‘Iron Man 3′: Robert Downey Jr. on Tony Stark’s ‘trippy saga’

May 02, 2013 | 5:24 p.m.
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Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) makes a friend in young Harley (Ty Simpkins) in "Iron Man 3." (Disney / Marvel Studios)

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Robert Downey Jr. rings the opening bell at New York Stock Exchange on April 30 in New York City. (Taylor Hill / Getty Images)

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"Iron Man 3" star Robert Downey Jr. and co-writer and director Shane Black prepare for a photo shoot together at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles on April 22. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

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Robert Downey Jr. and his wife Susan Downey attend the Hollywood premiere of "Iron Man 3" hosted by Audi at the El Capitan Theatre on April 24. (Charley Gallay / Getty Images for Audi)

Sometimes, even for “Iron Man 3″ star Robert Downey Jr., it’s not always easy to describe where Tony Stark ends and the actor begins.

“We fit each other pretty snug, and I feel like when I’m him I know what to do,” Downey told Hero Complex. “At the same time, I don’t know why I know what to do. I just know that I do. There’s still just a sense of wonder to me that there’s something so watchable about this character’s ongoing, trippy saga.”

It was late April, and the twice Oscar-nominated actor already had been around the world to promote the latest Marvel blockbuster, the first film from the comic-book-movie powerhouse since the $2-billion success of “The Avengers” last year.  But even during a day-long onslaught of press leading up to the movie’s U.S. premiere in Hollywood, Downey’s trademark charm and buoyancy were evident. He even described himself as “happy.”

Of course, Downey, 48, has plenty of reasons to be happy these days. The role of Tony Stark that he originated on screen in 2008′s hit “Iron Man” revitalized the actor’s career, finally transforming him into the sort of mega-box-office draw that critics and industry observers always believed he could be.

“Iron Man 3” collected nearly $200 million when it opened in some 42 countries around the globe last weekend, and it appears on track to nearly match that figure when receipts from its North American debut are tallied this weekend. In China, “Iron Man 3” grossed $21.5 million in its opening day, which distributor Disney said was the highest opening day in that nation’s box-office history.

"Iron Man 3" star Robert Downey Jr. and co-writer and director Shane Black prepare for a photo shoot together at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles April 22. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

“Iron Man 3″ star Robert Downey Jr. and co-writer and director Shane Black prepare for a photo shoot together at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles on April 22. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Critics, too, have responded warmly to the film. In his review, The Times’ Kenneth Turan noted, “The most interesting thing about this new ‘Iron Man’ is that, far from being slicker than the first two versions, it is unexpectedly — and successfully — darker and more serious than its predecessors, with a cast including top actors like Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley and Rebecca Hall.”

“Iron Man 3″ does find a very different Tony Stark at the outset of its story. Traumatized by the events of “The Avengers,” Tony’s having trouble sleeping, and he’s retreated to his Malibu workshop to build more suits, developing a sort of codependent relationship with his armor. It’s not the best mental state to withstand attacks from a terrorist known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), and Tony has to rediscover how to rely solely on his considerable wits (rather than his limitless access to technology) in order to survive the threat.

Even though Downey’s portrayed the character three times previously, he said he’s still capable of being surprised by the billionaire/playboy/philanthropist/genius whose charismatic charm is essentially a superpower all its own.

“Every time is different,” Downey said. “I don’t know if people who have been on series for a bunch of years feel this way, but it’s odd. Yesterday’s confidence doesn’t work today, yet there is something cumulative about the whole deal. I had the best time shooting this movie. Against many odds, usually the third in an installment is the one where you kind of go, ‘Eh, don’t bother.’ But we were kind of fueled by the success and how people seemed to accept ‘Avengers’ as a big piece of entertainment, and we had Shane Black.”

Robert Downey Jr., left, and director Shane Black on the set of "Iron Man 3." (Zade Rosenthal / Marvel Entertainment)

Robert Downey Jr., left, and director Shane Black on the set of “Iron Man 3.” (Zade Rosenthal / Marvel Entertainment)

Black, the 51-year-old who initially made a name for himself in Hollywood with his screenplay for “Lethal Weapon” (1987), does seem to have had a positive impact on the sequel, which he co-wrote with Drew Pearce and directed. Downey bonded with Black even before he cast him as the lead in his 2005 directorial debut, the L.A.-set action comedy “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” and the rapport they developed on that set continued through Downey’s evolution as Iron Man.

Though uncredited, Black provided Downey and “Iron Man” and “Iron Man 2″ director Jon Favreau with ideas for dialogue and character moments for those films.

“What I had from the beginning with him was I trusted him because he had brought in a menu of things that I knew everybody liked to eat,” Downey said of Black. “I believe he trusted me because we were in this together, we were in way deep water.”

Deep water accompanies the making of any $200-million production. But “Iron Man 3″ encountered unexpected behind-the-scenes complications when Downey injured himself during filming in Wilmington, N.C., last year. Shooting was halted for about two months while the actor recovered, and the experience left him wondering if perhaps his heroic days were behind him.

Factoring into that debate, too, is the reality that Downey has fulfilled his contractual obligations to Marvel, though he’s widely expected to appear as Tony Stark in Joss Whedon’s upcoming “Avengers” sequel. Downey said he finds the will he / won’t he return debate fascinating.

“I love all that talk,” he said. “I never would have thought that there would be any particular interest or controversy in that one question. The funny thing is it’s the question that I don’t have an honest answer to, which makes people drive it needing to know the answer all the more.”

As for the project in his most immediate future, that’s the David Dobkin-directed film “The Judge,” which is due to begin filming in Boston next month with a cast that includes Vera Farmiga, Leighton Meester and Robert Duvall. The film reportedly centers on a lawyer who returns to his hometown in the wake of his mother’s death only to learn that his estranged father is a murder suspect.

“I will predict that when you see this movie, you will be glad we made it,” Downey said of “The Judge.”

– Gina McIntyre | @LATHeroComplex

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