In 2008, Marvel launched its cinematic universe with the movie Iron Man, based on its best-selling character. The movie about a wealthy playboy who created a powered exoskeleton to fight crime was a box office smash, and also a critical success. It led directly to Thor, The Incredible Hulk and Captain America, leading to The Avengers, which launched Phase 1 of their Cinematic Universe that’s still going strong.
Up until Iron Man, Marvel had sold the rights to many of its characters to other studios, so Iron Man was the first produced entirely by Marvel. It would like you to believe the movie was a sure-bet, that Hollywood came running to make the movie about a really popular character, that the cast and crew came together perfectly to make a brilliantly crafted movie, and that Iron Man was perfectly made from start to finish to launch their franchise. In reality, the project was stuck in development hell for almost 20 years, the script went through multiple changes, Marvel struggled to bring together the cast and crew, and most of Hollywood thought the movie would bomb. This is the real story of how Iron Man got made, and the secrets the studio doesn’t want you to know.
16. THE LOW-BUDGET VERSION
When Iron Man hit theaters in 2008, it seemed like a bolt from the blue, perfectly formed for maximum impact. Yet if Hollywood had its way, the first big-screen adaptation of Iron Man would have been way less exciting. The development of the first Iron Man movie started way back in 1990 when Universal Studios bought the movie rights for Iron Man, but they never planned for it to be a major summer blockbuster.
No, they were planning to make a low-budget movie with Stuart Gordon as the director. At the time, Gordon was known for his adaptation of Re-Animator in 1985. The year before the deal, he had made the giant robot movie, Robot Jox. We can only imagine what the movie would have looked like.
15. STAN LEE’S SCRIPT
Iron Man was famously created by Stan Lee, along with Larry Lieber, Don Heck and Jack Kirby in 1963’s Tales of Suspense #39. When the Iron Man movie got off the ground with Fox in 1996, Stan Lee was the co-writer on the first draft of the script, along with Jeff Vintar. According to sources, the story would have had the super intelligent MODOK as the villain.
The script was apparently pretty good, because of Tom Rothman (President of Production at Fox) later saying Lee’s screenplay made him finally “get” the character of Iron Man. The problem is that they never ended up using Lee’s script. In fact, the movie went through a lot of scripts, and Lee never even ended up in the credits. It’s like the script never existed, and that’s probably been a disappointment for Lee.
14. EVERYONE THOUGHT IT WOULD BOMB
In today’s Hollywood, Marvel Studios is synonymous with success. It seems like they can do no wrong, and have created a string of hit movies with big box office and critical acclaim. It’s hard to believe, but until very recently, Marvel had a much worse reputation in the biz.
Iron Man was Marvel’s first self-financed movie and teamed with Paramount Pictures as the distributor. When Marvel announced they would begin producing their own movies, very few in Hollywood thought a company could go from making comic books to making movies. There was also a concern because not many people outside comics knew about Iron Man. How bad was it? Associate producer Jeremy Latcham admitted they had trouble getting the script because almost 30 writers turned down the project, even offers to do rewrites.
13. JON FAVREAU WAS FOURTH
Director Jon Favreau created a real masterpiece with Iron Man, balancing the action of a power suit fighting terrorists with the drama of a man seeking redemption. He also set the tone for future Marvel films with a mix of humor and emotion, while also staying faithful to the comic book roots. That’s why Marvel doesn’t want to talk about how they didn’t want him.
Favreau was actually the last in a long list of directors. At one point, Quentin Tarantino wanted to write and direct Iron Man. Later on, Joss Whedon was in talks to direct, as well as Nick Cassavetes. Favreau wasn’t hired until 2006, and that was mainly because he had worked with producer Avi Arad on Daredevil. He turned out to be the right man, but it took a while to get there.
12. MARVEL DIDN’T WANT ROBERT DOWNEY JR.
Speaking of the crew being unwanted, let’s talk about Robert Downey Jr. By any measurement, his role as Tony Stark has made him a huge star and launched him back onto the A-list. It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the role, which is what Marvel would like… because they didn’t want him.
At one point, Nicholas Cage and Tom Cruise were interested in playing Stark, but in 2006, Favreau wanted to cast an unknown actor, believing that Iron Man himself was the star. Eventually, Favreau came to think Downey Jr. was the best choice, but in 2006, Downey Jr. was known more for his battles with addiction than acting and had never made a hit movie. Marvel execs flat out said they wouldn’t hire Downey Jr. at any price. He won them over, and it paid off.
11. IRON MAN NEEDED A TON OF PROMOTION
Iron Man is one of the most popular superheroes in comics and was one of the four founding members of the Avengers (along with Thor, Hulk and Ant-Man), making him an icon in the Marvel universe. Yet in 2006, Marvel had a problem they don’t often talk about: no one outside of comics knew who he was, especially compared to Spider-Man or the Hulk.
Marvel actually did focus groups to try to figure out how to make Iron Man more popular and discovered most people weren’t interested because they thought he was a robot. Marvel started a campaign, making three short animated films aimed at kids called “Iron Man Advertorials” they released on the Internet to build excitement. They also launched a huge media blitz ahead of the movie focused on Stark instead of the armor.
10. THE MANDARIN WAS RACIST
The Mandarin has been Iron Man’s archenemy in the comics since he was introduced in 1964’s Tales of Suspense #50 by Stan Lee and Don Heck. Early reports showed he was supposed to be the main villain in the movie with one having the Mandarin as a rich playboy who was secretly a terrorist from Indonesia.
The problem was that the Mandarin was an Asian “Yellow Peril” stereotype in the comics. At the last minute, Favreau cut the Mandarin out of the movie, because he thought he was too racist. That left them without the main villain, and Obadiah Stane was upgraded to the arch villain when Jeff Bridges was cast. When the Mandarin finally showed up in Iron Man 3, he was a man dressed in a mix of foreign and American clothing with an American accent, not a Chinese science-wizard.
9. THERE WAS NO SCRIPT
As you can imagine, changing the main enemy in the movie caused a problem. Most of Iron Man had been written around the Mandarin, and Stane’s transformation into Iron Monger required a whole new storyline and ending. Add the problem of finding writers to work on the project at all, and you end up with Iron Man filming without a full script.
The movie had an outline, but not much actual dialogue. Most of what we saw in the movie was written the day of shooting or improvised during filming. In interviews, Jeff Bridges recalled spending every morning sitting around with Robert Downey Jr., talking to writers on the phone, trying to figure out what to say. It came together perfectly, but it was a close call.
8. J.A.R.V.I.S. DIDN’T CARE
In the original comics, Jarvis was Tony Stark’s loyal butler for decades, but Favreau decided he would be too much like Batman’s Alfred. Instead, Favreau made Jarvis into an artificial intelligence called J.A.R.V.I.S. who controlled Stark’s home and equipment. J.A.R.V.I.S. was voiced by Paul Bettany, who went on to become the Vision in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Bettany is such a huge part of the Avengers that Marvel probably wouldn’t be happy talking about the truth, which is that he didn’t care about Iron Man at first. He only did the voiceover for J.A.R.V.I.S. as a favor to Favreau, and he never even got the complete script, so he had no idea what the movie was about. As far as we know, he still doesn’t, because he’s said many times in the past he never watched any of the Iron Man movies.
7. HOWARD MADE MORE MONEY
Another thing Marvel doesn’t talk about is Terrence Howard, the actor who played Jim “Rhodey” Rhodes in the first Iron Man. Rhodey was the long-suffering best friend and government minder of Tony Stark. It was suggested that Rhodey would become War Machine in later movies, but he didn’t have too much of a role in the first one. That’s why it might surprise you that (from a financial point-of-view) Howard was actually the star.
In 2008, Howard was coming off an Academy Award nomination for best actor in the movie Hustle and Flow, and his career was flying high, especially compared to Downey Jr. At $4.5 million, Howard was actually the highest-paid cast member in Iron Man, more than Robert Downey Jr. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out for him.
6. FAVREAU HATED HOWARD’S ACTING
Despite the success of Iron Man, Terrence Howard didn’t return in Iron Man 2. Instead, he was replaced by Don Cheadle who’s played Rhodey in all the Marvel movies since then. The reasons are complex and aren’t something Marvel likes to talk about, but Howard has been unusually outspoken about his firing, so we know a lot about it.
For one thing, Howard claims he was originally contracted to make $8 million for the Iron Man sequels, but he was offered $1 million instead. He turned it down, the role was recast and Downey Jr. was given the money instead. However, rumors say that Favreau wasn’t happy with Howard’s performance as Rhodey, and had to cut and reshoot a lot of his scenes. The salary and the acting left Howard out in the cold.
5. PRISON EXPERIENCE
Robert Downey Jr. is a success and an inspiration today, which is why he doesn’t like to talk about his drug problems and time in prison. He walked out of a 2015 interview where someone tried to bring it up. There was a time when he did like to talk about it, and that’s when his addiction and prison experience was used in the movie.
Favreau has said he felt Downey Jr.’s public life and fall had parallels in Stark’s celebrity life and redemption, and his background became a part of the movie. There was even a practical level where Downey Jr. gave advice on prison tools, like using a sock as a tea bag in the Afghanistan scenes. That mix of darkness and light is what made his role so great.
4. THE SPY PHOTO
There’s a moment in the theatrical release of Iron Man that you probably never noticed, but almost cost Marvel millions. In one of the final scenes in the movie, Tony Stark is reading a newspaper titled “Who Is the Iron Man” with a blurry photo of Iron Man on it. That photo had a complex history.
The photo was originally released in May 2007 on the Internet, taken by freelance photographer Ronnie Adams during filming. Paramount tried to sue the website that released the photo, but it was taken legally so the negative backlash led them to back off. Adams later sued over the use of the photo, because Paramount hadn’t gotten permission to use it in the movie. Marvel ended up removing the photo from the DVD and later releases.
3. AGENT COULSON WASN’T PLANNED
One of the most popular characters to come out of the Cinematic Universe is the S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson. Played by Clark Gregg, he not only became a staple of the Marvel movies but ended up in the comics and spawned the spin-off TV series, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Iron Man might seem like a brilliant introduction to a great character, but the movie had nothing to do with it. It was all Gregg.
In the original script, the character didn’t even have a name. It was just a brief cameo as Agent. It was Gregg who asked to put a twinkle in the character’s eye, and who had such chemistry with the other characters that his role was expanded and given a name. Fans loved him so much, Marvel brought Gregg back, and the rest was history.
2. EASTER EGGS, NOT CONNECTIONS
The original Iron Man was praised for its connections to the Marvel universe, and some of its moments and cameos led to other movies. For example, fans saw Captain America’s shield in Stark’s lab and Nick Fury in the after-credits scene. While Marvel wants to claim it was always their plan to make hidden references to other movies, it was really just a goof.
Favreau and Downey Jr. are huge comic book fans, as were many of the crew, and they wanted to make little jokes about other characters and comic history. The shield was just another gag by one of the special effects technicians, and Marvel wasn’t even sure anyone would notice it. Nick Fury’s cameo was a last-minute addition for fun, which led directly into the studio’s dream of making the Avengers movie. It just happened to work out.
1. MARVEL COULD HAVE LOST EVERYTHING
Iron Man was a big gamble that paid off, but Marvel had more riding on the movie than just the production budget and their reputation. In 2005, Marvel took out a loan for $525 million to produce the movie with a deal called a non-recourse debt facility. In the deal, the studio didn’t give up any of its profits from the movies to the bank, but they did promise to give the bank the repayment of the loan plus interest with the film rights to 12 of its characters as collateral.
That’s why Iron Man had such high stakes. If it had failed to make a profit, Marvel would have had to give up the rights to the 12 characters it owned, leaving them worse off than before. Favreau had a lot of pressure, but he pulled it off.
What did you think of Iron Man? Let us know in the comments!
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