By now, the template for an Iron Man trailer is pretty assured: Start with some rat-a-tat wisecracks from Robert Downey Jr. as confident, smooth-talking Tony Stark, and end with him encased in that red-and-gold suit of armor, flying or shooting as those familiar crunchy chords from Black Sabbath wail on the soundtrack. Maybe that’s why the new Iron Man 3 teaser feels so startling then. As Downey Jr. is revealed, bloody and beaten, his first line is no joke but instead the downcast “Got a lot of apologies to make.” And after several quick-cut images of apocalyptic defeat —Stark’s Malibu mansion destroyed, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts crying in extreme peril — the teaser ends not with a blast of comforting classic rock but with an image of Stark alone, unsuited, trudging through the snow.
If Marvel had wanted to cut a quippy Iron Man 3 teaser, the company could have: At Comic-Con this past summer, the Iron Man 3 panel scored big laughs with an early scene where Stark video-conferences with Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan, who laments that he never sees his boss anymore and then gets off the inevitable Avengers wisecrack: “You were off with the superfriends.” But while that seemed at the time like Iron Man 3’s way of dutifully acknowledging what came before and then moving on, the new trailer proves different: Stark seems irrevocably changed by the experience of The Avengers. The question is has the Iron Man franchise changed, too?
Marvel likes to say that Iron Man 3 will be the company’s first film in its “Phase Two,” which will encompass all the movies that come between the first Avengers flick and its sequel, due out in 2015. One wonders, then, if this new trailer isn’t a signal that the Phase Two films will be darker than the mostly light entertainments that came before. There had been some signs of this lately from Marvel: Thor was the most enjoyably silly of the company’s Phase One films (when your climactic battle happens on a rainbow bridge, you sort of have to own it), but for its sequel, Marvel hired a Game of Thrones veteran to direct and voiced a desire to ground the franchise in the more earthy visual vernacular of that HBO series. Meanwhile, The Avengers 2 will most likely feature a death-obsessed villain who killed off a passel of top-tier superheroes (as well as most everyone on Earth) in his most famous comic-book story line; if you were sad to lose Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson the last time around, imagine how director Joss Whedon might up the ante on casualties in his second time at bat.
No Marvel films have been more easy and breezy than the first two Iron Man installments, which provided liftoff via Downey Jr.’s fizzy ad-libs well before Iron Man took to the skies himself. Is the company hoping to move away from that toward the template that it seems all blockbuster entertainments must now aspire to: the more realistic, less giddy comic-book style popularized and perfected by Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight? Certainly, Iron Man 3 has certain restrictions that dictate the story: Stark needs to be isolated in some fashion so that we won’t wonder why he can’t simply call up those superhero superfriends to get him out of his latest jam, and you can’t begrudge the filmmakers a desire to go darker in this third installment, since Downey Jr. has pushed the charming rapscallion bit to its limit in this franchise and in the Sherlock Holmes movies. In real life, Downey Jr. has an addiction-plagued background that recalls Stark’s own battles with the bottle in the pages of Iron Man, so why not make use of the barely held-at-bay reservoirs of sadness inherent in both the actor and his character?
Still, we hope that Marvel and director Shane Black haven’t lost sight of the secret weapon that powers the best Marvel movies: Fun. That’s why the original Iron Man was such a breath of fresh air, and it’s why The Avengers swamped all other superheroes this summer, even surpassing Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. Go deeper with the character by all means, but don’t lose sight of the fact that Iron Man is the most giddy superhero in Marvel’s packed lineup. (Well, at least until we get to Ant-Man.)