The first part of our weekly road to Avengers: Infinity War
starts with Iron Man
, the project that gave form and shape to, what will ultimately become, the biggest brand in the history of the cinema – The Marvel Cinematic Universe. The movie that not only proved that unexpected choices have a chance to pay off, but also that lesser known characters on a brink of obscureness can compete with the big guns.
But long before Jon Favreau, Robert Downey Jr. and Marvel Studios dared to set standards and break records, even before Rob Bowman’s Elektra
came out, there was an idea. And it was a terrible one.
A BOX OF SCRAPS
The success of Steve Barron’s Teenage Mutants Ninja Turtles
and constantly growing appetite on making movies based on comic-book properties lead Marvel Entertainment to selling the rights to Iron Man to Universal Studios in 1990. Stuart Gordon (The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit, Dagon
) was set to direct with a script panned by Ed Neumeier (RoboCop, Starship Troopers
). Their vision didn’t come together and Gordon made a decision to leave the director's chair and abandon the promising project.
After years of setback, Universal sold the rights to 20th Century Fox. Nicolas Cage (Leaving Las Vegas, Lord of War
) and Tom Cruise (Jerry Maquire, Magnolia
) expressed interest in portraying Tony Stark. In an interview from 2005, Cruise said: “They came to me at a certain point, and you know, when I do something, I want to do it right. And, you know, if I commit to something, it has to be done in a way that I know it’s going to be something special. And that … as it was lining up, it just didn’t feel to me like it was going to work.
” Instead, Cruise picked up the main role in Robert Redford's Lions for Lambs
Iron Man co-creator Stan Lee has been a credited executive producer and contributed to writing a story, which Jeff Vintar (Long Hello and Short Goodbye, I, Robot
) turned into a finished screenplay with an approval of Tom Rothman, President of Production at 20th Century Fox. His idea was a pure science-fiction, departing from Lee’s origin of the character and setting up M.O.D.O.K. as the main villain.
In May 1999, Fox hired Jeffrey Caine (The Constant Gardener, Exodus: Gods and Kings
) to rewrite Vintar's screenplay. The unsatisfied studio pitched Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained
) to write and direct Iron Man
in October. Tarantino has been working on the movie only for two months, as Fox decided to ditch his ideas and finally sold the rights to New Line Cinema.
Tony Stark wasn’t the only Marvel character New Line has acquired. A Blade
movie was in an active development, forcing the company to slow down and make only one Marvel movie at the time.
Ted Elliott (Aladdin, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
), Terry Rossio (Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
) and Tim McCanlies (The Iron Giant, Smallville
) were hired to rewrite the story once again. In 2001, Joss Whedon (The Cabin in the Woods, The Avengers
) entered the negotiations to direct the movie, but his vision of Iron Man
didn’t please the executives. Phil Alden Robinson (Sneakers, The Sum of All Fears
) was in talks to come aboard as a writer, director and producer. The filming was supposed to start in March 2004, aiming for a July 2005 release date.
During the promotion of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2
, screenwriters Alfred Gough (Showtime, Shanghai Knights
) and Miles Millar (The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, Smallville
) revealed that an Iron Man
script they turned in to New Line was “A really cool reinvention of the [story]
”. Actor Simon Rex (Scary Movie 3
, Project X
) has apparently been in talks to star in the movie as the main hero.
and Iron Man
were highlighted at Marvel’s booth at the New York Licensing show in 2004. The first promotional poster revealed the date of Tony Stark’s debut - Holiday 2005.
David Hayter (X-Men, Watchmen
) sold New Line on his vision of Iron Man
and his script was approved by the executives. IGN’s insider said that the movie would be very “Tom Clancy-esque
”, involving a conflict between Tony and his father over Stark Industries. Marvel Enterprises executive Avi Arad confirmed that Iron Man
will spawn a new line of toys and a video game.
In 2004, David Maisel was promoted as chief operating office of Marvel Studios. He immediately realized that yes, Marvel is making a small profit by selling their properties, but it’s just incomparable to what the big studios earn. For example, Fox’s X-Men turned out to be a huge box office hit ($296,339,527) and it gained Marvel nothing. In 2005, the Marvel board approved Maisel's plan and a seven-year, $525 million financing deal with Merrill Lynch was announced.
Marvel Studios finally had the necessary resources to produce their own movies. But the deal was tricky, and if Marvel’s risky plan failed, the rights to their last ten “valuable” properties, including Ant-Man, The Avengers, Black Panther, Captain America, Cloak & Dagger, Doctor Strange, Hawkeye, Nick Fury, Power Pack and Shang-Chi would be sold to Ambac Financial Group, Inc. to honor debts.
In late 2004, news broke that New Line Cinema wanted a new director for the Shellhead’s debut, Nick Cassavetes (She’s So Lovely, The Notebook). Interestingly enough, during the 32nd Annual Media Week Conference in New York, Marvel executive Peter Cuneo confirmed that Chris Columbus’ Namor will definitely hit theaters in 2007 and David Hayter, whose script was still a base for the Armored Avenger debut was pitched by Lion’s Gate to write and direct Black Widow movie “right away”.
But Marvel’s plans were even more ambitious. During Marvel’s fourth quarter earnings call in 2005, Avi Arad gave shareholders a list of movies in development: X-Men 3, Ghost Rider, Iron Man, Luke Cage, The Punisher 2, Deathlok, Spider-Man 3, Namor, The Hulk 2
- ten movies, all set to release before the end of 2007. It become clear that some of them will never see daylight.
With no director attached and man projects lead off, New Line decided to delay Iron Man
for another year, to 2007. At a conference call, Arad explained that the delay was caused be the lengthy negotiations with Cassavetes: "We want Nick to make the movie. We had him. He's an 'Iron Man' aficionado. Everything was fine and then negotiations got delayed. We lost a year
At Comic-Con 2005, Iron Man
was listed as part of the new Marvel Studios deal with Paramount Pictures. It looked more and more likely that the old Iron Man
was thrown into the dumpster.
The inevitable happened on October 24, 2005. Iron Man
was cancelled after more than six years of fruitless development at New Line Cinema. For the first time, the rights reverted to Marvel Studios.
BUILT IN A CAVE
Marvel Studios was formed in 1996 by Jerry Calabrese, president of Marvel Entertainment Group and Avi Arad, CEO of Marvel Films. Their main goal was incorporating Marvel’s writers and producers in the movie making process to ensure that the final product is kept in line with the publisher’s ideas.
With Iron Man's return to Marvel Studios in 2005, the producers had to make hard decisions. They just closed a distribution deal with Paramount Pictures, allowing Marvel to make their own movies for the first time in history. The studio’s execs had to pick one hero who will start the ambitious universe. With X-Men, Daredevil, Fantastic 4, Spider-Man, Ghost Rider, Hulk and Namor sold to various studios, Marvel didn’t have an “A-lister” well-known to the general public. Thanks to Iron Man’s arrival, they finally had a character with a potential to successfully launch a franchise. It was the first time Marvel saw a glimmer of the success they would have in the next years.
On April 28, The Hollywood Reporter announced that Marvel has found a director for their Iron Man
. The studio decided to hire actor, director and producer Jon Favreau, who’s biggest movies prior to Iron Man
were Zathura: A Space Adventure
. He never made a $100+ budget movie before, something that would become characteristic to Marvel Studios when it comes to choosing directors.
In May 2006, Arthur Marcum and Matt Holloway (Shadow of Fear, Transformers: The Last Knight
) signed on to write the script. A few days before San Diego Comic-Con, Favreau revealed that two sets of screenwriters are working on the movie: “We've got two sets of writers typing away on scenes and outlines. We've got a room full of storyboard illustrators and concept artists. The story has been fully broken. The villain has been selected and the train has left the station
”. It became clear that Marvel is determined to bring Tony Stark to the big screen.
With Iron Man
poised to begin filming on February 2007, Marvel and Favreau have started to promote the movie to ensure the fans that this time, Mark I would launch without any complications. The first teaser poster was shown at Comic-Con 2006, revealing the official release date: May 2, 2008.
At the same time, Favreau said that the Mandarin would be the main villain, but not a "magical Fu Manchu stereotype
". Iron Man
was aiming for the RoboCop,
not Power Rangers
During the promotion of Snakes on a Plane, Samuel L. Jackson said that he would love to play in a superhero movie, especially Nick Fury, the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. or Tony Stark: "I see [Marvel movie producer] Avi Arad a lot, because we live in the same neighborhood. I express my interest in [working with him]. I always wanted to be Iron Man, because he was always like the rich dude who created this whole thing. He's not really kept as a superhero, he just creates stuff to make himself a superhero as a rich guy,” Jackson said. Two years later his dream became a reality.
On September 26, Favreau confirmed that Robert Downey Jr. will play Tony Stark. Marvel Entertainment production president Kevin Feige advised The Hollywood Reporter that "We looked at everybody, and we found the best person for the role. It's as confident a casting move as we've ever done. The proof will be in the pudding, but he is Tony Stark."
For the general public the choice was acceptable
, but supposedly Downey Jr. was no Tom Cruise
acting-vise. The actor’s previous struggles with alcohol also didn’t go unnoticed. "Tony's a perfect fit for me, and if I was ever going to do this type of thing, I thought, you know, like early '40's. Great, because when you hang up your 'macho hat' and start directing or doing other stuff, it's not an embarrassment to be doing this in your late '40s still if we wind up doing three of them
”, Robert Downey Jr. commented on his new role in an interview with Superhero Hype.
Famke Jenssen (GoldenEye, Taken
), who played Jean Gray in the X-Men
series was rumored to be in the running to play Tony Stark's love interest, and Terrence Howard (The Best Man, Crash
) was being rumored for the role of James Rhodes, Stark’s best friend, also known as War Machine. Howard’s role was confirmed shortly after. Marvel Studios production president Kevin Feige said: "Having the best actors for the key roles allows them to inhabit the hyperkinetic reality of this world
The search for Pepper Potts continued, so Favreau asked the comic-book fans for suggestions. Many of them thought that Scarlet Johansson would be a perfect choice, but Marvel had a different plan for the actress. The other options included Amy Adams, Jessica Biel and Britney Spears. No wonder Marvel decided to not listen to the fans and to not take their opinions to heart.
Marvel Studios started 2007 with a big cast announcement, confirming that Gwyneth Paltrow would play Virginia "Pepper" Potts, personal assistant to Tony Stark. A better choice than Britney Spears, if you ask me. Jeff Bridges signed on Iron Man
in February and became the 4th star to join the powerhouse cast. "He's excited about doing a movie like this, and we're excited to have him in this particular role. There are many facets to this character which I can't discuss, but looking at the spectrum of all of Jeff's roles, this fits in nicely with the man who played 'Starman,' 'Tucker,' 'Big Lebowski' with a little bit 'Tron' thrown in
,” Kevin Feige commented on the casting choice.
One week before the start of the shoot which was scheduled on March 12, 2007, the director tried to calm down the worried fans: “I'm pretty confident that I've done and will continue to do my homework and that I'm ready, but so much is unknown. I feel like a ship's captain about to sail for the New World. Who can truly predict weather fortune or disaster awaits in the great unknown? Regardless, I thank God every day for his blessings
Seven years later Bridges will say: “[..] that movie was so much fun to make. It was unusual because it was very expensive, close to $200 million or something, and you would think that a movie that had that high a budget, they would have had their script tighter. But that was not the case. And we would very often find ourselves, at the beginning of the day, going into our trailers with little tape recorders with the suits from Marvel & Jon & Robert, and we would try to come up with what we were going to shoot that day! We would trade parts, I would play his part, or he would play my part, Favreau would be calling up writer friends of his, and meanwhile the crew is tapping their foot, waiting for us to come back to work. That was very frustrating for me, because I like to be very prepared and let it go in front of the camera, so that you know your lines and stuff, until I made a small inner adjustment that was: realizing we were making a $200 million dollar student film. And just to relax and have fun, do your best, don't worry too much, and I think that the film came out terrifically! And again, that's largely because we had Robert and Jon onboard
Paramount Pictures has released the 2008 preview on December 4, 2006 with Iron Man
occupying the top spot. The first image from Favreau’s movie has started a nasty storm. According to users from various sites, the suit looked “cheesy” and like a “dollar store armor”. During the set visit, Sci Fi Wire had a chance to interview Downey Jr. “He's a superhero who is just a man,"
the actor told the newspaper. "Not that I wouldn't play a guy who got bit by a spider or who has some freaky connection with bats, but I think this is a little more accessible,
" he said, clearly referring to Spider-Man and Batman.
On April 2007, USA Today revealed the first look at RDJ’s Tony Stark forging his Mark I armor. Shaun Toub’s involvement lead to a speculation that Stark is being held captive by Gene Kahn, aka the Mandarin. The same month Favreau confirmed on his official blog that Oscar-winning special make-up artist and designer Stan Winston (Terminator, Jurassic
Park) would take care of Iron Man’s armors.
One of the biggest VFX companies in the industry, Industrial Light & Magic joined the picture in May. At first, Favreau was skeptical about their involvement, as he always thought that the more practical a move is, the better. But one day, ILM presented him a model of the silver Mark II and asked him to say if he’s looking at the practical, or digital model. When he realized that he can’t spot a difference, he gave up and asked the company to help him to polish the film.
In June, news broke saying that Samuel L. Jackson has been spotted on the set. Outlets immediately started speculation that maybe he’s playing his dream role, Nick Fury. In the end, the audience had to wait till the very end of the movie to discover that indeed, Jackson is educating Stark, wearing an iconic eye patch in the first post credit scene in a Marvel movie.
Later the same month, Avi Arad confirmed that Jackson shot a scene, but to everyone’s surprise, he mentioned Hilary Swank as well. After the movie’s release, the former CEO of Marvel TV explained "It got into the internet and, you know, especially with MTV. These rumors are starting. There were cameos that were real, and we were trying to move [the media] away from the real
." Many fans who expected Swank to play Black Widow or She-Hulk felt deeply disappointed with Arad’s prank.
The first footage from Iron Man was shown at San Diego Comic-Con 2007 and it blew the audience away. Robert Downey Jr’s captivating Tony Stark immediately became a fan-favorite. The long trailer gave them hope that maybe this time a Marvel movie could compete with DC’s offerings, mainly Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins
. Downey Jr. asked about the theme of Iron Man
answered: "I think it's a film about survival and being conflicted. I think it's a pretty apt metaphor for the 21st-century human being, you know?
Favreau used the occasion to “debunk” the rumors once again and said that Jackson is definitely not playing Nick Fury: "There is a lot of speculation about cameos in the movie and most of them are completely unfounded. As far as Sam Jackson, as far as I'm concerned there is only one Nick Fury and that is David Hasselhoff
Howard elaborated on Fevreau’s unusual method of shooting the movie: "Write it again. No, that's not it. Then we would write and they would take what we did and create even more from it. They were literally put to test by fire all in the rehearsal process and while we were shooting
”. Sometimes the scenes were entirely improvised, and in the Iron Man
case, it worked out perfectly.
The promotional campaign started to warm up in October, when Paramount released another poster and the first full trailer. In that moment, the audience knew the greatness was coming. Marvel intelligently tried to increase the hype levels, leaking an information that Robert Downey Jr. and Edward Norton shot a scene together, implying that Iron Man and Hulk would be seen in the same frame at some point in the future. As we know it, the scene features not Bruce Banner, but General Ross in the post credit scene from The Incredible Hulk
Two weeks before the movie’s release, analysts predicted a minimum $60 million opening for Iron Man
domestically. The first reviews slowly started to roll out, comparing Jon Favreau’s effort to Donner’s Superman
, Raimi’s Spider-Man
and Nolan’s Batman Begins
. The movie rejected by more than thirty screenwriters and three major studios opened to $102 million in the US alone. History has been made.
I hope this retrospective look at the process of making Iron Man
helped you to understand how many obstacles the Shellhead had to face before his debut on the big screen. But the most important question still needs to be asked – was is worth the struggle?
The answer is short - definitely yes. Jon Favreau and the crew managed to create a captivating piece of cinema. Quite shockingly, the best part of Iron Man
is the script. Despite embracing improv, the movie’s screenplay is a golden standard for origin stories, so it’s not really surprising that every single Marvel movie has borrowed elements from it. Even after almost a decade since its release, watching the film is still a refreshing experience.
Moving the action from the Vietnam War and setting the first act in modern Afghanistan was a stroke of genius. This departure from the source material gave the story a more relevant feeling and made the main hero’s journey way more fascinating. Stark’s efforts to run away from the dark cave was also a great metaphor of what Feige, Maisel and many others tried to do with Marvel characters.
The cast did a great job for the most part. Robert Downey Jr. has rightfully became a huge star and the best paid actor in Hollywood after his performance as Iron Man. His Stark is a cynical hedonist forced by life to reinvent himself and his change was executed beautifully. Downey’s monologue during the press conference explaining why he decided to shut down Stark Industries’ weapon manufactories is just brilliant, something that every aspiring director would like to see in his movie.
Stark has a wonderful character arc and introducing him in a montage of Stark Industries’ history and achievements was another thoughtful and witty move of the film crew. Shaun Toub’s Dr. Yinsen was a perfect mentor for Tony and I felt authentic sadness when he passed away.
Gwyneth Paltrow and Terrence Howard are both believable as Pepper Pots and James Rhodes, but it’s odd to watch Howard in a role with a knowledge that Rhodey will be recanted. The feeling intensifies in the “next time, baby” scene. On the other hand, I have to agree, I misjudged Jeff Bridges’ performance as Obadiah Stane. Maybe I watched too many “ video essays” elaborating on Marvel Studios’ villain problem, but Stane was definitely a good start. Bridges gave a very nuanced performance and I learned to love his relationship with Tony, especially the pizza part. We need more pizza moments and less CGI mayhem in the movies for sure .
Ramin Djawadi’s soundtrack deserves a recognition and the rock-band mixed with a more traditional orchestral element works out pretty well for the character. His Pacific Rim
score is on another level, but it’s still a huge shame that, with the exceptions of Avengers: Age of Ultron
and Thor: Ragnarok
, Marvel Studios ran away from repeating the themes and music from the previous installments. “Driving With The Top Down” is a fantastic theme and it perfectly captures the magic of Tony Stark’s mechanized world, which would’ve worked wonderfully in Iron Man 2 & 3
The cinematography was on point, and some of the staging ideas reminded me a lot of Cameron’s Terminator
and Verhoeven’s RoboCop
. The battle in Gulmira is still breathtaking and holds up very well. Don’t tell you don’t love Iron Man’s unflinching walk with exploding tank in the background.
Stan Winston and his company created unbelievably creative designs for the Iron Man suits, and the fact that the Mark I, also known as the escape armor, was 100% practical (except the flight sequence) amazes me even today. A truly masterful work.
The movie loses some momentum in the third act, but it’s coming back on track after the Iron Monger’s arrival. It was the first time in a Marvel movie when the main hero had to battle a bigger/modernized version of himself, so it’s not fair to complain about it (yet). It’s sad that we never had a chance to see if Obadiah solved the icing problem. Another proof how to blend humor, drama and action in perfect proportions.
To sum Iron Man up
, that’s how every cinematic universe and major franchise should start. Sure, it has problems and the movie created some issues in the future, but it’s important to focus on here and now. Iron Man had a fantastic launch, even more respectable considering the behind the scenes drama for more than fifteen years.
The new movie universe had a hero that was able to hold it together. Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark is Marvel’s emergency switch till today. He was the main focus of The Avengers
and Age of Ultron
, he was supposed to support Guardians of the Galaxy
in a sequel if the first part didn’t land, and finally, he was the hero that punched Spider-Man up on the box office top after Sony’s amazing implosion.
Just like Nolan’s The Dark Knight
, Fevreau’s Iron Man
casts a shadow to this day, but there’s an obvious difference between these two. Iron Man
’s tone fits most of the characters, from Doctor Strange to Thor, and it’s easy to alter it, since it puts the focus on the characters and their journey. DC took all the wrong lessons from Nolan, trying to apply the same “dark” aesthetic to Superman and their whole movie universe. In my opinion, it didn’t work out well.
was also the movie that proved the publisher that they can make a movie about anyone with the right approach. It opened the doors for a bunch of assholes from outer space and all the craziness that’s called Marvel Cinematic Universe today. You did good, Tony. You didn’t waste your movie.
SOMETIMES YOU GOTTA RUN, BEFORE YOU CAN WALK
A few days before Iron Man
’s release, many analysts were predicting that the launch of Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto IV
could have a negative effect on the movie’s performance. Ultimately, this obstacle didn’t stop Iron Man
from ending its domestic box office run with a total of $318,412,101, which adjust to $396,019,507 with today’s average ticket price inflation. In 2008, it guaranteed the Golden Avenger the second best score of the year, right behind The Dark Knight
, beating movies such as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
and Quantum of Solace
. Worldwide, the movie finished with $585,174,222, giving it the 8th
Critic Ken Tucker from Entertainment Weekly tried to persuade the Academy to come back to the times when big blockbusters like the Lord of the Rings
trilogy were treated like a “competent” movies: “Hey, remember the whining about the last Oscar telecast with its low-wattage star vehicles and lower ratings, and all the hand-wringing the media, including EW, did over how to improve the Oscars? Here's a thought. Hey, Hollywood and the Motion Picture Academy: Take a closer squint at the big summer movies. Take them, ahem, seriously. As far as I'm concerned, Downey's performance should go on any short list that anyone draws up of potential Oscar nominees
,” Tucker exhorted in his blog post.
Before Paul Bettany's Jarvis has transformed into the Vision, he was “just” the voice of intelligent home computing system. The actor couldn’t predict that seven years later he will become one of the most beloved characters in the series. He didn’t even know that he was shooting a superhero movie: "I really didn't know what I was going in for because it was two hours in a recording booth," Bettany explained. "I went in and recorded with Jon Favreau, doing all the lines, recording them and went home and now I'm a f**king hero to my children
,” Bettany concluded.
In 2010, Terrence Howard revealed that he was the one who recommended casting Downey Jr. as Tony Stark to Jon Favreau and Marvel Studios. Apparently Don Cheadle who replaced him as Rhodes wanted to play the character before Howard was cast. "Despite the customary idea or thought that there's some controversy, it was a wonderful split and I know that they've done well. Robert Downey Jr. was born to play that part and it was wonderful that that part has given him the stature that he was supposed to hold before
." Howard definitely changed his mind about the “wonderful split” shortly after this interview with E!Online.
Six years after the movie’s release, Avi Arad complained about Businessweek’s article which gave most of the credit for the movie’s success to Kevin Feige. He expressed his feelings in a series of comments sent to Deadline: “We had a list of titles, but the slate didn’t have Iron Man or Hulk, and I had a very tough time getting Iron Man back from New Line, but we got it back. I always loved Iron Man. I left because I wanted to leave. It was nothing other than it was time to go. The company was growing and I didn’t like committees and I was 60 and was doing well as it was. I took a walk and thought, ‘I’m too old for this.’ And I thought if I keep nothing but Spider-Man, I will continue with Marvel, but I can do other things. I wanted to do other things … and I am now. The company is in good hands with Kevin who doing a great job
In an interview with Jack!, Favreau revealed that Marvel didn’t have much faith in Downey Jr., but his performance blew the executives away. At some point, the director realized that he’s not developing only a story of Tony Stark, but also a parallel of Downey’s troubled career: “Certainly by studying the ‘Iron Man’ role and developing that script I realized that the character seemed to line-up with Robert in all the good and bad ways. And the story of ‘Iron Man’ was really the story of Robert’s career
Jeff Bridges’s Stane was supposed to survive the events and falling into the arc reactor, but Marvel decided to kill him off: "In the original script they were supposed to open my suit after, and I was gone! But then, no. I read the scene we were shooting, and they said, ‘No, you’re dead.’ And I said, ‘Oh…’ Then they said, ‘Well, it’s a comic! Maybe you’ll come back!’ I don’t know
,” the actor told CinemaBlend.
Immediately after the successful launch of the first Iron Man
, Favreau, Feige, Downey Jr. and the filming crew have started developing a sequel. But before that, Marvel Studios had to face the Green Giant and the audience’s incredible rage, but that's a story for another time…