Actor to star in 'Avengers,' 'Iron Man 3'

Robert Downey Jr. is living up to his title as Marvel Studios’ Iron Man.

In addition to starring in “Iron Man 2,” Downey has agreed to return as billionaire Tony Stark and his crime-fighting alter ego in “The Avengers” and a third “Iron Man” installment, guaranteeing the thesp a superhero-sized payday and his own ongoing franchise as part of a four-picture deal with the comicbook company.

Jon Favreau, who is set to helm the second “Iron Man” pic, will also exec produce “The Avengers,” which is skedded for release on July 15, 2011. Pic will unite the Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and the Incredible Hulk characters.

Company confirmed that Don Cheadle will replace Terrence Howard as Col. James Rhodes in the “Iron Man” sequels. Cheadle will also appear in “The Avengers.”

Marvel has long refused to confirm until now whether Downey or Favreau were back for “Iron Man 2″ even though both have been forthcoming about their plans for the sequel, which will bow May 7, 2010.

“Iron Man” has earned $578 million worldwide.

Given the sizable haul, Marvel needed to lock down Downey for future pics. Thesp’s been filling up his dance card with projects. He’s currently lensing Warner Bros.’ “Sherlock Holmes,” which could also turn into a new franchise for Downey. Either way, deals put Downey front and center in a major tentpole each year through 2012.

Marvel will self-finance and produce its upcoming slate with Paramount distribbing the pics.

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