It’s no secret that Avengers: Endgame has left the Marvel Cinematic Universe looking quite a bit different than it did a few years ago — particularly with regard to some of the MCU’s most dynamic and popular characters.
While some major characters are poised to take on new roles in the post-Endgame MCU, or serve as mentors to the next generation of Avengers (and Guardians of the Galaxy, for that matter), others have had their story arcs seemingly brought to an end. As any comics fan will attest, though, nothing is ever permanent in the world of superheroes — and popular characters always find a way back into action.
(Note: From this point forward we’ll be discussing Avengers: Endgame plot points and character arcs, so consider this a spoiler warning for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie yet.)
The introduction of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in 2008’s Iron Man is one of the seminal events of the MCU, establishing a founding member of what would eventually become The Avengers and one of the franchise’s most iconic performances. Over the years that followed, Downey’s portrayal of the billionaire philanthropist playboy would transcend the Iron Man franchise to become one of the threads that held together the interconnected narrative of the MCU.
In the 11 years that followed Downey’s debut as Tony Stark, the MCU blossomed into a massive population of colorful heroes, villains, and supporting characters, each with their own distinct place in the greater story being told. With Avengers: Endgame, however, Tony Stark’s story has seemingly reached its end.
That doesn’t mean we’ve seen the last of Iron Man, though.
Over the years, Marvel Comics stories have featured a long list of characters donning Iron Man’s armor — or some variation of it — for one reason or another and taking on the mantle of the iconic hero.
Although this is unlikely to happen in the MCU in the near future (in order to give Tony’s death the period of mourning it deserves), Marvel Comics’ history suggests there’s a very real possibility that we’ll see someone else become the Avengers’ resident tech genius and armor-clad one-person army.
So who is that likely to be? One need only look to Iron Man’s comic book history for a few potential heirs to the Iron Man mantle.
In a 1994 story arc, a group of Tony’s allies donned suits of armor to defeat a powerful android named Ultimo. This “Iron Legion” was assembled by Tony’s friend and fellow armored hero, James “Rhodey” Rhodes, and included Tony’s longtime friend and bodyguard Happy Hogan.
Given that Rhodes and Hogan are already prominent characters in the MCU (they’re portrayed by Don Cheadle and Jon Favreau, respectively), there’s nothing stopping the Iron Legion from assembling on the big screen. Cheadle is already doing so as War Machine, and maybe the best argument in favor of a new, human Iron Legion (as opposed to the army of A.I.-controlled suits seen in Iron Man 3 and Avengers: Age of Ultron) is the possibility of seeing Favreau don a suit of Iron Man armor — even if it’s just a one-time thing.
Another possibility comes from a more recent arc of Marvel Comics stories that introduced 16-year-old tech genius Riri Williams, an MIT student who created her own version of Iron Man’s armor. Riri went on to assist Tony in various conflicts that played out in the pages of the Invincible Iron Man series and, at one point, she even filled in quite successfully as the new Iron Man when Tony was incapacitated. She eventually set out to forge her own legacy as a new armored hero, Ironheart.
Much like the Miles Morales version of Spider-Man, who gained enough popularity in Marvel’s comics to make the leap to the screen in the Oscar-winning feature Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Riri is a tremendously popular character in the comics with a loyal, passionate fan base. This certainly doesn’t hurt her chances of finding a way into the MCU and filling the void left by Tony’s death.
Closer to home, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) made a strong case for herself during Endgame as a possible successor to Tony Stark, and given how well she wore the high-tech armor in combat against Thanos’ army, it wouldn’t be surprising to see her suit up again. Sure, it seems unlikely that Potts — or Paltrow, for that matter — would be interested in taking on a recurring role, but serving as a mentor to the next person to wear the armor seems entirely plausible.
Finally, while it seems the least likely at this point given the conclusion of his arc in Endgame, there’s always the chance that we’ll see Tony Stark himself don the armor again at some point.
In Endgame, we saw how the MCU timeline can be manipulated when necessary, bringing both objects and characters from one point in history to another.
If the situation proves dire enough, there’s little to stop the Avengers from taking a trip back in time to get some assistance from Tony Stark before his death. In fact, Tony did something similar himself in Endgame when he got some parenting advice from his own father during his journey back in time with Steve Rogers.
This angle has a particularly appropriate connection to Marvel Comics lore, which has included a story arc in which a young Tony Stark gets pulled out of his own timeline to don Iron Man’s armor and help the Avengers when his older counterpart is unable (or unwilling) to do so. The current state of digital de-aging effects offers all kinds of possibilities for Downey Jr. to play a younger version of himself (having already done so in Captain America: Civil War), so the technology is certainly there, even if the story isn’t (yet).
Time and time again, death has proven to be a temporary setback when it comes to superheroes — whether in the pages of Marvel’s comics or on the big screen. Endgame might seem like the final word for Tony Stark, but that doesn’t mean it’s the last we’ll see of Iron Man.
In this and so many other ways, the MCU is still a universe of possibilities, and it’s hard to believe we won’t see more of one of its greatest heroes.
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