Filmmaker recalls the 'unglamorous' start to the superhero franchise

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In 2008, Iron Man debuted as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first film — and its first blockbuster. Below, the movie’s director Jon Favreau talks about his collaboration with star Robert Downey Jr. and how the pair kickstarted one of the most successful franchises of all time.

JON FAVREAU: I had met Avi Arad [CEO and president of Marvel Studios] when I was playing Foggy Nelson in the Daredevil film with Ben Affleck. Years later, when he was pulling together Marvel Studios, he reached out to me to come in. In the subsequent time, I had directed Elf and Zathura, and he had gotten the rights to Iron Man and the Hulk. I met with them in their first offices on Beverly Boulevard above the Mercedes dealership. It was a few people in a few offices. It wasn’t very glamorous at all.

Iron Man was a relatively low-budget film. There was a sense that comic-book movies had run their course, and we were marching out the B-list heroes and trying to release films at a more modest budget. Under those circumstances, it wasn’t like you had your standard list of movie stars to choose from. I sat down with Robert Downey Jr., and he looked great, and he had this very focused energy. I had, of course, been a fan of his work, and I got the sense that he was very serious about this role and about his career. It was the first time I met with somebody where I understood how the movie would come together. It wasn’t an easy job to get him cast. There was quite a bit of resistance at first. But after he had filmed his screen test, the studio got excited.

Credit: Zade Rosenthal/Marvel

Robert was a great beacon for other actors. Gwyneth Paltrow came on board, and Jeff Bridges. It went on from there — this tremendous wealth of talented people who are going to bring life to this thing that could otherwise have been a cartoon. As we filmed it, I made sure that I left a lot of room for improvisation and spontaneity. The action sequences required a lot of planning. But any area where it was just characters talking, I tried to keep the film as loose as possible.

Robert was the person who never doubted for a second the outcome. He predicted it months prior. Marvel anticipated that it would be a hit, but of a much more modest box office number. Robert actually called out what it would make, which was close to double what they were expecting. It was really fun to be with him as he went from theater to theater and would jump out in front and introduce the film and surprise the audience. It was a wonderful moment, where his life changed, my life changed, and Marvel Studios went from a sort of dark horse that nobody expected to be relevant, to starting a path that culminated with The Avengers and bigger and bigger movies.

I still very much feel part of that family. Although I’m not sitting on the set in a director’s chair, I’m either acting in another movie [as Tony Stark’s chauffeur, Happy Hogan], or sitting in a screening and talking to them about my thoughts, or having phone calls with new directors. What’s nice is seeing where they go. I’m a father, and there’s one type of pride when you accomplish something, and then there’s another sense of pride that you feel as the next generation comes in and accomplishes something but yet honors the legacy of what you created. I’m really happy that this is still a relevant franchise. I feel like a proud grandpa!

Iron Man
  • Movie
  • 125 minutes