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Iron Man joins 'Captain America 3': 14 thoughts about Marvel's mash-up sequel

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Iron Man
Marvel

1. This is a great idea. Everyone knew that Marvel would figure out some way to keep making movies where Robert Downey Jr. wears some kind of cool metal suit. But Iron Man 4 was always a skeptical proposition. “Fun, Shambling Mess” is basically the best you can hope for when it comes to fourquels. (See: The fish-out-of-time-water shenanigans in Star Trek IV; Stallone solving the Cold War with his fists in Rocky IV; Harry and Ron having a really wacky wizard prom in Goblet of Fire.) Marvel could’ve positioned a fourth Iron Man movie as a complete in-franchise reboot by pulling a Ghost Protocol and giving Tony Stark a whole new milieu/supporting cast/’tude. Even then, Iron Man 4 would have had to be one of the top five most successful movies ever; anything else would be regarded as a very lucrative disappointment. But now, those daring renegades at Marvel have rewritten the rules of franchising once again.

2. This is a horrible idea. Everyone knew that Marvel would figure out some way to keep making movies where Robert Downey Jr. wears some kind of weird facial hair. But Iron Man 4 felt like a necessary evil: A way for Marvel to keep making funny money by letting Downey and Shane Black improvise comedy riffs between action setpieces, a cash cow that paid for far-flung explorations into space and the military-industrial complex and whatever dark dimensions Doctor Strange visits this week. It felt like Marvel was in a position of strength after Guardians of the Galaxy. It felt like they were saying, “We aren’t just the Iron Man movie factory.” Now they’ve turned Captain America 3 into Iron Man 4. How long until Tony Stark visits Asgard to build Thor a suit of armor?

3. Full disclosure: The Winter Soldier is my favorite Marvel movie, and I’ve spent the last six months trying to figure out why it affected me so much. It’s not as overtly stylish as the first round of Marvel movies—no Favreauvian arena-rock giddiness, no Branagh-esque operatic melodrama, no rah-rah Johnstonite jingo. Chris Evans-as-Cap doesn’t immediately grab you as a compelling character—he’s not as funny as the scene-stealing Downey and not as swagger-y as Hemsworth. But I think Winter Soldier works because everything about it flows out of Captain America: the character, the icon, the ideas underpinning decades of mythology. Doesn’t adding Iron Man into the equation immediately ruin whatever was special and unique about the Cap franchise? Does the audience even want movies to be special and unique anymore?

4. Full disclosure: I got to chat with Joe and Anthony Russo a few weeks back, and it was absolutely thrilling—except for one part that was vaguely dispiriting. The Russos are the brothers who made The Winter Soldier, and one of the things I liked about the movie was how it felt like it was building a brand new franchise from scratch. (The best sequels are radically different from their predecessors: more aliens in Aliens, more snow in Empire Strikes Back, going to the mall in Dawn of the Dead, going to Paris in Before Sunset.) The Russos are already hard at work on Captain America 3, and one thing they said was, “We’re more grounded in the world of Winter Soldier than Winter Soldier was grounded in First Avenger.” This doesn’t necessarily mean anything; nothing anyone says about a Marvel movie in development means anything. But it sounded to me like Captain America 3 would really be Winter Soldier 2: More Bucky, more SHIELD politicking, more action scenes set on a street in Washington D.C. that looks mysteriously like a street in beloved Midwestern tax-credit haven Cleveland.

5. But if Downey joins Captain America 3, it immediately becomes something different. And not just different: It becomes something new. There’s a version of Marvel’s future that we all more or less envisioned before 24 hours ago: A 3-4 year cycle of solo films, leading up to an Avengers sequel, followed by another phase of solo films. In the long run, this would’ve made the solo films feel inconsequential—the equivalent of video game DLC, an extra storyline specifically designed to be unimportant enough that it wouldn’t potentially confuse the moviegoers who only see Avengers movies. From this perspective, the decision to put an Iron Man movie into a Captain America movie feels like an attempt by Marvel to make all their movies important.

6. It’s also a way to potentially mop the floor with that other 2016 superhero mash-up movie—the one that already stepped off Captain America‘s release date, the one that’s been designed to launch an entire anti-Marvel movie megafranchise. Is Warner Bros. nervous? Should they be? Batman v Superman will get the credit for being the first Versus movie. 18 months from now, we’ll have seen another Avengers, and the potentially problematic Ant-Man, and the Fantastic Four movie from the off-brand Fox-Marvel factory. Will people be ready for something different—for Zack Snyder’s DC Universe, a moody grime-slathered alternative to Marvel’s squeaky-clean shenanigans? Or is this just Marvel’s way of kiboshing the DC movie experiment once and for all?

7. By all accounts, Captain America v Iron Man will be an adaptation-of-sorts of Civil War, a beloved-by-some saga from the mid-’00s where the government cracks down on superheroes, forcing them to reveal their secret identities. This crackdown splits the superhero community, “the superhero community” being a phrase you should start throwing around because it comes up all the time once you get to the point in ongoing continuity where every story is a crossover. Civil War is generally considered a kind of post-9/11 allegory, although there’s an angle where it could fit nicely into Winter Soldier‘s NSA-era paranoia.

8. I didn’t read most of Civil War, because I long ago swore off gigantic universe-wide comic book sagas that require you to buy a bunch of random comics that each tell .01 percent of the larger, usually terrible story. But I randomly picked up a complete one-off that constitutes, like, part 87 of the 512-part saga, a comic whose full title is most easily rendered Iron Man/Captain America: Civil War–Casualties of War #1. (Which is what all titles will look like when your children have children.) It’s basically one long conversation, with some fighting, between Cap and Iron Man. Iron Man supports the government; he believes in security. Cap doesn’t support the government; he believes in freedom. Just a simple argument that everyone has been having since before society was society, probably. If Captiron Manmerica can really zero in on these two character’s personalities, it could very well be a whole new kind of superhero movie.

9. The big question here: Can Marvel Studios afford to turn Iron Man into a bad guy? Or, at least, into the antagonist of a movie starring a different superhero? That would fly in the face of everything Marvel Studios has ever done. The franchise has yet to come up with a truly great villain. The one time they did—Tom Hiddleston’s Loki—you could feel them fumbling, turning him into a sorta-hero in Thor: The Dark World. There’s a good-times vibe running through the Marvel movies. Maybe the most famous Iron Man story is the saga of Tony Stark fighting alcoholism—an arc that seems unthinkably far removed from the chipper gloss of the Iron Man films. Sure, the Avengers squabbled in the first half of Avengers, but that was just playful getting-to-know-you slapfighting. Can Marvel create genuine tension between two of its most lucrative characters?

10. Shouldn’t they? It’s clear that everyone involved in humanity wants Robert Downey Jr. to keep doing these movies. Downey has a blast playing a charmingly narcissistic version of himself; Marvel needs its mascot; we, as a species, paid $1.2 billion for the pleasure of seeing Downey banter. But Iron Man 3 was a movie about wheel-spinning—a movie where Iron Man doubts his ability to be Iron Man, before deciding that he is Iron Man after all. Surely we want the character to change; surely Downey wants to put new shades on a character he’s played for most of his 40s. Inevitably, the franchises that last the longest become–at least in part–about the passage of time. The most weirdly poignant moments in the first round of Star Trek movies are middle-aged people dealing with growing older; the Harry Potter movies were annual snapshots of kids evolving into adults. Can Downey play a new kind of Tony Stark? And if he can, is there any reason for him to stop playing Tony Stark?

11. Robert Downey Jr. appeared in three movies in 2008. In two of the movies, he played Iron Man. In the other one, he played an Australian prima donna actor playing an African-American soldier. He earned an Oscar nomination for Tropic Thunder and spent the next five years playing Iron Man, basically. (You could throw in The Soloist and Due Date, if you remember The Soloist or Due Date.) Playing Iron Man turned Downey into a rich man, a global megastar, a beloved avatar for Hollywood Right Now: Hard to argue against any of that. But does Downey want to do something else that’s as bold, as wild, as flat-out unusual as Tropic Thunder? He clearly wants to do stuff that’s not Iron Man—but that impulse led him to star in and produce The Judge, one of those “old-fashioned” movies that forgets old movies could be terrible, too. If Downey joins Captain America 3, he’ll be 51 when the movie comes out. When De Niro was 51, he was making Casino and Heat. Do we care? Does this matter?

12. BUT FOR GOODNESS SAKE, HOW DOES THIS AFFECT HAWKEYE? Jeremy Renner had strongly implied that the Avenger with the archery merit badge might possibly be joining Captain America 3. Was the Hawkeye addition a back-up plan, in case talks broke down with Downey? Without Iron Man, would Captain America 3 have been the story of Cap on the run from the government, with Clint Barton sent to track him down? Like, basically, Captain America is Jason Bourne and Hawkeye is Clive Owen and the whole movie is just the last half of The Bourne Identity? Or does the addition of Iron Man mean that Hawkeye is definitely in the movie? Maybe Hawkeye is Iron Man’s henchman, and Black Widow is Captain America’s henchman, and the B-plot of the movie is their showdown? Can Hawkeye just catch a motherf—ing break? Renner, please confirm or deny any of this.

13. I’ve been watching a lot of Jacques Demy movies lately. Which I guarantee is a sentence you’re not going to read in any other blog post about Iron Man today. Last night I watched The Umbrellas of Cherbourg for the first time. All you really have to know about Umbrellas of Cherbourg is that it’s one of the greatest movies ever and you should see it immediately; you should also know that it’s a French movie where everyone sings all the time, so I understand why you’ll never see it.

To get to the point: There’s a scene in the middle of the movie that took me completely by surprise, when it turns out that one of the characters in Umbrellas of Cherbourg was also the lead character in Demy’s Lola. But by this point, years have passed: The character is older, wiser, sadder; he’s also not one of the lead characters in the movie. Nothing that happens in Umbrellas “completes” his story arc, or answers any questions left dangling by Lola; the character could have been a completely different character and nothing would have really changed.

And yet, in the moment of realizing he was the same guy, I felt a ridiculous amount of pure glee—as if I were suddenly spotting some hidden secret of the movie’s world. It’s easy to rail against continuity, and it’s aggravating how many superhero movies just feel like brief way stations between plot points. The whole vogue for cinematic universes has created plenty of horrible non-movies—a fact most recently elucidated by The Dissolve’s Scott Tobias. But there is a weird force, an energy, when movies cross over, in small or large ways. If Marvel can figure out something to do with that energy—something more than just fan-service references, something deeper than that one guy in Winter Soldier saying the name “Stephen Strange!” to fanboy applause and general audience indifference—then they could really be onto something.

14. Man, they’re just never gonna bring the Red Skull back, are they?

Have any thoughts about Marvel’s Iron Man/Captain America gamble? Email me at darren_franich@ew.com