Tuesday, 30 April 2013 07:41 Written by  Jordan DeSaulnier
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This Friday, May 3rd, Marvel Studios cuts the ribbon on Phase 2 with the nationwide release of Iron Man 3.

Hard to believe that it was just five years ago (almost to the day) that Tony Stark first declared "I am Iron Man."  That first film in this series marked the kick-off to Marvel's shared universe of cross-pollinating franchises, and last year's The Avengers represented the culmination of Phase 1.

When last we saw Stark, he was enjoying shawarma with his fellow superheroes after saving New York from alien invasion and nuclear devastation.  In Iron Man 3, though, Tony's been unmoored by his Avengers experience, obsessed with improving his armor to defend from the next inevitable threat.  When that threat arrives in the form of Iron Man's comic book archnemesis the Mandarin, it's worse than Tony could have imagined, and our hero must battle this unprecedented foe while also defending against a dangerous and powerful new technology.

Robert Downey Jr. reprises his starring role as genius billionaire playboy philanthropist Tony Stark, joined once again by Gwyneth Paltrow as the love of his life Pepper Potts and Don Cheadle in his second turn as Tony's best friend/fellow superhero James "Rhodey" Rhodes.  These franchise fixtures star alongside new additions Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin and Guy Pearce as Aldrich Killian, a fellow tech-titan with eyes on Pepper and plans for a new innovation called Extremis.

IAR Managing Editor Jami Philbrick was present at the Iron Man 3 press day in Los Angeles.  Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Ben Kingsley, and Guy Pearce were on hand to discuss the sequel's relationship to The Avengers, some big character arcs, bringing Mandarin to the screen, improvisation, suiting up as big-time superheroes, green screen, new director Shane Black, and Tony Stark's cinematic future.

Both previous Iron Man installments were relatively grounded compared to some other Marvel productions, but in the climactic entry in Phase 1, Tony was confronted by a universe that's bigger and more dangerous than he ever imagined.  While he's still recognizably Stark in Iron Man 3, he is emotionally grappling with something like post-traumatic stress.

Downey Jr. explained the reasoning behind the emotional through-line between The Avengers and Iron Man 3, saying, "You know, Jon Favreau, on the first Iron Man we went out and we went to Comic-Con, and he had a flip phone in his hand and he goes, 'This is how it's working from now.'  You know, the filmmakers, the artists, the departments heads they're all showmen and the audience is talking back, and they're going to ask you that question.  In the post Avengers world, 'What was it like for Tony and this and that?'  So you kind of have to have thought about, and you have to have addressed it creatively." 

"We just wanted to play with that in kind of a binary way to be weird," he said of finding the sweet spot of alluding to the other film.  "It's weird when one movie that's connected to another doesn't reference that movie at all.  You know what I mean?  It seems like we were so busy trying to make our thing work that we didn't have space.  So I think it would lack confidence if we didn't."

Action blockbusters in general and comic book movies specifically are not known for their empowering portrayal of female characters.  Pepper Potts is an exception, and the only person who can truly go toe-to-toe with Tony has an even more rewarding journey in this third entry.  "Very rarely do you start at one such a distinctive place and end up somewhere else," said Paltrow.  "And I really loved their relationship in the first movie when she was a supplicant, and cleaning up his messes and I loved that.  It was very specific, and then, you know, to get all the way to where she is at the end of the trilogy, you know, it was a big transformation.  And I think one of the things that I loved the most is that she really steps into her power in all areas.  And you do see her as a very intelligent articulate CEO.  You see her now in an equal relationship with Tony where she wants her needs met as well while still remaining a very supportive woman in his life."

Iron Man's battled many a foe onscreen over three movies so far, but his nemesis in Iron Man 3 represents a major escalation.  According to Downey Jr., cracking the bad guy was a primary goal of the sequel, explaining, "I think the big challenge this time was, you know, these movies are only ever as good as their bad guys.  And in addition to what we wanted to have happen with Pepper in the arc that she got that was kind of overdue, was I really wanted it to feel like Tony and Rhodey last time decided that he was an island, and there was this kind of power of their partnership and that expanded in the Avenger.  So really all that was left was the movie is only as good as its bad guy, and once we cast Sir Ben, half our troubles went away.  And then the other half had to do with him executing this very peculiar and awesome arc."

"It's all in the script," Kingsley said.  "[Co-writers] Drew [Pearce] and Shane presented us with a wonderful document, and there's very little straying off the written word.  Whenever we do improvise it's minimal, and just to maybe sharpen one or two ideas that we were playing with on the set, but it's all there.  And I do respond to the written word.  I love to see it down there on the page, and it was all there.  I tried to give the Mandarin in his political broadcasts a rather unnerving sense of righteousness, and make him almost paternalistic, patriarchal.  And that's where the timbre of his delivery comes from, and weird iconography was there to disconcert and completely scatter any expectations of where he might be coming from.  I think again the line, that 'You will never see me coming,' it sort of voices that unpredictability that he has.  It's a great script.  It was a wonderful read, and we stuck very closely to it." 

Downey Jr. voiced a slight disagreement here, lauding Kingsley's improvisational fortitude.  "He actually, once we let him off the chain, we found that he was a glorious improviser and a lot of ideas without giving his character arc were just flowing out from what was written," said the star.  "But again, you know, Drew and Shane had a good document.  The story is really good.  The twists are really good."

Facing off against a fearsome new enemy, Stark finds himself needing more help than ever from Rhodey, who in Iron Man 2 adopted the state-sanctioned armor of War Machine.  In Iron Man 3, Rhodey's armor gets a fresh, all-American paint job, some flashy weaponry, and a new moniker, as Rhodey's alter ego is called Iron Patriot.

Asked which he prefers between War Machine and Iron Patriot, Cheadle replied, "The Iron Patriot is about three kilos heavier.  So I prefer War Machine.  But, you know, this iteration of the film really is something that Robert and I talked about after the second, you know.  He came to me and said, 'Now, let's try and really kick this relationship off, and really try to see who these guys are.'  And a lot of fun for me in this one was being able to do a lot of action outside of the suit, and getting to work with the stunt team and doing a lot of the cable work.  That was just a big thrill for me.  It was like, you know, I was big kid being able to play with the best toys.  So I think you see the relationship has strengthened in this one, and it's sort of pays off on the promise that I think was made at the end of Iron Man 2 in the Japanese garden where these guys really started busting each others' chops back-to-back.  You know, they're friends, but they still really help balance one another, and I thought that really came to fruition in this one."

"I admit we're wimps," Downey Jr. quipped.  "In Iron Man 2, Don's suit was so hard to even pick up to put on him."

Cheadle recalled, "I know in the second one, Robert, when he was putting his suit on and just had the top of it on, and I was putting mine on and he said, 'Yeah, I told them from one to two that they really had to make these changes and this a lot more lightweight.'  And I was like, 'Mine weights 7,000 pounds.  What are you talking about lightweight?'"

"I prefer being out of the suit.  The suit is great, and it's great to be able to achieve all the things that we want to achieve with the CGI and the motion capture and all that," he continued.  "But like I said, I had the most fun running around with Robert, and us actually physically going after it."

Guy Pearce has participated in his share of effects-intensive spectacles, but was nonetheless struck by the visual effects component of shooting Iron Man 3, explaining, "Obviously, we were really aware of the visual effects, I think, that were going on behind the scenes.  There were literally sort of rows of people sitting behind us at the monitors with laptop computers, kind of mocking up versions of what things were gonna look like. Which, you know, doesn’t often happen on a two million dollar Australian movie.  So that was kind of different.  You’re aware of the visual effects world that I think will be incorporated later."

"I’d done a bit of green screen stuff before," he went on.  "And on some level, it’s actually kind of fun, because you’re relying on your imagination. And I think in this, it actually wasn’t so extreme that you were trying to imagine a person in front of you that actually wasn’t there or anything like that.  But you know, and as I say, you’ve got a visual effects team sort of working away constantly, and they’re sort of showing you previews of the scene you’re meant to be doing and then how it’s actually meant to look.  So you’re sort of in really good hands in a visual sense."

Though Jon Favreau directed both of the previous Iron Man entries, this sequel finds Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang helmer Shane Black taking the directorial reins.  Favreau remains actively involved, reprising his supporting role as Happy Hogan and serving as executive producer.  Paltrow, for one, admitted some trepidation when she learned that Favreau would not be helming, but she said, "I think what we started with on this movie that we didn't start with on the first two films was a really excellent finished screenplay.  And I think it really shows in the film.  I think Shane is really super talented, and he brought something.  You know, he took it up a notch, which was really difficult to do.  So I ended up having an incredible amount of respect for him."

"He has a great attribute as a director," said Kingsley of Black, "one of many great attributes is that the director will give you the role and then he will let go.  This is a wonderful quality that he has.  There are some directors lesser in confidence or skill who make the actor feel very uncomfortable because you feel you're auditioning for them everyday.  And that's a terrible feeling on the set.  But Shane has this wonderful ability in his own confidence, and his ability to cast a movie to say, 'There's your role.  I'm just going to film it.'  And it's really good energy to have on the set."

Directorial change aside, Paltrow points to a different source of the franchise's success, saying, "The truth is that these movies work because Robert plays Tony Stark, and not only because like of the similarities in their own lives and not because of his specific brand of vulnerability and strength and humor and all those things.  But because Robert has a really big picture creative mind about what these movies should feel like.  We all know that Marvel are amazing at, you know, the stunts and the CGI and the action and everything.  But I think one particular strength of Robert's that we don't see on screen is the fact that he's always asking, 'What is the big picture here?  How can we make it feel real?  How can we make it feel like something we care about and we want to watch?'  I think that's why the movies keep working, and they're not sort of like a weaker carbon copy of the one before."

So how many more films can we expect Downey Jr. to swagger through as the resident rockstar of the Marvel cinematic universe?  At this point, it's unclear, and the actor himself was unable to share any specific information.

"The future, as usual, is uncertain," the star said. "And I think the great thing is that, you know, we never could have known what and who was going to come together for the third Iron Man.  And usually the third of anything struggles to even meet the first two, let alone the first one.  So in all earnestness, you know, things are very much in flux right now and Marvel has their plans and we're all living and growing.  We'll see what happens."

Iron Man 3 arrives at American theaters on May 3rd.

Press conference photos courtesy of Melissa Howland.

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