Robert Downey Jr. and his costars talk about the superhero's high-octane return

By Josh Rottenberg
April 30, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

Iron Man has taken down villains of every stripe, but there’s one foe he apparently can’t vanquish: an Icelandic volcano with an unpronounceable name. The cloud of ash that wafted over Europe earlier in April forced the team behind Iron Man 2 to move the sequel’s premiere from London to Los Angeles, wreaking havoc on travel plans. But while volcano Eyjafjallajokull may have won that particular battle, this much is certain: The summer box office competition won’t be so lucky.

Fueled by Robert Downey Jr.’s rakish turn as billionaire playboy-turned-superhero Tony Stark, 2008’s Iron Man hauled in more than $318 million domestically, stunning many who’d been focusing on that other splashy superhero movie, The Dark Knight. This time around, Iron Man 2 (rated PG-13, opening May 7) is the juggernaut to beat. ”People are going bananas for this movie, and all they’ve seen is a couple of trailers,” Downey says. Iron Man 2 finds Stark reveling in his newfound fame, only to be confronted by a fierce new enemy — a vengeful Russian inventor (Mickey Rourke) who has built his own battle suit — and a seductive new assistant, Natalie (Scarlett Johansson), with her own dark secrets. With anticipation for this summer’s first blockbuster running high, EW gathered several of Iron Man 2‘s key players — Downey, director Jon Favreau, Johansson, Don Cheadle (who takes over the role of Stark’s best friend, Lt. Col. Jim Rhodes), and President of Marvel Studios and producer of Iron Man 2 Kevin Feige — at a Santa Monica restaurant for a freewheeling, superpowered roundtable.

EW: The massive success of the first Iron Man took a lot of people by surprise. How are you feeling at this point, with the opening of the second one just a few weeks away?
Jon Favreau There’s always something to be anxious about. The question now is whether it lives up to the fans’ expectations. That’s been the conversation ever since we decided to make a sequel: How do you fulfill their expectations in an unexpected way? What should we demand of ourselves? I’ve never done a sequel. [To Downey] Have you?
Robert Downey Jr. Not really.
Scarlett Johansson I was in Home Alone 3, but I didn’t do the first two, so I don’t think that counts.
Favreau Home Alone 3? I don’t remember that. That didn’t have Macaulay Culkin in it, did it?
Johansson [Deadpan] Let’s move on.
Don Cheadle I did a triple.
Downey You sure did. Which of Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen was your favorite?
Cheadle I was so drunk during all of those films, I don’t even… They said, ”Don, it’s a wrap.” I’m like, ”Huh? It’s over? Check, please.” [Laughs]

EW: The first film ended with a surprise cliff-hanger where Tony Stark announces to the world that he’s Iron Man. What were you thinking when you decided to have him ditch his secret identity?
Favreau We weren’t thinking. [Laughs]
Kevin Feige We knew we were baking ourselves into something, and we didn’t necessarily know how we were going to deal with it. But Iron Man’s secret identity is not a key part of the comics. Let Spider-Man, Batman, and Superman keep that concept. We liked the idea of blowing it out of the water.

EW: You were still hashing out the story right up until you started production — and continued rewriting and ad-libbing during the shoot. Was that stressful?
Favreau It was exhilarating. [Laughs]
Downey And exasperating.
Cheadle Exasperatingly exhilarating.
Johansson I was feeling overwhelmed by the whole thing to start with, just not knowing anything about my character’s origin and where she fit in with the story. As an actor, you don’t want to be in that scene where everybody goes to get more popcorn. We were lucky Jon led all these open discussions.
Favreau I welcome that. Because not one of the main actors in this is the type that will just take a script, stand where you tell them to stand, and say what’s on the page. Everybody will challenge you if they think something is bulls—. I like that because it’s quality control — if they’re smart people. And this particular group are all smart people.
Downey It made me believe in democracy again — and why it must be crushed.

EW: Obviously, a key creative decision with any superhero sequel is to come up with a bad guy. Often it seems like the temptation is to go overboard and throw too many villains at the hero.
Cheadle That’s the next one. The next one’s actually called Iron Man 3: Too Many Villains.
Favreau Here was the problem: The whole first Iron Man was basically Robert — there was Jeff Bridges’ character, but mostly you had bad guys that didn’t really develop that much because they got rubbed out. For this one, we needed somebody who was going to have a certain amount of power and gravity that felt like he might be a dangerous guy for Tony to rumble with. Mickey has a lot of presence, and it comes across very quickly. You don’t have to have long scenes of exposition to learn who he is. You see him in his underwear in a prison cell with tattoos and gold teeth, you kind of know he’s dangerous. It was like putting two trains on the track, coming at each other.

EW: What was it like when those two trains hit on the set?
Downey Mickey likes a little psychological warfare. If I never hear that Gnarls Barkley song again, it’ll be too soon.
Favreau Mickey has his process, man. He wants the music loud. We’d get these big speakers, like club speakers, and there were a handful of songs he would want played: Gnarls Barkley’s ”Crazy,” ”Rehab” by Amy Winehouse, ”Proud Mary,” sometimes Johnny Cash. In that scene when he’s walking down the [Monaco] racetrack with the whips out and people are running and screaming and there’s tires on fire, ”Rehab” was blasting.
Downey I always thought, like, Why is he coming at me with ”They tried to make me go to rehab”? I’m here with my Chinese herbs, sitting in the corner.
Favreau Robert’s the opposite. Robert wants it serene. He’s laughing with people, communicating, grounding himself, stabilizing his energy. And then Mickey comes out there and throws the robe off like a wrestler coming into the ring, the music blaring.

EW: Mickey visited Russian prisons to help inform his performance. That seems like pretty hardcore Method preparation.
Favreau I would agree. He came in and said, ”I want to only speak Russian in the movie.” I’m like, ”Well, that might be a problem.”
Downey I say forget Method and just go right to the madness. I’m not really even an actor. I make faces for cash and chicken.

EW: Tony Stark is very different from your typical superhero. He’s rich, he’s sexist, he’s narcissistic — by all rights he should be totally unlikable. And in this movie, as he deals with fame and power, those flaws only seem to grow deeper.
Downey There was an early cut of this movie where everybody hated Tony. We tested it for an audience and they had to wipe the screen down.

EW: In the sequel, we see fame go to Tony’s head and his self-destructiveness and drinking start to get out of hand. A lot of people are going to draw parallels between you and the character.
Downey I guess so. The last time around, Tony Stark was a significantly cooler version of me. In a way, my calling in this one was to bring more of myself into it and more of my character defects. I brought more of my true challenged soul into the character this time.
Favreau Robert understands spiritual progression very well. This movie is about Tony’s spiritual regression, in a way. He’s bitten off more than he can chew, he’s declared himself a hero, he’s overextended, and now everything is crushing him — and he has to bounce off the bottom to come back strong and really fulfill the promise of who he is.

EW: All of you guys came up in the business mainly in smaller movies. Did you ever imagine earlier in your careers that you’d wind up putting on superhero costumes?
Downey Only in Palm Springs before the arrest.
Cheadle [In police-officer voice] ”Come down off the building! You are not Superman!”
Downey ”Oh, yeah? Ask her — what’s your name again, honey?” [Laughs] I could only think of myself in this superhero context — it just never matched up with reality before. That was half the problem.
Johansson I’m not a big superhero-movie person. I love Tim Burton’s Batman because of Tim Burton, but I’ve never been drawn to that genre. But as an audience member watching the first Iron Man, it had this naturalistic approach that made it so charming and believable and something you could relate to. I worked with Michael Bay, I’ve been on huge productions before, and this film, oddly, felt really intimate. The fact that we can sit here talking about our character development, when we all end up in either Lycra or a metal suit — that’s a rarity.
Downey Scarlett had the toughest job. She had the most physical choreography of anybody in the movie, the most training to do, the most fighting sequences, the most wirework — everything. Her role had the most curves in it at any one given time. [Realizes double entendre and laughs]
Favreau Scarlett really had to do so much stuff. I was drawn to her because of her acting and because of her chops and her taste —
Johansson [Dryly] And my breasts.

EW: Scarlett, what went through your head the first time you saw your Black Widow costume?
Johansson What went through my head? I thought that it looked tight. Incredibly, incredibly tight. [Laughs]
Downey I remember you were bitching about this kind of healthy diet you had to be on.
Johansson I was like, ”If I have to eat one more turkey burger…” It was that protein diet. So much turkey and eggs — ugh, it was horrible.
Favreau And then there’s [your husband] Ryan [Reynolds] — you could do your laundry on his tummy.
Johansson [Smiling] And we do.

EW: Don, your suit when your character becomes War Machine is the opposite: There’s more guns on that thing than a battleship.
Cheadle It’s way over-the-top. They had me in Lycra at the beginning, but it just wasn’t sexy enough.

EW: You came on to the movie in a potentially awkward way, replacing Terrence Howard, who’d played Jim Rhodes in the first movie. How did you set about making the character your own?
Cheadle I never felt like it was incumbent on me to hit the same beats and go over the same treads that had been laid in the first movie. In fact, it was the opposite. It was just about finding out who these guys are in this iteration of Tony and Rhodey. It wasn’t uncomfortable to me, other than, you know, having to personally talk to Terrence and say, ”How’s it going? Are you cool?”

EW: We’re reaching a point where every big event movie is being released in 3-D. Do you feel like you’ve left potential money on the table by not releasing Iron Man 2 in 3-D?
Downey Yeah, whether we think it or not, we have.
Favreau I would only do 3-D if I shot in 3-D. Otherwise you’re charging a premium, and until that [conversion] technology catches up, I wouldn’t do that. It would have been irresponsible to do it on this movie, although I love 3-D.
Downey I’d like to be involved in a design team making better glasses. I’ve seen some recently that actually have tech in the glasses that assist the experience. But looking forward, whether I’m all for it or not, it is the way things are heading, and I always say it’s better to embrace and explore things. But yeah, Avatar, I had to take a break. It’s a little tough.
Johansson But there are always going to be those movies that you’re never going to want to see in 3-D. I don’t think you’re going to want to see, like, [the 2001 art-house drama] The Anniversary Party in 3-D.
Feige I don’t want to see that in 2-D.
Johansson Well, there you go.
Downey [In meathead voice] What about Bodacious Ta-Tas?
Cheadle I want to see that in Smell-Around! I want to see that in Double D!

EW: What’s your sense of the current state of the superhero genre? Some people feel it’s gotten tired — that all the big characters have been done, that audiences have seen it all — and that we might be entering a sort of postmodern era of superhero movies, like Kick-Ass.
Feige It could be. I have a feeling we’re not, though. Because people have asked me that starting after Spider-Man — we’d already had X-Men, and people were saying, How much longer can it go on? And we’re now 10 years after the first X-Men film. I loved Kick-Ass. I thought it was great. It was not a traditional comic-book movie, though. Nor was Watchmen. That’s the balance we’re trying to find. As irreverent as we want to be, we still try to tell a big, epic, honest story that’s quite sincere. And they’re all very different. Thor is very different from Iron Man, which is very different from Captain America.

EW: Robert, you’ve already got Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes. Do you think you can juggle any more franchises? Downey Sure, what do you got?

EW: Well, there are rumors you might play the Wizard in a Wizard of Oz prequel.
Downey What?! That’s preposterous!
Favreau He does look good in ruby slippers, I’ll tell you that much.

EW: The box office expectations for Iron Man 2 are enormous. A lot of people are speculating whether it’ll beat the record opening weekend of The Dark Knight.
Favreau Personally, I think it’s hilarious. To me, it’s all arbitrary. If anything, I like to manage expectations. I like being the underdog. It was a godsend when Dark Knight came out and however good we were reviewed, they were reviewed better; however much we made, they made more; they won awards and got Oscar nominations, and the fans even, I’d say, hold that film in higher esteem. And I am totally happy to be Pepsi. We’re kind of the class clown. And I like that better than being the quarterback of the football team. Whether all these artificial benchmarks are hit or not, in all honesty, is the least important thing to me at this point. [To Feige] I know you want to beat the record.
Feige It would be fun. But I’m even more superstitious than you are.
Downey [Rolling his eyes theatrically] What the hell is wrong with you clowns? Let me put it this way: With Sherlock Holmes, I said, ”We’re blowing Avatar out of the water.” I was personally shocked at the cosmos when it did not respond to my incantations. I’m doing the same garbage this time, because most of the time I win. It’s personal.

EW: So Iron Man 2 will be bigger than Avatar? You’re calling it right now?
Favreau [Sighs] Oh, boy.
Downey Did I say that? Even if I didn’t say that, I f—ing mean it.
Johansson Hey, I’m wearing a Lycra catsuit. That’s got to bring in something.
Downey Everybody should be in terror of us. They don’t know who they’re playing with.