About a decade ago, a studio on the brink of collapse decided to make the brave move of producing a film that they knew was a hit or miss. This studio had never independently produced a film before, but they were ready to take a chance on the combined efforts of a comedy director, an actor fresh from rehab, and a character who barely anyone knew. This would-be film was the riskiest move in cinematic history because if it didn’t break big, it would break the studio.
Yes, the studio that I’m talking about is Marvel Studios and that film was Iron Man (2008), the big daddy of the MCU. The one that started it all.
With a budget that’s next to nothing compared to the more recent blockbusters that Marvel Studios puts out, Iron Man fulfilled the impossible. It took a controversial actor and placed him in the role of an unlikable, unknown superhero and made him into the face of the largest franchise to grace the silver screen.
THE LONG HISTORY IN PRODUCTION HELL
The characters rights to Iron Man were sold to Universal Studios in 1990, who planned make a low-budget film based on the hero. But when that didn’t pan out the rights went to 20th Century Fox, who would go on to make all those X-Men films, in 1996. Not a year later, actors like Nicolas Cage (Con Air, National Treasure) and Tom Cruise (Mission Impossible) expressed interest in playing the role of Tony Stark. But after a number of rewrites and shifting directors, the property was eventually sold again to New Line Cinema in 1999.
Now in the hands of a new production company, the movie finally gained a little traction with characters like Nick Fury set to cameo and Howard Stark set to fill the role of the “villainous” War Machine. At one point, Joss Whedon, who would eventually go on to direct The Avengers (2012), was set to direct. But like those before them, New Line Cinema returned the rights to Marvel after only two years of development hell.
So, at this point, Marvel basically decided that they’re gonna take on the task that all these far more successful production companies failed to do. They’re gonna make an Iron Man film and finance it themselves. (Good luck with that.)
They went after 30 writers who all passed because of two reasons: the character’s lackluster popularity and the fact that it was going to be produced solely by Marvel, a studio that has never done jack squat on their own. It might come to a surprise to a lot of people today, but it goes to show how little faith people had in both the character and the studio back then.
THE ARRIVAL OF FAVREAU AND DOWNEY
But just when things started looking down for Marvel, along came director Jon Favreau, a director known for comedies like Elf (2001) and Made (2001). But Favreau had a vision. He saw the opportunity to tell the story of a man trying to reinvent himself after finding that his world isn’t as black-and-white as he originally thought. And to tell that story, he needed an actor who not only had the charisma to pull of Tony Stark, but also the personal experience of dealing with the same issues Stark is going through. He also didn’t want someone with a big name, and so he had only one man in mind – Robert Downey Jr, who Favreau knew was a fan of the Iron Man from the comics.
Downey was already a relatively famous personality at this point, but he was far from a blockbuster celebrity. His history with prison and drug abuse resulted in a struggling career for the actor. But that experience is what made him the perfect person to take on the role of Tony Stark in Favreau’s mind. He wanted Downey to take little bit of his own personality and experience to fill-in the gaps of the character from the comics. And so with that, Downey became Iron Man. But back then, he was only paid $500,000 for his talent, which is a far cry from the $10,000,000 he made from the short scenes he appeared in for Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) or the whooping $200,000,000 he got for Avengers: Infinity War (2018).
After casting Downey, actors Terrence Howard (Dead Presidents), Gwyneth Paltrow (Shakespeare in Love), and Jeff Bridges (The Big Lebowski) were cast in supporting roles.
While thinking of a villain, Favreau considered The Mandarin, The Crimson Dynamo, and Whiplash. Two of the three would eventually become villains in later sequels. But the director decided on Obadiah Stane, The Iron Monger. But the director wanted to hint at the villains that didn’t make it in, so he hid little references for comic book fans to find. The fighter jets that attacked Stark at the beginning of the filmhad the call signs “Whiplash 1” and “Whiplash 2”, thus inadvertently starting the Easter Egg craze that would became a staple of the MCU and comic book movies to this day.
FILMING WITHOUT A SCRIPT
The script was written by two pairs of writers, Art Marcum & Matt Holloway and Mark Fergus & Hawk Otsby. But even with four people on the job, the script wasn’t finished in time for production. So, Favreau, who must’ve had enormous trust in his actors, opted to have most of the dialogue completely improvised on the day of filming each scene. This obviously gave the executives over at Marvel massive headaches and Bridges, who plays the villain Obadiah Stane, even described the experience akin to that of “a $200 million dollar student film”.
Even the dialogue for the now iconic post-credit scene with Samuel L. Jackson (Unbreakable, Pulp Fiction) as Nick Fury was written on the day by comic book legend Brian Michael Bendis.
Despite all this script business, filming went on in California, a decision that Favreau made because he wanted a location other than the overused streets of New York. Downey helped during production by giving insight on certain scenes and set design. It was his idea to have random trinkets littered around the cave where Stark was captured and to have the press conference sit down on the floor during the final scene.
CREATING THE MARVEL FORMULA
When Favreau made Iron Man, he never aimed to create the beginning of a decade-long franchise. He simply wanted to make a good movie. During an interview on Jimmy Kimmel Live in 2017, almost ten years after the release of Iron Man, Favreau said:
“We had no idea it would turn out like this. We were just hoping that people would see that movie. Everybody was saying superhero movies were dead.”
And he wasn’t wrong, superhero films weren’t doing so hot. In the year before Iron Man‘s release, we got Ghost Rider, Spider-Man 3, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, and Superman Returns. All released in 2017. It wasn’t looking good. At least, not until 2008 gave us Iron Man and The Dark Knight Returns, two of the most influential films of the genre because while one raised the bar for superhero movies forever, the other sparked the rise of a cinematic universe and laid the groundwork for what we would now call “The Marvel Formula”.
When asked about the Marvel Formula, director Jon Favreau said that it took great casting, humor, and adherence to the canon while staying true to the character and allowing for some room to expand later. That’s great advice, Jonny. But it’s not very specific.
Every Marvel movie follows the grounded, relatively realistic story of a flawed character who’s not quite the hero we know just yet. But after a sudden change of status quo, they have to rise to the occasion and, in many situations, they have that responsibility thrust upon them. There’s always a MacGuffin that the hero has to protect, retrieve, or attain while their up against a villain that’s, more often than not, a twisted version of the hero. The love interest is always a strong and independent individual. And lastly, there’s always a Stan Lee cameo and a post and mid-credit scene.
Marvel movies focus less on the plot, always keeping it simple, self-contained, and easy to follow, especially for any character’s first movie. But what they lack in plot complexity, they make up for in their characters. Every Marvel movie is very much character-driven. One could even say that many of them are character studies, especially the origin movies. And this is the reason why Marvel has weak villains. But, a weak villain and a simple plot allows for more focus on our flawed heroes.
Iron Man is far from the best MCU film. Since then, the franchise has released far more compelling and engaging stories, but it’s yet to introduce a character quite like Tony Stark. Unlike everyone else who got their powers from a Gamma-ray explosion, a super soldier serum, a radioactive spider bite, or from being an actual god, Tony Stark chose to become Iron Man. He actively molded himself into a hero and into a better person, which is why so much of the first Iron Man was just Tony figuring the armor out. And we see that development of the character over the course of nine movies where he goes from playboy to superhero to broken man to leader of the Avengers and father figure.
And now, ten years in, we’re here at the endgame of a decade’s worth of films, stories, and characters. So, when you sit down in your local theater to enjoy Avengers: Endgame (2019), just take a moment to appreciate the fact that all this is happening because an inexperienced studio took a chance on a B-list superhero, an out-of-his-element director, and a struggling actor.
“Mr. Stark, you’ve become part of a bigger universe. You just don’t know it yet.”
– Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Iron Man (2008)