In next summer's "Avengers: Age of Ultron," Tony Stark, played once again with unalloyed flamboyance and a pirate-y goatee by Robert Downey Jr., has taken over the Internet. On the London set of "Age of Ultron," Downey Jr. stands in front of three giant towers that make your router look like Fisher-Price made it. He is looking for... something. And he seems to have made it to the hub of the Internet, surrounded by a pair of fawning technicians (they snap a selfie behind his back). In take after take, he gives returning writer/director Joss Whedon, sitting behind a monitor a few feet away, an infinite number of variations.
Essentially the scene we watched them film back in June boils down to Stark finding something and saying "a-ha!" But with the RDJ magic, the scene comes across as suspenseful, dramatic, and at times comedic (at one point he mutters something in Spanish; everyone who can hear the scene explodes in laughter shortly thereafter). Even though he seemingly gave up the mantle at the end of the third stand-alone film, what we've seen has made something very clear: Iron Man is back.
After we watched Tony Stark scour the Internet, we got a chance to chat with Downey Jr. He was holding a small suitcase made of a hard plastic; on the outside was a sticker for "Chef," the recent romantic comedy directed by "Iron Man" director (and co-star) Jon Favreau, who apparently stopped by the set a week earlier to be part of party sequence that everyone referred to on set (it was previewed in the San Diego Comic Con footage we got a look at earlier this year). He is confident, at least. You can tell that these movies have become home to him, and that the line between Stark and Downey Jr. is blurrier than it's ever been before.
When someone asked what RDJ thought of the script when he initially received the it, the actor provided a wonderfully long-winded response. "He's a good writer, so I always tend to think, generally speaking, Is this a movie I want to see? That's because all the fine points are going to get worked out. At this point, as the Mayor of Marvel, um, I don't know. There's going to be so many squeaky wheels along the way. Many of them practical and others just, you know, creative departures or differences or whatever. This time I think that from jump I thought wow, this is what I hadn't figured it out beforehand; this is what, you know, 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' should be." The Mayor of Marvel? Hell, we'd vote for him.
But what about the actual moment he read the script? "When I was done with the first draft and I said, 'Cool. I like it.' Kevin [Feige, head of Marvel] was like, 'Wait, what did you just say?'"
Not that the script is a lock, even while we were there. Whedon is always tinkering, at least according to Downey Jr. "He's continuing to write. Even as we're setting up shots he's going, 'Oh, I want...' or he's bringing back a line that was in the first draft or whatever." Then he said something incredible (that we still don't understand): "I mean you'd think this was the ingredients to that salad dressing that makes girls go into labor." Downey Jr. laughed, and then concluded: "I guess it is."
While earlier in the trip Whedon had said that he had thought of a number of elements of the sequel even before the first film had been completed, the filmmaker didn't share those thoughts with his leading man. "Honestly, I didn't really even get to know Joss until we started this movie," Downey Jr. confessed. "'The Avengers' was so, I don't want to say disorienting, but it was a thing where it was like this very well-managed, compartmentalized attempt to do something unprecedented." Downey Jr. went on: "I didn't feel necessarily the stress of it. But I could tell that it was a little bit of a different approach to the process."
At the end of "Iron Man 3," it seemed that Tony was done with being Iron Man, at least on a day-to-day basis; that physically he was retiring the robotic suit and maybe devoting himself to reclaiming his humanity. RDJ sees it slightly differently. "I thought that the third 'Iron Man' was about him transcending his dependence on the merits of continuing to wear your wound. What I thought was the real win, was that he throws that thing that had become a dependency... away. That was the question I was always asking is like why doesn't he get, uh, why doesn't he get those shards out? It's dangerous."
Downey, Jr. went on, and you could tell he was dipping into his own personal history while thinking about these things: "So it reminds me of all that stuff, particularly as you get a little older or if you have any existential queries whatsoever. It's like, why aren't I dealing with that which is going to destroy me any second anyway? And then the armor was kind of an extension of that. And there was just so many suits."
As for Tony now?
"His tour of duty left him with a little PTSD. So his focus is more on how can we make it so that there's no problem to begin with; that there's a bouncer at our planet's rope. That's the big idea."
Of course, the bouncer that Downey Jr. talks about is Ultron, the ultra-intelligent computer (voiced by James Spader) that Stark develops with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and that decides, in order to save Earth, he's got to wipe out its entire population. When quizzed about his relationship with the movie's big bad, Downey Jr. had a surprising response. "I always read this as the concept that every impulse starts off as a positive impulse, you know? Even impulses to kill starts off as an impulse to change, to rail against, to challenge the authority in a very direct way; in a permanent solution to a temporary problem kind of way."
One of the more interesting things that Downey Jr. said was that he seems to acknowledge that there will be an end point to the glut of superhero stuff; odd, especially coming from the Mayor of Marvel. "I love these kinds of movies. I'm a very tolerant consumer with these things. But I also feel like the half-life of it, if you noticed just how flooded the market is becoming and likely to become potentially even more so."
So how does "Avengers: Age of Ultron" stand out? By being different. "I think that there has to be a bit of a transcendence of formula. And so, without giving too much away, why I generally just kind of like, you know, stamped it when the first draft came in 'cause I thought, 'Oh wow, it didn't fall into that trap.' And I read the last page and I got chills for a reason I definitely can't explain."
He then summed up the process (one that we can echo after having watched them film it and having seen some footage): "This is going to be really cool." Well, if the Mayor of Marvel says so.
"Avengers: Age of Ultron" opens May 1, 2015.