Robert Downey Jr. may be striking a blow for good old-fashioned star power as he prepares to square off against Disney and Marvel over his slice of the pie on "The Avengers 2" and "Iron Man 4."
If the two sides don't reach a new contract agreement it could rob the studio of the charismatic center of its two highest grossing superhero franchises, potentially jeopardizing Disney and Marvel's plans to continue expanding its comic-book universe beyond Tony Stark and Earth's Mightiest Heroes.
Disney will continue making Iron Man movies with or without Downey's participation, but box office analysts agree that they are unlikely to achieve the same record-breaking numbers without his name above the title. That makes him the rare star who can essentially hold a studio hostage to his whims and salary demands.
"In today's age of moviemaking, concept is king, but there are a few performers who are an exception to that and Robert Downey Jr. is on the top of that list," Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations, told TheWrap. "Iron Man is a costume and a man in costume can be replaced, but that said, the franchise without him won't achieve these kind of heights. I guarantee that."
In an interesting twist, a Deadline report Tuesday claiming that Downey and Marvel may be far apart on finding a figure hit just as Disney Chairman Bob Iger was buoyantly discussing the company's bright future on a conference call with investors. According to that report, Downey has already netted about $35 million from "Iron Man 3," based on its huge global opening, and has pocketed $50 million for "The Avengers."
"The Avengers franchise is certainly strong today but we have a lot more to come," Iger enthused, evidently before checking the account of the salary standoff.
Spokespeople for Downey and Marvel declined to comment, but an individual with knowledge of the talks confirmed to TheWrap that no deal is in place for Downey to reprise his Iron Man role in future films. Even without a deal for Downey set, Disney plans to release "The Avengers 2" in 2015.
It's ironic that this display of the residual power of an A-list star centers on a comic book film. After all, the glut of superhero films cropping up in movie theaters these days have taken a toll on the Hollywood star system. Gone are the back-end deals that once elevated Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts to mega-rich status. In fact, none of those actors has the kind of greenlight power they did a decade ago and few new movie stars have cropped up to replace them.
Also read: What the Critics Think of 'Iron Man 3'
In place of romantic comedies or action movies that helped establish those stars' brands, the comic book movie is king. When it comes to these big screen adaptations of fanboy favorites, who really cares if the vigilante behind the mask is played by Chris Evans, Andrew Garfield or Tobey Maguire, to name just a few of the fresh-faced hunks who routinely populate tentpole films?
Marvel bloodlessly kicked Terrence Howard to the curb when he demanded salary increases, replacing him with Don Cheadle with no perceptible damage to "Iron Man 2" or "Iron Man 3"s' box office. Likewise, Garfield subbed in for Maguire in a rebooted "Spider-Man" last year, and though the "The Amazing Spider-Man" made roughly $130 million less than "Spider-Man 3," it performed well enough to justify another sequel.
From Bourne to Batman to Bond, studios have proved indefatigable in their attempts to reboot popular franchises even after original stars hang up the cape, the cowl or the Walther PPK. So it's no surprise that those are the models that Marvel President of Production Kevin Feige has cited when asked if Iron Man can endure if Downey leaves.
"I hope Downey makes a lot of movies for us as Stark. If and when he doesn't, and I'm still here making these movies, we don’t take him to Afghanistan and have him wounded again," Feige told Badass Digest. "I think we James Bond it."
Yet the same principle may not apply in the case of Downey. His characterization of Stark as a wiseacre billionaire playboy has become indispensable to the franchise. It's a portrayal so rich, so idiosyncratic and so tied to Downey's well-publicized struggles to overcome his addictions and emerge as a major star that it is nearly impossible to imagine another actor stepping into Iron Man's suit.
The only other example of a movie star with similar power over the fate of a multi-billion franchise is Johnny Depp. Without his fey, mincing, perpetually soused Capt. Jack Sparrow, it's doubtful Disney would be launching a fifth "Pirates of the Caribbean" film.
The leverage in this case would seem to be with Downey, giving him the power to demand and exact not only a richer deal for himself, but sweeter contracts for his fellow "Avengers" stars.
So will he walk?
To say that Downey is in the driver's seat is not to imply that he has nothing to lose beyond profit-participation. Iron Man and, to a lesser extent, Sherlock Holmes are what make him in demand by studios. If he wants to fund riskier passion projects and return to the kind of envelope-pushing roles that defined his earlier and less commercially successful period as "The Greatest Actor of his Generation," the promise of future sequels can insure those movies get made and seen.
Doing one for them and one for you gets a lot harder when you don't honor your end of the bargain.