In 2008, superhero films changed forever with the release of Iron Man, the opening film in the extraordinarily popular Marvel Cinematic Universe. The franchise has since grown to become one of the most commercially successful in the history of entertainment, and the legacy of its excellent debut 15 years ago – still one of the benchmarks for the entire genre – continues to exert huge influence across the films and television shows it has spawned. However, one element of Iron Man that did not return for future entries was Terrence Howard as James “Rhodey” Rhodes, Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) best friend who would later become an integral part of the MCU in his own right. Ever since, theories about why he was removed have been rife thanks to Marvel Studios and Jon Favreau declining to comment on the situation – something Howard has never gotten on board with.
As is often the case with Hollywood drama, Howard puts the blame squarely on money, although the “whos and whys” of this tend to change. But there are always two sides to a story, and external sources have indicated that the matter wasn’t quite as straightforward as he makes it seem. When it came time to make Iron Man 2, it was Don Cheadle in the War Machine suit, not Terrence Howard, the first in a long line of MCU recasts. Today, Rhodey is one of the MCU’s flagship characters, with Cheadle making a total of nine appearances across the franchise. With this number set to hit double digits thanks to his role in the upcoming miniseries Secret Invasion – itself a lead-in to his own feature film, Armor Wars – there’s no denying that Cheadle is here to stay. But the removal of Howard is still one that elicits speculation, and thanks to the fifteen years’ worth of information we’ve now become privy to, we’re closer than ever to answering this longstanding question.
Marvel Wanted To Renegotiate Howard’s Contract for ‘Iron Man 2’
Returning to Iron Man with the knowledge of the cultural behemoth that would follow it makes for a riveting experience. It’s easy to forget how restrained this franchise was before multidimensional villains began cropping up every other week, but the most surprising element is seeing Robert Downey Jr. before he commanded as much wealth as his title character. In stark (no pun intended) comparison to the frankly outrageous salary he would later boast, his work on Iron Man netted him a meager $500,000 – a repercussion of his checkered past that had left him unhirable for many years. Instead, it was Howard who achieved the biggest paycheck, building off a succession of major releases (most notably his Academy Award-nominated role in Hustle & Flow) to earn himself somewhere between $3.5 million and $4.5 million (with the promise of considerably more should sequels follow). Interestingly, Howard was the first actor that Favreau cast, putting him in a lucrative position despite the film’s bare bones state. So far, so good.
Unfortunately for Howard, reprising his role would be easier said than done, with his co-star’s sudden increase in popularity being a major reason for this. Overnight, the renaissance that had begun with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Zodiac was complete, setting the stage for Downey to become one of the 21st century’s most powerful actors. Marvel was keen to take full advantage of his newly acquired profitability for Iron Man 2 (and, by extension, the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe), resulting in his wage skyrocketing to a whopping $10 million, plus an unspecified percentage of the back end.
In addition, Downey also exerted greater influence over the film’s development, with him and Favreau co-developing Iron Man 2’s story before it had even been announced. When scriptwriting duties fell to Justin Theroux, they did so after Downey suggested him for the job (having collaborated with him on Tropic Thunder). As Iron Man 2 moved closer to filming, it was clear that Robert Downey Jr. would be front and center…something that was problematic for Howard.
Put simply, Howard was not as important for Iron Man 2 as he was for its predecessor, with Howard saying exactly this during an appearance on the late-night chat show Watch What Happens Live in 2013 when he recounted how Marvel tried to renegotiate his salary. “They came to me with the second and said, ‘Look, we will pay you one-eighth of what we contractually had for you, because we think the second one will be successful with or without you.’” It’s a miserable situation, but considering that Iron Man 2’s budget was set to cost the studio upwards of $60 million more than the original – plus the unfortunate fact that an actor’s worth is determined by their box office value – it’s one that Howard must have been expecting. Still, asking him to accept a pay reduction from $8 million to $1 million is a tall order, and not one either he or his representatives were keen to accept. Who stepped away from the negotiating table is unclear, but ultimately it didn’t matter – Howard was gone, and with it, his chance at having a leading role in his era’s defining media franchise.
Reportedly, Favreau and Howard Clashed During ‘Iron Man’
In the time since it was announced that Terrence Howard would be replaced by his Crash co-star Don Cheadle, more information has become known about why it happened. More specifically, information that casts doubt on Howard’s clearcut explanation. It’s no secret that Howard isn’t the easiest actor to work with, sometimes resulting in fractious sets where his narcissistic proclivities refuses to let him say lines anyway other than how he wants (which isn’t even mentioning his sketchy past involving multiple assault allegations). According to Entertainment Weekly, this behavior persisted on the set of Iron Man, necessitating many reshoots and recuts for a performance that Favreau was still dissatisfied with. Because of this, Favreau planned to reduce Rhodey’s role in Iron Man 2, prompting Marvel’s aforementioned negotiation for a figure more in line with the other supporting actors. It’s worth noting that Howard has always denied that he had a bad experience making Iron Man, with Entertainment Weekly also reporting that neither he nor his representatives were informed of these on-set issues. One can only imagine their shock upon seeing such an extensively reworked contract.
As previously mentioned, Howard has discussed his removal from the MCU countless times. Whether he views it to the betterment or detriment of his career appears to change daily, but when he’s in one of his more bitter moods, he has taken to blaming Downey for his dismissal. For example, Howard has claimed that “the person that I helped become Iron Man, when it was time to re-up for the second one, took the money that was supposed to go to me and pushed me out,” before adding that this ‘unnamed person’ didn’t return his phone calls for months.
The suggestion that Howard was responsible for getting Downey the Iron Man gig, or that Downey personally conspired to get rid of him, lacks any corroborating evidence, and resembles the hostile ramblings of someone who (understandably) is upset that they lost out on such a profitable job. Downey has denied that he played a role in his removal, while an Instagram post from 2016 with the caption “#lifestooshort” implies that they have mended their relationship, hopefully putting his conflict to bed.
Don Cheadle Had Been Considered for the Role Previously
The day after Terrence Howard was dismissed from the role, Marvel was in talks with Don Cheadle to replace him, with confirmation of his hiring following close behind. The reason for this frantic turnaround comes from Cheadle having already met Favreau to discuss playing Rhodey the last time around, putting him in the prime position to don the War Machine suit. It turned out to be a brilliant piece of casting, with him and Downey making for an endlessly watchable double act that Howard’s coarser portrayal never allowed for. Today, Cheadle is the unmistakable face of James Rhodes, and his charismatic performance has been key in keeping him as one of the few Phase 1 characters to still play an active role in the MCU. Fingers crossed that Secret Invasion and Armor Wars continue this impressive streak.
As for Howard, it’s hard to say if his removal from the MCU was ultimately beneficial. Not being tied to such an encompassing franchise has certainly allowed him to build an extensive and varied filmography, with notable examples including Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners or the leading role in Fox’s Empire. But at the same time, it’s hard to imagine that part of him doesn’t regret walking away from this $28 billion franchise, especially as his career drifts from one supporting role to the next in-between half-hearted spurts at retirement. Don’t forget, the penultimate moment in Iron Man sees Rhodey debating whether to put on the War Machine armor, before slyly commenting to himself “next time, baby” and walking away. One can only imagine how Howard must feel watching that back. Be it money, ego, on-set difficulties, or a combination of all three, Howard never got the chance to resolve that cliffhanger… but with the MCU embracing the multi-verse more and more, perhaps there’s a chance that could change. What-if, indeed.