Halfway through the Comic-Con International in San Diego press event featuring producer Kevin Feige, director Shane Black, star Don Cheadle and yes, Robert Downey Jr., the man who brings Tony Stark to life on the big screen interrupted the proceedings, gestured to the front row of reporters and said, "I'm sorry, but when does the kid with the Sharpee goatee get to ask a question?" "We'll get to him," assured a Comic-Con representative.
With "The Avengers" breaking records worldwide and fan anticipation for the third "Iron Man" film running high, Feige quickly explained Marvel Studios' goals for the armored hero's next silver screen go around. "We're not aiming for bigger, necessarily; we're aiming for different, fresh and new, and we're aiming for a new direction."
"There is an idea about being big, but I think it's about capturing and redoubling the intensity 'The Avengers' managed to capture," Black said. "That sort of lightning in a bottle feel of really stuffing so much into a limited space. We're trying to get as much into this as we can, we're going to get a ton of thrills into a short space."
"'Iron Man 3' is the beginning of the next phase, so it will set the tone in a lot of ways," Feige later added. "Tony's journey and things could spin forward, but it's as self-contained a story as we have done since 'Iron Man.'"
Discussing his taking on the role of directing this enterprise, Black said, "What surprised me is just how much generous help that was available to me. That made it just as easy as could be. John Favreau was available to give me all kinds of tips and advice…he gave me the sort of transitional feel I needed. Marvel has such an effective special effects machine that they could walk me through the process all by hand and pretty much ensure that I was free to concentrate on story and character and scale and scope."
As for how the storyline and the success of "The Avengers" impacted what they wanted to do with this movie, Downey said, "'Avengers,' I think, surprised us to a certain extent. Looking back on it, you can kind of dissect why. It was the right movie with the right people with the right director at the right time. And we feel the same way about this now. I feel that Rhodey and Tony had not entirely been explored as much as they might be…and that, to me, was sort of the heart of it and what was so great about it. Also, we try to be practical in a post-'Avengers' world. What are some of the challenges, now? What are some of the limitations that might be placed on [Tony Stark] and what sort of threat would have him, as usual, ignore those limitations?"
"Truthfully…you got to find a way that the first two aren't done yet," Feige added. "You have to find where the story is emerging, is still on the way, and by the time you finish ['Iron Man 3'], you will have emerged as something resembling a trilogy. In other words, how has this story not yet been completely told? I think we're getting there. I think we found ways to make this feel organic and based on what's come before. That's what I'm happy about."
"This is a very Tony Stark-centric film," Feige said when asked if the film was designed to set up "Avengers 2." "Meaning not just Tony, but his world with Pepper and with Rhodey. It was important to us, as part of sort of the grand plan, from 'Iron Man' to 'The Avengers,' to build that up. Frankly, the first step of the grand plan, with 'Iron Man 3,' is to prove they're just as interesting, if not more so, by themselves, as they were when they were all together in 'The Avengers.' So 'Iron Man 3,' by design, is a very serious character study. It's not a serious movie, but we seriously dig into exploring more of Tony, of Rhodey and of Pepper, without calling S.H.I.E.L.D. and calling Thor or, 'I think Cap should be here in five minutes,' or any of that."
"Any questions for Captain Planet?" Downey interrupted, gesturing to Cheadle and referring to his co-star's tongue in cheek turn as the environmental super hero in the infamous Funny Or Die video. "I mean, what were you thinking," Downey asked with a laugh. "I obviously wasn't thinking," Cheadle replied.
Discussing his and Black's creative reunion after having made "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" in 2005, Downey said, "Well, I've known Shane for a while. 'Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang' was one of my favorite experiences. The script was practically perfect, but we improvised, anyway--"
"You 'improvised, anyway,'" Black repeated with a smile.
"I mean, even this time around -- we made enough mistakes all together that we are all really seasoned at this point," Downey Jr. continued. "I think that the main thing is Shane's storytelling, and the kind of emotional depth that happens without taking itself too seriously, is kind of what Jon had set up. There were times when Favreau and I would call Shane when we had a big scene the next day -- he actually asked that his payment was to have us pick him up a fresh piece of salmon and some blueberries. He became known as Code Word Blueberries after that. And he worked for the same fee now."
As the discussion turned to the various suits of armor utilized in the film series so far, and in "Iron Man 3" in particular, Cheadle began by discussing his time under the mask. "There are some different iterations that War Machine goes through in this film," Cheadle said. "I don't want to give them away, but it's fun to see those things morph and shift. The Iron Man suit is really spectacular in this one, the innovation that's happened with it."
"I liked in the comics, too, that there was a bit of suit envy between them," Downey added.
"Also, what's great is one suit is a private enterprise, the other is military," Black said. "So you've got two Iron Men, in essence: the private sector and government guy."
"Yeah, and for some reason I think he's still the one they trust," Downey said with a laugh.
"By the way, I also find it really interesting that there were actually fans today who had anger that the suit was gold," a bemused Black shared, shaking his head. "I mean, of all the things in the world to get angry about, the suit."
As for the "Iron Patriot" rumors that have been running rampant since a photo leaked online showing someone on the set wearing a star-spangled suit of armor, Black said, "The not-fun thing is that it was online, and we don't have a whole lot of control over that anymore. The fun thing is, the reason it was online is that it's a real, practical suit. It was on the set, and someone took a picture of it. It's actually an awesomely designed suit, and the suit that Mr. Cheadle does get to wear at certain points in the movie. And at certain times on the set, maybe it's not as fun to wear."
"Not as fun as in the movie," Cheadle confirmed.
"[It's] more uncomfortable for the actor wearing it, "Black continued. "The fun thing is, just in terms of the fans and the fan blogs, is just how much it all is so wrong. Let's just get some costume at K-Mart, and have that show up. We love the rumors, we love that, that's fun."
Since the first film, fans have been wondering if the movies will explore the darker aspects of Tony Stark's life, not the least of which is his battles with alcoholism. "I think that's the big idea," Downey said. "But also, you know, interestingly enough, this film has a lot of breadth to it. We realized at the beginning of 'Iron Man 2,' Tony's dying, wow. Then, he has a party and then he's drunk, wow. And some people are going, 'We don't like him.' There's a way to enjoy all of that kind of shadowy stuff and still -- we just kept thinking about what would it really be like if this guy was in this country and where else could he go in this country and what sorts of themes and backdrops could we explore? I think if you look at the history of the films that Shane's written and he's directed, there's a real desire for me -- just as someone who loves movies, to sort of harken back to some of those themes in mainstream films, and they will occur in 'Iron Man 3.'"
"Although Tony won't fall off the wagon," Black added.
"Actually, you haven't seen my rewrites. Rhodey picks him up at Betty Ford, scene 2," Downey joked.
"That's in? That made it in?" Cheadle laughed. "Great!"
While the film's main antagonist, Ben Kingsley's Mandarin, is Chinese, and a portion of the story takes place in China, that didn't mean the movie's cast and crew spent time in the far east. "It's weird because we're not really going to China. Can I say that?" asked Black.
"You just did," Cheadle answered.
"This is why I love Shane. He says it and then turns to Kevin and asks if he can say it," Downey added.
"Remember in 'Iron Man 2,' there's a great sequence at the Monaco race track. Whiplash comes out and cuts his car in half," Feige said, expanding on Black's answer. "Many, many crew members went to Monaco. The first unit didn't. Robert didn't. It's a similar sort of Hollywood movie magic that will be occurring in this case."
"Yeah, basically we're setting aspects of the film in China, but we won't be filming there. Don't tell anybody!" Black joked.
"That stays in this room!" Cheadle added.
The conversation shifted from the international stage of the film to its more intimate aspects, specifically the romance blooming between Stark and Pepper Potts. "The remarkable thing that Jon Favreau managed to do when he forged these kinds of movies was establishing a precedent of espionage, high-tech kind of Top Gun style thrills, coupled with romantic comedy, in a strange way. That's always been the mainstay of these movies," Black said. "That's one of my favorite things about it, too. The romance is definitely a part of this. We've got Gwyneth coming back, and time has passed. In 'The Avengers,' Pepper and Tony are together and doing great, and living together."
"Kevin said there's never been a movie like this where the lead guy is in a relationship with the girl he's going home to, who's kind of, like Gwyneth Paltrow, telling him what to do. However, Rhodes is single. What are we gonna do about that?" asked Downey.
"Is this a dating service? Are you starting something?" asked Cheadle.
As for the challenge of keeping "Iron Man" -- and indeed, all of Marvel Studios' films -- fresh for the moviegoing public, Feige said that that issue is one Marvel believes it has figured out. "I've been at Marvel for 12 years now, and we've had that concern, going back to when 'X-Men' came out, and then two years later, 'Spider-Man' came out. And then, in one year, there were three films," Feige said. "The trick and the formula is just trying to make great movies. We try to make them all great, all different and all fresh. What you'll see in 'Iron Man 3,' that Shane is bringing to it, is some very unique plot points and very unique directions that were taken with the franchise. The same thing with 'Thor' and the same thing with 'Captain [America].' As long as they all feel fresh and you don't fall into some sort of formulaic mold, I hope people will see them."
"Basically, what Kevin is saying is, we were allowed to take some risks, and I think that's very notable," Black said. "I think it's very admirable, in a superhero movie, to be able to take a few risks. That's why I wanted to do this."
"He's a great storyteller and he had a great relationship with Robert," Feige said of the decision to approach Black for "Iron Man 3." "His movie was one of the things that Jon and I kept going back to, when we were casting Tony Stark, that many years ago. It made a lot of sense to us. Joss hadn't done a movie as big as 'The Avengers' before we hired him. Shane is the same. We're confident in the infrastructure we can provide filmmakers, whether they've dealt with something on this scale of not."
"Oh, just say it -- I work for DVD copies," Black laughed.
"You were cheap, kid," added Cheadle.
"I was cheap," Black confirmed with a chuckle.
With the press event winding down, Downey turned once more to the "young man with the Sharpie goatee," an entrant from Marvel's "Iron Man 3" kids' costume contest earlier in the day. "This better be a great question," the star said before being asked what it's like to play the hero in all these movies.
"This better be a great answer!" Cheadle quipped before Downey could respond.
"I think I can speak for any of us who get to live in this world," Downey said. "There was just one of these photos things, I think you were there [referring to the kid asking the question] where a bunch of kids showed up as Iron Man. There were a couple War Machines there. And there's something about that where you just go, 'Wow, what a great opportunity.' I don't know. It's an odd thing, you know? I take it as seriously as Shakespeare."