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How Iron Man could return after his Endgame death

Considering that it set a record for the shortest time a film has ever taken to make $2 billion at the box office, chances are pretty good that you've already seen Avengers: Endgame and don't need this spoiler warning for one of the movie's major plot points. Like many of us expected going into the theater, Tony Stark doesn't make make it out of Endgame alive — he sacrifices his life to defeat Thanos once and for all, and as the character who launched the entire franchise, his death puts a bookend on the first 11 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Marvel fans had been bracing themselves for Tony's death, but it still raises a pretty big question about what's going to happen going forward. Since so much of that universe has been built around Stark and his armor-clad alter ego, his absence leaves a pretty big vacuum that's bound to be filled, one way or another. Here's how Iron Man just might return after the events of Endgame.

The Rhodes less traveled

Tony Stark might be dead, but one of the best things about having a hero whose powers come from a suit of armor is that almost anyone can wear it — assuming they're the kind of person who doesn't mind flying around with rocket-boots and shooting bad guys with repulsor rays. If that's the case, then there's no better candidate for the new Iron Man than Colonel Jim Rhodes, who already has plenty of experience in the suit.

That's not what makes Rhodey the obvious choice, though. He's been better known as War Machine for decades, but Rhodey's first major comics arc came when he took over the identity of Iron Man while Tony was struggling with alcoholism. His tenure as the Armored Avenger lasted for four years, and even saw him as the version of Iron Man who went off to fight in Secret Wars, Marvel's first big crossover event.

Rhodey even has a similar setup to the original premise of Iron Man, which is that he's using the armor to compensate for a disability. Plus, he has the added bonus of being a known quantity among MCU fans — Don Cheadle might've replaced Terrence Howard a few years into the franchise, but the character has been around since the first Iron Man film. Then again, that might be a detriment, too — Cheadle's the same age as Downey, and while that obviously didn't keep him from some epic superhero action in Endgame, the filmmakers might be looking for someone a little younger going forward.

The next generation

Endgame paid off plenty of plot points that had been set up across the Marvel Universe. It lived up to its promise of being the end of an era, but those movies show no sign of slowing down anytime soon, so it makes sense that it would also lay down a little foreshadowing of its own.

If that's the case, then there might be a good reason why Morgan Stark, Tony's five year-old daughter, is introduced to us wearing one of Tony's helmets and a toy Repulsor, and why a huge chunk of that movie is devoted to Tony reconciling with his own father. From helping found S.H.I.E.L.D. to helping found the Avengers and Pepper showing up as Rescue, superheroism is a family business for the Starks. There's no reason why Morgan couldn't eventually carry on that legacy.

Of course, the obvious problem there is that Morgan Stark is currently, you know, five years old, which makes Peter Parker seem like an elder statesman. It's also completely uncharted territory — Tony Stark has never had a kid in the comics. There is an existing Morgan Stark on the page, but instead of Tony's adorable daughter, he's Tony's nefarious cousin who constantly attempts to take over his business, which would be an even weirder development for a child than fighting to the death against the Crimson Dynamo.

Heir apparent

If the MCU wants to get really weird, there's one very unlikely character who could take up the armor as the all-new Iron Man: Peter Parker. To be fair, this is only really a possibility in the technical sense — it could happen, but it's almost certain that it won't. Spider-Man is, after all, one of Marvel's most popular characters in his own right, and with Into the Spider-Verse thwipping its way to critical acclaim, he's one of the only superheroes who can carry two simultaneous film franchises that, for now at least, have nothing to do with each other. 

Blending his role with Iron Man's wouldn't really do either one of those brands any favors, but there's a level where it would actually make sense. From the moment he stepped onto the screen in Captain America: Civil War, Peter and Tony have been connected, with Tony acting as a mentor and specifically mentioning that he was trying to avoid making the same mistakes his father did when it came to dealing with a teenage super-genius. Tony even provided Spider-Man with his equipment, giving him the high-tech version of his familiar suit that he wears in Homecoming, and the "Iron Spider" armor that we see him wearing to space in Infinity War and Endgame

That's a relationship that they've never really had in the comics, and if he was any other character — one who hadn't been Marvel's flagship hero since his debut — Peter would be the obvious choice to take over. As it stands, we're definitely getting a further examination of that mentor/student relationship going forward, but it's far more likely to end with Spider-Man deciding to strike out on his own. 

Ironheart

If the MCU really wants to move forward and put a younger character into the armor, the comics have served up a ready-made replacement in the form of Riri Williams, better known as Ironheart.

Introduced in 2016, Riri is a teenage genius from Chicago who reverse-engineered Stark technology and built her own suit of Iron Man armor using material that she'd stolen from MIT, where she was presumably pursuing a degree in Superheroic Armor Construction. Since Tony Stark was dead at the time (long story, he got better), she wound up fighting crime, assisted by an AI version of Tony that he had uploaded his brain into before he died. Eventually, after a meeting with Pepper, she wound up creating her own suit from scratch and taking the identity of Ironheart.

As far as replacements go, she'd definitely be an interesting one, but the fact that she already has a separate identity — one that's already appeared in media like cartoons — would seem to make that unlikely. Still, there's one really cool connection to the roots of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Back in 2008, Tony Stark built his first suit of Iron Man armor in a cave. Riri built hers in the garage. Echoing those roots in a different form would be a nice way to go forward.

2020 vision

Teen Tony is a long shot, but there's one other alternate version of Iron Man who seems like he's begging for a comeback: Arno Stark, the Iron Man of the year 2020.

He was introduced in 1984, when 2020 still seemed like the far-off future. The basic idea is that he was a younger cousin of Tony Stark's who used a scary-looking version of the Iron Man suit with giant gears on the shoulders to act as a mercenary. Thanks to the magic of time travel, Iron Man 2020 wound up fighting Spider-Man 1986 and Iron Man 1990 in what was a surprisingly uneventful career as a supervillain.

With the actual, for-real 2020 only a few months away, it might not surprise you to learn that Marvel has been laying the seeds for Arno to make a comics return in his namesake year. Most recently, it's turned out that Tony was actually adopted, and that Howard and Maria Stark's first child, Arno, had been the subject of genetic experimentation by an alien robot (comics!), which caused them to adopt a "decoy child." Arno eventually made his return as a relatively heroic character who teamed up with his adopted cousin, and is currently floating around the Marvel Universe, presumably waiting to live up to his namesake. Obviously, that's some complicated stuff even by Marvel standards, but hey: the opportunity to use Iron Man 2020 in the actual 2020 only comes around once.

Ghost in the machine

If Tony Stark himself is going to make a comeback, then there's actually a very easy way to pull it off without actually cheapening his death in Endgame, and they wouldn't even have to hire a new actor to do it. Just have Tony return as an artificial intelligence.

This has been done before in the comics, most recently with the AI Tony that helped Riri Williams build her armor and served as her on-board computer, based on a digital version of Tony's memories and personality that were created as a sort of emergency backup. Of course, in the comics, sentient AIs are a dime a dozen, but the MCU isn't far off itself. Friday and "Karen," the onboard AI for Spider-Man's Stark-designed suit, both have distinct personalities, and J.A.R.V.I.S., the Iron Man suit's original AI,  was even able to evolve into a full-on sentient being in Age of Ultron, when it became the Vision.

This all depends on how truly done with the role Robert Downey Jr. is (and how big the truckload of money is that they're willing to dump on his front lawn to get him to do a couple days of mocap work), but all things considered, it seems like a pretty likely way to get Tony back into the mix. A holographic Tony serving as the onboard AI for a character like Riri or Morgan (or even Rhodey, which would annoy that dude to no end) would be a nice way to bridge the gap to a new Iron Man, or he could even control an empty suit of armor himself.

Armor Wars

If Iron Man is going to come back, then there's nothing that says he has to be a good guy. A new Iron Man could just as easily be a foe for the heroes, using Tony's name and technology for sinister ends.

That's actually the premise of one of the most well-known and beloved Iron Man stories, "Armor Wars," the premise of which is that Tony finds out that his tech has been used by armored villains and goes all-out to destroy their armor so his creations can't be used for evil. The MCU obviously lacks the sheer number of armored enemies that the comics have built up over the past 60 years, but between Obadiah Stane's recreation of the armor in Iron Man, Justin Hammer's mass-produced knockoffs in Iron Man 2, and all of those pieces of the armor that were destroyed in Iron Man 3, there's enough of it out there that it's not implausible that someone could build their own — especially if they had an uninterrupted five-year span to work on it.

The idea of Pepper and Rhodey teaming up to save Tony's legacy is compelling, and a villain co-opting Tony's signature "I am Iron Man" line is almost so easy that it's tough to imagine not doing it. Plus, dealing with the idea of the legacy these heroes leave, blurring the definitive lines between heroes and villains that we've seen in Endgame, and examining the Iron Man suit as a weapon whose morality is determined entirely by its user would be an interesting way to move forward in a world without Tony Stark.

How do you do, fellow kids?

Maybe Marvel doesn't actually want to replace Tony Stark as Iron Man. Maybe they want to bring him back, but also make sure that they don't undermine the sacrifice he made to defeat Thanos. If so, there's one way that they can have their armor-plated cake and eat it, too: they could give us the film version of Teen Tony.

For those of you who don't have the good fortune of knowing about this, the comics killed off Tony Stark in 1996 after revealing he was a secret murderer and attempted to attract new readers by replacing him with a teenage Tony from another dimension. Like the original Tony, he had to wear the armor to keep his heart beating — because he'd actually been stabbed in the chest by the original Tony — but did so as a Cool '90s Youth who didn't have a mustache. He also didn't have much success in the whole "get people to read this comic" thing, and was himself killed off via heroic sacrifice ten months later, quickly becoming one of those weird comics things that we just don't talk about. Still, it's been 22 years, and that's enough time to give this idea another shot by casting one of those kids from the CW as the all-new Tony Stark. We even have more than a few hints that the MCU is introducing a full-on multiverse as of Spider-Man: Far from Home.

Is this going to happen? Absolutely not. But at the same time, that's exactly what we would've said if you told us ten years ago that Rocket Raccoon, Crossbones, and M'Baku were going to be in the the same movie, and that it was going to be one of the biggest blockbusters of all time.

Armor full of squirrels

Okay, bear with us for a second.

One of Marvel's most popular characters in recent years has been Squirrel Girl. No, really. She's the star of a long-running and award-winning comic, and she's set to appear as the lead in an upcoming New Warriors TV series. While Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Netflix shows are technically set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the TV and movie projects have always been pretty separate. If, however, the MCU wants to tie things together, there's one way they could hit up some intense brand synergy and recreate an iconic moment from the comics. Just have the new Iron Man be based on the scene when an evil duplicate of Squirrel Girl kidnaps Tony Stark and convinces her rodent pals to crawl into his armor and scurry around trying to operate it, with predictably disastrous results.

Kinda makes Teen Tony seem a lot more likely, doesn't it?