Los Angeles -- You saved the world. Now what?
That was the issue facing Robert Downey's Iron Man/Tony Stark character in Iron Man 3, a third instalment of the Marvel franchise that is simultaneously a sequel to the previous two Iron Man movies, as well as a followup to The Avengers.
From a narrative perspective, Iron Man 3 could have continued on the pretence that the earth-shattering events of The Avengers didn't happen. But too many people saw it. (Upon its release last summer, the movie grossed $1.5 billion worldwide to become the third highest-grossing movie of all time.) And anyway, the events of that movie -- The Avengers assemble to avert a full-scale alien invasion -- were just too big to ignore.
"It's weird when one movie that's connected to another doesn't reference that movie at all, you know?" says Downey at a press conference for the film, acknowledging that audience expectation had to be addressed.
"They're going to ask you that question: In a post-Avengers world, what's it like for Tony? So you have to have thought about it and addressed it."
The upshot is that the glib, smart Stark emerges from the apocalyptic events of The Avengers shaken to his core. If the high-tech iron suit stays more or less impervious, the man inside is subject to post-traumatic panic attacks. While suffering that state of unbalance, Tony/Iron Man must contend with the activities of a rival, equally brilliant industrialist (Guy Pearce) experimenting with creating super-soldiers, as well as a terrorist known as "The Mandarin" (Sir Ben Kingsley) who targets Stark in an attack on his oceanfront Malibu compound.
Subsequently, our hero finds himself on unfamiliar turf -- rural Tennessee -- without a suit and with his sole ally a young boy (Ty Simpkins) who shares Stark's passion for high-tech toys.
If you thought Bruce Wayne didn't spend enough time in his batsuit in The Dark Knight Rises, prepare to share your dissatisfaction on the blogosphere in the next 36 hours.
But bear in mind that co-writer-director Shane Black, taking over directing duties from Jon Favreau, deliberately sought to make Iron Man more grounded after consorting with the gods and monsters of The Avengers.
"(Marvel) allowed for a different, sort of stand-alone film where we got to be more character-centric," Black says. "That was very appealing to me, to make it more of a thriller, to make it more about Tony, and less otherworldly."
Here's some other ways Iron Man 3 sought to keep the equilibrium of the franchise:
1. Hiring really good actors
"I remember going to see the first Iron Man film and thinking what an unusual thing that they're not casting action heroes. They're casting Robert Downey Jr and Gwyneth Paltrow," says Rebecca Hall, herself a respected British actress (The Town) who here plays a botanist whose work ties in with the movie's terrorist storyline.
"I remember watching and thinking, 'It's not just about the action sequences and the thrill ride.' It's also about the repartée, the wit and the dialogue and there was this screwball battle-of-the-sexes comedy going on that I loved."
2. Maintaining the love story
Paltrow, as Tony Stark's assistant-turned-business partner Pepper Potts, is still an ideal supportive girlfriend, but in the third instalment, she also gets in on the action in an unprecedented way.
"I feel really, really lucky that I got to play Pepper for that reason, because very rarely do you start at such a distinctive place and end up somewhere else," Paltrow says. "To get to where she is all the way at the end of the trilogy, it was a big transformation. I think one of the things that I loved the most was that she really stepped into her power in all areas."
3. Maintaining the buddy movie
Don Cheadle, who plays Stark's friend Col. James Rhodes, not only suited up in his own Iron Man-esque armour as The Iron Patriot (formerly "War Machine"), he got to trade barbs with Downey in the tradition of the buddy movie.
"Shane almost coined and put the stamp on buddy action movies," Cheadle says of the director, whose scripts have included Lethal Weapon and The Long Kiss Goodnight.
"A lot of fun for me on this movie was getting to do a lot of action outside of the suit," Cheadle says. "Getting to work with the stunt team and getting to do a lot of the cable work ... it's like being a kid playing with the best toys."
4. Setting the stage for a fourth?
Maybe not so much.
"The future, as usual, is uncertain," says Downey, who signed on for only three films. "I think the great thing is that 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 meet the second one, let alone the first one.
"In all earnestness things are very much in flux right now," he says. "Marvel has their plans and we're all living and growing. We'll see what happens."