SAN DIEGO - There was little doubt left after Robert Downey Jr. danced his way triumphantly through Hall H to the sounds of Luther Vandross singing "Never Too Much" as to who the King of Comic-Con truly is.
Marvel's victory lap to celebrate "The Avengers" becoming the highest grossing superhero film of all time was capped off on Saturday afternoon by the appearance of the man who could well be credited with setting the tone for the entire interconnected universe that Marvel is building from film to film now, and Downey seemed winded but exhilarated by the time he finally reached the stage, one hand encased in an Iron Man glove with a glowing palm.
"I have three questions for you," he said, and the crowd roared at him, cheering.
"First, how much do I love you?" The wave of noise that came back at him was huge.
"How much do you love me?" he asked next, smiling as he said it, and if anything, the noise was even bigger.
Downey looked over at Kevin Feige, the man who has served as the main architect of this Marvel Studios universe since 2006, when they started laying the groundwork, and he asked the last of his three questions. "Why aren't we watching any footage yet?"
"Iron Man 3" is about halfway through production right now in Wilmington, North Carolina, but they brought a surprisingly long and polished piece to show off what's the same and what's different with new director Shane Black at the helm. For fans of Downey, it's an exciting name to add to the mix, and they certainly put their best foot forward with what they showed today.
In Tony's private workshop, a handmade sign has been set up that reads "Stark Industries R&D Dept." Tony addresses all the Iron Man suits standing in their cases along one wall. "Ladies, welcome to the birthing suite. I want you to prepare yourselves to meet your bouncing baby brother." He orders Jarvis to put on some appropriately seasonal music, and a robot arm drops the needle on an LP version of Run DMC doing "Christmas In Hollis".
Tony begins to reach towards a worktable, hand outstretched, not moving. He strains, but still doesn't move. He looks over at the camera recording his experiment and grins. "Okay, take two."
This time, when he reaches out, the gauntlet from his suit rises up off of the worktable, hovering and then flies across the room and slams onto his arm. As he points to different parts of the room, different pieces of the suit pop up and fly over to snap into place. They move with such force that Tony seems duly alarmed, and it turns into a great slapstick bit of business, until finally the whole suit is in place except for the face mask, which hangs in the air across the room from him.
"Come on, then. I'm not afraid of you," he says, and as the mask races towards him, upside down, he jumps up into a flip, using his palm rocket to stabilize him and hold him in place. The mask slams home, and he drops into a three-point landing.
With that, the Marvel Studios logo comes up, then the Paramount logo (surprising, since I thought that deal was finished at this point), and then we see Happy Hogan's face filling a computer screen.
"What is that?" Tony asks. "The Forehead News Network?"
Happy moves back, and we see that they're both talking via Skype. Favreau seems like he's having fun just playing his part this time. "You can't talk to me like that," he tells Tony. "I don't work for you anymore."
"You quit," Tony reminds him.
"Yeah, well, you're busy with the Super Friends or whatever that is you're doing these days." Favreau and Downey have such good chemistry, and it's obvious that Favreau likes to needle him. "My grandmother lives in Manhattan and she almost had a stroke last year when she looked out her window and saw some giant alien lizard snake in the sky."
"Yeah, well, we handled it," Tony replies, and the footage goes into a series of shots from the rest of the footage.
Over shots of new cast members like Guy Pearce and Rebecca Hall, and some interesting shots of chaos and action and Rhodey in his new red-white-and-blue War Machine armor, Ben Kingsley speaks in a strange, considered, gravel-filled voice. "Ladies… gentlemen… sheep… some people call me a terrorist. I consider myself a teacher."
As helicopters fly in over the water, towards the coast where Stark's house is located, Kingsley continues. "Lesson one… heroes. There is no such thing." The helicopters open fire, and in what was the most impressive overall piece of the presentation, they utterly destroy Stark's house. By the time they're done, the mountainside itself has been blasted to rubble and dropped into the ocean. We see Pepper in the house when the attack starts, but I didn't see what happened to her. Iron Man, in his armor, ends up underwater, all that rubble coming down on top of him.
And then the new logo came up, which is a metallic "3" in the middle of Tony's chest piece, and then a series of quick shots where we see rings on fingers, a shaved topknot, and then Kingsley as The Mandarin sitting on a throne.
Like I said, I was surprised by how finished some of it looked. Of course, I'll be the first to say that I thought the "Iron Man 2" presentation they did here was amazing, a textbook example of how to make your film look incredible.
Still, once the footage was finished, panel moderator Geoff Boucher brought out his full panel of guests. Downey was joined by Don Cheadle, Shane Black, and Jon Favreau, and Kevin Feige was already onstage from the earlier Marvel presentation.
Shane Black said it's been invaluable having Favreau on the set. "This man is giving me every bit of advice he can," he said.
Cheadle talked about how warm North Carolina can be when you're wearing a metal suit, but seemed upbeat about the film so far.
Black talked about the unusual voice that Ben Kingsley was doing in the footage, and said it was something he worked out on his own and then tried. "He's going to be absolutely terrific. He came up to me and said, 'The most lovely thing happened the other night in the hotel room with my voice. I want to share it with you.' This guy is the Mandarin. It's evolving."
That's the first official confirmation that his character is The Mandarin, something Feige had earlier denied, and it will certainly provoke a familiar conversation about racial archetypes and their use in this sort of pulp material. When Feige described the film today, he still focused more on what it means for Stark than who he'll be fighting this time. "'Iron man 3' is all about a return to a Tony Stark-centric storyline, and in the comics, you can do that where they all get together, then go back to their own world."
Downey joked that he'd be bringing some schawarma with him, then teased, "We're actually shooting another ending for 'The Avengers' after this panel." Asked how he felt about the runaway blockbuster success of the film, Downey observed, "I always think my movie is going to be one of the three biggest films of all time, so this time, it actually happened."
Cheadle talked about his own excitement to be working on this project again and said, "I'm really looking forward to shooting the end part of the film, and I've got a lot more to do with Robert, so the Rhodey and Tony relationship expands."
The Q&A with the audience got underway with Downey pointing out that, ultimately, the person who had the clarity of vision and the courage of his conviction that really started pushing the rock up the hill in the first place was Kevin Feige, earning the Marvel poobah a well-deserved round of applause.
One audience member told Downey that she really wants to see Pepper Potts eventually get the Rescue Suit she had in the comics. Downey asked her to explain, confused by what she was saying. "You mean like rescuing me from a bar or something?"
"No," the girl laughed. "Tony makes Pepper a suit, and there's a story about…"
Favreau interrupted. "I'll get him a copy. I know what you're talking about."
Feige spoke up. "Everyone at this table thinks it would be amazing to get Pepper in a suit at some point."
Favreau agreed. "We all want to see Gwenyth kick a little ass at some point."
The next question seemed to have an obvious answer for anyone who saw Downey's entrance at the start of the event. The girl asked how he brings Iron Man to life, and mentioned that the character seems awfully full of himself, eliciting a big grin from Downey. "The way you bring a character to life is to get cast in the first place," he said, and he indicated his director sitting a few chairs down from him. "The interesting thing about this panel is that Shane directed a movie called 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,' and when the studio wasn't really convinced that I was the guy for this, Jon saw that, and that was my screen test before the screen test. A lot of times shooting the first film, we would call Shane and ask for help…"
Black interjected an enthusiastic "Blueberries!"
Downey laughed. "Yeah, we would pay him in blueberries because we couldn't afford him. So no one of us really gets to say what is Tony Stark. It's what happens when Jon and Kevin and Shane and I all get together. The missus hates it when I'm playing Tony. She says he brings out the worst in me."
Black seemed to relax as the panel went on, especially based on the reaction to that footage. "This is a family," he said. "We have Favreau here. I get to talk to him all day long. We've got these guys, Robert and Don. We've got Gwenyth. We've got Kevin. We do them one at a time. The first half went well. As long as we don't f**k it up in the second half, this will be great."
Robert talked about how much fun it's been to work with Favreau strictly as an actor, and certainly their brief bit we saw was just two friends riffing as hard as they could at each other. "Whenever we'd shoot with Favreau directing, he would do his footage last and just rush through it. This time, with Happy Hogan, it's off the chain. It's like 'Swingers' at 40."
Favreau admitted, "At first it was odd to walk onto the set of an 'Iron Man' movie," but said he got used to it quickly. "I never got a chance to have fun in the role before. Now I get to really just have fun. Now I get to play with him, which I never got to do. And as far as executive producing as opposed to directing, I feel like a proud grandfather who doesn't have to change the diaper but gets to play with the baby."
There was some fun interplay between Cheadle and Downey when the subject came up of how much time it takes to get into the Iron Man suit. Downey said it's been getting faster on each film, and he asked Cheadle how long it takes him. "Half an hour," Cheadle answered.
"Three minutes," Downey boasted.
Cheadle grumbled, "Racism," which got a huge laugh from Downey.
Downey couldn't help himself, though. "Well, his does have bigger guns," he added.
On the subject of renegotiating his contract after "Iron Man 3," the last film he's currently contracted for, Downey looked at Feige and grinned. "We'll figure out what Brinks truck we want," he said, and I'm sure he was only partially kidding. He did add, "Look, I'm super happy. This has been an amazing journey."
The next fan at the mic had a homemade Iron Man suit and asked if he could borrow Downey's. "Sure," Downey replied. "Of course. Just like Rhodey, you don't really ask and you never bring it back."
Cheadle leaned forward and pointed at the guy. "How long did it take you to get into that?"
When the guy said, "About five minutes," Cheadle got up and left for a moment, and only applause from the audience got him back, laughing as he took his seat.
Talking about how Stark has evolved over the course of the films so far, Black pointed out that there's always a similar problem this far into a series. "There's already two other films. That's a lot. To make it feel like this is part of a story, something organic, and not just another episode… that's the tough part. How do you dig in and reach back and make something new? To stay on top, I believe you have to touch bottom. We're going to the roots of this thing and we're going to dig out the myth of it. We want those simple straightforward myths that drive us. And I can just say that Downey is a f**king dream? He's got a secret, and I hope none of you tell anyone. This is just for us. But Robert Downey Jr? He is Tony Stark."
Bemused, Downey asked, "So I'm an asshole?"
Cheadle corrected him. "A rich asshole. Get all the modifiers in there."
One fan brought up the "Demon In A Bottle" storyline, and Downey talked about how the more they thought about it, the more they don't see that as a strong enough spine to hang a film on. "What are we going to do? Watch him spend 30 days at the Betty Ford Clinic? I think he's got the plug in the jug this time."
Favreau talked about how he feels like he's got the best seat in the house watching the film come together. "Between this and 'The Avengers,' to see these characters grow but remain consistent to the world, with all these filmmakers bringing their voices to it, and then to see how Joss brought them all together… that was pretty amazing. And Shane, once again… Kevin's got a good nose for the right guy for the right gig. He brings a really nice perspective, and his relationship with Robert shows through."
Black was quick to point out that he's got a co-writer who he credits with helping make sense of this project, and he called for Drew Pearce to join them on the stage. He did not appear to be in Hall H, though, and Downey was quick to add, "No, don't show the guy who's doing all the work."
The next girl told them that she had come 7000 miles from Guam just for this panel, and asked if they would ever do a special premiere screening there for fans.
Favreau asked, "Is that near Encino?"
Downey gave her his best smile and said, "You heard it here first. World premiere of 'Iron Man 3' in Guam."
They also led the entire Hall H in singing "Happy Birthday" for one of the girls asking questions, who turned 15 today.
One fan asked the logical question based on the end of "The Avengers" and wondered if we'd be seeing Bruce Banner in "Iron Man 3" at all.
Feige reminded everyone, "Well, at the end of the Avengers, he did jump in the car and drive away with Tony…"
As people started to applaud excitedly, Feige continued "… who dropped him off at the Port Authority so we'll see him again someday."
Favreau said the best advice he could offer Black to close out the panel would be to show the footage again, and again, it's an exciting glimpse of the next step for the character, and it looks like they've put the franchise in good hands. Now it's just a matter of seeing how all the pieces come together next year.
"Iron Man 3" arrives in theaters May 3, 2013.