The success of ''Iron Man'' -- What's next for the comic-book franchise

Can it really be less than two weeks ago that actor-turned-director Jon Favreau was having doubts about Iron Man‘s franchise potential? ”I don’t want to get ahead of myself,” he said at the April 30 L.A. premiere. After all, his comic-book film cost a reported $180 million and stars unlikely leading man Robert Downey Jr. Besides, Favreau’s last movie was 2005’s underperforming Zathura — and he’s acted in a comic-book misfire of his own. ”I have been here before. I was in Daredevil. It didn’t pan out.”

Iron Man has certainly panned out. In its first weekend, this tale of metal-suit-building industrialist/superhero Tony Stark kicked off the summer blockbuster season in appropriately high-flying style. Marvel’s first solo production grossed $98.6 million, comfortably exceeding most estimates and cementing its plans for a sequel (more on that later). And though the film’s audience was — surprise! — about two-thirds male, more women in total turned up than for Sony’s Patrick Dempsey-topped romantic comedy Made of Honor. ”It’s this trippy thing where we’re going on [talk] shows that maybe weren’t so sure they were going to have us a minute ago. Now, all of a sudden, we’re geniuses,” says Downey. ”We kind of felt it was March of the Penguins. We were just trying to keep the egg warm until we got it home to see if it was going to make it through the cold winter of a three-day weekend.”

And what a cold spell it’s been in the first four months of 2008, with only one other new film (Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!) crossing the $100 million threshold. By this time last year, four movies had reached that milestone. ”There’s been a dry spell out there in the multiplexes,” Favreau says. ”You got a time right now when all you’re hearing is election debates and bad news about the economy. People want to have fun and escape.” The success could also rub off on films whose trailers were screened before Iron Man — a list that includes Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (which probably doesn’t need much of a boost) and Marvel’s second production, The Incredible Hulk, opening June 13.

Marvel, of course, is already looking like a superhero — and not just at the box office. On May 5, the company’s stock hit a 52-week high of $33.24. Hoping to rival Pixar as a blockbuster-loaded mini-studio, execs wasted no time announcing release plans for Iron Man 2 (due April 30, 2010) and three more films based on the company’s comic-book characters. First comes Thor (June 4, 2010), about the med student/Norse warrior, then The First Avenger: Captain America (May 6, 2011), followed by The Avengers (July 2011). For newbies, it should be noted that these Avengers are a superhero troupe not to be confused with the British TV show, or the misbegotten 1998 spin-off movie.

Given that Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, and The Hulk have all been members of the ever-changing Avengers team over the years, this ambitious slate of projects reveals Marvel’s determination to cross-pollinate franchises, with superheroes popping up in each other’s movies. Already, Downey will cameo as Stark in The Incredible Hulk, starring Edward Norton. Although Kevin Feige, Marvel’s president of production, dismisses the possibility of expanding Stark’s role in the already wrapped Hulk reboot, he promises more crossovers in The Avengers, and perhaps even a fab foursome: ”If we got two of Cap, Thor, Tony, and Hulk together — or three of the four, much less four of the Four — it could be pretty spectacular.”

But before The Avengers, of course, Marvel will revisit Tony Stark’s basement laboratory. Favreau says he’s in ”informal” discussions about returning to direct Iron Man 2, and most of the top players — including Downey, Gwyneth Paltrow as personal assistant Pepper Potts, and Terrence Howard as military man Jim Rhodes — are all signed on for one (and only one) more film. As of yet, though, there is neither a script nor a writer to write it.

Another question mark is Samuel L. Jackson, who made a surprise cameo after the credits as Marvel regular Nick Fury, telling Stark that he wanted to ”talk to you about the Avengers Initiative.” Feige stresses that Jackson’s deal ”was separate from the other actor agreements,” and that the star is not attached to any sequels — though the exec concedes, ”It would be very cool to see a little more of Nick Fury in the next film.” Favreau admits that by including Fury, he was deliberately teeing up the idea of the Iron Man franchise segueing into an Avengers movie. ”It would be a very smart third film in the Iron Man series,” he says. ”It’s very difficult to keep these franchises from running out of gas after two. X-Men 2 and Spider-Man 2 are seen by fans as the high point of both franchises.” Plus, he notes that Marvel has more control than most studios to engineer franchise overlaps.

But with or without Fury, Iron Man 2 will likely see Howard’s Jim Rhodes fulfill his comic-book destiny by donning a suit of his own to become fellow superhero War Machine. ”I am ready to go back tomorrow,” says the actor, an Oscar nominee for Hustle & Flow. ”I am ready to be War Machine.” The comics themselves suggest other possible plotlines for sequel writers, including Stark’s struggle with alcoholism in the late-’70s comic books by veteran Marvel scribes Bob Layton and David Michelinie. Certainly, Favreau’s film makes clear that Stark is no stranger to the demon drink, a point that Michelinie suspects the filmmakers are ”setting up for a second or third movie.” Marvel’s Feige sheds a little light on the subject, but not much: ”I don’t know if we’ll explore [Stark’s alcoholism] in the next film. It’s one of the most personal Tony Stark stories in the comic, and I think we’ll definitely explore it at some point.”

In the meantime, Downey sounds like he can’t wait to get back into that iron suit. ”All throughout the world [publicity] tour, Jon and I would find ourselves waking up on these superlong flights, and we just started brainstorming about, if this goes well, where we might take it,” he says. And could it take Downey all the way to The Avengers in 2011? The prospect leaves Hollywood’s former resident wild man uncharacteristically tight-lipped. ”I don’t want to start talking out of my league, because that would certainly be my inclination in the past,” he says. ”I kind of know how to keep my teeth together a little better than I used to.” (Additional reporting by Carrie Bell and Tom Russo)

Who is Nick Fury?
Samuel L. Jackson’s appearance as Nick Fury after the Iron Man credits was catnip to fanboys, who had been buzzing about the top secret cameo for months online. (Bummed about the leaks, Jon Favreau even held the scene back from advance screenings, including the film’s premiere, to spring it on filmgoers opening night.) But here’s some background for the uninitiated: Fury first appeared in 1963. He was a white WWII vet who oversaw the spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D. (David Hasselhoff even played Fury in a 1998 TV movie.) In 2001, Marvel introduced an alternate-universe Fury modeled on Jackson, with the actor’s blessing. Which raises the question, How can an alternate-dimension Fury talk to Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark in the ”real” Marvel universe? ”Um, I didn’t think of that,” says Favreau. ”Maybe we should have used David Hasselhoff.”

Iron Man
  • Movie
  • 125 minutes