If Iron Man had failed, it is probably safe to say the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it would not exist. Everything else — the Avengers, Thanos and what came later — depended on the film’s success.
The ‘Struggle to make’ series reveals how a film or TV show was brought to the screen — what were the difficulties in the production, how the casting was done, and tidbits.
The 2008 film Iron Man is now known as the beginning of the hugely popular and acclaimed Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise of films, TV shows, comic books and short films. But when the film went into production, the ambitions of the makers were largely limited to make a good comic book movie. Everything else — the Avengers, Thanos and what came later — depended on the film’s success. If Iron Man had failed, it is probably safe to say the MCU as we know it would not exist.
An Iron Man film was in development from the 1990s. Universal Studios first bought the film rights to the character in 1990, with Stuart Gordon attached to direct. It did not work out and by 1996, 20th Century Fox had acquired the rights. The film stayed in what is called development hell. New Line also possessed the rights for a while. Quentin Tarantino was attached to direct the film at one point.
It was in 2005 that the independent Marvel Studios began work on an Iron Man movie. This was going to be the studio’s first self-financed project. In 2006, Jon Favreau was hired to direct. Favreau’s choice for the role was Robert Downey Jr, an actor who was not popular at that time. Not because of lack of talent, but because of his history with drugs and alcohol.
But for Favreau, this is what exactly made him a perfect choice to play the role of Tony Stark.
Favreau told USA Today in 2007, “We didn’t want to just go with a safe choice. The best and worst moments of Robert’s life have been in the public eye. He had to find an inner balance to overcome obstacles that went far beyond his career. That’s Tony Stark. Robert brings a depth that goes beyond a comic-book character who is having trouble in high school, or can’t get the girl. Plus, he’s simply one of the best actors around.”
Jon Favreau persisted and eventually Marvel Studios gave in and Robert Downey Jr was Iron Man
The script of the film went through multiple alterations. Originally, the villain was going to be the Mandarin. Kevin Feige and company said as much at the 2006 Comic-Con.
Feige told Entertainment Weekly, “He was in every Iron Man 1 script until about 10 weeks before we started filming. He was a contemporary of Tony Stark. He was younger. He was involved in business deals with [Stark.] We’d have revealed that Obadiah was the mole on the inside. But it didn’t work. It didn’t work.”
The script changes annoyed Jeff Bridges, whose Obadiah Stane was earlier going to be a secondary villain, but was promoted to be the Big Bad later on short notice.
Bridges told Matthew McConaughey in Variety and PBS’ series Actors on Actors, “I like to be prepared. I like to know my lines. It turned out that many times — 10, 12, 15 times — we would show up for the day’s work, not knowing what we were gonna shoot. All the guys in the studio are sitting there tapping their foot, looking at their watch, and we’re sitting in my trailer trying to figure out my lines. I made a little adjustment in my head. That adjustment was – Jeff, just relax, you are in a 200 million dollar student film, have fun, just relax.”
As mentioned earlier, Iron Man was not necessarily meant to lead to the formation of the Avengers and to what MCU eventually became. The idea was to just make a good movie. Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury makes his first MCU appearance in the post-credit scene of Iron Man and offers Tony Stark the chance to be a part of the ‘Avengers Initiative’. This was meant to be an Easter egg, not actually that was certain to lead to the future we know. Marvel Studios was testing the waters and wanted to gauge the response. Post-credit scenes became a mainstay in MCU after that.
Jon Favreau told EW, “[The post-credits scene] was a bit of a lark. I wanted to include Easter eggs that the fans would appreciate and we thought the idea of a post-credit scene could be fun. It was something that wasn’t really in the script originally. But I thought the idea of Nick Fury being Sam Jackson would be really fun, because when Nick Fury was reimagined in The Ultimates (comic book) they recast him as Sam Jackson, and I thought that that would be a really good nod to the audience.”
He added that the words Fury speaks were written with great care. “‘You’re part of a bigger world now, a bigger universe,’ and ‘the Avengers Initiative,’ laid breadcrumbs for what was to come,” he said. “We had the idea that we would somehow group these characters together, that was part of what would happen, but a lot of things had to go right for that to happen, so we were really just laying out a basic mission statement of purpose, to show our intent, and thinking that the few people who would linger in the theater would be the ones who would appreciate it most.”
The gamble — for that was what Iron Man was — paid off. It is easy to pick the film apart and criticise it now, but it gave the fans not only a promise of a bigger, inter-connected superhero cinematic universe, but also gave an alternative to DC films with their darker colour palette and ‘serious’ tone. Iron Man was unapologetically irreverent and sarcastic, its hero revealed his identity in a live press conference and the film for the most part was tonally a comedy.
Iron Man did get overshadowed by Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (both released a couple of months apart in 2008), but enough number of fans loved it and it gave Marvel Studios the courage to go through their plans.
Iron Man minted 585 million dollars worldwide. It may seem unimpressive right now by MCU standards, but it was indeed a big deal back then. The next year, in 2009, Disney bought Marvel Studios and slowly but gradually, MCU became the most profitable film franchise in history.