Since Robert Downey Jr. departed from Marvel, he starred in Dolittle, which wasn't received well, and Oppenheimer, which some say is his best performance. The actor has even admitted that it's "the best film [he's] ever been in."
Meanwhile, Marvel Studios has been pushing ahead with its Multiverse Saga, which has received mixed reviews through all of Phase 4 and is off to a slow start in Phase 5 with Disney+'s Secret Invasion.
Something that has been missing for many fans is the face of the franchise. Downey broke out the Pandora's box of Marvel characters on screen back in 2008 and became the unofficial leader of the pack.
Since his Marvel departure, it has become a debate amongst fans about who is the new leader of the MCU. An updated look into the behind-the-scenes of Marvel Studios indicates exactly who was meant to replace RDJ.
Actors Set Up to Replace Robert Downey Jr. in the MCU
Joanna Robinson, a co-author of MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios, told the Phase Zero podcast the four actors Marvel wanted to replace Robert Downey Jr.
Within a detailed explanation of Downey's impact on the MCU and how it changed since his character's death, Robinson shared who Marvel hoped would fill the shoes of the "on-screen and off-screen leader" and "recruiter or sort of an ambassador" of the franchise.
As the MCU's Ant-Man, Paul Rudd is an obvious choice as a (partial) replacement for Downey Jr. He's an established actor outside of the confines of Marvel, has been in the MCU since 2015, and became a key member of the Avengers in Endgame.
Cumberbatch as Stephen Strange is a leader within the MCU but doesn't necessarily fill that same role, especially considering his on-again off-again relationship with the Avengers.
Before his untimely passing in August 2020, Chadwick Boseman as T'Challa was most likely the frontrunner to replace Downey Jr. as the face of the MCU.
However, comparing the fan response to her first film Captain Marvel to Downey Jr.'s Iron Man isn't fair as Captain Marvel looks to continue to win more MCU fans over.
Does Marvel Have an Iron Man Replacement?
During the interview, Joanna Robinson prefaced her list of potential Robert Downey Jr. replacements by saying she doesn't "think [Marvel] have a replacement:"
"I don’t think they have a replacement and I think that they had hoped that some of the people that they had put in place including [Paul] Rudd, [Benedict] Cumberbatch, the late, great Chadwick Boseman, Brie Larson, etc. might step in and be that sort of on-screen and off-screen leader. But that has not been the case for a number of reasons."
Robinson believes Marvel "thought centering T’Challa would be the roadmap forward:"
"And I think most tragically in Chadwick Boseman’s case, I think, they really thought centering T’Challa would be the roadmap forward. And then, we’re just missing that among other things.”
While speaking on the podcast, she delved into the struggles Marvel faced over the past four years, since Downey Jr. has left.
She mentioned that in the early post-Endgame era, "every A-list actor wanted a role in a Marvel" movie due to the brand's immense popularity (a possible reference to the Eternals star-studded cast):
"And every A-list actor wanted a role in a Marvel movie, and your Oscar winners, and your whatever, your cinematic legends."
An important note Robinson made was how much of a factor Downey Jr. was drawing in shaping the entire MCU alongside President Kevin Feige. She noted that "Downey’s wry, zippy tone" was complimentary to director Joss Whedon and helped mold Phase 2:
"[Downey] is setting a tone that they followed and you can just see echoes of Downey’s wry, zippy tone and Joss Whedon, as a writer, matches that tone, so when he sort of shepherds Phase 2, it endures through that."
Unfortunately, the landscape has evolved, and while Marvel still attracts talent, it's no longer as effortless to secure top-tier actors or capable of following the lead of one actor as much as Downey Jr.