The box office success of Iron Man 2 (third-highest grossing film of 2010 domestically — seventh-highest grossing film internationally) would have made it inevitable that a third installment would go into production, even if Marvel Studios hadn’t had a plan of attack leading up to The Avengers. And sure enough, by the end of 2010, Marvel and Disney announced that Iron Man 3 was officially in development.
However shortly after the announcement, in December, another somewhat troubling announcement was made: Jon Favreau would not be returning to direct. He would stay on as executive producer, and to reprise his role as Stark’s bodyguard Happy Hogan, but the question on everyone’s mind was, who would be at the helm?
Then, in February, previous Robert Downey Jr. collaborator Shane Black entered into negotiations to write and direct, and by March it was announced that Black was in, with British writer and producer Drew Pearce signed to co-write the script with him. Pearce had made a name for himself in the UK producing television shows, but was best known for creating the sitcom No Heroics, about the off-duty antics of less-successful superheroes and the pub they hung out in after-hours.
In 2010, Pearce had moved to America and had been hired by Marvel to adapt Runaways — a project that sadly, still languishes in development hell. When that fell apart, Iron Man 3 was waiting for him with open arms.
As for Black, he had made his name in the late 80s and 90s as the screenwriter for Lethal Weapon, The Monster Squad, The Last Boy Scout, Last Action Hero, and The Long Kiss Goodnight. Then, in 2005 he made his directorial debut with the Robert Downy Jr. neo-noir/comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (which he also wrote). The mix of sharp and funny dialogue with some violent gunplay was a critical hit and when it came time to find a director for Iron Man 3 that Downy and Marvel would be comfortable enough with to trust, Black was the man.
The next year was spent working on the script and deciding where to shoot the majority of the film (North Carolina’s tax incentives won out). In the meantime, both Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger were released to respectable critical acclaim and very decent box office success. Then in April 2012, just before the release of Marvel’s The Avengers, Sir Ben Kingsley began negotiations to play an unidentified villain. Guy Pearce was then signed to play Aldrich Killian, and Chinese star Andy Lau entered into negotiations to play a Chinese scientist and old friend of Stark’s. Lau later turned down the role and Xueqi Wang took his place. Jessica Chastain was also in negotiations but had to cancel due to scheduling conflicts. She was replaced by Rebecca Hall as Dr. Maya Hansen.
And if you’re a fan of the comics, with Killian and Hansen’s names being bandied about, it became clear that at least part of the inspiration for Iron Man 3 would be the acclaimed six-issue “Extremis” arc, written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by Adi Granov (whose Iron Man designs were a fundamental inspiration for the look of all three films).
Marvel, Black, and Pearce agreed early on that Iron Man 3 would signal a shift not only from the films that had come before during Marvel’s Phase One, but from the other mainstream superhero movies that were littering the landscape. Each of the Phase Two films would use the previous films as a launching point from which to introduce more storytelling variety into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We will see later that the next Thor film, Thor: The Dark World would be a combination of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, while Captain America: The Winter Soldier would shoot for a 70s political thriller feel, all while capturing the personality and continuity of the Marvel Universe. Iron Man 3, under Black and Pearce would be a techno-thriller buddy film.
Not only did Iron Man 3 have the daunting task of establishing this new approach to the Marvel Studios films, it was also the first post-Avengers Marvel film — and the Avengers had broken all kinds of records, including the fastest film to reach $500 million at the box office (it took 23 days!!). The previous Iron Man films had done well, out-performing all of the other Marvel films leading up to The Avengers, but each of them had capped out at just under and over $600 million, and Avengers would go on to break the $1.5 billion dollar mark all by itself.
As it turned out, nobody needed to worry about a thing.
Riding the wave of popularity that The Avengers created, Iron Man 3 became the third fastest movie to break $100 million at the box office (in 2 days) just behind Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 and The Avengers. And the reviews were solid, too, with a Rotten Tomatoes ranking just barely behind Captain America: The First Avenger and just nudging out Thor. Only The Avengers and the original Iron Man were better received at the time.
A large part of the popularity of the film was down to an almost perfect combination of Black and Pearce’s script and Downy Jr.’s charisma. The first two thirds of the film kept Tony Stark out of the Iron Man armor for the most part, allowing the character to both re-establish his own identity as a man, and deal with post-traumatic stress brought on by the events at the conclusion of The Avengers, where he nearly died saving New York. The tightrope balancing act of humor, pathos, and Tom Clancy-esque techno-thriller was all the more impressive with the inclusion of child actor Ty Simpkins, who helps Stark get back on his feet without slipping into sentimentality and cheese.
Perhaps the most daring element of the film, however (not counting the way it slips into buddy-cop mode with Downy Jr. and Don Cheadle easily bantering back and forth while exchanging gunfire with bad guys), was the way Black and Perce chose to interpret Iron Man’s most persisting villain, The Mandarin. Instead of playing him as the Chinese science fiction villain with his magical rings from outer space, they instead portrayed him as the leader of a terrorist organization that was responsible for a series of bombings around the world.
At least, that’s what they wanted you to believe.
Instead, at a pivotal moment in the film, it is revealed that Kingsley’s Mandarin was, in fact, a British actor with substance-abuse problems hired to play the role of an iconic terrorist leader to mask the schemings of Guy Pearce’s Killian and the Extremis Super Soldier plot. This was going to be either a genius decision or one that would ruin the film.
As it turns out, it was genius for the majority of the audience, with the most vocal complaints coming from comics fans — who had suddenly become very fond of the sixty year old racial stereotype and were offended by the degree of change, seeing it as disrespecting the source material.
Those complaints didn’t stop people from going to see it, though.
Before all was said and done, Iron Man 3‘s worldwide gross was $1.2 BILLION — just $300 million short of The Avengers totals.
If there was any doubt that Marvel Studios had their fingers on the pulse of world audiences, this put them to rest while simultaneously reinforcing the fact that Disney had made a wise investment when they bought Marvel. With Thor: The Dark World set to arrive in November, 2013, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier lining up for April 2014, the expectations weren’t as high, but as we’ll see, whatever expectations Marvel and Disney had would be met.
And then some.