The following contains minor spoilers for current Marvel events and solicitations as well as a speculative spoiler for the next dozen Marvel films…assuming I’m not a crack-pot.

My theory: the Iron Man of the Marvel cinematic universe will die a villain in the finale of an upcoming Avengers movie. The following are the five best clues that inform my theory.

iron1. Unlike in comics, the Marvel film characters have a lifespan of only so long before they need to either die or be replaced by another younger, cheaper actor. Robert Downey Jr. is one of the oldest main characters and also among the highest paid. As an actor, he seems motivated to move-on to other roles that are artistically more interesting just by the fact that they are different from the character he has already played in four films. However, Downey likes pay days as much as the next guy and, from recent interviews, enjoys working with Marvel. The best of both worlds for Downey would be to continue acting in a few more Marvel films while making the character of Iron Man more dramatically interesting. How better to do this than by making Iron Man the big bad of the Marvel Cinematic Universe?

2. Iron Man is quickly becoming the big bad of the Marvel Comics Universe, a move I believe is partly motivated by where they want to take the film version of the character. Of course, some predates the films entirely. Tony Stark was on the wrong side of Civil War; he opposes the most moral character of Marvel, Captain America, quite regularly; his knowledge and tech is playing a major role in aiding the Red Skull in Marvel’s current AXIS storyline; and his new ongoing Superior Iron Man is apparently all about Tony Stark embracing the worst aspects of himself. Now we see teasers for a new Secret War that looks to pit Superior Iron Man again against Cap. The final role for Downey could very well be a Civil War or Secret War scenario in which he (and possibly other heroes on their way out of the Marvel movies) fight Cap and company.

3. The very next Avengers flick, Age of Ultron, already starts Iron Man down the path of being a negative force in the movies. His mind is at least in part responsible for the primary threat of Ultron. Unlike in the comics, Tony invents Ultron. I doubt Tony’s motivation was to create an evil robot, but I suspect it’ll appear to audiences that he is crossing some line in it’s creation. Tony will probably not be evil for the sake of being evil. Tony’s hubris will blind him from the unintended consequences of his “good” deeds.

iron24. Or he could just be going full-on evil. I don’t think it’s out of the question, but if they go this route, I bet there will be some redeeming act before Tony’s demise in whatever Avenger’s film will be his last to remind audiences that he hasn’t gone all bad. In this way they could even show Thanos taking on some of the responsibility of Tony’s crimes by some sort of manipulation–not Loki-style brain washing, just a gentle pushing to the dark side. How about Tony’s pride setting off a series of events that gives Thanos the Infinity gems only for Tony to win the gems back and, when in possession of all that power, finally does the right thing will it and wishes them away? Maybe not. More likely Tony’s rise against Cap and eventual fall will be independent of the Thanos storyline.

5. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is great because the same heroes are shared throughout. The villains, with the exception of Loki’s appearance in The Avengers, don’t usually get the luxury because they tend to be dead or imprisoned by the end of their movie. A remedy of this that would blow viewers minds is if some of the heroes become effective villains. The Internet is clamoring for Civil War: The Movie. This theory fulfills fan anticipation as much as is solves studio problems and actor desires. Let’s face it, you loved it when Cap, Thor, and Tony threw down briefly in The Avengers. That could have been but a taste of what Marvel plans for the future.

So to sum up, Downey is near irreplaceable as Iron Man, he won’t be around forever, he likely wants something interesting to happen with the character to keep playing Tony, and Marvel wants to keep Downey playing Tony for as long as possible. Marvel is already committing to a bad Iron Man, and the movies tend to reflect the comics and vice versa for a kind of synergy of sales. The theory seems solid to me. What do you guys think?