The countdown to Marvel’s “Phase 2″ of its cinematic universe has grown louder in recent weeks, between marketing for Iron Man 3 intensifying and official casting for the only non-sequel installment, Guardians of the Galaxy. If rumors are to be believed, Tony Stark’s next standalone adventure directly sets the stage for the Guardians appearing (leaked concept art has lent further credence to that idea).

“Phase 2,” in general, is about delving further into the cosmic realm of the Marvel universe (preparing for bigger developments down the line), which is why Iron Man 3 is focusing so heavily on the people of Earth responding to the aftermath of the Chitauri invasion in The Avengers. Naturally, the Tony Stark character serves as a window into that changed world, as he wrestles with the same newfound fears and concerns – even as a “local” threat in The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) rears its ugly head.

Empire (via Comic Book Movie) sat down with the Iron Man 3 cast and director Shane Black, for a discussion about where Tony (Robert Downey Jr.), Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle) are emotionally and mentally, when we pick back up with them post-Avengers. Starting off, here is what Black said about Tony:

“Tony Stark is [now] relying on these suits to feel like he’s in any way capable. He surrounds himself with these things almost like a blanket. In The Avengers, he fought aliens, but he was the one character I would not have picked to fight aliens. Now we’ve taken advantage of the fact that he’s fought aliens and he talks about it.”

Tony’s emotionally-damaged state has been teased throughout the Iron Man 3 trailers released so far, but it’s a welcome idea in terms of moving the character forward and not pushing the restart button on his frame of mind (something which, in my humble opinion, Iron Man 2 was partially guilty of). Paltrow affirmed that’s an important issue in the film, with regard to where Pepper’s at:

“[She still] adores Tony, but she absolutely gets fed up with him. He gets caught in a feedback look.”

Of course, Tony’s dilemma gets put on the back-burner when a new threat in The Mandarin appears on the scene, forcing him to get back in action. The iconic Iron Man villain sports quite the eccentric appearance in his official character poster, bearing the influences of many real-world terrorists and power-hungry dictators. Kingsley informed Empire that was very much the intention:

“[The Mandarin is] a pastiche of American iconography. It’s there to confuse – you don’t know what’s coming next. Shane allowed me to push the boundaries of the role so that I’m allow to go a bit bonkers.”

Mandarin stepping into the sunlight, coupled with Tony hiding from the public’s eye, prompts the U.S. president (William Sadler) to give Rhodes’ War Machine armor a new paint job, transforming him into the Iron Patriot. Keeping true to his values, though, Rhodes avoids getting caught up in the idea of being a new symbol and inspiration for national pride, according to Cheadle:

“The name [Iron Patriot] makes as much sense as Iron Man. [laughs] It’s a new and interesting look. I don’t know how, personally, I’d feel about being draped in the flag, but Rhodey doesn’t care what the paint job is like. He just wants it to do what it does.”

Lastly, the plot of Iron Man 3 really picks up once Tony emerges to challenge The Mandarin live on television, which is an event that Black feels reflects the innate conflict between our hero and the antagonist:

“Robert’s portrayal of Tony is ultimately the American cowboy who defies authority, thinks for himself and is fiercely individualistic. That’s an America we like to believe in, which is why The Mandarin, who hates America, is a good match for Tony in this movie.”

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Iron Man 3 is directed by Shane Black, from his and Drew Pearce’s screenplay. It stars Robert Downey Jr., Ben Kingsley, Don Cheadle, Gwyneth Paltrow, Guy Pearce, Jon Favreau, Rebecca Hall, William Sadler, James Badge Dale and the voice of Paul Bettany.

Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe begins when Iron Man 3 releases May 3rd, 2013, followed by Thor: The Dark World on November 8th, 2013, Captain America: The Winter Soldier on April 4th, 2014, and Guardians of the Galaxy on August 1st, 2014. It concludes with The Avengers 2 on May 1st, 2015.

Source: Empire [via Comic Book Movie]