Op/Ed - Forging Iron Man's Movie Future

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With the release of Iron Man on DVD and Blu-ray earlier this week, Marvel Studios held a couple of subtle press events to steer the online conversation back to their surprise box office hit of the summer.

Earlier in the week Marvel announced an expansion of their global distribution deal with Paramount Pictures (domestic distributor of Iron Man), which included the official announcement (to the surprise of no one) of an Iron Man 3 for an unspecified release date.

Then Wednesday director Jon Favreau took part in an online chat with the Los Angeles Times to answer fan questions about the current status of Iron Man 2, now scheduled for a May 7th, 2010 release.

The chat did not reveal many new significant details about Marvel and Favreau's plans for the sequel. It mostly reconfirmed that all roads of Marvel's self-financed movies lead to the 2011 Avengers movie. The director reiterated that his Iron Man 2, 2010's Thor (perhaps to be directed by Kenneth Branagh), 2011's Captain America, and any future plans Marvel may have for the Hulk would all likely factor into The Avengers.

The few details Favreau did offer in regards to his plans for the sequel was that 1.) he thinks the inclusion of War Machine (as hinted towards the end of Iron Man) is a necessity, shoulder canon and all; 2.) he left the door open for the inclusion of a new female love interest and/or villain; 3.) he seemed to indicate the Mandarin in some form or another will play a villainous role; 4.) that Tony Stark's alcoholism will likely be dealt with, again, in some form or another, but perhaps not as a main storyline; 5.) S.H.I.E.L.D. will be a factor, and as such, so will Sam Jackson as Nick Fury; and 6.) Stark's revelation of his Iron Man identity at the end of the first film will be a significant element.

With those factors in mind, we thought we'd take a look at Iron Man's comic book past as well as Marvel Studio's movie future to try to forecast in what directions Favreau and Co. may go for upcoming installments.

Mining History to Forge the Future

While Iron Man/Tony Stark is one of Marvels oldest and most enduring characters, first appearing in 1963, to anyone but the most hardcore aficionados, only two comic book storylines really stand out as definitive – his various battles with alcoholism ("Demon in a Bottle"), and his efforts to corral the use of his stolen technology in the so-called "Armor Wars".

Favreau, who has parlayed either his own genuine comic book roots – or astute research – into vast fanboy cred within the online tastemaker community, is probably wise enough not to totally discount somehow addressing the alcoholism story arc in future films, but actually pulling that cinematic trick off will be the rub.

It would be nearly impossible to introduce the storyline and resolve it in the 120 minutes or so Iron Man 2 will allot him. For one, it would necessitate the film talking place over a period of at least several months to have any credible grounds in reality, which doesn't exactly lend itself to building dramatic tension.

Plus, if he attempts it he runs the risk of the sequel coming off like an ABC Afterschool Special … or maybe a more contemporary reference … a Lifetime Movie of the Week. You just don't fall victim to and defeat inner demons in three acts 0all the while battling supervillains) without it coming off as trite.

That said, his other option of course is to use the two sequels now officially on the docket to allow for a more natural introduction of the conflict and a believable resolution – i.e. have Stark slide into his troubles during the course of Iron Man 2, have some time pass through exposition between films, and then triumph over them in Iron Man 3.

There are two problems with that scenario too, however.

For one, the tone Favreau already struck to great effect in Iron Man really doesn't translate to ending part 2 on an Empire Strikes Back-like downer moment. Unlike its pathos-laden DC box office counterpart The Dark Knight, Favreau infused his film with an irreverent, hip sense of fun. While treating the suspension-of-disbelief-factor with utter, genuine conviction, the lighthearted, high-energy style he surrounded the comic book/superhero trappings in added up to a winning combination that appealed to the both the comic book faithful and the uninitiated.

In other words, he took the armor and Stark's genius completely seriously, but used a lighter touch everywhere else. Not that pathos doesn’t work – see The Dark Knight if you think otherwise – but it would be a complete change in flavor for the franchise.

And while there is no doubt Robert Downey Jr. has the acting chops to pull off a full-on descent into alcoholism and could make the character sympathetic, the bottom line is this – besides long-time comic book fans, does anyone really want to see Downey's Stark hit rock bottom? Iron Man's secret weapon was Downey's joyful performance as the man pretty much every guy would like to be and that every woman would like to be with. Iron Man was a party and Downey/Stark was the life of the party.

It would come something as a surprise to see Favreau and Marvel turn that formula on its ear and turn the lights off at the party in order to hit a comic book touchstone just for the sake of doing so.

The other factor working against an extended alcoholism story is Iron Man 3 won't immediately follow Iron Man 2The Avengers will.

If Marvel's ambitious plans come to fruition, and Iron Man does indeed play a major role in 2011's The Avengers, would Marvel Studios want an alcoholism storyline hanging over that film? Maybe if Iron Man 2 ended with Stark portrayed as a functional alcoholic (but then what would be the point?), The Avengers could simply gloss over it, but it would still be a pretty big elephant in the room for the Avengers story.

And let's not forget Marvel's newfound status as a major movie studio is still exactly that – newfound. The backbone of the company is still merchandising, and the studio has to consider how marketing action figures based on alcoholic character would fly at Walmart. We rightly demonize people for drinking and then driving a Pontaic. Is America ready for an action hero that drinks and drives a personal weapon of mass destruction?

In short, while it wouldn't be a surprise to see Favreau hint at Stark turning to bottle to deal with his newfound celebrity, superhero status, don't be surprised if it's treated more like a prominent Easter Egg for those with inside knowledge, and not a prominent storyline.

The other best-known Iron Man comic book storyline is of course, what was originally called " "The Stark Wars" (perhaps to the dismay of George Lucas and Co.) and is now better known as "The Armor Wars". Revisited now a couple of times over the years since its first incarnation in the late 1980's, the premise of the storyline is essentially that Tony Stark discovers his Iron Man technology has been stolen, and goes on a campaign to reclaim it and defeat anyone using it, eventually pitting himself against the United States government.

Now this storyline seems more ripe with sequel possibilities … if not for the fact it essentially served as the basis for Iron Man itself.

While certainly loosely translated, Favreau and his writers used the basic element – that Stark learns the technology he created is being used for nefarious purposed without his knowledge – to update the character's origin in the first film and to serve as his motivation for becoming a hero.

And even more literally, the climatic set piece showdown between Stark/Iron Man and Jeff Bridges' Obadiah Stane in a powered-up version of his rudimentary original armor, is a very direct nod to that storyline.

Having already faced perverted versions of his own technology, not once, but twice in the first film, would Favreau go back to that well in parts 2 and/or 3?

It's entirely possible, after all, people kept going back to Lord of the Rings even though all three of those films were about a dude trying to bring a piece of jewelry back to a mountain, but Favreau would probably be well served to slow-build that element for an ultimate, climatic 'Iron Men' showdown in a part 3, and come up with a whole new line of conflict /adversary for part 2.

So that’s nearly 1500 words on what we think Iron Man 2 probably won't be. This begs the question, what will it be? We'll look at that question more closely in Part Two coming soon.  

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