It's OK, Avengers fans; you can exhale now.
Amid roiling uncertainty regarding whether Robert Downey Jr. would reprise his role as Iron Man in future films, on Thursday the folks at Disney's (NYSE: DIS ) Marvel Entertainment confirmed that the actor has signed a two-picture agreement to star as the now-iconic superhero in both Marvel's The Avengers 2 and Marvel's The Avengers 3.
Naturally, Marvel also took the opportunity to point out the fact that last year's Avengers film and this year's Iron Man 3 currently rank as two of the top five highest-grossing movies of all time, earning a combined total of more than $2.7 billion worldwide so far.
Marvel's The Avengers 2, for its part, will also see director Joss Whedon return to the helm, and is set to begin production in March 2014 with a targeted May 1, 2015, release date.
One problem leads to another?
Of course, while I agree with fellow Fool Tim Beyers that keeping RDJ on board was necessary for Disney to ensure the success of future Iron Man-infused films, keep in mind that his incredible salary demands could come with their own set of consequences. After all, Downey was said to earn as much as $35 million from Iron Man 3, and made around $50 million for his central role in The Avengers -- a massive premium compared to the reported salaries of between $200,000 and $500,000 paid to several of the other key actors and actresses in the film.
Unsurprisingly, Marvel's release made no mention of exactly how much Downey will pocket from the next two films, but you can bet it's not chump change. In fact, Downey himself last month amusingly admitted Marvel is "so pissed" he earned so much for the previous films, referring to himself as a "strategic cost."
Then again, the fact that the films in which Iron Man has played a central role have performed so well thus far has certainly calmed the studio's ire. Remember, in addition to the $1.2 billion showing from Iron Man 3 so far, the first two Iron Man films themselves also grossed a collective total of more than $1.2 billion in worldwide sales -- and that's not to mention the incredible merchandising opportunities that followed.
At the same time, however, some sources even claimed Downey was refusing to sign up for future sequels unless his co-stars got a better deal the next time around, while Scarlett Johansson, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, and Samuel L. Jackson were said to be demanding $5 million up front plus back-end options if (read: when) the films perform well at the box office.
On one hand, it's hard to argue that anyone is as irreplaceable as RDJ in their own roles, especially when we remember that Marvel had no problems ditching overly entitled actors including Edward Norton and Terrence Howard, who previously portrayed Hulk and War Machine, respectively.
On the other hand, all their demands combined still don't add up to Downey's bounty, so I'm betting Disney is simply relieved that Marvel has finalized its largest (and most crucial) expense for the franchise and can now focus on more important details like, you know, actually making the film.
When the rubber hits the road, with the notable exception of John Carter (meh), Disney has proven over and over again that it knows a good investment when it sees one, and the success of the Avengers franchise seems a foregone conclusion at this point. In the end, despite the high price, I think we can count it as another great reason to own Disney stock over the long haul.
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