Tomorrow Is a Thief: The Countdown to “Iron Man 3”

There’s no reason not to be excited about incoming Iron Man director, Shane Black. His trademark method of engaging the reading in his scripts (“EXT. Malibu Mansion. The Kind I’ll live in if this movie hits it big”, for example) belies the attitude of a veteran. There’s a healthy, jocular irreverence for the institution, married with an underlying respect for the process. So there’s already, some two weeks away, from Iron Man 3, a not unreasonable expectation that it will be a solid movie.

The question going into Iron Man 3 is not whether or not the movie will succeed at the box office (it’s almost sure to), but what the movie will signal for Marvel storytelling both with its cinematic and comicbook universes. Neither would it be unfair to say that with Marvel’s current run Iron Man the comicbook, and especially after Guardians of the Galaxy #1 that Disney now finds itself in the same conceptual territory that DC has with Time/Warner almost from the very beginning, with the release of 1989’s Batman. A place where movies are as much singular creative visions as the landmark creative visions of star creators.

It’s something of a rumor mill effect. Back in 1989, everyone knew Batman, or at least they thought that they did. But other than Frank Miller’s (back then) recent reimagining of Batman as older and angrier, what landmark visions did fans and general audiences have available to them? Miller’s auteur treatment of Batman in 1986’s the Dark Knight Returns in a certain sense perhaps paved the way for general audience’s acceptance of the idea that superheroes rely on auteurs to interpret them. The idea that every version of superhero, or at least every notable version, is as unique as a production of Shakespeare. Just as Branagh’s Hamlet won’t by any means be Jacobi’s Hamlet, so too can Miller’s Batman be wildly different from Burton’s. Superheroes, like Shakespeare, would became something of rumor — everyone knew of them, no one knew them well enough to disagree with the artistic vision of the auteur in question.

For the longest meanwhile, from Burton’s original Batman all the way through to Chris Nolan’s Batman Begins (well really through to the Dark Knight Rises), and including Marvel movies like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy and Bryan Singer’s X-Men and X2, the idea of superhero movies as reliant on auteurship persisted. Superheroes, at least superheroes on the silver-screen demanded a kind of singular vision if they were to succeed. This fact alone would more than likely would explain box offices crash-and-burn failures like Daredevil or Superman Returns.

In a sense then, the “tie-in” nature of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man and Iron Man 2 with Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca’s monthly Invincible Iron Man was something of an aberration, rather than the standard. Nobody came out and said it, but how could you believably deny that one creative vision plugged into the other? It wasn’t only down to Sal Larroca’s vivid rendering of Tony Stark and Pepper Potts and the rest of the cast. It was as much down to Matt Fraction’s fluid characterization that made it seem as if Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow stepped off the screen. More than that even the corporate espionage that tied in with actual government-sanctioned black ops, the evocation of Iron Man as a means of social engineering, these and other thematic arcs tied the two projects, cinematic and comicbook, together. And like almost every episode of House all themes would eventually fall into orbit around the character of protagonist. And why not. Stan Lee took the writing of Tony Stark, an arms dealer, a misogynist and a drunk, almost on a dare. What redeeming qualities could Lee himself find that would make Stark likable?

With Shane Black, screenwriter on high-octane actioners like the Last Boy Scout and Lethal Weapon, and erstwhile director of Downey Jr. on Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, as incoming director, and Marvel’s apparent thematic untethering of writer Kieron Gillen’s monthly Iron Man from its cinematic universe, comics fans are left with a question of cultural relevance, but also one of cultural legitimacy. Is it important to recapture the interest of the mainstream?

Back in 1989, it would have been incredibly rare to expect to see a sales boost after Burton’s Batman. Similarly today, Iron Man 3 is exactly that — a really great summer blockbuster without much of a payday that kicks back to the comicbooks and collected editions. It certainly will be a change after the relaunch of Invincible Iron Man in 2007 which “tied in” almost day-to-date with Favreau’s cinematic debut of the character. But the question remains, will fans want to reignite that popcultural mainstream relevance where moviegoers transition into becoming readers of the comicbook, or will they be satisfied with the ghosts of the ’90s comicbook industry where microcelebrity and self-exclusion from the mainstream hold sway?