They're probably the two biggest questions in comic-dom: will Robert Downey Jr return to his iconic role as Tony Stark in Iron Man 4 - and if not, who will? We may not get any definitive answers for a good long while, but that doesn't mean there won't be some solid guiding hints along the way.
One of the best sources of those? People who have already directed Iron Man movies. What with that being a grand total of two people (three if you count Joss Whedon's Avengers series), there's a pretty small data set to draw from.
Shane Black has largely been keeping his own counsel of late, so it comes down to Jon Favreau, director of both the original Iron Man and its first sequel, to poke away at the ever-burning embers of our curiosity.
Speaking to Flicks and the City whilst promoting the upcoming Chef, Favreau was asked outright whether he thinks Robert Downey Jr will return for Iron Man 4. His response?
"Well, I'm curious. I'm about to go visit the Avengers set, see what they're up to...and i think people would love to see Robert Downey [Jr] continue the Iron Man character, but, y'know, he's done it quite a bit now - I've had a few movies off, so it's a lot easier for me to say that it should be done, but, y'know, i hope he continues doing it, and as long as he fits in that suit, there's no reason he shouldn't."
Which is a really long way from any kind of confirmation that Downey Jr will return - but it is certainly suggesting a different narrative than the one suggested by the constant contractual wranglings of the past year. It was way back in March 2013 that Shane Black last teased the actor's return:
"There has been a lot of discussion about it: ‘Is this the last Iron Man for Robert?' Something tells me that it will not be the case".
Which is, essentially, just a more strongly-worded variant of Favreau's statement. Both carry with them the weight of men who know Downey Jr well - especially in an Iron Man-related context - but also the limitations of not being statements from the only man whose opinion really counts - Downey Jr himself (or, depending on your viewpoint, Kevin Feige...).
What if, though, Downey Jr doesn't return? We've already run through the five most likely storylines for Iron Man 4 (when it inevitably happens) right here, but only one of them assumes that Downey Jr isn't returning. If he drops out of the franchise, Marvel is going to have to make a big choice - between a James Bond-style transformation, and an explicitly mentioned replacement within the plot. What would that Iron Man 4 look like?
Let's take a look at some of the possible candidates, and how their Iron Man debut would play out:
Joseph Gordon Levitt:
The Pitch: He's been linked with every super-franchise under the sun for years now - and so he's obviously on more or less every radar. There has to be a reason for that, right? Also, y'know, he's very good at what he does.
The Plot: As Robert Downey Jr's Tony Stark decides to retire from the superhero life, a young man discovers that he's secretly Tony's long lost younger brother - Arno Stark. After a brief training montage with the original hero, Arno watches as Tony seems to be killed by his greatest enemy yet: the real Mandarin.
The Why Not: Marvel will never voluntarily kill off Tony Stark - and a generation sees him as Robert Downey Jr-esque. There's a reason James Bond always stays within a set formula.
The Pitch: He looks like Tony Stark, he's probably already under contract with Marvel, and everyone watching the MCU would already kind of know who he is. Also, the facial hair.
The Plot: Howard Stark is dead? Not so much - he's been hiding in stasis this whole time, and returns just in time to save his son Tony's life. To do so, though, he has to switch minds with his son, allowing Tony Stark to live on - in his father's body. Pepper isn't thrilled.
The Why Not: Well, aside from the fact that Cooper already has a part in the MCU, it's the sort of plot we'd see - and likely hate - in the comics.
The Pitch: Well, he actually wants to do it, for a start. He's also got the action chops, the world-weary patter, and a surprisingly good acting range for a man who used to head up The Funky Bunch.
The Plot: Tony Stark (looking surprisingly different to usual) finds himself stripped of his armor once more - but this time, the armor is hunting him down. He's forced to rebuild his armory step by step, with only the help of a lighthearted rogue piece of armor named Bumble...Ahem. Named Mk 5.
The Why Not: He looks nothing like Tony Stark. It's also arguably the least action-hero skills-dependent role in the superhero canon. Wahlberg would be wasted on a job that was mainly shots of his face inside a computer.
The Pitch: The recent winner of Moviepilot's fan casting for the part, Colin Farrell's obvious qualifications to play Tony Stark arguably go deeper than his looks, acting ability and excellent facial hair. No other actor around could match Downey Jr's understanding of the troubled, hell-raising Stark. Also, seriously, the facial hair is important.
The Plot: Tony Stark continues on much the same as before, only this time he, Pepper and Rhodey all look surprisingly different. For some reason, a British tech expert called Q keeps calling him, though he has no idea why.
The Why Not: There's...actually no real reason for Farrell not to work. If there was going to be a new Stark right now, he's probably the strongest candidate going.
Robert Downey Jr:
The Pitch: He's Tony Stark.
The Plot: He's Tony Stark. Only Stark-ier than ever. There are probably some villains in the mix too.
The Why Not: He's going to have to quite some time. Unless that cloning device Kevin Feige's been working on is closer than we previously thought...