On May 2, 2008, Marvel Studios launched its inaugural feature film with Iron Man, and in the process launched one of the most successful film franchises ever. Today, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is stronger than ever thanks to the massive box office success of Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War, and it shows no signs of slowing down. It all began, though, with a B-list superhero other studios weren’t sure would work, a focus group made up of children, a post-credits scene no one saw coming, and an actor on the rebound who ended up becoming the biggest movie star on the planet. In celebration of its 10th anniversary, here are 12 facts about the making of Iron Man.
1. IT WAS IN DEVELOPMENT FOR YEARS.
Though he was first in line by the time Marvel Studios embarked on its now-famous mission to create a shared universe of heroes, Iron Man was actually in development for many years at more than one studio before he made his debut. In the 1990s, the character was optioned by Fox (which would go on to make films based on Marvel heroes The X-Men and The Fantastic Four), and by 2000 it had landed at New Line Pictures. There, it bounced around from writer to writer and the studio even had a director in mind (Nick Cassavetes, fresh off his success with The Notebook in 2004).
Unfortunately, New Line executive Bob Shaye was not a fan of the concept. He argued that it made no sense that a heavy steel suit could make a man fly and was skeptical of the character’s box office potential. Marvel executives, believing they could do a better job with the character when they launched their new studio plan, let New Line’s option on the character expire in 2005 (something New Line was apparently quite upset by, as they had planned to renew it), and began developing their own take on what would become Iron Man.
2. IT WAS THE FIRST MARVEL STUDIOS FILM BECAUSE OF KIDS.
One of the main goals of Marvel convening its own movie studio in the first place was to sell toys based on its characters, even more so than selling the movies themselves. The initial plan was to kick the slate of films off with Captain America, but by the time Marvel got the rights to both Iron Man and Hulk (whose previous film had been made at Universal Pictures), the team had more options. That meant the company was able to assemble its own very particular kind of focus group—one made up of children. The kids were given a crash course in the characters Marvel had movie rights to, including their images and powers, and the winner was Iron Man. That put Tony Stark over the top in the race to be the first Marvel Cinematic Universe star.
3. TOM CRUISE WAS ONCE CONSIDERED FOR TONY STARK, BUT HE WASN’T THE ONLY ONE.
Before Robert Downey Jr. donned the famous suit of the Armored Avenger, several other stars were in contention for the role. The most famous of these was Tom Cruise, who took an interest in Tony Stark back when the project was still at New Line. Another contender from those pre-Marvel Studios days was Nicolas Cage (a lifelong comics fan who almost played Superman for Tim Burton in the 1990s), but he too ultimately fell by the wayside.
By the time the character made it back home to Marvel, the studio considered Colin Farrell and Patrick Dempsey for the part, but both director Jon Favreau and producer Kevin Feige believed Robert Downey Jr. was the right man for the role. Downey ultimately got the part, but Favreau later revealed he had a backup idea in mind if his first choice fell through: Sam Rockwell, who went on to play fellow billionaire industrialist and Iron Man nemesis Justin Hammer in Iron Man 2 (2010).
4. ROBERT DOWNEY JR. SHOWED UP FOR HIS SCREEN TEST WEARING A TUXEDO.
Before Iron Man hit, Robert Downey Jr. was an acclaimed film and television actor whose career had dropped off considerably after very public struggles with addiction. Feige and Favreau both fought for Downey to get a shot at the character of Tony Stark, both because of his talent and because his personal demons could mirror those of Stark himself (who, in the comics, is an alcoholic). For the studio, Downey’s relatively cool career meant that he could be cast for what was essentially a bargain compared to any of the megastars of the day, but his addiction issues also meant it could be difficult to get the Oscar nominee insured for the film.
Downey, eager to land the role, agreed to do a screen test (something major stars with years of experience often get to skip in the casting process) and showed up in true Tony Stark style, wearing a tuxedo. Downey impressed Marvel executives and he was hired for $2.5 million plus a potential bonus if the film did well. That sounds like a massive sum, but it’s peanuts compared to what Downey earned when he renegotiated his contract with Marvel after Iron Man’s success (an estimated $50 million for The Avengers alone).
5. DOWNEY WASN’T THE FIRST ACTOR TO JOIN THE CAST.
At the time of its production, Iron Man and Marvel Studios were both unproven commodities, and the plan within Marvel was to use the movies to earn money on toys rather than rely on the films themselves to generate major revenue. This meant that Iron Man was made on a somewhat tight budget for a film of its size and scope, and that led to certain key decisions that would maximize the exposure of the film while limiting the amount of money spent. Among these was the decision to make the first actor cast on the project Terrence Howard, who played Tony Stark’s best friend Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes.
Howard was riding high, fresh off an Oscar nod for his work on Hustle & Flow, and while he still wasn’t a megastar, that gave him prestige. If Marvel could leverage that prestige by putting Howard in a supporting role, they could get another big name on the film’s poster and save a little money at the same time. So Howard signed on as the film’s highest-paid actor, for a salary of $3.5 million. His time at Marvel didn’t last, though. After he demanded a pay increase for Iron Man 2, he was replaced by Don Cheadle, who remains a Marvel Cinematic Universe co-star eight years after making his debut.
6. THE ORIGINAL INTENDED VILLAIN WAS THE MANDARIN.
When imagining what Marvel Comics villain Tony Stark could battle in his first adventure, the studio’s first idea was The Mandarin, a scientist and megalomaniac who wields 10 powerful rings made from alien technology. For a time, it seemed so certain that the character would be the nemesis of the first film that Favreau announced him as such when Marvel Studios began rolling out its slate at San Diego Comic-Con in 2006. Later, Favreau attributed this eagerness to the studio discussing its slate in more “general” than concrete terms.
By the time cameras rolled, the villain was instead Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), a character who in the comics was a rival arms dealer who tried to take over Stark Industries after Tony’s father Howard died. In the film, the character was reimagined as the corporate steward of Stark during Tony’s absence, who ultimately tried to take over the company from the inside as the comic book villain Iron Monger. The Mandarin ultimately appeared, reimagined in a major departure from the comics, in Iron Man 3.
7. MUCH OF THE MOVIE WAS IMPROVISED.
Iron Man did more for Marvel Studios than generate a solid box office return and launch the ability to make sequel upon sequel. It also established a certain lighthearted tone that has continued through almost all of the company’s films, even the darkest ones. That’s thanks, in part, to the improvisation that took place on set. Downey in particular was apparently fond of interspersing comedy into the superhero drama, and Favreau encouraged it.
According to Bridges, reflecting on the film years later, this was in part due to the fact that the Iron Man script was never entirely complete. He, Downey, and Favreau would essentially conduct improvised rehearsals before shooting, something Bridges found troubling until he adjusted his way of thinking about the film.
“Jon dealt with it so well,” Bridges said. “It freaked me out. I was very anxious. I like to be prepared. I like to know my lines, man, that’s my school. Very prepared. That was very irritating, and then I just made this adjustment. It happens in movies a lot where something’s rubbing against your fur and it’s not feeling right, but it’s just the way it is. You can spend a lot of energy bitching about that or you can figure out how you’re going to do it, how you’re going to play this hand you’ve been dealt. What you can control is how you perceive things and your thinking about it. So I said, ‘Oh, what we’re doing here, we’re making a $200 million student film. We’re all just f*ckin’ around! We’re playin’. Oh, great!’ That took all the pressure off. ‘Oh, just jam, man, just play.’ And it turned out great!”
8. TOY COMPANIES WERE HESITANT TO RELEASE MERCHANDISE.
One of the chief reasons for Iron Man ever existing in the first place was so that Marvel could use the film as a giant toy advertisement with movie stars in it. As the film headed toward release, though, that proved to be a bit of a problem. The company hoped to simply make back its money on the films, and then turn the real profit in toys, but Marvel Studios had not yet made a successful film (or any film under its new arrangement, for that matter), and toy companies were not convinced their flying man in an armored suit would sell (despite those previous focus groups that prompted Marvel to make the film in the first place).
Marvel hoped to solve this problem by pairing toy deals for Spider-Man 3 (a film Marvel didn’t produce but had some merchandising influence over), which would come out in 2007, with toy deals for Iron Man. Even then, some companies just weren’t interested. According to one Marvel executive, they “couldn’t give Iron Man away” to toy companies before the movie was released. By the time Iron Man 2 came around, though, the companies were very happy to put Tony Stark action figures on the shelves.
9. MARVEL WASN’T SURE ITS SHARED UNIVERSE LAUNCH WOULD WORK.
Marvel Studios has had many filmmakers come through its doors over the past decade-plus of movies, but there has been one constant force who fans have grown to know and love: Kevin Feige, the producer on every single film, who has long been credited as the architect of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Feige is the guy who shepherded the studio through the long and complex journey that took them to The Avengers and beyond, but at first even he wasn’t entirely sure if those lofty ambitions could be met. In fact, one of the reasons Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) appears only in a teaser scene after the credits (which has since become a Marvel tradition) is Feige’s desire to downplay expectations over what may or may not come next.
“We put it at the end of the credits so that it wouldn’t distract from the movie,” he later told Vanity Fair. “People going, ‘What is Sam Jackson doing in this movie all of a sudden? What’s going on?’ I thought it would just begin the potential conversation of hardcore fans going, ‘Wait a minute, could that mean ...’ Instead, by that Monday, Entertainment Weekly was doing sidebars about Nick Fury and who he was and what that meant. That blew up much faster than I was anticipating.”
10. IT WAS A SURPRISE BOX OFFICE HIT.
As previously mentioned, movies like Iron Man were initially designed by Marvel as a way to promote its characters and generate revenue in other areas, like toy merchandising. The company wanted the films to be both good and under their control, but didn’t necessarily expect major box office success, particularly with Iron Man. Very early projections suggested the film would come in at only $100 million for its domestic box office run. Then the trailers started to hit, pleasing both hardcore comics fans and moviegoers eager to see a fun action spectacle. The film ended up nearly making its $100 million estimate domestically during its opening weekend alone, and cleared $585 million worldwide by the time it left theaters. In the end, Iron Man—a film executives hoped could just break even—ended up earning so much money that the famously frugal Marvel CEO (now Marvel chairman) Isaac Perlmutter let then-Marvel Studios president David Maisel (the financial architect of the studio) gift Downey and Favreau with a Bentley and a Mercedes, respectively.
11. ONE MARVEL EXECUTIVE SHOWED UP TO THE PREMIERE IN DISGUISE.
By the time it was set to premiere, Iron Man was looking like a real hit for Marvel Studios. Box office projections were climbing, fan excitement was high, and it seems the new studio endeavor might actually have a hit on its hands. That anticipation, plus the momentousness of the occasion of the first Marvel Studios film, led to an unusual occurrence for Isaac Perlmutter, who refused to either be interviewed or photographed in public. He still wanted to attend the premiere, though, so he apparently showed up to the TCL Chinese Theatre (as it’s now known) wearing a fake mustache and glasses, effectively giving himself his own secret identity.
12. IT’S PACKED WITH EASTER EGGS.
Like every Marvel Cinematic Universe film, Iron Man is full of Easter eggs and amusing references to Marvel continuity in comic books and beyond. Among the references in the film: The “Iron Man” theme from the 1966 Marvel Super Heroes animated TV series can be heard as Rhodey’s ringtone, the Ten Rings terrorist organization (headed in the comics and later in Iron Man 3 by The Mandarin) is the group that kidnaps Tony at the beginning of the film, a movie billboard features the Marvel Comics villain Fin Fang Foom, and the Marvel Comics’ Roxxon Corporation logo can be seen on a building in the background. And, of course, Marvel Comics legend and Iron Man co-creator Stan Lee makes his customary cameo, this time as a version of Hugh Hefner.
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