If you're a Marvel fan, and you're seeing the numbers roll in — the record-breaking $1.5 billion grossed last summer by The Avengers, the $950 million and climbing worldwide tally from this summer's Iron Man 3, the seven Marvel Studios movies that have already passed and the five still on the schedule through 2015 — you would be hard-pressed to complain about… well, anything.
But if you're paying attention to some other numbers? Well, that might be another story.
Troubling reports have emerged over the past few days regarding salary disputes and negotiating tactics between Marvel Studios and its stars, most notably Tony Stark himself, Robert Downey Jr., the face of the studio's flagship Iron Man franchise. The situation is reportedly tense enough that Marvel has threatened to recast key roles; even Marvel's Kevin Feige has gone on record to say that another man could play Tony Stark should Downey decide not to forge a new contract.
Certain aspects of the reports have been outright denied — Joss Whedon cleared the air about his own role in things (no, he’s not earning $100 million for Avengers 2)— but for the sake of argument, let's assume the worst: that Marvel's stars aren't satisfied with the compensation for their work, and that Marvel itself is prepared to act drastically and recast its star players should the need arise.
Okay, worst-case scenario. Here's our response: why even go that route? Why demolish and destroy when you can explore and expand?
Brilliant as he is, as instrumental to the success of the studio as he is, Robert Downey Jr. is not bigger than Marvel. Put a better way, Marvel is bigger than Iron Man. Sure, Ol' Shellhead has brought unprecedented piles of cash to Marvel's (and therefore Disney's) doorstep, but Marvel needs to have some confidence in their brand, without flying in the face of their talent.
It was called Marvel's The Avengers, not Marvel Studios' The Avengers and not Iron Man's Avengers, for a reason. And that's because it's the Marvel universe — not any one character, not any one actor, and certainly not a studio — that holds the heart of this thing.
Few will complain about seeing Chris Hemsworth back as Thor later this year. I know I'm looking forward to Captain America: The Winter Soldier (once again starring Chris Evans)more than anything else Marvel has on the docket. But do you know what else I'm looking forward to, as a Marvel fan? Guardians of the Galaxy, the 2014 space epic that will stand out as Marvel's first non-sequel since 2011's Captain America: The First Avenger. I'm looking forward to Ant-Man in 2015, Edgar Wright's long-awaited adaptation finally kicking up off the ground after years of development hell. And I'm looking forward to seeing countless other heroes finally getting their due on the big-screen: Black Panther out of Wakanda, Carol Danvers taking flight in Ms. Marvel, the Sorcerer Supreme casting his spell with Doctor Strange, Luke Cage and Danny Rand beating up the streets in Heroes For Hire (and hey, maybe in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.).
And that's not even mentioning characters Marvel already has in place who could lead their own movies: Black Widow and Hawkeye, a Rhodey-led Iron Patriot movie (or dare we say, “West Coast” out loud?), Lady Sif and the Warriors Three, Doctor Selvig and the Nordic Mayhem (all right, maybe not that last one).
The point is, why recast Captain America or Thor or anybody when there are other Marvel stars to be made? It's not like Iron Man was an A-lister when he burst onto the silver screen in 2008. Far from it!
Have some confidence in your ability to tell stories with compelling characters, Marvel, and your faith will be rewarded. Fans want to see new heroes rise from the paneled page and onto their screens — even if they don't know it yet. That's how Iron Man worked. That's how it will work again.
If the rumors are true — and we sincerely hope they're not, or at least are being overblown (which is entirely possible given the source of the reports, and the fact that portions have already been debunked) — then Marvel is at a crossroad. They can blow all the goodwill earned over the last seven films and counting by tossing aside the actors who brought their characters to stunning life… or they can invest in the future, invest in new characters, in new stories, in expanding their universe further. Hold the star players like RDJ, Hemsworth and Evans for event films like Avengers 3, and use Phase Three as an opportunity to build something new.
Marvel, you can't destroy your universe. That's not a solution. Think like a mechanic. Think like Tony Stark. Build something.