'Iron Man': The MCU's First Movie Was A Behind-The-Scenes Mess
A lot of people love the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as evidenced by the recent box office success of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and also the fact that some folks are willing to buy real-world colognes purely in order to smell like their favorite fictional superheroes (which we're guessing is mostly just spandex and B.O). But it all started with a little movie called Iron Man – and despite the fact that it launched one of the most lucrative film franchises of all time, the making of Iron Man was as messy as trying to eat a Taco Bell Crunchwrap Supreme while drunkenly riding a mechanical bull.
The story of the first Iron Man movie goes all the way back to the 1980s when the rights to the classic comic book character were purchased by The Cannon Group, the same studio who gave us Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo, Masters of the Universe, and the teaser trailer for a Spider-Man movie that never actually got made. Cannon reportedly wanted Tom Selleck to star in the film as Tony Stark, presumably because he met the "glorious '80s 'stache" requirement for the role. They also hoped to land the artist behind the RoboCop costume to "design and build the Iron Man suit" – hopefully, this was all leading to a scene where Tony Stark shoots a random thug in the balls.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the studio that ruined both Superman and the concept of pacifism with one movie ultimately failed to make an Iron Man film, and the rights were eventually sold to Universal. At one point in the early '90s, the project was being developed as a "low-budget" thriller directed by Stuart Gordon, best known for horror movies like Re-Animator. The script by RoboCop's Ed Neumeier was allegedly a Marvel-centric riff on Frank Miller's iconic Batman comic The Dark Knight Returns, concerning a reclusive Tony Stark who opts to leave his Las Vegas Penthouse and "put the armor back on" after 20 years of retirement in response to a new global threat. Which sounds … pretty great, actually.
When that didn't happen, the rights were sold to 20th Century Fox, who hired Stan Lee and screenwriter Jeff Vintar to come up with a story, which featured MODOK, the floating, giant-headed supervillain. It also included a pretty dark scene in which MODOK hacks the Iron Man suit and forces Tony to straight-up murder an innocent bystander, showering a crowd of nearby reporters in blood.
Possibly because they wanted even more bloodshed in the movie, Fox, at one point, tried getting Quentin Tarantino to write and direct Iron Man. And if that near-hiring seems odd in retrospect, get a load of the actors who nearly donned the metal suit; most famously, there was Tom Cruise, but also somehow Nicolas Cage and even Leonardo DiCaprio.
Because the rights to this character were being passed around Hollywood like a joint at a Phish concert, next they went to New Line Cinema. Weirdly, New Line's approach involved hiring a trio of screenwriters with superhero-based experience to sit around and simply shoot the breeze about Iron Man while being videotaped. One of the screenwriters, David Hayter, was then hired to rewrite a pre-existing screenplay, with New Line hoping to land The Notebook's Nick Cassavettes to direct. Hayter's story, in a bizarre twist, made the villain a still-living Howard Stark, who literally battles his son Tony over control of Stark Industries while wearing "competing armor."
The project eventually fell apart when Marvel, intent on making their own film productions, reportedly "refused to let New Line renew the rights" (others claim that New Line purposefully let the deal lapse). So with most of their A-list characters owned by other studios, Marvel suddenly regained control of Iron Man. Why did they want to make an Iron Man movie, specifically? Well, for the dumbest/greediest reason …
Using their intellectual property rights as "collateral" to secure financing, Marvel set about making their own movie, and in order to figure out which of their available characters to focus on, they assembled a focus group of children and asked them which superhero they would most like to play with if it were a toy – and the "overwhelming answer was Iron Man." Yup, it turns out that the MCU only exists because no kid wanted a "Karate Chop Hellcow" for Christmas
The only problem was, despite his toyetic appeal, no one knew all that much about Iron Man, and most people "thought he was a robot." So Marvel quickly crafted a series of "Iron Man Advertorials" -- basically PSAs to teach youngsters that Iron Man is a real dude with crippling addiction issues, not a soulless android.
Jon Favreau was tapped to be the director of Marvel's Iron Man, partly because of his history of directing movies like Zathura (which was also a fantastical adventure) and Elf (which was also a story about an indulgent manchild who saves the day), but also because he'd met the Marvel brass while appearing in 2003's Daredevil – so presumably there's an alternate timeline where Iron Man is a Colin Farrell picture.
Favreau's choice for the role of Tony Stark, charm factory Robert Downey Jr., was welcomed by Marvel with open ar-- no, wait, it was "an unequivocal resounding 'no.'" Marvel was concerned that Downey was too well-known, too old, and possibly uninsurable because of his "past addiction and erratic behavior." This wasn't hyperbole, either; in 2003, Downey starred in The Singing Detective despite the fact that he was considered "not hirable" and couldn't be insured for the shoot. Producer Mel Gibson allegedly solved this problem with threats, warning Downey: "If you go down, this is my money, and I'll kill you."
Favreau eventually got his way, and Downey was cast – but despite the fact that an Iron Man movie had, in some form or another, been in the works for two decades, the story was in a state of complete disarray. With two teams of writers working on the script, ultimately, the central villain was scrapped at the last minute. Favreau had even told audiences at Comic-Con in 2006 that the villain would be The Mandarin – and according to producer Kevin Feige, The Mandarin was in "every" script until "about 10 weeks" before shooting started. Favreau made the call to nix the character after realizing that it would be "distasteful" to use him the way he's "depicted in the books."
In addition to the fact that he was a walking racist caricature, The Mandarin's storyline in the script was dumb as hell, apparently involving him "digging a tunnel beneath Stark Industries to steal Tony's secrets." So, after losing the supervillain's Shawshank-but-evil plan, and even the villain himself, the production was seemingly backed into a corner – that is until Favreau randomly asked: "Do we just make Jeff Bridges the bad guy?" And so Bridges' character Obidiah Stane became the new villain at the last possible minute.
This meant shooting the movie "without a firm script," so many of the scenes for this massive superhero blockbuster ended up being as improvised as a Christopher Guest comedy. According to Bridges, "many times … we would show up for the day's work, not knowing what we were gonna shoot." Gwenyth Paltrow supposedly had "a hard time keeping up," and Bridges only became comfortable when he thought of it as "a $200 million student film." Downey, on the other hand, thrived in this environment – and even riffed his most iconic line.
Meanwhile, Terrence Howard refused to give away plot details to the press, telling one reporter on the set: "I'm not going to open my mouth and end up having Iron Man 2 and 3 taken away from me." Which is an unfortunate choice of words, considering that the Empire star was eventually booted from the franchise, either because of his "difficult behavior on the set" or perhaps because the producers asked him to take a pay cut – a claim Marvel disputed.
What's truly bizarre about all of this is how this shambolic production became the blueprint for future Marvel projects. Since the success of Iron Man, Marvel scripts are always in a state of flux and constantly being rewritten throughout production – including Avengers: Endgame, which started filming before anyone knew what the actual goddamn "Endgame" was.
According to associate producer Jeremy Latcham, making Iron Man "by the seat of our pants" taught the team lessons "that underpinned the whole studio." And, so far, that "reading an entire book the night before your school report is due" approach seems to be working out.
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Top Image: Marvel Studios