Anyone who has read a comic book will be able to tell you that death has a tendency to lack a lasting effect on those that it may consume. Sometimes, that can be irritating, because once a death is “undone” in one way or another, it can almost take away from the significance of the story where the death took place, especially if it was in the form of a sacrifice for the greater good, or used as motivation for another character to do what’s right.
More than a year after that epic moment when Tony Stark took the six Infinity Stones and snapped Thanos away for good, fans of the MCU are still trying to think of different ways to bring Robert Downey Jr.’s beloved character back to the big screen. The Russo Brothers and Downey Jr. had a conversation about this recently, and while Robert Downey Jr. expressed that fans of the MCU will “move [them] towards what they want,” director Anthony Russo admitted that if Tony Stark were to return to the MCU, it “would have to be earned,” and that it would have to “surprise and shock audiences” in order for it to be justified.
Before Tony Stark perished in the blockbuster climax to Marvel Studios’ Infinity Saga, he was the face of the MCU for the better part of 11 years, making 10 separate on-screen appearances throughout the 23-film ensemble. In the same fashion, Iron Man has also shown up in countless places in Marvel comics since his first appearance in the early 1960’s (Marvel’s Tales of Suspense #39). Because of this, the man-in-a-can has also had to face death numerous times throughout the years; however, he’s also been resurrected before, as have many others in Marvel comics.
In light of that, Marvel Studios has plenty of source material to work with if they wanted to revisit Tony’s decade-long story arc, so it certainly wouldn’t hurt to speculate on the different ways that they can “earn” Robert Downey Jr.’s MCU return as Iron Man, as well as the different ways that MCU fans may want to see this done. Here are the top 7 ways - ranked from most to least likely - that our team at The Direct thinks Tony Stark can make a reappearance in the next Avengers movie.
1. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE
One of the most popular scenarios of how fans can continue to see Tony Stark in the MCU while also honoring the sacrifice that he made in Avengers: Endgame is by Tony’s “essence” returning as artificial intelligence, similar to how the audience knows Tony’s A.I. programs like J.A.R.V.I.S. and F.R.I.D.A.Y.
Marvel Studios would actually have a lot to refer to if they chose to take this route. In one Marvel comic storyline, Tony creates an A.I. version of himself to serve as a “backup” of sorts, in case his human form failed him, so that his essence could be preserved. Tony then downloaded this essence onto a device and sent it to the child prodigy known as Riri Williams, who was keenly following in Tony Stark’s heroic footsteps. The A.I. assisted Riri in building the second suit of armor for the aspiring teen hero and later came up with the superhero alias “Ironheart” that she would officially go by.
Some fans have been speculating since the release of Avengers: Endgame that Tony might have already accomplished the task of backing himself up to the cloud, mainly due to how the projection of Tony looks straight at Morgan during his final words in the film. Although Stark does mention that this message was recorded before the events that led to his demise, fans believe that the projection of Tony is actually the A.I. essence that Tony had created for this exact situation.
This theory has been further reinforced after the events of Spider-Man: Far From Home, as the audience was not introduced to the colossal E.D.I.T.H. program until the final installment in the Infinity Saga. Because of this, many fans have made the assumption that the E.D.I.T.H. program was not fully developed until after the events of Endgame, since it was not utilized in Endgame’s final battle, and was not given to Peter Parker until the following summer in Far From Home, which is speculated to be about eight months after Tony’s death.
In the MCU, fans have seen Stark provide all kinds of useful tech for those that he cared about - most of Spider-Man’s suits and the E.D.I.T.H. program, as well as Harley Keener’s workshop at the end of Iron Man 3, Pepper’s Endgame RESCUE armor, and Rhodey’s many upgraded War Machine suits. It can’t be ignored that Tony did leave behind a daughter, who did seem to take an interest in her father’s work by trying on the helmet that Tony designed for Pepper, and sitting quietly in the background while watching Tony basically discover time travel. This would give Tony even further motivation to ensure his daughter, specifically, would grow up with at least a variation of his presence to guide her through life.
With a new Avengers team already taking form, and younger members set to show up in different Marvel Studios projects in the near future, the essence of Tony Stark could also act as a mentor for the incoming Young Avengers, just as Tony had briefly done for Harley Keener and Peter Parker. Tony could also serve as the perfect A.I. for the entire updated Avengers roster, just as J.A.R.V.I.S. had done in the first two Avengers films.
2. ALTERNATE REALITY
Another popular choice among the different ways that Tony can make his way back into the main MCU timeline in the next Avengers movie is by a concept that has only recently been introduced to the MCU, but will be explored much further in the near future: Alternate realities.
Fans have already seen this method explored in Avengers: Endgame, specifically with Gamora. In 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, Gamora was at the source of Thanos’ toughest decision in the film, where he had to make a choice between keeping his adopted daughter alive and acquiring the coveted Soul Stone. For the sake of completing his maniacal quest, Thanos chose the latter, which meant Gamora would lose her life. A year later, in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, the audience sees Nebula time travel back to 2014 with a trio of Avengers (which creates an alternate branch reality) in order to retrieve the Power Stone before it begins its journey that fans see in Guardians of the Galaxy. Unfortunately, what the Avengers weren’t prepared for was that Nebula is captured and replaced by that reality’s Nebula, and she returns to the mainline MCU reality in the original Nebula’s place. The alternate Nebula then brings Thanos and his army - which includes that alternate reality’s Gamora - to the reality that she’s in, bringing a second Gamora to the reality where she had already once existed... A bit complicated to say the least.
No one knows exactly where Gamora is now, or what she is up to, but an Endgame deleted scene briefly pans over to the misplaced Gamora, who is shown quickly fleeing the scene where Thanos and his army had just been defeated. Despite it being adamantly established that neither Gamora nor Natasha could come back to life after their lives were sacrificed to gain access to the Soul Stone in the third and fourth Avengers films, the alternate reality Gamora was able to exist in the mainline MCU without any difficulty.
The technology needed to time travel clearly still exists at the end of Avengers: Endgame, as the audience sees Smart Hulk successfully send Steve Rogers back in time to return all six Infinity Stones to the places from which they were originally retrieved throughout the film. So, this is certainly an option that Marvel Studios could turn to, should there ever be an instance where the Avengers are once again in need of a big brain.
3. TEMPORARY RESURRECTION
Let’s say that Tony remains in his grave for the foreseeable future, with no way for the Avengers to bring him back, regardless of how badly they may need him. In Marvel comics, fellow heroes aren’t the only ones who have brought members of the Avengers team back from the dead.
As a result of the cosmos-shaking conflict in the Marvel comics known at the Chaos War series, the maniacal villain the Chaos King “obliterated the Underworld, freeing the dead to walk the earth” (see Chaos War: Alpha Flight). Consequently, several deceased Marvel heroes were revived, including fallen Avengers like Vision and the original Captain Marvel. They soon found that they were summoned back from the dead by the Grim Reaper who, in a mad ego trip, wanted all Avengers - both living and previously dead - in one place so he could annihilate them all at once as part of his servitude to the Chaos King.
Unfortunately for the recently-revived heroes, the Grim Reaper does make progress towards his goal of killing all of the Avengers in Chaos War: Dead Avengers #3, when he successfully killed the likes of Captain Marvel, Doctor Druid, and Vision. However, Vision brought down the Grim Reaper with him in his second death, which greatly impacted the outcome of King Chaos’ quest.
This scenario is obviously just an example of resurrection in the comics, as the Marvel Cinematic Universe is nowhere near being in this type of arena. Although some heroes did once again perish in their fight to stop the Chaos King, there were others who lived through the madness, such as the entire Canadian super team Alpha Flight, which went on afterward to star in a new short-lived series. So a situation such as this could present a variety of possibilities for Tony’s second chance at life, one which he'd only have a few hours, days, or weeks to live. And with a certain egomaniac villain still alive (and nowhere to be found) by the name of Red Skull, who has spent the past 80+ years as the keeper of the Soul Stone, this storyline could very much be adapted into a revenge story for Red Skull, bringing Captain America and his fellow Avengers back to life to get the revenge that he thinks he is owed.
To some fans, the concept of the “afterlife” in Marvel comics is as simple as a waiting room with a revolving door - you die, you take a number, you wait, and when they call your number, then back you go (unless you’re Uncle Ben, then something is always wrong with your paperwork). However, there are versions of the afterlife in Marvel comics that are actually quite original and complex.
For example, In the books Fantastic Four (1998) #510 & #511, Ben Grimm aka the Thing had been killed during a battle with Doctor Doom, but Reed Richards was certain that Ben could be resurrected. Using a modified model of Doom's old afterlife machine, the team found themselves at the gates of the Marvel comics equivalent of Heaven. Persuaded it was not yet his time, Ben agreed to return to the land of the living with his friends - and the Creator allowed it. The same concept could be explored with current MCU technology, as the Avengers are just beginning to scratch the surface of quantum physics. So, one idea could be that the machine that Tony built for time travel could be repurposed to use quantum energy to find the MCU version of the afterlife.
Another noteworthy version of the afterlife from Marvel comics is actually something that MCU fans have seen a cinematic adaptation of already, known as the Soul World - a pocket dimension that exists within the Soul Stone, as seen at the end of Avengers: Infinity War. After snapping his fingers and disintegrating half of all life in the universe, Thanos was teleported there and met the soul of a younger Gamora, whom he had to sacrifice in order to obtain the Soul Stone. A cut scene from Avengers: Endgame shows Tony Stark meeting with his daughter in the Soul World after an Infinity Snap of his own that rid the universe of Thanos and his army.
If Gamora was present in the Soul World after Thanos sacrificed her life to acquire the Soul Stone, then it would make sense that Tony Stark would also exist in the Soul World, since he gave his own life in order to wield the stone. If the Avengers can figure out how to get in that little acorn-sized dimension to bring Stark back home, they may very well find exactly who they’re looking for.
5. CONDITIONAL RESURRECTION
Another example of resurrection in Marvel comics comes from the Annihilation: Scourge line. In 2011's Fantastic Four #587, Johnny Storm aka the Human Torch tried to hold off an entire alien horde all by himself when they started infiltrating the Baxter Building. Johnny pushed them back through a portal into the Negative Zone, but the bugs overwhelmed him to the point that he lost his life. A year later, in 2012's Fantastic Four #600, it was revealed that the Human Torch was resurrected by another group of Negative Zone insects just in order to torture him. Johnny soon launched a revolt against the insects’ leader, Annihilus, and defeated him in combat, and he was able to find his way back to Earth.
Side note: Many fans believe that the Quantum Realm that was first introduced in 2015’s Ant-Man is actually the MCU interpretation of the Negative Zone. Due to Disney not acquiring 21st Century Fox and its property until several years after Ant-Man’s release, Marvel Studios would not have had the right to use the name “Negative Zone,” but that wouldn’t stop them from creating their own version of it so that it could still be used in their universe. Now that Disney does own the property previously with Fox, they can easily retcon the Quantum Realm as coinciding with the Negative Zone, and everything the Negative Zone contains, which would include Annihilus and his insect army.
Although Johnny did make it back home, his resurrection wasn’t exactly conventional. It was terribly painful, and he was brought back to life only so that his arch nemesis could torture him for trying to put a stop to his maniacal plan. In Avengers: Endgame, Tony Stark saved the entire universe from being destroyed and rewritten. Even though Thanos and his army are no longer a threat, there is no saying who else might be out there - such as Annihilus in the Negative Zone - who despises Stark for saving the day and may feel as if he missed his chance to knock Stark around before he died, and want to bring Tony back so that the insect villain can get a couple of swings in himself.
6. BLOOD TRANSFUSION REVIVAL
One thing that many casual fans of the MCU still don’t know is that Marvel Studios has actually had a trick up their sleeve for years if they ever needed to bring someone back from the dead, but it isn’t as easy of a process as people might hope. Early fans of the MCU will remember watching the rising action of 2012’s The Avengers, and having to see one of the MCU’s most distinctive original characters and Nick Fury’s right-hand man - S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson - attempt to go toe-to-toe with Loki, only to be tricked and fatally wounded by Loki’s scepter. This scene is the last time that the MCU audience saw their favorite S.H.I.E.L.D. agent (until his appearance in 2019’s Captain Marvel, set 17 years before The Avengers). However, anyone who watches the television side of Marvel will know that Phil Coulson was back on his feet shortly after the events of the MCU’s first epic team-up.
How could this have happened? It was all thanks to a Level 9 S.H.I.E.L.D. program called Project T.A.H.I.T.I. (Terrestrialized Alien Host Integrative Tissue I.), which was originally designed by Nick Fury to revive a fallen Avenger. As eventually revealed in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Fury made the decision to use this program on Agent Coulson, which revived him by using chemicals harvested from the body of a Kree alien. Coulson’s operation was an overall success; however, other test subjects for the project weren’t as fortunate, so Coulson ultimately had the project shut down.
It’s safe to assume that this technology is still available in some form or another in the MCU, because much of Season 2 of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. focused on Coulson and his team trying to track down whoever else had access to the Kree chemicals. Agent Coulson was the head of this project before Nick Fury ordered that it be used on him, and Coulson saw the physical and mental toll that this project put on its patients, so it would take more than just some simple convincing for S.H.I.E.L.D. to allow this program to be revisited, even if it were to serve its original intended purpose.
7. PERMANENT RESURRECTION
Despite the six scenarios above regarding how Tony could return in Avengers 5, let’s say that none of them came to fruition. There is an equal chance that, as of right now, Marvel Studios has not been leaving clues for the audience that Tony will be brought back, and that they don’t know if or when it’ll ever happen. This does not mean that Tony cannot return to the silver screen - in fact, it could actually open the door for a very unique idea that comes straight from the pages of Heroes Reborn, a comic line that focuses on the aftermath of Marvel’s Onslaught event.
The Onslaught series ended in an epic, all-hands-on-deck team-up consisting of the Avengers, X-Men and Fantastic Four, going against the titular villain. But after Onslaught turned into a being of pure energy, almost every hero had seemingly met their fate. However, using his immense, reality-warping mutant powers, Franklin Richards (the young mutant son of the Fantastic Four's Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman) created a pocket universe inside a ball where he recreated the heroes as he remembered them, as if they had never perished at all.
The Fantastic Four will soon finally join the MCU, hopefully early on in Phase 5. If an event like Onslaught were to present itself once Marvel’s First Family has joined the fun, Marvel Studios could retcon that Tony and Reed once knew each other, due to their exceptional intellect and them both being prominent inventors, and use this as a way for Franklin Richards to know who Stark is and be able to recreate him from what he remembers. And if they don’t, Franklin will still more than likely grow up in a world knowing Iron Man as Earth’s greatest hero, as the audience saw in Spider-Man: Far From Home that there were memorials and murals and statues all over the world honoring Tony for giving his life to save the universe. Franklin could use this knowledge to quite literally create a new version of the legendary hero that he grew up admiring.
"THAT'S THE HERO GIG."
Ultimately, there are plenty of pathways that Marvel Studios can take if they want Tony Stark to assemble once more in Avengers 5, whether it be through reviving his human form or introducing an entirely new version of him. Additionally, Marvel Studios has proven countless times that they’re just as capable of coming up with their own ideas for how to make their decades-long narrative flow without a hiccup, so they could also surely utilize an idea that hasn’t been mentioned here. So, if bringing Tony back is truly what the MCU fanbase wants, and if Marvel Studios can justify bringing him back into the picture, then it’s just a matter of what works best for the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe.