Why did Terrence Howard leave the ‘Iron Man’ films?

In 2008, Marvel Studios introduced Iron Man to worldwide audiences. At the time, the project was considered a gamble given that the character had a relatively small fan base even in the comic book world and was not well-known to people outside of that. But then stars Robert Downey Jr. and Terrence Howard brought a fresh look to Tony Stark’s origin story, which resonated with general audiences and in turn kicked off the lucrative Marvel Cinematic Universe.

For Robert Downey Jr., the film marked a momentous return to cinema after years of battling drug abuse. Little did he know that it would launch him to superstar status and spearhead Disney’s formula of casting big-name stars like Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson in the soon-to-be mega-franchise. After 10 years of working together on the biggest cinematic outing to date, Downey and the other MCU actors have grown into a media family bigger than the likes of famed hip hop ensemble Wu-Tang.

But not every family member was happy with their treatment at Marvel Studios. Just ask Terrence Howard, who played the role of James “Rhodey” Rhodes in Iron Man, an Air Force colonel and Tony Stark’s best friend. Howard, fresh off the success of 2005’s Hustle & Flow, was a shoe-in for the role, as his natural acting chops and heavy resemblance to the Rhodey character from the comics was hard to deny. Naturally it was expected that he would return for the film’s sequel.

But when Iron Man 2 came out two years later, it was Don Cheadle in the role of Rhodey, not Howard. In fact, Howard was never seen in the MCU again. Thanks to Cheadle’s stellar performance, fans didn’t make much of an uproar about Howard being replaced. After all, it wasn’t the first time something like this had happened in the MCU. The Incredible Hulk, for instance, was released the same year as Iron Man with Edward Norton in the titular role. Norton was similarly slated to return in a potential sequel as well as The Avengers, but due to internal disputes over writing and producer credits, Norton and Marvel Studios parted ways before he got a chance to return. He was then replaced by the current Hulk that we all know and love, Mark Ruffalo.  

This is why it wasn’t all that shocking when Howard didn’t return for Iron Man 2. Fans nonchalantly moved on without asking too many questions; however, years later, many of them have taken a step back and evaluated the MCU’s run over the last decade. This has led them to ask what happened to Howard. Why did he leave what could have been a major career boost for him?

According to Screen Rant, it turns out that he actually had a pretty valid reason for leaving, which he discussed during his appearance on Bravo’s late-night chat show Watch What Happens Live in Nov. 2013. During the segment, Howard answered a call-in question from an audience member at home about the recasting of the role he originated. Though the star remained cryptic in his explanation, the message was clear: it was ultimately about money. In his response to the call-in question, Howard explained what went wrong during the contract negotiations:

“It turns out that the person I helped become Iron Man…when it was time to re-up for the second one, (he) took the money that was supposed to go to me and pushed me out.” 

Robert Downey Jr.

Apparently, the unnamed “he” was none other than Robert Downey Jr., who ironically has been paid ridiculous sums of money for playing Tony Stark over the course of ten MCU films. Naturally, anyone with some sense immediately figured out what Howard was trying to infer, but Watch What Happens Live host Andy Cohen was not about to let the actor off the hook that easily.

“The word was that you wanted the same money as Downey,” Cohen commented during his segment with Howard. But Howard had a different account as to what really happened, which he elaborated on soon after.

“We did a three-picture deal, so that means that you did the deal ahead of time. It was going to be a certain amount for the first one, a certain amount for the second one, a certain amount for the third. 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.’ And I called my friend – that I helped get the first job – and he didn’t call me back for three months.”

Shortly after the segment on Bravo, Showbizcafe’s Tony Rico appeared on NBC’s Today and provided the actual monetary figures that Howard was trying hard not to disclose. According to Tony Rico, Howard’s original contract consisted of an $8 million payday for Iron Man 2, but was instead whittled down to a measly $1 million in order to accommodate Downey Jr. 

It appears that Howard was really given the short end of the stick once Downey Jr. catapulted to stardom after Iron Man’s success. Howard is by no means a small-time actor, so to only offer him a million dollars for a second installment of a budding franchise was definitely a slap in the face. Howard was clearly unhappy with the offer and understandably decided to opt out of the role altogether, leaving the door open for Don Cheadle to replace him as Rhodes.

Since then, Cheadle has taken over the character and appeared in seven MCU films. He’s also recently reprised for his role in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and is set to take a lead role in Armor Wars on Disney Plus. As of now, there haven’t been any solid reports of how much Cheadle has been paid for his portrayal of Rhodey, so there’s no telling if Marvel Studios is still paying low numbers for the role or if they’ve learned from their mistakes.

Many fans still find it a shame that they never got to see Howard return as Rhodey and go on to become War Machine. There’s no telling how the MCU would have looked if Howard’s portrayal of the character had become more popular and he got to interact with other actors from the MCU like Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, and Paul Rudd. And even though Howard was able to move on and become a television staple in his own right with his work as Lucious Lyon on the Fox network’s music drama Empire, there’s no telling what his career could have looked like if he’d stayed on as Rhodey.

Perhaps being an MCU star just wasn’t in the cards for Howard. At least you can always watch the first Iron Man and reminisce on his brief time in the franchise while you daydream about what the MCU would have been like had he stuck around. Just like Disney Plus original, it’s always interesting to ponder the question…what if?