It started innocently enough.
It’s not that there wasn’t anticipation for their arrival. How could there not be? Stories had already been told, books had already been written, feats had already been accomplished…
There was buzz.
But it’s one thing to come along and make an impact; it’s another to show up and change everything.
What they’ve done since arriving over a decade ago, with all that fanfare, has been nothing short of audacious. We’d seen thousands upon thousands come before them, in each of their respective realms. Although each had certain…unique qualities, it was still fair to ask: how much better — how much more dominant — than their predecessors could they really be? The sky was the limit, but who actually reaches their limit, let alone exceeds it?
And they both did.
Now, as we sit and bask in the respective apex of each, with their similarities, successes, flaws and foibles in full view, it’s fair to ask: is Kevin Durant the real Iron Man?
Even the most optimistic outlooks didn’t prophesize greatness on anything close to this scale. For each of their stories to turn into this, with these extremes, and this level of excellence? No one saw it coming.
On May 2, 2008, Iron Man debuted in the US and Canada. At that time, its worldwide opening gross of $201 million was the highest global total ever for a non-sequel superhero movie. It hit, and it hit big.
Two weeks prior, in what would wind up being the last game the Supersonics would ever play, Kevin Durant scored 42 points in the season finale of his rookie year. It was the most points scored by a teenage rookie in NBA history.
From the start, they were connected, not only by doing something unprecedented, but by ending eras in the process. For Durant, he closed out professional basketball in Seattle. For Robert Downey Jr., aka Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, he ended movie-going as we knew it.
Billions upon billions of dollars later — $1.34 billion worldwide this weekend alone, to be exact — most of us can still remember a world where the Marvel Cinematic Universe didn’t exist, but it might as well be before they added sound to moving pictures. Similarly, there had been great players on great teams before Kevin Durant took his talents to the Bay Area, but never before had a player this great joined a team this talented.
Now, as we enter a summer where both Marvel and the Warriors prepare for life without their centerpiece (both Downey’s and Durant’s contracts are up, in case you haven’t heard) and each centerpiece prepares for life outside the ideal cocoon they’ve both existed in, it’s almost tough to remember the humble beginnings of each.
When Iron Man was first announced, it was anything but a sure thing. Downey had been down and out, which is probably why Tom Cruise was in consideration to play the part. Speaking of the role itself, Marvel only went with the character because it no longer owned the rights to seemingly surer things like Spider Man and the X-Men. Thank goodness for dumb luck.
Speaking of dumb, there were actual debates about whether Durant was worthy of the No. 1 overall pick that would wind up being used on Greg Oden, who most saw as a safer bet. For as normal as it seems now, the nearly 7-foot, 215-pound wing who couldn’t bench a rep at the combine had his doubters. Those doubts evaporated long before KD’s last game as a rookie, but he was still raw. The Sonics won 20 games and would fire their coach 13 games into Durant’s sophomore season. Little was guaranteed.
Those early years for Iron Man and the Slim Reaper were a steady upward climb. After the original movie made $585 million, the sequel took home $623 mil, followed by Iron Man 3 at $1.2 billion. The same year that the third installment came out, Durant finally won his lone MVP after finishing second three times.
Looking back, their individual success is nearly unparalleled. Before Endgame even came out, films in which Iron Man appeared have grossed $9.45 billion, making him the highest grossing franchise star of all time. That number will approach $12 billion in the coming weeks, around the same time KD crosses 4000 playoff points scored. When he does, he’ll join LeBron and Kobe as the only players to hit that mark before the age of 30.
Team-wise, things started out just as well for each. The Avengers finally came together to rousing success in 2012, and on May 23 of that year, it became the first Marvel movie to cross $1 billion. Two weeks later, in a similar “Hello, world” moment, Durant, Westbrook and Harden would unite to lead the Thunder to the NBA Finals. KD averaged 30 points a game against San Antonio, and made the aging Spurs look like Chitauri roadkill in the process
That’s when things started getting rocky.
Tony Stark famously and disastrously let a super-bot go rogue in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and it nearly destroyed the planet. Sam Presti can sympathize. Harden might be even more maniacal (and mechanical) in his approach to world domination, but thankfully the referees, much like the Avengers, seem to be putting an end to his plot.
The loss of Harden/Ultron would have been a lot for any super team to take, and predictably enough, it caused the breakups of both. Captain America: Civil War marked the end of the Avengers for the time being after Cap and Iron Man couldn’t see eye to eye. Tony Stark turned Steve Rodgers from the hunter to the hunted, and a few months later, Durant would do the same to Westbrook.
Every Thunder fan knew the pain on Stark’s face at the beginning of Avengers: Infinity War when he looked at his flip phone and couldn’t bring himself to dial his former partner (FYI: Kevin Durant definitely has a flip phone). That was a painful process, but it was also necessary for each of them to grow as individuals. Russ knows the feeling.
When Durant went to the Warriors, it was simultaneously the biggest breakup and biggest team-up the league had ever seen (no, LeBron ending things with Dan Gilbert doesn’t count). The most ambitious crossover event in league history? Let’s not push it.
All of this led us to this moment. All three 3-peats in modern league history – the Bulls twice and the Lakers once – lost exactly 13 games over their three-year runs of dominance. At press time, the Warriors have lost eight games over two years and a playoff series and a half. The odds that Durant leads them to the finish line while only experiencing four or fewer losses is probably about the same as Endgame’s chances of toppling Avatar as the biggest global box office phenomenon of all time. If it makes it, it will be on the blood, sweat and tears of Tony Stark.
This, of course, is the last bit of minor uncertainty before the bigger mystery begins.
How will the MCU hold up without their biggest component — the star they sold out to keep aboard (Downey’s presence cost them a rumored $75 million for Infinity Way and may wind up with over $100 million for Endgame)? The same question will go for the Warriors, who sold a piece of their soul to keep KD happy. Like Marvel, they’ll still likely be the betting favorite next season even if KD does leave. But it will be the end of an era.
As for Durant, his next step is anyone’s guess. Will his choice have the finality of Tony Stark’s last scene? The uncertainty of Downey’s career from this point forward? The inevitability of the Iron Man suit living on in some form or fashion in these movies somewhere down the line?
It’ll probably be a combo of all three. My guess is that he makes the ultimate sacrifice and takes on the task no one else has the guts to — the one that will cement his legendary status, once and for all, just like Stark — and attempts to save my beloved New York Knicks.
Or maybe this is just wishful thinking.
Either way, these guys have given us one hell of a ride, and wherever it goes from here, we should all be thankful for what they’ve given us thus far.
Perhaps the best is yet to come.