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Iron Man is forever. Robert Downey Jr. isn’t

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After weeks of back and forth, will he or won't he, Marvel finally announced Robert Downey Jr.'s next appearance as Tony Stark / Iron Man, playing counterpoint to Chris Evans' Steve Roger in the NSA-fueled Captain America 3.

But the most interesting part of the announcement is this behind-the-scenes blurb from Variety:

Originally, Marvel wanted to hire Downey for a small role, which would have required just three weeks of work. But Downey wanted Stark to have a more substantial role in the film's plot, which would give him more screen time and naturally a bigger payday. This angered Marvel Entertainment chief Ike Perlmutter, who ordered the screenwriters to write Iron Man out of the script entirely, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.

Robert Downey Jr. is Tony Stark. Tony Stark, likewise, is Robert Downey Jr. (with a dash of Elon Musk). There's no point arguing otherwise; so much of Stark the character feels like an extension of Downey's own. Marvel Studios has merged the two personalities into one inextricably linked entity, which is why Marvel is more likely to write the character out completely rather than recasting.

But while Robert Downey Jr. may always be Tony Stark, he won't always be Iron Man. And now that all of Marvel's movies are arguably one expansive story, the future of Iron Man is decidedly less certain — and at the same time, way more interesting.

Note: we're gonna be talking at length about rumors, which may feel like potential spoilers for future movies. Consider yourself warned.

Previously, if you were a studio with a major property that had fallen on hard times, it was far easier to recast heroes or reboot the whole thing entirely. Need a new Spider-Man? Just blow everything up and start over. How about a new Batman? The connections between Tim Burton's and Joel Schumacher's films were so tenuous that no one would bat an eye — and Nolan's trilogy neither reflects the franchise's past or future.

Even James Bond, a film franchise that has endured more than 50 years, exists by merit of rebooting. Each Bond (there's been seven so far) carries on the spirit while interpreting the tenor differently. Continuity is never a concern: Daniel Craig never talks about his one-time friend 006 (Pierce Brosnan's Goldeneye) or that time in 1967 when he "became Japanese" (Sean Connery's You Only Live Twice). A show like Doctor Who has literally built franchise rebooting into the storyline (he's an alien that looks human and every so often regenerates with a new body and personality... because... aliens).

It isn't just the same universe; it's the same continuous story

But Marvel Studios is doing something unprecedented with its films: it's building a singular narrative, spanning decades of real-world production, comprised almost exclusively of blockbusters. Because every film is a summer tentpole, and they all tie into one another like chapters in an incredibly long novel. It isn't just the same cinematic universe; it's the same continuous story, replete with characters who all go out for shawarma together. That's how Chris Evans can pop up in Thor: The Dark World and the audience instinctively knows, hey, that's Steve Rogers! That's Captain America!

The current tally for Marvel's Cinematic Universe is 21 movies in all. That's 10 films already released, five more announced or in production, and six yet-to-be-announced films that already have release dates between now and 2019.

That's not to say recasting in a Marvel movie is without precedent. Hulk was a freebie — the first movie before the idea of a Cinematic Universe really took shape. And as for the War Machine (aka "Rhodey" Rhodes), Terrence Howard transformed into Don Cheadle without so much as a quip about a new haircut. But that, too, was very early in Marvel Studio's life, and the latter character wasn't a lead. It's telling that no star actors or actresses have been recast since.

Marvel Studios has made the actors' very image a brand. Rarely do any of its heroes wear masks. And while it can't recast a face, it can let a new character wear the symbol. Iron Man is a suit. Thor is just one of many Asgardians, male or female, currently worthy enough to wield Mjolnir. Nobody ever suggests Marvel would replace Steve Rogers — instead, they speculate which pre-existing characters might take up the shield when Chris Evans retires. People tally up how many movies each actor has left on his or her contract, speculating when the end truly is near — if not for the hero, at least for the person holding it at the moment.

Take, for example, Sebastian Stan. The actor who plays Bucky Barnes aka The Winter Soldier has a nine-picture movie deal. Captain America 3, meanwhile, with be the fifth movie in Chris Evans' six-movie deal, leaving one left in his contract. Chances are good that Barnes is being prepped as the next Captain America. And rumor has it the original Avengers cast may not be in Avengers 3, which isn't as crazy as it might initially seem. Seriously, how do you expect to keep actors and actresses around for nearly two decades of films?

This isn't just a concern for Marvel. Everyone wants to create that wholly intertwined universe now — chief among them Marvel's chief rival DC Comics, which just mapped out its next 10 interconnected films, all due out between now and 2020. What happens if Gal Gadot backs out after the Wonder Woman movie but before Justice League Part Two?

Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man has been the catalyst for all of Marvel's film success. But the story has grown beyond him. It's a long-term concern but one Marvel Studios is no doubt contemplating — after all, it claims to be planning films through 2028.

Come to think of it, what's Don Cheadle up to for the next 14 years?