The Story Behind Iron Man

Tony Stark got his start back in 1963 when co-creator Stan Lee hatched an idea for yet another different type of hero.

"I think I gave myself a dare. It was the height of the Cold War. The readers, the young readers, if there was one thing they hated, it was war, it was the military.

“So I got a hero who represented that to the hundredth degree. He was a weapons manufacturer, he was providing weapons for the Army, he was rich, he was an industrialist.

“I thought it would be fun to take the kind of character that nobody would like, none of our readers would like, and shove him down their throats and make them like him... And he became very popular."

That he did. Roughly based on loon tycoon Howard Hughes and arriving in Tales Of Suspense issue 39, Iron Man was a product of Lee, writer Larry Lieber, story artist Don Heck, and cover-artist/character-designer Jack Kirby.

While he debuted in his clanking metal suit, his costume quickly changed to the Mark III that is most usually associated with his character.

Despite his status as a “second-tier” Marvel character (not as well known as the likes of Spider-Man or The Fantastic Four), Iron Man nevertheless was a hot property for a long time in Hollywood. Here’s his journey to the screen…[page-break]

1. Early Options

April 1990. Superman has been powering along for a while and Batman has hit huge. The studios are scrambling to find any comic book property they can find to develop into the next big franchise.

Some things never change, eh?

Universal announces that it has bought the rights to develop an Iron Man feature film. The man it chooses to make the movie happen is Stuart Gordon, who at this point is mostly known for creating Re-animator, From Beyond and writing Honey, I Shrunk The Kids.

But despite plans to make a low-budget film happen, nothing comes of this attempt.

It’s not until February 1996 that Tony Stark pops his head up again – when 20th Century Fox nabs the rights from Universal and begins its own development cycle.

Which is where the first big name comes into play…[page-break]

2. Caged Stark?

Nicolas Cage has made no secret of his love for all things comic book. He's created his own titles and even named his son, born in 2005, Kal-El (bet his wife’s family LOVED that).

He’s also tried to snatch more than one comic book role in his time, including, most famously, Superman back when Tim Burton was in charge of bringing it to the screen.

In January 1997, he expressed an interest in snapping up the role of Tony Stark in Iron Man.

We don’t know whether he actually got into a meeting with Fox about it, but we’re sure he would’ve tried.

While it would have been interesting to see the Cage take on Stark, we’re happy with Robert Downey Jr, thanks.

Of course, Nic got his comic book shot in 2006 with Ghost Rider. Bet he wishes he’d been in Iron Man instead.

But he wasn’t the biggest name associated with the role, not by a long shot…[page-break]

3. Cruise control

With Stan Lee busily dropping hints about the story he’s written for the proposed upcoming pic – which writer Jeff Vintar is developing into a screenplay – things nevertheless remained somewhat dormant on the casting side.

Until January 1998, that is, when Variety reports that no lesser star than Tom Cruise is seriously interested in producing and starring in an Iron Man adventure.

With Marvel in financial straights at the time, things moved as slowly as a badger stuck in glue. Lee continued to drop hints throughout the year, including one mention of meeting Cruise and partner Paula Wagner about the idea.

September 1998 rolled around and things began to gather steam as Cruise announced he was definitely interested in the idea…

…But the fever pitch of speculation faced some serious cold water when the Cruise deal fell apart, mostly due to Marvel’s ongoing money worries.

Limbo beckoned until a director with a penchant for pulp was approached to take a crack.[page-break]

4. Tarantino time

With the film in development hell, Fox commissioned a rewrite from GoldenEye’s Jeffrey Caine, then zeroed in on a big name to jolt the project back to life.

Yes, Quentin Tarantino nearly ended up writing and directing a version of the story. October 1999 saw a desperate Fox reach out to the Pulp Fiction helmer, but once again, nothing came of it.

Things went very quiet on the Stark Industries front. In December 2000, Fox sold off the rights to New Line Cinema.

New Line hired Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (before they hit it big with the Pirates movies), along with Tim McCanlies (writer of The Iron Giant, which is oddly perfect) to craft a new script.

With hopes of getting the movie going again, New Line approached confirmed Iron Man fan Joss Whedon about directing this fresh take.

But even with a finished script from McCanlies delivered in 2002, nothing came close to a greenlight.

New Line tried once more, with Nick Cassavetes picked as the man for the job, a 2006 release date targeted and the likes of Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and David Hayter all writing drafts of the script, but the movie remained stalled.

With no end in sight, New Line returned the rights to the character to Marvel in 2005. And that’s where it all started to come together…[page-break]

5. Indie movie

April 2006. 16 years since the character was first bought by Universal, Marvel announces that Zathura director Jon Favreau would be directing the first film that the studio would produce itself – Iron Man.

With Favreau in place, the script started to come together in two drafts, written by Arthur Marcum and Matt Holloway and Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby.

The two teams worked separately, with Favreau compiling both scripts.

Go/Big Fish scribe John August performed an uncredited polish before production began.

Now it was time to find cast. Despite Favreau mentioning in an interview that he wanted a newcomer a la Superman Returns’ Brandon Routh, he eventually cast Robert Downey Jr as Stark.

It proved to be an inspired choice. Around Downey Jr, Favreau placed Gwyneth Paltrow (as secretary Pepper Potts), Terrence Howard (as best mate Jim “Rhodey” Rhodes and Jeff Bridges as the duplicitous Obadiah Stane.

Favreau and the marketing team at Marvel and Paramount proved to be masters of the craft. Before and during production – which kicked off on March 12,2007 – the publicity onslaught became ever more powerful…[page-break]

6. Hype Space

It began with a drip feed- a picture of the clanking Mark I armour here, a shot of Downey working on the Mark III suit there.

Unlike some previous films, which hide tried to cloak every element of the plot and production design in intense scrutiny, Favreau and his team realised that they’d get more mileage from carefully released pics.

The first image of the Mark I armour arrived in April 2007, thanks to the fact that it was built for real and could easily be photographed.

The canny Favreau realised quickly that he needed to reach out to the fans – and kept people up to date via his MySpace blog (ah, the days before Twitter!)

With refreshing honesty, Favreau opened himself up to a dialogue with the fans even before a frame had been shot. “The questions are coming on the Internet," he told MTV in 2006. "I've got a MySpace group set up just to discuss the movie, so I welcome the input."

But while the pics were fun, what was to come was truly astounding…[page-break]

7. Comic Conned

July 2007, and Favreau is slated to appear at the San Diego Comic Con’s biggest space, Hall H, to talk about the movie.

Ever the prankster, the director had his Paramount partners announce that the studio had brought “test animation” from the film to show everyone.

After a chunk of cheesy ‘toon action from the ‘60s, Favreau stalks on stage holding a video camera (the better to shoot the crowd’s reaction for YouTube, he says), before revealing some actual footage.

The reaction? A huge standing ovation and calls to see the clip again. Iron Man was on the path to glory at last.

The pictures and footage continued, with the teaser arriving in September 2007 and the first still pic of the Mark III armour complete as a Christmas present in December the same year.

And then came the trailer…[page-break]

8. Trailer parked

With post-production continuing, the film kept us hooked with pics and interviews from the director and his cast.

February 2008 saw the film debut a TV spot during America’s Superbowl, one of the prime locations for film promos.

That was quickly followed by the full theatrical trailer, which launched in late Feb.

By this point, Iron Man was already so much of a sensation that even satirical news mag The Onion felt compelled to take a crack (see above).

With the film’s May release date rushing up fast, all that the filmmakers could do is cross their fingers and hope the hype translated into box office…[page-break]

9. A palpable hit

No one needed to worry. Iron Man hit it big in the US and across the world, with $98.6 million in the States alone.

Since it opened, the film has gone on to make more than $582 million worldwide. Not bad for a “second tier” hero.

Naturally, the minute the film’s success was clear (somewhere around its first Saturday of release), a sequel was all but certain.

On May 5th 2008, Marvel was quick to announce that Iron Man 2 would be seeing the inside of cinemas in 2010.

There was just one slight problem: no one had thought to tell Jon Favreau…[page-break]

10. Sequel jitters

It all seems obvious now, but back in May last year, there were serious worries that Jon Favreau might not return, with worries that Marvel was trying to push for too much too soon.

“I haven't been hired to do it yet,” Favreau said in June 2008. “I know that Robert and I have talked a lot about what types of things we would like to do, and how to play into the strengths of what we discovered last time around.

“I look forward to rolling up my sleeves. Hopefully that won't be too long in coming.”

A lot of his resistance sounded like contract negotiation issues, but he was soon locked into a deal. Marvel has since shifted the dates of some of its other films around and Favreau is at work on Iron Man 2.

Even with Favreau and Downey back, and Tropic Thunder’s Justin Theroux on scripting duties, not everything went quite to plan.

Terrence Howard was roundly dumped from the sequel – he says because of money issues, insiders say because he was difficult to work with – and Sam Jackson nearly didn’t return as Nick Fury because of dosh problems.

Add to that the endless casting issues around Mickey Rourke (Sam Rockwell was a much easier catch as Justin Hammer) and the controversy over Emily Blunt taking, then dropping out of the role of super spy Black Widow, the path to the sequel hasn’t been smooth so far.

For now, however, things are on track…[page-break]

11. And so, the future…

As of right now, Favreau is shooting the sequel in LA, Downey and Paltrow are back, Don Cheadle is Jim Rhodes, and Rourke, Rockwell and Scarlett Johansson are playing the villains.

All seems right with the Iron Man world, as Favreau continues to update us all thanks to his Twitter feed .

With plans in place for a likely third film, and all the activity devoted to gathering the Avengers (Thor, Captain America and co), it’s a good time to be a Marvel hero.

Let’s hope it works out from now on…

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Freelance Journalist

James White is a freelance journalist who has been covering film and TV for over two decades. In that time, James has written for a wide variety of publications including Total Film and SFX. He has also worked for BAFTA and on ODEON's in-cinema magazine.