[a version of this story was originally published on February 7, 2014. Given the new information regarding the plot of Avengers: Age of Ultron revealed this week in Entertainment Weekly, we've revised the story to reflect the new information.]
Marvel Studios might soon have a Robert Downey, Jr. problem.
Let’s be clear and simple here – the 48 year old actor is the no-argument MVP and lynchpin of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which through Captain America: The Winter Soldier, has yet to show a crack in its armor (see what we did there?)
But, Downey Jr. is only signed for two more films – 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron and the eventual Avengers 3, at a likely very high rate of pay, at that.
So Marvel Studios is likely going to someday face a future Marvel movie-verse without the now-iconic Downey Jr.-as-Tony Stark, maybe sooner than they’d like. After all, the now-nearly 50 year-old actor is likely going to want to flex his creative muscles and marketing power at its peak, without having to commit to months-long, highly-physical Marvel shoots every year or so.
If only there was a way for Marvel and ‘RDJ’ to have their Iron cake, and eat it too.
How can the casting of Paul Bettany as The Vision , graduating from his role as Iron Man’s on-board AI co-pilot/man Friday J.A.R.V.I.S. help extend Downey Jr.’s role in the MCU?
We’ve got a crazy theory about the plot of Avengers: Age of Ultron that we think would help get the job done.
Here’s the conjecture of one Senior Editor that thinks about these things more than is probably advisable (Hey, I got Khan right a few years back!)
Let’s begin by reminding ourselves of a couple of key things that we know about Age of Ultron, or at least Whedon wants us to think we know.
Two things stand out, straight from the mouth the writer/director/guru himself:
1.) A theme of the sequel is “Death, death and death.”
2.) In an early interview last year, asked what threat they’ll face in the sequel Whedon responded cryptically – “Themselves. We're all our own worst enemy."
3.) Newly added to our knowledge of the film is Stark is in fact the creator of Ultron, and another theme is "There’s no abdicating heroism.”
And thus we begin our speculative plot coverage of Marvel’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Playing off themes from Iron Man 3, and as reported by Entertainment Weekly, Tony Stark (again, the lynchpin of the MCU) creates Ultron, an artificially intelligent android (J.A.R.V.I.S. on steroids) tasked with taking the pressure off the Avengers as the Earth's last line of defense, but who gains sentience and decides the greatest threat to Earth is mankind.
This takes care of the “Avengers against themselves” scenario, as Stark is now the "father" (sorry, Hank) of the greatest threat the Earth ever faced (until Thanos shows up, of course). In tent-pole movie terms, the price you usually pay for this sort of tragic hubris is often the ultimate tragedy - your life. Tony falls trying to right his wrong.
Yes, you read that right, we’re saying Tony Stark dies at the hand of his own creation trying to make good. This not only satisfies Whedon’s “death” tease, but would also serve as the galvanizing force that serves as the inspiration for the sequel’s third act.
Key deaths and near-deaths have become key to Marvel's house style. Stark's own near-death in Iron Man, Iron Man 2 (he was dying most of the movie) and The Avengers. The death of Bucky, the near-death (the Odin sleep) of Odin, the death of Coulson, the near-death of Happy Hogan, the death Frigga, and the apparent death of Nick Fury have been plot devices in nearly every Marvel Cinematic Universe film so far.
With Age of Ultron expected to top them all, fans should expect not only a death, but a major one at that.
Then, when all hope is seemingly still lost and Ultron is still winning, even with frenemies-new teammates like Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch in the fold to bolster the team, Stark’s ultimate failsafe protocol emerges – The Vision.
Who’s The Vision you ask – well, his body is an upgraded version of the "Phineas T. Horton" Easter egg version of the Human Torch in the early World’s Fair scene in Captain America: The First Avenger (what, you thought that was just a throwaway?), powered by J.A.R.V.I.S.’s programming (and looking a lot like Paul Bettany, of course).
But waitaminute you say – The Vision isn’t just an android. The essence of the Vision is he’s a “synthezoid”/artificial intelligence imprinted with the brain patterns ... or soul ... of a tragically fallen hero, in the comic books that being Simon Williams – a.k.a. Wonder Man.
And you'd be right. This is a vital, necessary component to who and what the Vision is. Whedon has revealed Ultron isn't a classically 'evil' character hell-bent on world domination - he's programmed to protect the Earth and extinguishing humans becomes the warped product of his programming. The day can't be saved by just another artificial intelligence with combat capabilities. The Vision will need that human soul to differentiate himself from Ultron.
Annnnndddd … it all comes together. Yes, Tony Stark becomes the soul of the Vision. Stark’s human brain patterns, combined with J.A.R.V.I.S.’s A.I., in a more human-like android’s body.
Too far-fetched? Maybe. But it does kill a few birds with one stone. For one it ups the ante on a film that’s going to be near impossible to top, and as Whedon well knows, the second act in a genre film series often have moments you least expect – think (SPOILER WARNINGS) “Luke, I am your father”, or Spock dying in Wrath of Khan. Whedon understands the history he’s up against.
Also recall Marvel has not announced or even hinted at a fourth Iron Man, and while Downey Jr. (and again, his escalating age and price tag) has signed on for Age of Ultron and Avengers 3, no promises were made regarding the size of his role in the third leg of the trilogy.
But hold on, didn’t we just say Tony Stark dies?
Yup. So what the hell kind of role is 'dead guy #1' in Avengers 3?
Wait for it...
Imagine the inevitable Age of Ultron post-credits scene: Tony Stark’s funeral ... all the principle Marvel movie players gather ... the Vision looks on hovering from a distance. Then J.A.R.V.I.S./Bettany’s voice says something like, “It really is a lovely ceremony, sir,” and Tony Stark/Downey’s voice and face come on screen in the familiar inside-the-helmet-close-up delivering some wise-assy Stark-Downey quip.
…and moviegoers go crazy.
Yes, Tony’s brainwaves are now the Vision’s “human” co-pilot ala Simon's, with J.A.R.V.I.S. being in the captain’s chair – the movie Iron Man dynamic in reverse but also spiritually true to the comic book Vision.
Is that crazy? We warned it might be. But it would give Marvel a means to keep Downey Jr.’s trademark wit, charm, and more importantly, kinetic energy in Avengers 3 (and perhaps even in the future films) minus a full-on, months-long principle photography commitment from the actor, while Bettany takes over the motion-capture heavy-lifting.
It would give Age of Ultron a high-stakes, unexpected "death (maybe Rhodey - who curiously appears in Age of Ultron - takes over as Iron Man proper?), while at the same time giving birth to a new character paying homage (without being a slave) to Marvel history, and provides a very practical solution to a very practical RDJ dilemma.
Well, we said it was crazy… you didn’t believe us?