Which toy would you say is more loved? Is it the action figure that stays forever trapped inside its box, perfectly preserved for the ages but gathering dust as it sits in protective custody on a collector's shelf? Or is it the one that gets scuffed, bent, and battered in various backyard adventures, losing its tiny accessories (and maybe a limb) before being lost except for the awesome memories?
In the Manhattan Beach, Calif.-based production offices of Marvel Studios, president Kevin Feige has decorated his office walls with a vast array of Iron Man action figures, still sealed in their bubble containers. But he hasn't been as precious with the life-size one. The studio's new Iron Man 3 (rated PG-13) plays so rough with its Most Valuable Superhero that some early viewers have wondered whether this might be the last solo outing for Robert Downey Jr.'s billionaire playboy Tony Stark.
Iron Man 3 marks the first step in Marvel's ambitious Phase 2 of movies, which includes this fall's Thor: The Dark World and next spring's Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and culminates in writer-director Joss Whedon's The Avengers 2, planned for 2015. But for the franchises to remain vital, Feige says, the heroes can't remain static. ''There are things in this movie, in the next Thor movie, and particularly in the next Cap movie that will change the landscape between Avengers and Avengers 2. One of the amazing things in our little Marvel Studios sandbox is that filmmakers are inheriting other filmmakers' solutions, other filmmakers' expectations.''
While shooting what he guessed would be a particularly controversial scene for Iron Man 3's finale one too spoiler-heavy to describe Downey himself recalls asking Feige: '''What does this mean if we wind up doing an Avengers 2?' Kevin looked at me and said, 'That's Joss' problem to solve.' I was like, 'Good man.' In other words, he's handing it off to someone who would say, 'That's a helluva problem, and I'm just the guy to solve it.'''
Although everyone, including Downey, expects the actor to return in some capacity for The Avengers 2, there's no guarantee of it. As of Iron Man 3, the 48-year-old has fulfilled all his contractual obligations to play the character. Feige says Marvel is negotiating with him now for future appearances. But Iron Man 3 upends so much mythology, and closes on such a definitive note, it's easy to see why everyone is asking: Will he be back?
''I thought we needed to do something in the third movie to make it feel like a game changer,'' says director and co-writer Shane Black, who penned Lethal Weapon and directed Downey in 2005's neo-noir cult fave Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. ''If he goes through this and then just comes out and goes, 'Another adventure done!' that's great but that's also an episode of television.''