The favorite theory for Robert Downey Jr.’s return to the MCU has long been the idea of returning in the form of A.I. In fact, the last time he was seen on screen in Avengers: Endgame, he appeared in holographic form, already teasing that a virtual form of Tony may already be snoozing on a thumb drive somewhere.
Additionally, some fans believe the E.D.I.T.H. glasses in Spider-Man: Far From Home weren’t sent to Peter until after Tony Stark’s death, which shouldn’t have been possible if no one but Stark had access to the glasses. If a digital Tony Stark is lurking online, still trying to put a suit of armor around the world, he may approach Riri once he finds that an M.I.T. student has taken after his flashy heroic style.
Artificial intelligence seems to be the most practical avenue for Robert Downey Jr.’s return as Tony Stark since it will hardly tarnish the sacrifice Iron Man made that cost him his life. Riri no longer has her Wakandan A.I. to assist her in her own iron suit–having Tony Stark as her new in-armor wingman would be just as good. Imagine Stark trying to give Riri flying lessons, only for her to tell him she’s already flown with the Dora Milaje.
Robert Downey Jr. In Another MCU Origin Story
Contrastingly, Marvel may choose to take a grittier approach to Ironheart’s connection to Iron Man and put Riri at odds with the deceased Avenger. One theory as to why Riri may not be too keen on Tony Stark is that he funded the device she built to track vibranium in Wakanda Forever, which led to a secret underwater civilization trying to kill her and go to war with the surface world.
This would have been possible through Stark’s September Foundation Grant that he awarded to the students of M.I.T. In Captain America: Civil War. Riri may attribute some of Wakanda Forever’s death and destruction to Tony Stark for blindly funding her schoolwork without considering the potential consequences.
Wakanda Forever producer Nate Moore recently admitted that while it may have been “fun” to make parts of Ironheart’s MCU introduction “a nod to Tony Stark,” Riri Williams “steps less directly in Tony’s footsteps” in the MCU than she does in Marvel Comics.
This could mean Ironheart’s morals and beliefs will differ from those of Tony Stark. Riri’s personal struggles and how she copes with them will likely be explored in the Disney+ series; it’s possible Stark’s rather reckless coping mechanisms are also examined if they’ve had any effect on Riri, like the September Foundation Grant (or the recently-rescinded Sokovia Accords, which were aggressively implemented in the same movie).
The Ironheart series could take an interesting twist toward exploring the misuse of the September Foundation Grant at M.I.T., and Riri Williams may take it upon herself to succeed Iron Man and bring justice to others taking advantage of the billionaire’s impulsive generosity.
If so, this could include Riri analyzing multiple flashbacks of Stark working at her school and realizing the unintentional harm caused by Stark’s guilt, or even using Iron Man-style projectional holograms to recreate scenes or memories that include Tony and his time as the Man In A Can.
If Ironheart is going to feature Riri learning from Iron Man’s mistakes, it would be difficult to do so without featuring Robert Downey Jr.’s hero in some capacity, but it would likely be nothing more than a recorded message or a look back at one of Stark’s seminars or speeches unless he’s directly related to Williams’ superhero origin story.