SAN DIEGO -- Scarlett Johansson said the world of comic books was all new to her before she prepared to shimmy into the skin-tight Black Widow suit, but she quickly caught on.
In the Comic-Con International press room for "Iron Man 2," the petite Ms. Johansson explained that she explored several characters in the Marvel universe during the process of deciding which one she would play.
"Scarlet Witch was one of them; Blonde Phantom -- was that the other one? And Moon ... am I messing that up? Because it is the Blonde Phantom, right?"
With her blonde hair down and dressed in a short, flesh-colored dress, she was seated at a table with a dozen reporters and addressing a question from a representative of Wizard, the magazine with a comic-book focus. He said he'd never heard of Blonde Phantom, and Ms. Johansson apologized in case she had gotten it wrong. (She need not have -- Blonde Phantom was, indeed, a 1940s Marvel super siren.)
It's Black Widow, though, who emerged to join Robert Downey's Iron Man/Tony Stark and Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts, the holdovers from the blockbuster first film. Jon Favreau also is back as director.
Their rousing box-office and critical success made it possible to bring Ms. Johansson, Don Cheadle, Sam Rockwell and the lone Comic-Com absentee, Mickey Rourke, aboard for the sequel.
At the panel in giant Hall H, Mr. Downey had pointed to his new co-stars and said, "The real win for me is these folks you see here."
"We wanted to add characters but not too many," Mr. Favreau added. "We wanted to have the same tone and dynamic that you love while adding people that would further move us toward the eventual Avengers film."
Until then, meet the few newcomers and their characters in "Iron Man 2":
Black Widow's powers, according to Marvel's online archives, come from government treatments that augmented her immune system and enhanced her durability. She also wears bracelets that can deliver the "widow's bite" -- 30,000 volts.
Getting into character was "all about the suit," said Ms. Johansson, who showed up to meet Mr. Favreau and Marvel Studios president Kevin Fiege with red hair to demonstrate how much she wanted the part. She also promised to dedicate herself to intense fight training.
"As an audience member, I hate to watch those action sequences where you don't see any of the actor's face and it's all on the back of the [stunt double's] head. ... You get to know an actor's body and their mannerisms, and so for me it was really important to do the stunt work and fight, and feel the fight within me, I suppose. So it was just a lot of stunt training, strength training, all that kind of stuff. I wanted to be able to look at something and say like, all right, I'm going to beat the [expletive] out of that person.
"To believe [you can do that] is a challenge in itself, especially when you're 5-3 and you're fighting someone who's seemingly a giant. To have conviction was just as much a challenge as the physical part of it."
Both Black Widow and Whiplash, played by Mr. Rourke, have Russian backgrounds, so one can't help but wonder if their stories intersect ...
"You're going to have to wait and see," she said coyly. "That would be giving you too much. But she is covert and I think she blends in. It's not like she comes onto the scene and it's like, 'Who is that Russian chick?' I think that would be a dead giveaway. I don't know how covert you can be if you're [with a Natasha accent out of 'Rocky and Bullwinkle'] talking like thees."
In the first film, Tony Stark discovers his outer Iron Man, but this film represents more of his inner struggles now that he's revealed his identity to the world.
Ms. Johansson said she thinks of the sequel in terms of "Hamlet," with a dramatic second act and a character who has to choose between diverse paths.
"It's sort of that iconic good vs. evil that comes into play. There are choices that have to be made, and a lot of characters have to step up to the plate and realize how important, how invaluable they are. They have to decide, 'I have this all in the palm of my hand; which way do I go?' It's epic. Certainly I think Jon has this in mind as the arc of the character, and hopefully the third installment would be the culmination of the character, whether it be good or evil.
"Of course, we hope good always prevails."
Is there a place within the action and drama for romance between Iron Man and Black Widow?
Coy again, she said, "You're just going to have to wait and see."
The actor has earned his sci-fi/fantasy cred in movies such as "Galaxy Quest," "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" and the recent indie hit, "Moon." His character in the Marvel comics is an arms dealer who comes along when Tony Stark abandons his weapons contracts.
Mr. Rockwell rattles off so many pop-culture references to describe his portrayal of Hammer, you wonder how he could keep it all straight.
"He's a bit like a Lex Luthor, mixed in with a bit of Bill Murray and Kingpin, and a bit of George C. Scott in 'The Hustler.' A bit of Bernie Madoff, Steve Jobs, you know. He's an amalgam of a lot of different archetypes," Mr. Rockwell said.
"He's like the Jeremy Piven character in 'Entourage' ... and I think it's still developing. We don't know what Justin Hammer is becoming. He might become something else."
He described Hammer's relationship with Stark as being steeped in jealousy, "like Salieri and Amadeus."
"He doesn't have the same skills, and I think he looks up to Tony, and Tony doesn't want anything to do with him, so [in a sinister voice] he's going to take him down."
Mr. Rockwell, who describes himself as an "actor for hire," is better known for smaller, indie-sized. He seemed to be humbled by the trappings of a big-budget summer release.
"It really feels like you're a part of the all-stars, you're there to do something cool," he said. It's not just a big-studio movie with thrills and chills; it's very actor friendly. And cinematically, it's just phenomenal. It's big filmmaking and yet it is very accessible to actors in the way that independent film is."
When last we met Rhodey in the first "Iron Man," he was played by Terrence Howard. That was just one of the points that gave the actor pause before accepting the part of Iron Man's friend and confidant.
Once he felt secure that Mr. Howard and Marvel Studios had parted ways, "it was still sort of a question. Because this is a commitment. Because this is, knock on wood, a franchise, and you go, 'Do I want to be locked in to this character?' "
The success of the first film and the chance to work with Mr. Downey were the deciding factors. "Inside of the make-believe and pyrotechnics, there was some acting going on and I thought, that's a fun mix."
He hadn't quite counted on the constraints of wearing War Machine's heavy metal suit, and he made a point to let everyone know his suit was heavier than the Iron Man suit.
"You can't feel the ends of your fingers and toes. You can't scratch your nose ...," he paused and chuckled almost to himself. "It's funny, I looked on the schedule, and I think my CGI version of Rhodey worked as many days as I did. They didn't have to feed him."
The Oscar-nominated actor said the effects-filled film was a revelation. Sometimes he would be in the suit, sometimes in motion-capture gear and "sometimes they don't need you and they're just creating it. I've never worked like this before."
It's not all about the suit, though. The Stark/Rhodey friendship is tested as they explore how a stalwart military man like Lt. Col. Rhodes can relate to the free-agent hero that Iron Man declares himself to be in the sequel.
There's more than one Whiplash in the Marvel-verse, and one of them is a woman. There's also Mark Scarlotti, who had a promising job at Stark International before he became the costumed criminal Whiplash with whips that could channel lightning.
The name Ivan Vanko from the film is derived from Anton Vanko, also known as Marvel's Crimson Dynamo.
"We like to re-combine characters, be inspired by them, so that we're true to the books but it keeps you guys guessing a little bit," Mr. Favreau said.
A scheduling snafu kept Mr. Rourke from attending Comic-Con, and Mr. Downey made a point to convey his apologies. "He's very interested in participating directly with you folks."
Mr. Downey added, "I thought I was eccentric. He is something else," and Mr. Favreau shed more light on the Rourke method of acting:
"We informed Mickey that his character had done some time in a Russian prison. The next thing I heard, he was in a Russian prison. And I had to learn by TMZ. Not for a crime or anything -- he chose to go there. And apparently the first American film that they got in Russia as a result of perestroika was '91/2 Weeks.' So he is a sex god in Russia. So it doesn't take a lot of arm twisting to get him to go there."
"And where do you want to go if you're a sex god," Mr. Downey said, "but a Russian prison."
Sharon Eberson: email@example.com or 412-263-1960. First Published May 6, 2010 4:00 AM