How Long Can They Keep This Up: An Iron Man 3 Retrospective

Who knows when they started calling it “Phase I,” but it can’t have been too early in the scheme of things because, really, who could’ve expected it to work well enough to be a “phase” of anything. After the blockbuster success of the Spider-Man film series, the big cheeses over at Marvel Comics decided they were tired of watching so much of the money earned by their characters flow into the coffers of the big studios like Sony. So, they decided to finance and create big, tentpole super hero movies themselves and keep a much more sizable stack of cash from the productions in the process.

It was quite the scheme, with only one drawback: Pretty much all the best Marvel characters were already tied up in deals with other studios. With Spider-Man and the X-Men locked in contractually with other studios, they just didn’t have much to work with. (Now, someone, somewhere will say, “Hey, you forget The Fantastic Four!” To which I say, “No, I did not,” but you should. How stupid would The Avengers have been with that stretchy dude?)

But Marvel dug deep, dusted off the Batman-wannabe with a drinking problem, Iron Man, and began developing Phase I of their universe’s conquest of the box office. Last summer they capped off Phase I with The Avengers, a mash-up of Marvel’s B-list superheroes that could only have been pulled off by the nigh-invincible wit of Joss Whedon and is now the third highest grossing movie in history.

So why am I going through this little bit of cinema history that, if you’re still reading at this point, you probably already know. It’s because I’m wondering something: In the annals of geekery, Marvel Phase I was a truly remarkable accomplishment–up there with the original Star Wars (holy) trilogy and the monumental and sweeping Lord of the Rings uber-film (I think of it as one 14 hour movie). Both of those sagas, though, have now been tainted by going to the well too often. Star Wars, of course, has been blighted by the wimpy, whiny pre-Darth Vader Anakin Skywalker of the CGI-everywhere prequels and the Lord of the Rings  will someday soon come pre-packaged on 48 fps Blu-Ray with its soon-to-be equally long, but way lower-stakes prequel, The Hobbit.

My question, then, is: How long until Marvel screws this thing up?

(Oh, here’s where I’m going to feel free to include SPOILERS about any and all of the Marvel films, including Iron Man 3.)

This weekend (or last weekend, if you’re in China) we got the first hard evidence for the longevity of Marvel’s grand design. Iron Man 3 is the official beginning of “Phase II.” It will include return visits with Thor (Yet another “dark” sequel, this one due in November) and Captain America.

We’ve got next to nothing to go on when it comes to Cap’s next outing, but sitting in the theater for Iron Man 3, we were treated to a big, booming trailer for the Thor sequel. It looks sufficiently massive and action packed to continue to bolster confidence in the slick machinery of the Marvel movie-making enterprise (which has to-date only stumbled with Iron Man 2 by making it too much of a commercial for the rest of Phase I).

For its part, Iron Man 3 is a new paint-by-numbers sheet from the same book as the original. Pretty much the ingredients that work in all of these movies: punchy humor and lots of CGI combat–this time with genetically-overclocked super soldiers in the employ of the sort-of Mandarin who are strong enough to rip iron man suits to pieces with their bare hands (by the way, someone remind me to write an essay about conservation of energy in superhero movies; these guys are constantly regrowing body parts or heating up extremities to a couple thousand degrees–where is that energy coming from? Just how many Snickers are they eating between battle scenes?). Fortunately enough, Tony Stark–boy genius–has been suffering from insomnia and has stockpiled an enormous inventory of extra, specialized suits to duke it out with the say-what Mandarin’s forces in the coda (Okay, seriously, if I was a fan of the comics, this little perturbation of the canon continuity would probably irk the crap out of me: Tony Stark’s greatest nemesis from the comics, The Mandarin, is in this incarnation only a two-bit actor being controlled by the real villain…Guy Frickin’ Pearce? I’ll give you this, I sure didn’t see that twist coming.).

Obviously, Robert Downey Jr. continues to earn his mega paychecks by carrying the picture. His smirk is easily 46% of the appeal of the Iron Man movies (and a full 4.7% of the Avengers’, which is pretty good when you’re competing for credit with the awesomeness of Joss).

The movie’s already a ginormous hit internationally and having a great opening weekend stateside. Right about now, Marvel must be thinking things bode pretty well for Phase II.

And they’re probably right. Joss Whedon (who, as we all know, can do no wrong) will take the helm for Avengers 2, slated for release in 2015. Sure, expectations will be high, but with a proven cast, trusty formula, and an idea that Whedon’s nursed since before the first film started rolling, it will probably work again.

But Marvel isn’t just thinking about Phase II.

Plans for Phase III include ground work to be laid in Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014 and extended with character films like Ant-Man after Avengers 2 (Which, come on, we all know will be titled Avengers Assemble, right?).

Yes, you read that correctly: Ant-Man. No, his costume doesn’t look like an ant, but his power is to shrink to, well, ant-size (again, Marvel Comics and believable physics don’t mix so much; for proof, just reference all the flying iron man suit parts in 3. Really? A faceplate has enough propulsion built-in to fly from Tennessee to Miami? I’m honestly supposed to accept that and enjoy my move? Oh, who am I kidding, I did.).

Guardians of the Galaxy seems like an even bigger risk. In case you weren’t aware, its central characters will include Zoe Saldana as a CGI alien chick (okay, so we already know that audiences will both accept and want to tap that), a walking tree (Lord of the Rings, much?), and–prepare yourself–a raccoon with a rocket launcher.

You can’t make this shit up, folks.

Is America, nay, is the world ready to love Rocket Raccoon? I just don’t know.

But who’re we kidding–I’ll be at the theater in person to find out.


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