As He Who Remains, also known as Kang (Jonathan Majors), lays out his plan to preserve the Sacred Timeline in the finale of Disney+’s Loki, the titular god of mischief (played by Tom Hiddleston) says to himself, “What a waste of time!” I’m glad Loki said it, because this ironic summation of Loki’s second season—itself a profound waste of six hours—is concise and perfect. It also means I can write about something else.
With Loki’s sophomore season leading us right back to where we started six weeks ago, where the MCU heads next feels more nebulous than ever. This is only amplified by The Marvels’ rough box office receipts; it had the lowest-grossing opening weekend ever for an MCU movie. It is, however, important to note this is the highest-grossing opening ever for a film by a Black female director—which may say more about the industry than the movie—and its poor box office receipts should be contextualized around the effect the recently ended strikes likely had on the film’s promotion.
Even before Loki’s lackluster finale or the concerning numbers surrounding The Marvels, however, rumors of chaos regarding the franchise’s future have been circling. In recent months, the MCU has faced plenty of criticism, with the lengthy shadows cast by allegations against Jonathan Majors principal among them. Disney’s continuing use of generative AI has alienated many fans, as has the impending debut of controversial Israeli superhero Sabra (Shira Haas) in the next Captain America movie; her introduction will follow Disney’s recent $2 million donation to humanitarian efforts in Israel, which has proved controversial among some groups.
The most obvious solution, for issues surrounding Kang at least, is to reassert Dr. Doom as the big bad of Secret Wars, given how central he is to the plot in the comics. It’s something that fits the current MCU slate and with a Fantastic Four movie scheduled for 2025, introducing Doom could pull the MCU away from the toxic presence of Jonathan Majors.
But Disney has reportedly considered a different possible step toward relieving the pressure of this backlash, solve the identity crisis that has haunted the Multiverse Saga, and arrest the dwindling interest in the MCU that all of this mess has caused: bringing back Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark, aka Iron Man.
To fans, this immediately sounds like a terrible idea. Though the multiverse and Loki’s ending may have paved the way for Tony Stark to cheat his death in Endgame, it would take much away from Stark’s sacrifice in defeating Thanos (Josh Brolin). There also doesn’t appear to be much motivation for Downey, Jr. to even want to return, as he prepares for a likely Oscar nod for Oppenheimer and fills his dance card with multiple projects outside the MCU.
That doesn’t mean, however, we should dismiss the idea of Iron Man returning outright. Sure, in the fan-service factory that Disney has become, Iron Man’s return as an Avengers would feel redundant. But what if Iron Man didn’t come back as a hero—but as a villain?
With so much time devoted to Kang, as well as past Fantastic Four movies demonstrating that rushing Doom into the role of Big Bad never works—as much as I have a soft spot for Ioan Gruffudd’s Reed Richards—is there time left to introduce Doom in Kang’s place? Pushing Iron Man into that role instead makes much more sense. We already know enough about the character that it wouldn’t require multiple films and TV series of setup, while thrusting Stark into the role of villain might just be surprising and creative enough to jolt a bit of life into the ailing Multiverse Saga.
There’s already abundant precedent for this in the comics. If a comic-book character sticks around for long enough, they’re bound to become evil at some point. Marvel comics are replete with storylines where Iron Man is the villain: There are Superior Iron Man and Iron Maniac, to name two of many. The most interesting and, considering the direction the MCU is already taking, the most fitting direction the MCU could go with this, however, would be adapting Emperor Stark.
This variant of Tony Stark appears in Judd Winick and Kev Walker’s 2003 storyline, Exiles. As he does in most realities, Stark becomes Iron Man on Earth-42777, but he doesn’t do so with the moral compass of his heroic counterparts. Instead, he backs Magneto’s Brotherhood in a devastating war with humanity, before turning on and killing Magneto, in order to appear as the hero. Iron Man later orchestrates multiple global disasters and positions himself as the only solution, most notably releasing a new strain of Mad Cow Disease that decimates global food sources. His cure elevates him to the White House and—because this is 2003, amid the last throes of American exceptionalism—makes him the de facto “Sovereign of Earth.”
What makes Emperor Stark so compelling in this context is how easily he can slot into the potential role of Dr. Doom. On Earth-42777, Stark’s essentially a surrogate for Doom, wielding the same powers as Doom does in the comics. This is cemented by Stark killing Doom and donning his iconic green cape. The storyline also mirrors many elements of upcoming MCU features, with Emperor Stark’s arc in Exiles including the Fantastic Four, members of the X-Men, and a host of multiversal heroes as they attempt to stop an evil Tony Stark.
Casting Iron Man in the role of ultimate villain of this saga may also lessen the commitment for Robert Downey, Jr., compared to having to re-establish himself in the now-crowded heroic canon of the MCU. If he appeared as Emperor Stark, it would limit his inclusion to a few appearances and the final two movies of the Secret Wars storyline.
That said, it’s hard not to side-eye the idea of bringing Iron Man back to salvage the MCU. It reeks of a desperate attempt to recapture the magic of the pre-Endgame era by simple fan servicing away from the franchise’s current issues. Given the rut the MCU has ended up in, that may well be the intention. Disney might, however, have accidentally struck upon an unexpected, even fun use of a crowd-favorite character to remedy the MCU’s current, flailing state. Perhaps all we need is Emperor Stark escaping Earth-42777 during the incursions that bring realities together, destroying them, and becoming the head of Battleworld in Doom’s stead.
Obviously, all of this is speculation, as Disney’s future plans for the MCU remain frustratingly nebulous. We also can’t be sure anything—Emperor Stark or otherwise—can salvage pieces from the MCU’s current wreckage. What is certain, however, is that things can’t continue as they are. Bringing back Iron Man may seem like a backward step, but reinventing him as Emperor Stark may well be the bold and interesting move Disney needs to resuscitate an ailing MCU.