By Anthony Breznican
Updated September 08, 2014 at 06:42 PM EDT

Iron Man

  • Movie

“Will there be an Iron Man 4?” is the kind of thing Robert Downey Jr. is going to continue being asked until there is one.

Most recently, the actor has caused a stir by telling Variety, “There isn’t one in the pipe. No, there’s no plan for a fourth Iron Man.” So is it time to tearfully hurl our Officially Licensed Iron Man Movie Arc Reactor Prop Replica into the sea?

The thing to remember is that the Marvel Studios movie schedule is a closely held game of cards, and speculation has run rampant about their upcoming slate ever since they created this interlocked series of superhero flicks. The standard answer is “Nothing’s planned, but who knows?” The masters of the Marvel Cinematic Universe say this even when there are plans, even when they do know.

In fact, studio president Kevin Feige tends to talk in more open terms only when he doesn’t know for sure, spitballing about the potential for an Inhumans or a Runaways movie. For years, fan sites have been saying that a Black Panther film will be one of Marvel’s next projects … and in a few more years, they may be right.

Here are the factors at play regarding a fourth go-round with Tony Stark.

BURNOUT: Right now, of course there isn’t an Iron Man 4 on the schedule, which is probably wise. There have been three so far, not counting Tony Stark’s appearances in Avengers and other films, and although Iron Man is the foundation of this franchise of comic-book movies, repeating too often is not a way to build the empire. Rather, that’s a good way to make people sick of the character and wear out his welcome. (This has happened Superman, Batman, and more recently Spider-Man.)

RECHARGING AND REBUILDING: Downey is eager to take some time to expand his own horizons. The father/son legal drama The Judge, which just played the Toronto International Film Festival and hits theaters in October, is the first film from Team Downey, the production company he founded with his wife, Susan, and they have a several other non-superhero projects they’d like to get up and running. Downey also tells me he’d like to direct before too long, which would be a year-long effort at the very least. Robert Downey Jr. may be Iron Man, but he doesn’t want to be only Iron Man.

Those two factors fit together perfectly as a reason to back-burner the character, let some other Marvel characters have the spotlight for a few years, let some anticipation build, and then … fire up the metal suit again. But it is definitely something that is being considered. The only thing that would kill it would be Downey saying he was done, and that’s not the case.

GO ALONG, GET ALONG: When he’s more inclined to talk in depth, and isn’t merely eager to change to subject while sitting beside Robert Duvall to promote The Judge, Downey is still noncommittal, but much more optimistic. This was what he said to EW about Iron Man 4 recently on the set of Avengers: Age of Ultron: “It’s down to Kevin [Feige, Marvel Studios president] and Ike [Perlmutter, CEO of Marvel Entertainment] and Disney to come to us with what the proposal is, and that’s on us to agree or disagree,” Downey said. “When things are going great, there’s a lot of agreement … Right now, this has just been swell, hasn’t it?”

PAST IS PROLOGUE: In one major way, Marvel Studios has already begun laying the groundwork for an Iron Man 4 with revelations in their One-Shot short film All Hail the King, which documents the absurd prison life for Ben Kingsley’s character from the third movie. It ends on a cliffhanger, suggesting one of Iron Man’s most infamous foes is out there and on the prowl for vengeance. Drew Pearce, who co-wrote Iron Man 3, wrote and directed the short film, and acknowledged it could serve as a set-up for the future. “The non-spoiler way for me to say it — by the end of the short, there are definitely a lot of exciting other places that are brought up in it that could then go in the Marvel universe, whether that’s an Iron Man movie or another one going into Phase Two or Three.”

My personal guess, based on the passion fans have for another character to get a stand-alone film: Marvel will do an Iron Man/Hulk team up, putting Downey and Mark Ruffalo on a case together (that’s not the hunt for a 1970s serial killer.)

PLAN B: Feige, meanwhile, has told EW that there will definitely be another film—one way or another. “I believe there will be a fourth Iron Man film and a fifth and a sixth and a 10th and a 20th,” the producer told me last year. “I see no reason why Tony Stark can’t be as evergreen as James Bond. Or Batman for that matter. Or Spider-Man. I think Iron Man is a character just like that.”

That’s if Downey ever does decide to say he’s finished, and the actor enjoys Tony Stark too much for that. “It’s that thing of: Why give up the belt when it feels like you can barely get jabbed?”

Plus … how is Marvel going to trick you into believing Tony Stark may die in Age of Ultron if they already have a fourth Iron Man film on the books?

For more Marvel news:

Episode Recaps

Iron Man

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 125 minutes