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Immersed in Movies: Shane Black and Kevin Feige Talk Going Over the Edge in ‘Iron Man 3,’ Stark’s Demons, VFX

Immersed in Movies: Shane Black and Kevin Feige Talk Going Over the Edge in 'Iron Man 3,' Stark's Demons, VFX

With “Iron Man 3” already smashing box-office records internationally ahead of its domestic release today, grabbing more than $300 million in nine days (including the highest opening ever in China), Marvel’s post-“Avengers” Phase 2 plan is off to a smashing start. The trick apparently was giving Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark an existential crisis, and no one was better suited to the task than director Shane Black, who, like Downey, knows a thing or two about confronting personal demons, which is what “Iron Man 3” is all about.

In fact, after resurrecting Downey’s career in his directorial debut, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” the actor repaid the favor by getting Black the “Iron Man 3” gig. And Black knew just how to run with it by having Stark sink “too low for zero” in figuring out who he really is. This “Iron Man” is the darkest and most personal journey yet for Stark, who kicks the protective tin can armor for most of the movie like an addict trying to go cold turkey. But then identity crises seem to be the superhero trend these days with Marvel competing with DC for cinematic supremacy. Yet while some purists might not wish to see Stark so physically and emotionally naked, forced to rely on his wits, I thought it was an inspired journey with several surprising twists.

“It’s a great way to give some grounding to a hero with some self-doubts and vulnerabilities, who would otherwise be too self-assured,” Black suggests.”I don’t think anyone just buys into Stark’s Playboy image — it’s there to mask something, to shut off some noise, to put a muffler on this calculating machine that whirs in his head at 100 miles an hour all the time. So to me it’s just an attempt to fill this desperate need and to shut out that chatter that demands that he go back to the blackboard and scribble one more time.”

Obviously both Downey and Black see a lot of themselves in Stark, the charming, sarcastic Aspergers-esque genius, who can’t help tinkering with his innovative toys. “He can’t stop that mind of his and there was even a scene we considered putting in the movie to show how he must occasionally abandon whatever he’s doing to immerse himself in his obsession,” Black adds.”That’s what’s interesting — that’s deep. Robert’s humor about life, that gallows humor, has always masked his demons.”

According to Marvel producer Kevin Feige, Downey and Black spent a lot of time discussing the fantastical worm hole experience in New York at the climax of “The Avengers,” and how it would’ve messed with Stark’s already jumbled mind.”What effect would it have on a man that isn’t from outer space or that doesn’t have gamma powers?” Feige offers.

In other words, as the least supernatural of the Marvel superheroes, Stark faces the greatest amount of jeopardy without his suit and goes up against his most powerful, scene-stealing adversaries: The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) and Extremis geneticist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). They’re the perfect alter-egos in a movie devoted to perception vs. reality. “It’s a metaphor for people searching for a better version of themselves, whether it’s inside or outside their physical being,” Black offers.

But Stark still requires a more bad-ass suit, so in “Iron Man 3” he’s advanced his way to the Mark 42, which, allows him to assemble all of the various pieces by remote control (courtesy of some marvelous animation by Trixter). But that’s not enough, so he builds an army of tin men for different attack-mode situations. In terms of VFX firepower, this time the Iron Man suits stemmed from Digital Domain, which did all of the foundation development before turning over assets to Weta, Trixter, Method, and others for customizing and finishing in their sequences. This cooperative handling of suits, which required a more rigorous examination of the animation process, and even a “guide rig” system at Weta, resulted in the best kind of global collaboration.

However, Black insisted that “Iron Man” still retain the franchise’s vaunted humor, despite the darkness and Dickensian orphan riffing when dredging up daddy issues with a little boy sidekick (Ty Simpkins) that bonds with Stark.”Even Chris Nolan knows that you can’t go so mythic and dark that you can’t occasionally lighten it up, so along the way we take the piss out of it.”

In “Looney Tunes”/”Lethal Weapon” fashion, of course. But with such a complete character arc for Stark, will Downey be back other than the obligatory “Avengers” appearances?

“We’ve already got plans,” insists Black.

“The game-change at the end will certainly be explored in the next ‘Avengers’ film,” adds Feige.

In the meantime, we’ve got the next wave of Phase 2 existentialism coming with “Thor: The Dark World” (November 8) and Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (April 4, 2014).

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