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Nerve Of Steel

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By John Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 1, 2008

NEW YORK

Not all superheroes are created equal. Some have X-ray vision. Some are born to great wealth. Some are deemed worthy of two major Hollywood features in less than five years (the Hulk). And others are, well, Iron Man. He's not Superman, he's not Batman, he's not even Spider-Man . . . "or Hulk or X-Men or Fantastic Four," admits director Jon Favreau. "You could really go down the list till you get to Iron Man."

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Somewhere in the vicinity of the Mighty Thor, maybe?

"Yeah, that's in the ballpark."

And yet . . . and yet . . . "Iron Man," Favreau's armor-plated action-adventure epic (which arrives in theaters Friday), is perhaps the most anticipated feature of the ever-earlier summer movie season, a roboticized tent pole with more handicaps than a stakes race at Pimlico. The hero is obscure, the star is too old, the studio's game plan is brand new and the director is anti-special effects ("anti-CGI, definitely"). Still, the sense is that the movie's already a blockbuster, that success is a fait accompli.

"We're in a kind of pre-victory lap," jokes actor Robert Downey Jr., whose casting as "Iron Man's" inventor/weapons manufacturer Tony Stark lit up the Internet when first announced. It is, on the surface, a long-shot casting call. But it's also Downey's insouciant charm and dry wit that will be the not-so-secret ingredients of any "Iron Man" windfall.

And is he prepared to do it again? To spend his entire career -- because that's what happens -- playing Iron Man?

"I'm prepared to commit to what Jon and I started," Downey says. "The feedback has been really good. People are saying, 'You didn't drop the ball.' So we're like, 'Okaaaay . . . so give us the ball again.' "

"I want to work with a guy who I know is smarter than me," Downey says. "And I want him to be working with an actor that he knows is better than him. So together we make something which is a really rare combination. We're a third thing. Jon and I together are Tony Stark." He laughs, but the partnership seems real, the partnership of Iron Men.

"Iron Man" is the first film fully financed by Marvel Studios, and as such presented bigger than normal risks. Or potential risks. What Favreau clearly wanted -- and what the script by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway has provided -- was an adult comedy (it's rated PG-13) with superior hardware. And a plausible -- yes, plausible -- storyline, about an arms dealer who sees the moral light, after being captured, threatened and tortured by Arab extremists. Plus, he wanted Downey as his star.

"Yeah, it was difficult," Favreau says of selling Downey. "Marvel had had a lot of success with things like 'Fantastic Four,' where you come out with a nice young cast. Nobody's heard of these people, but they're kind of sexy, cracking wise, there are a lot of visuals from the comic books brought to the screen. I think they were looking to follow that model."

What Favreau was looking for was something along the lines of what Gore Verbinski did with "Pirates of the Caribbean," which would have been a Disney theme-park ride without Johnny Depp. Or something akin to Christopher Nolan's "Batman Begins" with Christian Bale, a darker, moodier take on the superhero.


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