By John Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 1, 2008
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."
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.
"Downey offered the opportunity to elevate this whole thing," Favreau says, "but to the people higher up the food chain at Marvel it represented a potential risk. And they were already taking a huge risk in putting their own money behind a movie of this size. So I think the resistance came from them not knowing if they were hiring somebody with too much history, and a decade older than they would have liked.
"Fortunately, creatively, everybody came on board. And to end all argument, Downey agreed to do a screen test," Favreau says. "As soon as everyone at Marvel saw the screen test, there was no more discussion."
Americans are a forgiving people, except when money's on the line. And Downey's much-publicized drug and alcohol problems have never been entirely forgotten by insurers, even though he's reached a point where he can lampoon himself: His school principal in the recent "Charlie Bartlett" was a drinker; his newspaper reporter in "Zodiac" was a drinker. And, like the original character created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck and Jack Kirby back in 1963, Iron Man is a drinker. Well, Tony Stark is, anyway. Audiences will have to wait for the sequel to see if Tony gets an SUI (superhero-ing under the influence).
"When you have enough aesthetic distance, you can do that," Downey says of playing substance abusers. "In 'Less Than Zero,' I didn't know if art was imitating life, or what was imitating what."
Stan Lee has said that in creating Iron Man, who debuted in an issue of Marvel's "Tales of Suspense," he and his team found their inspiration in Howard Hughes: "He was an inventor, an adventurer, a multimillionaire, a ladies' man and, finally, a nutcase."
With the possible exception of the last, Tony Stark fits the entire bill. He's an engineering genius who has succeeded his late father, named Howard, to run Stark Industries. Originally an anti-communist whose identity was formed during the Vietnam conflict, Iron Man and his story have been moved by Favreau and Co. to the Middle East, where Stark technology is being used -- and stolen, and used against civilians and Americans.
Stark's metamorphosis, in terms of both worldview and secret identity, comes about after his Humvee is bombed, he's captured, and then he's fitted with an electromagnet to keep shrapnel from entering his heart (Iron Man always had heart problems, and the armored suit was part life-support system).
To have Downey, the hippest of Hollywood creatures, deliver dialogue about Stark Industries' moral legacy and the virtues of corporate humanity was as delicate a matter as any facing the "Iron Man" team. But it was also in keeping with Favreau's philosophy about the hero himself.
"It was a difficult thing to present Robert as not being naive but being open to redemption," the director says. "Not making him seem childlike or foolish but having him realize he's been living by the wrong set of standards."
Look at "A Christmas Carol," Favreau says, look at "Jerry Maguire."
"That's the type of character transformation that Iron Man goes through," he says. "And he's a self-made hero. He's not bitten by a spider or hit by gamma rays. He's a guy who decides to make this transformation, and now you tap into a very traditional style of storytelling that dates back to Homer, or the Joseph Campbell stuff that Lucas tapped into. I think that's why my kid likes 'Star Wars' as much as I do -- the special effects can't hold a candle to what's done today, but the story is timeless. And if you can tap into the mythology of the superhero, you're stacking the deck in your favor.
"People think they like the explosions, people think they like the suits and technology. But they're really responding to something a little more inspired. And deeper."