Spider-Man: No Way Home serves as a monumental entry in the Spidey franchise for a whole host of reasons. Commercially, the film excelled, breaking all kinds of records and joining movies like Avengers: Endgame and Black Panther in the billion-dollar club at the box office.
Narratively, the film has also made huge strides, incorporating characters from previous Spider-Man franchises and pushing forward the Multiverse storyline initiated by Loki and continuing in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
Beyond the wild ramifications of its Multiversal premise, the film also does something quite interesting in terms of the characters it draws from earlier franchises. More than just smashing through the barriers between properties past and present, No Way Home breaks new ground in the way it resurrects characters long believed to be dead.
In doing so, it also paves the way for the return of other deceased heroes, including the extremely popular Robert Downey Jr. as the (not so) Invincible Iron Man - having last been seen three years ago in 2019's Avengers: Endgame.
Death Means Little in No Way Home
Reaching into the Sam Raimi and Marc Webb Spider-Man movies, No Way Home brings back characters like the Green Goblin, Doc Ock, and Electro. However, in their original appearances, all these characters died, whether by glider, redemptive suicide, or electric overload.
In the context of the film, the characters were simply snatched from their original universes just before their untimely demises. Even so, their returns still act as an important shift in the MCU, changing the way death is treated in the franchise.
Avid comic book fans are likely familiar with seemingly dead heroes and villains popping back up in some way or another. Death in the comic book world is extremely fleeting, with almost no one staying dead for too long - that much most will be more than aware of.
However, this sort of existential mutability is new for the MCU. In playing with the idea of bringing back characters believed to be dead, the MCU is opening the door for more even deceased individuals to return in a way it has seldom done before.
Even as No Way Home greatly expands the way death is treated, the MCU has still dabbled with resurrection occasionally before, with two specific entries in the canon best showcasing this.
How the MCU Has Resurrected Heroes Before
Captain America: The Winter Soldier serves as one of the first solid examples of characters being brought back from the grave in the MCU. Sure, Loki came back from his fall into the void of space in The Avengers, but coming back from death is one of the trickster god’s trademarks.
The Winter Soldier, on the other hand, sees three different characters return, all in different ways. The first of these is the most obvious in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, as the titular Winter Soldier, who turns out to be Bucky Barnes, was brought back via the depraved depths of Hydra science.
However, the film also sees two other characters return to life. Nick Fury appears to die during the film’s opening act, though this turns out to be a tactic by the ultimate superspy, forcing his enemies to reveal themselves. Arnim Zola, stooge of the Red Skull, also makes a surprise reappearance, reanimated as a living computer.
However, these three “deaths,” while all eventually reversed, don’t quite work in the same way as No Way Home’s more weighty resurrections. They follow through on established story arcs, ones likely put in place at the time of their deaths.
Fury’s apparent death is the best example of this, clearly serving as part of an eventual resurrection already baked into the story. Additionally, these deaths are never clearly established as concrete, allowing for characters to return without causing fan backlash.
Endgame also saw its fair share of resurrections, bringing back half of the entire universe, including dozens of heroes. However, these deaths were quite clearly meant to be reversed from the beginning, with Infinity War serving as only the first part of a two-movie story.
So, even as the MCU has dabbled in resurrecting characters, it has pretty much only done so with characters whose returns were already written into the material.
No Way Home Changed How MCU Fans View Death
Spider-Man: No Way Home changes things, however, opening the door for the return of solidly and long-dead individuals.
On one hand, the film creates an in-universe plot justification for the return of dead characters. The Multiverse, in all its infinitude, offers endless versions of fan-favorite characters. If the creative team at Marvel is looking for a way to “resurrect” certain characters, the Multiverse provides an extremely simple avenue for this. Instead of baldly resurrecting individuals, Marvel could just pluck similar versions of characters from alternate universes.
On the other hand, No Way Home also pushes the envelope in terms of what audiences will accept. Based on the film’s widespread critical and commercial success, it seems that viewers had no trouble accepting that characters could simply return from death. Sure, the movie provides an explanation steeped in Multiversal mania, but it still brings back villains that audiences previously knew to be dead.
If actors like RDJ are concerned about losing fan support by popping back up through an unearned character arc, the acceptance and success surrounding the returns of Dafoe, Molina, and Foxx are great signs. After all, very few see No Way Home as having hurt their original arcs in the Raimi trilogy.
How Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man Could Come Back
If the MCU is planning on bringing back fan-favorite heroes, it seems like there’s an extremely obvious place to start. Tony Stark was not only the first MCU hero fans got a taste of, but also one of the more consistent, appearing as a key figure in ten of the franchise’s 27 movies (eleven if you count his looming presence in Spider-Man: Far From Home after his passing).
While it may seem like a mistake to undo Stark’s death, as it helped to usher in the emotional end of The Infinity Saga, there are a few ways the character could return without undermining this important moment.
The most obvious way back for Tony Stark is through the Multiverse. As the Multiverse provides an infinite number of different versions of characters. Many even believed a Variant of Iron Man could have been among Doctor Strange 2's Illuminati, although that didn't pull through despite some talk on the possibility.
Tom Cruise was perhaps the most discussed actor to tackle Earth-838's Iron Man, having once been considered for the role at the inception of the MCU. But many also believed Downey Jr. coming back was a very legitimate possibility.
In the coming years, Marvel Studios will be diving further into the Multiverse with Avengers: The Kang Dynasty and Secret Wars. Many have long believed this will prove to be the eventual destination for Iron Man or Scarlett Johansson's Natasha Romanoff to make a big comeback.
Apart from the opportunities offered by the Multiverse, the armored Avenger could also come back in a more narratively-focused way. With upcoming Stark-tech-focussed projects like Ironheart and Armor Wars on the way in the coming years, it’s quite possible that Iron Man may find his way back into the MCU sooner rather than later.
Ironheart seems like a prime contender for an RDJ cameo. The comic book source material sees Riri Williams fight crime as a heroine alongside an AI version of Tony Stark. This would be an extremely easy way to insert a little Robert Downey Jr. back into the MCU without going as far as to wholly undo his death. Even if this AI only manifests itself via voice-over or in an extremely brief cameo, it would be quite a simple way to satisfy fans.
Armor Wars could also see a return for Downey’s Tony Stark. As the series will see Don Cheadle’s James “Rhodey” Rhodes work to recover Stark’s technology, it’s possible that Robert Downey Jr. may return in some form. Perhaps the theft of his technology will trigger some sort of hologram message from beyond the grave, or maybe Rhodey’s reflection on Stark’s legacy will lead to a flashback featuring the Invincible Iron Man himself.
No matter if, how, or when Stark returns, No Way Home clearly helps usher in that possibility and the Multiverse only continues to widen that door. The strides made by that film seem like key steps in changing the landscape of the MCU, creating an easy avenue for revival and showing that fans are more than happy to accept resurrections, as long as they serve the story and feel true to character.