Thesp lands Marvel superhero gig

Marking his first lead role in a big-budget action movie, Robert Downey Jr. will be putting on the “Iron Man” suit for Marvel Studios.

Pic, set for release by Paramount in May 2008, will be the first to be self-financed by Marvel. Jon Favreau directs.

“It’s right along the lines of our other films, where we cast people who can become the characters,” said Marvel production prexy Kevin Feige, pointing to the selection of Tobey Maguire, who’d never before starred in an action pic, as Spider-Man and the mostly low-profile cast of the “X-Men” movies.

Downey will play Iron Man and his alter ego Tony Stark, a wealthy industrialist who invents a high-tech suit of body armor giving him superpowers when he is kidnapped.

In the comics, Stark was an alcoholic, a trait that will undoubtedly draw public comparisons with Downey’s own struggles with substance abuse. However, Feige said the first pic won’t deal with Stark’s alcohol problems, though it would likely come up in potential sequels.

Downey’s comeback has been bolstered by some recent high-profile work in “A Scanner Darkly,” “Good Night, and Good Luck,” the Shane Black pic “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and the upcoming Nicole Kidman starrer “Fur,” in which he has a leading role.

First film will deal with Stark’s invention of the Iron Man suit and his conflicted past as a weapons inventor.

Under its financing agreement with Merrill Lynch, Marvel is allowed to spend up to $165 million on each of its films.

Principal photography on “Iron Man” is set to begin in February.

Feige is producing along with former Marvel Studios topper Avi Arad.

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