What’s really set the Marvel film universe apart from its Distinguished Competition is the cohesive planning behind it all. While Warner Brothers keeps tossing out unrelated films in hopes of one day finding the right combination for a Justice League movie, Marvel had consolidated and was building all of its cinematic properties towards last year’s The Avengers. If that maybe made some of the films feel a little too much like extended prologues at times (I’m looking at you Iron Man 2 and Captain America), it paid of in having those characters already established so that The Avengers could hit the ground running. The mammoth success of that film — both financially and as a piece of entertainment — showed that Marvel’s approach worked.
Now what Marvel calls Phase 2 kicks into gear. It’s a pretty ambitious plan likely designed to flesh out the Marvel universe so that Thanos can really trash it when he finally shows up in The Avengers 2 in 2015. Phase 2 will feature new films starring Ant Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy, as well sequels for Thor and Captain America, all probably boasting must-see post-credits sequences guaranteed to pump you up for the next film.
But it falls to Iron Man 3, today’s lone wide release, to get this ball rolling, which puts it in a bit of a tenuous position. As a third film, you get the sense it should be wrapping things up rather than starting them off. It’s got to deal with the repercussion of The Avengers, set the table for the rest of Phase 2, and advance any individual Tony Stark plot threads it’s got going on, all while being a satisfying film in its own right. That’s something the second Iron Man film didn’t do all that well as far as I was concerned; you could feel the wheels spinning, and the post-credit tease of Thor was honestly the most exciting thing in the film. So Iron Man 3 has a ton of weight to pull.
That’s a tall order for Shane Black, who, while highly revered in film geek circles, hasn’t had what you’d call a real success since providing the story for Lethal Weapon 2 way back in 1989. I know people who deeply love his Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but he’s not a heavy hitter where the mainstream is concerned, and certainly not who you’d expect to be helming such a key cog in the Marvel machine. And while his sensibilities do seem appropriate for the material, and will probably play well with those who are already fans of his work, it remains to be seen how he’ll be received by the folks who made the first Iron Man such a huge success.
Because, while I’ve been trying to stay spoiler-free (I won’t be seeing this until tomorrow evening), word is there are some directions this film goes that are going to make some people unhappy. Which is both a good and bad thing. I want to see summer blockbusters do unexpected and challenging things. But that seldom leads to being a summer blockbuster. People are looking for cinematic comfort food, and they may not respond well if somebody tries to serve up a side of foie gras along with that tub of popcorn. But seeing as Iron Man 3 has already earned over $300 million overseas, maybe the surprises aren’t entirely unpleasant.
In any case, as the first Marvel Cinematic Universe film to follow The Avengers, it’s bound to open pretty big. But a franchise film’s opening weekend is always an indication of how much people liked the previous film. I don’t think Iron Man 3 is in danger of being a bomb, but I also doubt it’s going to come anywhere near the admittedly rarefied air of The Avengers. But really, it doesn’t need to. Foreign box office has already covered its budget. And it should have no problem exceeding the $318 million and $312 million in domestic grosses posted by its predecessors (although Star Trek: Into Darkness looming two weeks out could take a bite out of things). Really, it’s not the money we need to look at here, but how successfully Iron Man 3 acts as the lead-off hitter for Marvel’s next big inning.