Iron Man 4: The Iron Candidate (or maybe “World Without An Iron Man”)
When he was killed, Vision’s AI tried to dump his back-up onto Tony’s server. Because of Thanos tearing him out of time in order to retrieve the mind stone, this back-up became corrupted. This corruption sets off a failure cascade when Pepper tries to inventory Tony’s various inventions and thoughts, crowbarring what had been an attempt to store Tony’s personality and genius in a Jarvis-like AI into Pepper’s mind, temporarily gifting her Tony’s brilliance (and perhaps even tics of his personality); so it’s a superhero take on Flowers for Algernon as Pepper gets back some of Tony (and his genius), but has to feel him slipping away all over again. Throughout Pepper talks aloud to Tony, though if he talks back it’s in her head.
After the failure of Peter and Edith, Pepper realizes the world doesn’t just need another genius, no matter how good-hearted- it needs another Iron Man (or Woman), so she decides to use her/Tony’s brilliance while it lasts to track down a suitable candidate. She accomplishes this in part through drone versions of her armor she calls Pepper bots (yes, this pitch was entirely a long walk to get to this pun- don’t judge me). She develops her own fans, who call themselves “Pepper’s Pott-Heads” to her chagrin.
The US military, which has long been surveilling Pepper and Tony in the hopes of eventually getting enough intel to develop their own Iron Tech, steal Pepper’s idea and opens up bids for an Iron Man-alike armor they can purchase for the next generation of soldier. Pepper recognizes the danger of letting that kind of tech out into the wild (and reveals that Tony had a side hustle in sabotaging other efforts in similar directions). Unlike Tony, she doesn’t think that she can stymy the research forever, and will need to prove that these are essentially nuclear level weapons, and we shouldn’t be proliferating them, or one day it will fall into the wrong hands.
Pepper’s quest to find the next Iron Person is also a chance to seed other smarts-related characters for other movies and occasions, like Moon Girl and Amadeus Cho (imagine a motor-mouth-off between him and a Tony’d up Pepper), as we meet other potential Iron Candidates. One of the rejected candidates is Ezekiel Stane, son of Obadiah Stane, the Iron Monger. He uses design secrets originally stolen by his father to create a 3D printable suit, so that ‘patriots’ can have their own Iron Man without having to deal with regulation, or learning how to program a whole tech suit themselves. The Iron Candidate could give us an in to bring in Riri Williams (probably my preference), Young Kang the Conqueror as Iron Lad (both setting up Young Avengers and the eventual use of adult Kang as a big bad villain), Arno Stark, or if you’re a complete monster, young Tony a la Iron Man 2020 (though obviously you’d have to adjust that date).
I’m imagining Pepper giving a press conference to announce this initiative, saying she doesn’t want to live in a world without an Iron Man, so she intends to find the next one. Reporters start asking questions, starting with dumb ones like whether or not she’s sold the show to HBO. Finally, one asks how you can replace the smartest man on Earth. That’s when Amadeus Cho stands up and says, “Sixth. I’m Amadeus Cho, the Seventh. Seventh smartest human on Earth, just ahead of Vision, not the seventh Amadeus Cho in an unbroken line of self-importance. I believe Ms. Potts is currently number 6, though I don’t expect that to last. ” Pepper, intrigued, pulls him aside. He tells her, “You won’t choose me; there’s too much of Tony in me, and if you’re building a new Iron Person from scratch, why would you start off with the same hubris and relative character defets? But you’ve a better chance of success if I work with you. It’s taken me years to develop my models- it was helpful, the five years half the population was missing; not a lot happened, so I had a nice, solid chunk of time to refine my models.” (added 8/20/21 to set up Incredible Hercules pitch).
I’d probably have a Dr. Doom guest spot (though you could always swap in a Tinkerer or someone similar); he’s one of Pepper’s candidates who is actually on a similar mission, though he’s headhunting talent to kidnap back to Latveria- where the eventual choice Macguyvers together a suit to escape while Pepper lays siege to the castle, eventually the pair of them combining forces to take down Doom (at least long enough for a getaway); that would give the Candidate the opportunity not just to wear Tony’s armor, but to have their own, which to me is important.
But the real threat is still the military’s pursuit of their own Iron Soldier program. Pepper attends, in her Rescue armor, to try and talk to them, as Ms. Iron Man, a hero in her own right, and the current controller of all Iron tech. “Tony was scared. No matter how hard he tried to stop making weapons, he just kept making better weapons. But the one thing he did he was proudest of- too proud even to admit it to the rest of the world- was keeping them out of anyone else’s hands.” She shares a graph, showing the Iron Man tech or something like it sending man hurtling past the singularity, and instead towards an extinction cliff, where the increase in sophisticated tech so far outstrips the ability to regulate it that the odds of humanity killing themselves off approaches 100%.
By this point there are several different contractors each with their own competitor bidding for the contract, and it’s a good excuse to bring in a bunch of bucket-headed villains (like Whirlwind or Crimson Dynamo). There are several specs, and the military basically decide on doing a Battle Bots style competition to separate the strongest from the weakest. The candidate breaches the security of any remote drones, taking them over and crashing them into one another in the skies overhead, before flying the rest towards the sun. Then they take over the suits with security vulnerabilities, and has them punch each other like Rock em Sock em robots. A further third Pepper bribes to join her side. The remaining handful Pepper, her newly hired mercs, her bots and the candidate fight off, until the last ones standing are Pepper (just barely- she takes a licking) and the candidate, standing triumphant over a field of defeated foes. The General roughly in charge (I’d use Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, because Will Hurt has a fun glare) admits that maybe this tech is still too unstable, and the protocols to safeguard it still too new, to entrust our safety to it. “But we can’t ignore that our country’s enemies may not view the situation as pragmatically, and we can’t unilaterally disarm- especially not forever. There won’t always be an Iron… Person whose skirt we can hide behind.” “Maybe not, General,” Pepper says, “but (s)he’s going to bury us both.”
I’d bring back Robert Downey, Jr. for a farewell scene that could be worth the price of admission all on its lonesome. It’s in Tony’s memory fortress while the candidate tries to get as much of the data as can be salvaged before the entire thing comes apart. Pepper finally really understands what it’s like to be him, and he’s sad that she has to- because it always made him miserable. A support collapses, narrowly missing her. “It’s like that thing the kid says, ‘If you can do great things, you kind of have to.’ I always thrived under pressure, but no man- or woman- should have to hold up the weight of the whole world. It’s too much. It was for me. You want a little advice? That weight? Don’t pick it up.” “Tony,” she soothes, “you never had to hold it alone.” She lifts up the support beam, and together they brace it. As he’s starting to fade, he says, “Tell the kid ‘goodbye’ for me.” “Which one?” she asks, as if to prompt about their daughter. “Both. Tell them,” “You love them 3000?” A tear slides down his cheek. “Yeah. Bye, Pep,” he says, and kisses her as he fades away, and the fortress is engulfed in white light.
“How much did you get?” Pepper asks back in the real world, her first thought of Tony’s legacy. The Candidate grins, wide. “Everything. Well, except… the AI, Tony, I couldn’t copy him.” “I didn’t think you would. He was stuck in my head.” “Yes, but that wasn’t insurmountable; a human mind is just a different kind of media. But when I tried to copy him, he wouldn’t go. I think… I think he was holding the whole thing together, making sure we could get and use as much of his work as we could, that he made himself a part of the structure.” “It’s okay,” Pepper soothes. “He deserves his rest.”