Wow. It's like James Bond got himself some spiffy new duds in the form of a metallic red and gold suit.
WIZARD ON SET: IRON-MAN
Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. forge a high-stakes thriller starrring Marvel's heavy metal hero
By Rickey Purdin
Posted September 1, 2007 9:35 AM
Glance out the production office window on the “Iron Man” set and you’ll spot a burnt-out military helicopter ominously resting among the staff’s cars and trucks. Wander down the hallway of the soundstage and you’ll have to step around 12-foot Stark Industries model fighter jets made of Styrofoam. Turn a corner and you’ll sneak a peek at Tony Stark’s industrial workshop and the massive crater in the floor where a superpowered fight has obviously ruined someone’s day.
All in all, the movie’s set wears its action-packed status on its metal sleeve. But peel back the armor on the estimated $186-million flick and it’s easy to see Marvel Studios’ first independently financed blockbuster, with an all-star cast featuring Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard and Jeff Bridges and a story revolving around billionaire weapons-manufacturing industrialist Tony Stark, plans to bring something fresh to the big screen when it hits theaters May 2, 2008. And it all starts with its star, Robert Downey Jr.
Right now, Downey, as playboy Stark, strolls through a multimillion-dollar, postmodern bachelor pad—a circular haven scaling the seaside hills of the Pacific Ocean in Malibu—and inhales the wealthy excess. A petrified tree trunk coffee table the size of a piano marks the center of a richly elegant room decorated with the finest in young-stud amenities. You’ll also find floor-to-ceiling windows, expensive guitars lining cream-colored walls and an animal skin rug beneath a red leather reading chair that looks more suited for display in a museum of modern art than for resting affluent rumps. With a detached, indifferent stare draped across his face, Downey removes his sport coat and approaches what can be best described as a super-tech mega-computer with a touch-screen, paper-thin, window-mounted monitor. “You have 1,713 new voice messages,” remarks a calm, robotic home computer system voice. “Including three from the Mandarin.”
Stark’s come home after being held prisoner by terrorists for months in Afghanistan and forced to build weapons. This isn’t a pimple-faced mutant at a school for gifted youngsters or a nerdy spaz with spider-powers rushing to deliver pizza. He’s a weary, real-world boardroom hustler facing genuine, adult problems. As much a Tom Clancy thriller as it is a metahuman adventure, “Iron Man” has set its eyes on comic book fun with a mature, sharp edge.
A DYNAMIC DUO
To forge a new kind of comic film, you need a new kind of leading man. That’s why it should come as no surprise Marvel chose Oscar-nominated Robert Downey Jr. as its lead. The often-troubled actor may be best known for his public battles with alcohol and drug addiction over the last decade, but he’s not afraid to face questions about his past and what it means for his new role, an attitude that comes front and center when a reporter on set in Playa Vista, Calif., stumbles through a dozen apologies on his way to asking Downey about that dangerous past.
“Yeah, yeah,” nods Downey, his eyes wide with awareness conerning the subject of which he’s about to be questioned. “Don’t give me all the f---ing preambles. Just bring it, dude.”
Finally, quietly and slowly, the question drops: Knowing that Tony Stark is an alcoholic in the comic books, how much of that has anything to do with what Downey’s doing with this role? Downey sits up, and everyone holds their breath as he looks over his folded hands on the table in front of him.
“Right…I think when someone has had a fundamental change—and they’re not just trying to backpedal and make it seem like, ‘I’m going to rehab again. Everything is fine’—by the time you’ve seen the light and start doing the right thing, you really don’t relate to the person that historically people still say you are,” admits the actor. “But I get it. In a way, that’s why [‘Iron Man’ is] ideally suited for me. And I’m ideally suited for it.”
Over the last 10 years, everyone from Nicolas Cage to Tom Cruise has fancied themselves ideally suited for the role, too. But an alcoholic playing an alcoholic? It’s a bold choice for the studio, although since his last arrest in 2001, Downey’s been rebuilding his career, and his reputation, with critically acclaimed turns in 2003’s comedy/musical/drama “The Singing Detective,” 2005’s “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and this year’s “Zodiac.”
“When we cast Robert, when he was approved and we got him to be in the movie and Marvel gave us the okay, it completely freed me because I knew I was halfway there to having a movie that I could be proud of,” gushes “Iron Man” director Jon Favreau (“Elf”). “I can’t think of anyone better than him. He brings a reality, a humor, a panache, a life of experience where he really feels there is a lot of Tony Stark in him. That’s so much better than trying to teach someone to pretend that they are funny or smart or that they’re talented or that they’ve lived with fame and lived with all of the challenges and benefits of it.” An admitted comics devotee, the 40-year-old Favreau’s fanboy résumé includes an acting role in 2003’s “Daredevil” playing Matt Murdock’s law partner Foggy Nelson. Well-versed in Iron Man’s history, from his debut in 1963 to his current comic occupation as the director of a military super-agency known as S.H.I.E.L.D., Favreau’s got the goods. But when he needs a hand, he calls on pros like Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada or Iron Man artist Adi Granov, who will team with Favreau for a four-issue Marvel Knights mini-series in 2008 titled Iron Man: Viva Las Vegas.
Despite a PG-13 rating, the film follows the violent story of Stark becoming a hostage in Afghanistan after demonstrating his experimental repulsor ray technology. Wounded during his kidnapping and relying on an electromagnetic device to keep shrapnel from erntering his heart, Stark crafts a crude suit of armor, escapes to freedom, re-evaluates his life and goes on to develop the suit as a life-saving tool under the guise of Iron Man. In short, it’s a film update on the classic comic book origin.
But one comic element Favreau points out will be missing from this inaugural film is Stark’s raging alcoholism. The director points out that comic book storyline, “Demon in a Bottle,” didn’t take place until 1979—a full 16 years after Stark first appeared. If anything, the story of Stark’s personal battle would be held onto for a possible sequel.
“What you really grasp for, if you’re lucky enough to make more than one of these movies, is how does it change so that it doesn’t just feel like a serialized hero who fights different bad guys?” questions the director. “How does he progress through each story? The problem is that you have so much story to tell that it starts to get clogged up with too much stuff and then you end up rushing through beats or villains. So for me as a filmmaker, and as a storyteller, I really look for that whole progression in character as the mythology of the movie.”
Aside from developing the story as equally as the action, “Iron Man” producers deserve accolades for tagging three more Oscar veterans for roles in the film. When filling out the spots, Favreau and his team didn’t just want movie stars—they wanted actors.
Cast as Stark’s friend and military liaison, Howard (“Hustle and Flow”) plays Jim Rhodes, a man who, in the comics, dons the Iron Man armor for a time when Stark’s alcoholism proves debilitating. When asked about why he took the Rhodes role, Howard sits up and smiles.
“War Machine,” the actor says, naming the hero Rhodes eventually evolved into in the comic books. “The whole idea of being able to play a superhero, so to speak.”
“He could’ve been Tony Stark if we had gone a little bit of a different way,” notes the director of Howard’s ability. “I think he’s got those type of chops. People don’t think far enough in the future. They have a great movie and then they say, ‘How do we do it again?’ That’s the difference between a sequel and a chapter. So, in looking at chapters, where can we go? You can go ‘War Machine’ with Terrence Howard. We could go a lot of different ways with this cast that we have.”
That’s a cast that also includes Oscar-winning actress Paltrow (“Shakespeare in Love”) as Virginia “Pepper” Potts, Stark’s personal assistant in the film. Paltrow admits her real-life husband, Chris Martin of the band Coldplay, let her borrow some of his comics to prepare for the role. And although she’s known as one of her generation’s best actresses, she still enjoys a good old-fashioned explosion.
“We were at Edwards Air Force Base and [an] aircraft carrier blew up,” the actress brags. “I mean, it was happening with tanks rolling around and F-14s. It was amazing to be in these situations and watch them blow up stuff. The special effects guy who was blowing up stuff was a little overzealous. He’d be like, ‘Don’t worry. This gunshot is a tiny charge.’ Then it would go off and you’d go deaf and throw up and cry.”
Playing Stark’s mentor Obadiah Stane is Oscar nominee Bridges (“The Big Lebowski”), who shaved his head and grew an imposing beard for the part. In the comics, Stane competed with Stark as an industrialist, took over Stark’s company and even built his own suit of armor, becoming the villainous Iron Monger before committing suicide.
Whether Stane shows his nasty side in the film has yet to be announced, though that’s just one of the many details being kept under ironclad wraps. But let’s speculate, shall we?
The Mandarin may have left Tony Stark some voice mails while the hero was tied up in Afghanistan, but that’s all anyone knows as of press time about the movie version of the Iron Man villain. No casting announcement, either.
“He has a large presence throughout the film,” admits Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios. “I think [Favreau] has said in a few interviews that the Mandarin, as he was in the comic books, will be pulling a lot of strings.” And considering the comic incarnation of Obadiah Stane plagued Stark as a baddie, chances are he’ll turn to the dark side in the film, too. Screenings of footage at San Diego Comic-Con featured someone in the Iron Monger suit. Whatever happens, Favreau’s refusing to comment on either character’s role.
“With these movies, everyone is watching,” admits the director. “So we try to put enough twists and turns in there to keep you guys in the dark. But by the same token, I want to stay as true to what the broad strokes of the comic books are. So if you’ve done the homework on the books, it’s going to serve you well as you go into the movies.”
Comic homework teaches that the Mandarin, a powerful Chinese government official, commanded 10 alien rings on his fingers that performed various mystical functions. And although he never teamed with Stane on the comics page, Stane did corral a coalition of questionable businessmen from Europe and Asia, so it looks like the Mandarin may be added to the film’s story as one of those members.
Also up in the air are reports that actor Samuel L. Jackson (“Snakes on a Plane”) may appear in the movie as S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury. Portrayed as a Caucasian in traditional Marvel comics, the company’s “continuity-free” Ultimate imprint depicted Fury as an African American, and the character’s look was based on Jackson.
“I used to be a huge Nick Fury fan back when I was a kid, and it never occurred to me that not only would Nick Fury change races, but he would be me,” the actor, an avid comics fan, told Wizard during a 2006 interview. “I kind of like the idea. I’m available.”
Speculation also hit online that Oscar winner Hilary Swank (“Million Dollar Baby”) was seen on set as an unidentified S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. Favreau only added fuel to the fire when he dropped hints about it on his MySpace blog by thanking the Las Vegas casino Caesars Palace, where filming for the movie wrapped, “for their hospitality, generosity and Swank accommodations.” “Iron Man” producer Avi Arad claimed both rumors were true, but Favreau still denies them as of press time.
“[With] Sam Jackson, as far as I’m concerned, there’s only one Nick Fury, and that’s David Hasselhoff,” the director says with a straight face in reference to Hasselhoff’s role in the critically panned 1998 “Nick Fury” TV movie. Iron Man co-creator Stan Lee, who has made cameos in all the Marvel films based on his creations, will allegedly appear in a scene with two young women on his arm when Stark mistakes him for Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, an early, real-world contemporary of Stark’s.
In a mid-July blog, Favreau cleared the air by writing, “I’ve read that Sam Jackson and Hilary Swank are S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, and that I myself play a Vegas security guard. There is no truth to any of these rumors,” before adding, “(Well, maybe one is true.)” San Diego Comic-Con footage featured Favreau as the security guard, so where does that leave the other reports?
Considering the quality of the definite casting announcements, none of the gossip would need to be accurate to make “Iron Man” a hit. But Marvel wants to pull out all the stops to make sure it is one.
From “Spider-Man” to “X-Men” to “Fantastic Four,” Marvel Studios’ franchises rank among the top-grossing films of all time. Up until now, though, partner companies, including Fox and Sony, licensed those properties for feature film production, a trend that ends with “Iron Man,” which some are calling Marvel’s first independent film.
“We’ve had great partnerships, but it’s nice having the final say,” relates Feige, whose Marvel Studios tapped Paramount Pictures to distribute “Iron Man” in the U.S. “The pressure now is if there’s something people don’t like, there’s no one else to point to. You know you’re at the end of the line.”
That cautious apprehension echoes early concerns when Marvel announced Downey for the lead role. Naysayers pointed to his past problems as an indication of possible turmoil. For a role this large on a picture with this much importance to a single studio to be handed to a person with a history of issues, concerns were valid. But Downey sheds that stigma with a sincere desire to do well. “You have to keep your head right,” Downey says. “It’s so easy to get spun out. You see people come in who have no challenges outside of their Hollywood problems, and they regularly have meltdowns on set where they turn into a bitch or they say and do things because they’re under pressure or because they think they’re something that they’re not.”
Marvel Studios knows exactly what Downey is—a bankable actor. And with one of the strongest casts in comic movie history behind him, it looks like “Iron Man” could take a repulsor ray to the comic movie mold and rebuild the genre with smart adventure in mind.
“I asked Robert what he wanted to do in his career now,” Favreau reveals. “He said he wanted to make movies that were good and that people were going to see. That seems very simple, but it’s a pretty profound statement. Actors want to be in movies that are good and that they’re proud of. You want to do a movie that’s going to be part of the culture. ‘Pirates of the Caribbean,’ ‘The Sopranos.’ Everyone knows what you’re talking about, and you’ve seen it and it’s impacted lives and has created a cultural ripple.” Come May 2008, if Favreau’s novel vision of a smart, action-packed comic film rolls off the assembly line as planned, expect more than just a ripple—it could be a revolutionary genre splash.
Robert Downey Jr IS Tony Stark.
You will believe a man can invent a suit of hi-tech armour and look super suave in it.