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Why we never got to see Iron Man 4

If the Iron Man series can be remembered for one thing, it's for single-handedly kickstarting the absolute hurricane of comic book movies that has come to define our current pop culture moment. Before Iron Man, there was no Marvel Cinematic Universe. There was no copycat DC Extended Universe. Hell, the very concept of shared universes hadn't really even gotten off the ground, for better or worse. Suffice it to say that when Iron Man premiered eight years ago in 2008, no one could have possibly anticipated its influence—and now what had been predicted to be a box office gamble, a mildly successful B-tier blockbuster at best, has the distinction of anchoring one of the most successful series in film history.

We'll be living with Iron Man's influence for years to come, that much is a given. But what about the curious absence of Iron Man 4? At this point, are we ever getting one? Let's dig through the gossip and find out whether we'll ever see one more solo adventure with Robert Downey, Jr. as the invincible Iron Man.

The cast is too expensive

Robert Downey Jr.'s value to the Marvel Cinematic Universe simply can't be overstated; for years, he's been the charismatic center of the Avengers initiative, taking the first movie, the first face-to-face with Nick Fury, and the first trilogy. This storytelling value, however, comes with a high real-world monetary price tag. As Tony Stark, RDJ hasn't just been one of the most valuable players in the Marvel stable, he's become one of the most valuable actors in the entire world. Even modest estimates have his earning capacity at hundreds of millions of dollars, with nearly half-a-billion dollars in earnings not outside the realm of possibility. 

It's not as though these numbers ever go down, and Robert Downey Jr.'s not the only superstar on the cast. Gwyneth Paltrow and Don Cheadle are in these movies, too, and they likely take home more money the more they appear as well—nobody's popping in for a Spider-Man cameo as a favor here. The performers' salaries alone have made it so it'd probably be a lot cheaper to try and make a profit on a Squirrel Girl movie than an overstuffed Iron Man sequel.

Tony Stark is running out of interesting storylines

Another problem with continuing Iron Man's solo story on the big screen is that a lot of his most notable comic book stories have already been burned through on the screen. The most famous Iron Man plotline, the addiction arc "Demon in a Bottle," is probably never going to be turned into a movie—at least not as long as family-friendly Disney is in charge. Besides, after three movies' worth of fun adventure, does anyone really want to watch Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark descend into alcoholism? 

One way around this problem would be telling an Iron Man story without Stark. A passing of the hero's mantle is a relatively common thing the comic books, and it's only a matter of time before it happens onscreen in the MCU. It's really one of the things that makes comic books so fun—Commissioner Gordon has been Batman, Doctor Octopus has been Spider-Man, Bucky Barnes and Sam Wilson have both been Captain America. Iron Man is no different.

Currently, the Iron Man of the comics is a radically different person than Tony Stark, and the stories she can get involved in cover totally different ground than Tony's could. In the current run of Invincible Iron Man, the protagonist is a young woman, Riri Williams, who takes up the mantle of Iron Man before eventually carving out her own identity as a new hero named Ironheart. A story like that would arguably be more interesting than another RDJ outing.

A new age of heroes

For the nearly 20 movies that led up to the Infinity War, Marvel's strategy has been to release movies in three discrete "phases," each leading into the next one, ensuring no one ever feels encouraged to stop coming out to the movies. But the fourth Avengers is bringing something new to the franchise: a sense of finality. 

All of the original Avengers actors—Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, and Jeremy Renner—are reaching the end of their contracts with the fourth Avengers movie, and none of them are expected to return. It will be a definitive farewell, and now that the stakes in the overarching story of the MCU are so high, it's more important to have all of those characters take their curtain call together rather than waste an appearance on a Tony Stark solo movie.

As one generation of Avengers takes its bow, another is on the rise, with new heroes including Captain Marvel, Black Panther, Wasp, Spider-Man, and Doctor Strange taking center stage as the long saga of the Infinity Stones draws to a close. Call it a drawback of the shared universe if you'd like, but for the long-term survival of the MCU, it's more important to build out the entire sprawling franchise, not see if lightning can strike for a fourth time with another Iron Man.

Iron Man has taken on the Nick Fury role

When the MCU started, the movies weren't as interconnected, easing audiences into the "shared universe" concept with hints and references rather than a truly serialized story. In those pre-Avengers days, the real connecting tissue was Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury and the organization S.H.I.E.L.D. After a few movies spent thoroughly dismantling and destroying that institution—Hail Hydra, and all that—Nick Fury is lately nowhere to be seen, and the strongest connection between the movies has become Tony Stark. 

It's Stark, after all, who propels the events of Captain America: Civil War, in which he basically shares top billing. He does the same thing in Spider-Man: Homecoming, and with Captain America on the run by the time of Avengers: Infinity War, it falls to him to be the de facto leader of the team. In short, we don't need a fourth Iron Man movie to see Iron Man anymore. He's already popping up everywhere else, and he's so entwined with everybody else's stories that a movie with just him in it, by this point, would almost feel a little bit empty.

Audiences are ready for something new

If there's one thing audiences have shown Marvel Studios over the years, it's that they're willing to embrace the strange. Guardians of the Galaxy, much like Iron Man, proved with its success that audiences didn't need a terribly well-known property to get on board with a new movie. Additionally, Guardians of the Galaxy further demonstrated that viewers were ready to get up to some weird stuff in their comic book adaptations. A man floating around in an iron suit and shooting beams out of his hands is one level of unrealistic, but once you get an audience on board with that, why not take it to the next level and have a trilogy of adventures in space?

Since Iron Man, the movies of the MCU have begun to play with other worlds and dimensions, from the Quantum Realm of Ant-Man to the multiverse of Doctor Strange. And they've also started to explore the idea of casually teaming up their characters in movies that aren't major events like The Avengers. Now that the studio has started to explore this fun new territory, it's hard to imagine they'll go back. The world of Iron Man is robust, entertaining, but ultimately limited. We've seen Tony Stark on top of the world, and we've seen him at rock bottom. We know his best friends and his enemies. Why continue exploring the minutia of Iron Man's life when there are entirely new galaxies out there to explore? 

Iron Man 3 was a perfect ending

We're getting more into the realm of opinion here, but it's really hard to argue with the conclusion of Iron Man 3, which even at the time felt like a pretty final statement on the character. Scripted and directed by the celebrated writer-director Shane Black, the up-to-now final chapter of the Iron Man series had a lot of fun analyzing the meaning of the series and the character, playing around with a lot of metatextual concepts about what Iron Man meant. Pepper Potts wears the suit twice in the movie (which was super-fun and true to the comics), and the climax, an insane action sequence in which Stark summons something like 50 sentient uninhabited Iron Man suits to save him from an unstable, explosive villain, seems impossible to top.

It was a movie where Tony was separated from his suit for a long stretch; the movie made us analyze Tony Stark and Iron Man as separate entities, before ultimately reconciling them in the end. "My armor was never a distraction or a hobby," says Tony, as he drives into the sunset before the credits roll. "It was a cocoon—and now I'm a changed man. You can take away my house, all my tricks and toys, but one thing you can't take away—I am Iron Man." It's just a fantastic way to end the series, and to risk spoiling it with a fourth installment means flirting with diminishing the whole series. Sometimes the only way to win is not to play, and with all of these other superheroes on the shelf, maybe the smartest move is to let the series lie. We don't need Iron Man 4, not really. The next best thing is right around the corner.