.

And focusing on other heroes isn’t necessarily the only way for The Avengers 2 to find a frame that isn’t centered squarely on Tony Stark. Some of these stories may be offloaded to ABC’s forthcoming show about S.H.I.E.L.D., the federal agency that governs superhero activity. But there’s plenty of material to cover in exploring how the United States reacted to the confirmation that alien life exists in the attack on New York, the behind-the-scenes bureaucratic battle about the mysterious Council that ordered the attack on New York and the repercussion of Nick Fury’s resistance to their oversight, or even how the human criminals and villains of the world are responding to their sudden relative irrelevance.

I should note I have absolutely no hope that Marvel will actually heed any of this advice: Iron Man is too valuable a property to let Robert Downey Jr. wander off into the Hollywood Hills without a promise that he’ll put on the armor again. But given how intelligently the company has approached its project of revivifying the superhero genre overall, it would be nice if Marvel decided to allow Tony some time off to rebuild his suit and find a more conveniently situated mansion before we risk getting as bored of him as we did of Christopher Reeve and Adam West.

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