The summer movie season arrives early this year, courtesy of Iron Man, the latest comic book superhero to make the leap to the big screen. To help separate the hero from the hype, here's a handy guide to all things Iron Man.
An Unlikely Hero
Iron Man's comic book roots can be traced back to a simple dare issued to Stan Lee by his colleagues at Marvel Comics in the early '60s: Amid the era's radical anti-establishment fervor, could the creative mind behind countercultural heroes like Spider-Man find success with a character whose persona contrasted sharply with prevailing trends?
Lee responded to the challenge with Tony Stark, an unabashed capitalist, a self-indulgent womanizer and a brilliant weapons designer who channels his munitions wizardry into building a high-tech suit of armor and confronting evil as the invincible Iron Man. Initially appearing in a supporting role in a variety of Marvel titles, the character's popularity grew to such an extent that it finally went solo in 1968. Since then, Iron Man has consistently ranked among Marvel's bestselling titles.
Evolution of the Movie
Iron Man's nearly two-decade journey to the big screen wasn't nearly as smooth. While his Marvel counterparts Spider-Man and the X-Men raked in untold millions at the box office over the better part of a decade, Iron Man sat on the sidelines, floundering in development hell at various studios before Marvel finally decided to take matters into its own hands, forming an independent production company with the goal of sidestepping the traditional barriers erected by Old Hollywood.
Flush with cash from a $525 million pact with finance giant Merrill Lynch, the newly independent Marvel Studios didn't hesitate to designate Iron Man as its first release, and promptly handed the coveted directing job to actor-turned-director Jon Favreau, who saw in Iron Man all the necessary ingredients for a blockbuster superhero franchise. "You have all of the flash and glamour of Tony Stark the billionaire inventor genius and playboy," said Favreau, who along with stars Robert Downey Jr. and Terrence Howard recently took time out of their busy shooting schedule to talk about the much-anticipated film, "but then you also get to explore what that might lead to be desired." For Favreau, it was precisely those elements that "lead to be desired" that made Stark such a compelling character to tackle on celluloid, and along with a team of writers he embarked on a quest to answer the essential questions facing his protagonist. "How is he flawed?" Favreau posited. "How does he grow and change through his captivity, and when he comes back how does he become Iron Man? What are the steps in that journey that gets us to the point where we understand who he is and what he stands for and how he's changed?"
Moreover, Favreau sensed a rare opportunity to make a big budget event movie without betraying his indie roots, taking cues from Batman Begins, X-Men and even the Lord of the Rings trilogy -- movies that took the traditional summer blockbuster and elevated it to an art form. "You see Peter Jackson, Chris Nolan, Bryan Singer finding a way to bring integrity and a sense of fun to these big movies," said Favreau. "You feel like you're watching a good movie and it's not one that a director is doing apologetically -- they're doing it because they're excited about it and they love it." With that in mind he laid out his vision, beginning with what is arguably the most impressive cast ever assembled in a comic book movie.
Tony Stark / Iron Man
Robert Downey Jr.
It's no easy feat, finding an actor with the ability to embody all of the character's unattractive traits and yet somehow remain likeable. After an extensive search, Favreau eventually zeroed in on Downey, an actor who's made a career out of making the unlikable likeable. "I can't think of anybody better than him," raved Favreau. "He brings a reality, a humor, a panache, a life of experience where he really feels like what he's bring to the table. There's a lot of Tony Stark in him."
Indeed, it's not hard to see the parallels between Stark and onetime Hollywood bad boy Downey, a longtime Iron Man fan who lobbied extensively for the role. "If there's ever been a character in the history of my career that I would be happy to kind of meld with and associate myself with, it's Tony Stark," said Downey, "because it's the coolest job I've ever had."
"That's so much better than trying to teach somebody to pretend that they are funny or smart or talented or they lived with fame and lived with all of the challenges and benefits of it," said Favreau of his star's well-publicized battles with substance abuse and other personal demons. For his part, Downey found that certain aspects of Stark's personality reached well beyond his own experience. "Regardless of how much dough I've made over the years, I've never lived a day -- I've never lived a four seconds -- like this guy's lived every day," said Downey. "It's been really this amazing experience to see what it would be like if you had unimaginable resources and you have this change of heart and you decide to pool these resources into something that became kind of fetishistic and obsessive, but obsessive in a way that you have to figure out as you go along what the moral psychology is of that."
"So I think it's a very human journey," added Downey.
Oscar nominee Terrence Howard plays Jim Rhodes, a career military man and skilled fighter pilot who aids in Stark's escape from captivity at the hands of Afghan warlords. Having spent his entire life in the highly structured confined of the armed forces, Rhodes initially disapproves of Stark's hedonistic ways. "My character starts off in complete disgust of how Tony has lived his life," said Howard. "Then he realizes perhaps there's a different way to live one's life. So that's where we are now. We're in the debate of who's way of life is the right way? Is it the military and that strict disciplinarian way or is it being an independent, acting and behaving as an individual?"
In the comic book, Rhodes grows to become Tony Stark's best friend and greatest ally, even occasionally donning the Iron Man armor when Stark himself is unable. As fans of the comic know all too well, Rhodes eventually gets a suit of his own, courtesy of Stark Industries, battling bad guys alongside Iron Man as War Machine.
Though it's highly unlikely that we'll see an appearance by War Machine in the first Iron Man flick, it's all but guaranteed he'll be making an appearance in a sequel. "I am truly a son of the USA," Howard hinted. "And sometimes the son wants to leave home just to venture out, but then he always makes his way back."
Rounding out Iron Man's cast is Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays Tony Stark's spunky assistant Pepper Potts. A skilled businesswoman in her own right, Potts is tasked with holding down the fort at Stark Industries while Tony is out on the town, laboring in his workshop -- or merely saving the world. "She's really the closest person to him," remarked Paltrow at last year's San Diego Comic-Con. "He's a womanizer and a loose cannon, and she's sort of his center, in a way. Our relationship is at the heart of the film."
Every good comic book hero needs an arch-nemesis. For Iron Man, that role is filled by Obadiah Stane, a ruthless business rival of Tony Stark's who eventually morphs into something far more menacing: the Iron Monger.
Favreau tabbed Jeff Bridges for the role of Stane and altered his story arc slightly, portraying him initially as a mentor to the younger Stark. "That's sort of the relationship that we found between Jeff Bridges and Robert Downey Jr. that would be good," explained Favreau, adding that he's well aware of the character's comic book history. "We're not going to change the universe so much that to the purists it will seem like we betrayed the underlying truths of it. So if you've done your homework on the books it's going to serve you well when you go into the movies, because we're doing it too."
Unlike the mutants of X-Men or the genetically altered Spider-Man, Tony Stark possesses no real super powers of his own, just a keen mind and an uncanny knack for designing cutting edge armor and weaponry. Stark's crowning achievement, of course, is the futuristic suit of armor he dons whenever duty beckons.
Iron Man's comic book armor has endured near-constant updates since its inception in order to reflect changing superhero fashions as well as advances in technology, integrating real world innovations like GPS, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology into Iron Man's increasingly sophisticated arsenal.
To help design the suit for the movie, Favreau enlisted the aid of Adi Granov, a star comic book penciller who recently garnered acclaim for his innovative Iron Man artistry. Together with Stan Winston and his crew of practical effects wizards, they tacked the movie's foremost challenge of designing a suit that could be convincing in both the real and computer-animated realms. "We all collaborated together in finding a suit that could be made practically to be worn so that it wasn't always a cartoon," explained Favreau. "When you have practical things it tends to make the CG a little more honest, because if you have to make a direct cut from a practical suit...to something virtual, you now have a litmus test."
There are three distinct versions of the suit appear in the movie: The Mark I, clunky, grey and almost medieval in appearance; the Mark II, an intermediate design with a sleeker look and some flight capabilities; and finally the Mark III, the snazzy red and gold version seen on the majority of the film's posters. "The first time you try on that suit," said Downey of the Mark III, "You could put the least macho superhero-looking man or woman in this suit and I swear to god for 15 seconds you'd believe any of them could destroy any nemesis."
Iron Man opens nationwide on May 2nd, 2008.
See our Iron Man page for the trailer, clips, photos, and interviews with the movie's cast and crew.