Since exploding onto the screen in 2008, Marvel’s Iron Man has imbedded himself into the pop culture. In addition to headlining two Hollywood blockbusters, the character made a scene stealing cameo appearance in 2008′s The Incredible Hulk and will be featured prominently in The Avengers, which hits theaters Friday. But with Iron Man 3 well in the works, it begs the question – “Is the character wearing out his welcome?”

Looking back at the first Iron Man, it’s a minor miracle that the character became so big – it seemed poised to fail. Iron Man was a second tier superhero that lacked the mythic nature and pathos of a Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man. And Robert Downey Jr. – while being an enormously talented actor – never had to shoulder this sort of big-budget motion picture before, and a lot was riding on his metal outfit.

Behind the camera, you had Jon Favreau, who was known to bring an independent sensibility – including lots of improvisation – to any project he worked on. Arming  him with a $140 million budget was a gamble for studio bosses. In the end, Favreau and Downey had the last laugh, crafting a well-rounded and occasionally riveting film. Iron Man had arrived and fans rejoiced.

But this has proven to be a blessing and a curse for both the character and star. Landing the role of Tony Stark gave Robert Downey Jr. a huge outlet to showcase his talents. and his Stark is one of the most debonair superheroes to ever grace the screen. Downey rocketed to the top of the A-list, becoming one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood.  However, his performance as Tony Stark is so iconic that Downey has become imprisoned by it.  With the exception of Tropic Thunder (which was filmed before Iron Man was released), Downey has played a series of characters much in the same vein as Stark – his Sherlock Holmes is Stark with a British accent Though he can sell a one-liner with the best of them, Downey is capable of so much more.

As for Iron Man, Marvel has certainly done their job in saturating the market with toys, video games, and film appearances of the character in recent years. While Downey’s cameo in The Incredible Hulk provided a much needed jolt to an otherwise tame motion picture, cracks in the franchise began to show with the release of Iron Man 2. Though it had all the effects and action money could buy, the memorable characters got lost in the mix, including Tony Stark.  Iron Man did a wonderful job of laying the groundwork for Stark as a three dimensional character and the sequel failed to build on that. It failed, period.

It looks as though the character’s appearance in the upcoming Avengers film will offer more of the same. Sure, Downey will deliver his characteristic rock-solid performance and The Avengers should go on to become one of the highest grossing films of the year, but is it a sin to ask for a little more substance? There is no question that Iron Man is still at his zenith commercially., but there could be a backlash if the films don’t become more artistically ambitious.

In December 2010, it was announced that Jon Favreau passed on directing Iron Man 3 and writer/director Shane Black would be stepping in. Having only helmed the action-comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (though famous for his scripts for Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout) it is hard to get a read on where Black will take the franchise. Last week at CinemaCon, he dropped a few subtle hints saying the film will be a thriller and incorporate elements of war and terrorism. More intriguing was that Black said the Tony Stark character will be seriously tested by these elements. Hopefully, Shane Black remains true to his word and gets back to the kind of deep-rooted character development featured in the first Iron Man. The last thing we want is Iron Man becoming the next Pirates of the Caribbean, another once-innovative franchise that was drowned in a sea of greed and repetition.

Do you think ‘Iron Man’ is wearing out his welcome?