Jon Favreau keeps ‘Iron Man’ light

Director pushed Downey as anti-superhero

Film franchises aren’t easy to come by. While studios pursue the elusive holy grail of a “Spider-Man” or “Indiana Jones,” the landscape is littered with wannabes from “The Phantom” and “The Rocketeer” to “Daredevil” and “Sahara.”

But thanks to upbeat buzz from an around-the-world press tour and robust tracking numbers, Hollywood is poised to welcome a new member to the franchise club: Marvel Studios’ “Iron Man.”

The superhero pic is expected to be a box office juggernaut when it opens globally between April 30 and May 3. Domestically, distributor Paramount finds itself in the awkward position of trying to rein in overheated expectations as forecasters talk up opening-weekend potential.

But if “Iron Man” delivers on the prognostications, the first summer blockbuster of 2008 will see several participants emerge with new cachet.

First among them will be Robert Downey Jr., who has signed to play billionaire inventor Tony Stark and his superhero alter ego Iron Man in two sequels.

No one doubted Downey’s gift of gab, comedy and sex appeal. But now, he seems to have put his demons behind him and reached that magical moment when an edgy character actor acquires a certain stature. Having been nominated for an Oscar (for “Chaplin”) but never having carried a blockbuster, Downey may see “Iron Man” and “Tropic Thunder,” the comedy bowing later this summer, push him into real movie stardom.

Also coming out way ahead is actor-writer-director Jon Favreau, who showcased his chops with his 2003 breakout holiday comedy “Elf” and emerged from the B.O. disappointment “Zathura” with a solid understanding of the f/x process. Favreau now looks to ascend to the ranks of top-tier in-demand directors.

That’s because he can write and direct with equal measures of humor and weight, elicit strong perfs from actors, and deliver warm, stylish, accessible, hip mainstream entertainment. That kind of filmmaker doesn’t come along every day.

Paramount had him attached to launch another possible franchise for the studio, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Princess of Mars,” but then-studio chief Gail Berman passed on renewing the option. (Pixar snapped it up.) Favreau quickly chased after “Iron Man,” one of his fave comics.

The other big winner is Marvel, which instead of relying on studio largesse as it did with the “Spider-Man,” “X-Men,” “Fantastic Four” and “Hulk” series (which grossed $4.9 billion worldwide over eight years), assembled a $525 million fund to finance 10 pics, two a year, to be released by Paramount.

With their first film out of the box, “Iron Man,” Marvel has launched a robust and potentially lucrative franchise. (This summer’s remake of “The Incredible Hulk” may be another story.)

Key to “Iron Man’s” evolution was hiring Favreau, who had acted in Marvel’s “Daredevil.”

“He enthusiastically wanted to do a movie like this, a smarter-than-average popcorn movie,” says Marvel production prexy Kevin Feige. “He felt he was ready.”

Both Feige and Favreau fought hard for the mature Downey to play “Iron Man’s” jaded playboy billionaire superhero. Marvel wanted someone younger, less offbeat “who was not bringing as much to the table,” Favreau says. “Not too many people knew ‘Iron Man.’ He’d be defining a new franchise.”

Feige and Favreau finally made their case, using Johnny Depp and “Pirates of the Caribbean” as their main argument, as well as a pivotal screen test.

Now, it’s hard to imagine the movie with anyone else.

Downey’s Iron Man may be the robust action fantasy hero movie fans have been waiting for, a contemporary complex male who isn’t carved from the same block as archetypes Batman or Superman. While Iron Man comics fans are legion, this is a new modern movie hero who kicks ass. And he’s not a nice guy.

Favreau sets emotionally real characters in a stylized fantasy universe inspired by the ’60s James Bond/Modesty Blaise era that spawned Stan Lee’s original anti-Communist comicbook tale. Downey as Stark is brilliant, irreverent, buffed up, sexy, scared, lonely, messed up and dangerous.

“Downey brings a lot of attitude to the ’60s cad bachelor paradigm,” Favreau says. “He had fun with his antihero, and made him likeable. I wanted an alternative to the traditional DC fearless superhero like Superman. Marvel heroes had quirks and lived in New York City and had disagreements with one another. The movies have an epic size and scope. I was trying to steer clear of ‘Batman Begins.’ I wanted to keep it light and rock ‘n’ roll.” (Favreau blasts open the movie with AC/DC’s “Back in Black” on the soundtrack.)

To update the comics, Favreau and his writers (Art Marcum & Matt Holloway, Mark Fergus & Hank Ostby and John August) replaced the original Vietnam War action with a contemporary setting in Afghanistan. When alcoholic weapons-mogul Stark wakes up in a hostile enemy cave with a jerry-rigged implant in his heart, instead of crafting a weapon for his captors, he invents an iron suit that will get him out alive.

The biggest shift from the comics is the exploration of Stark’s morality as a weapons manufacturer who helps to fuel the Middle East conflict. “It’s a redemption story,” Favreau says. “We made the story about a man who finds his heart and seeks to do justice and help others. It’s not a specifically American story. Our hero offers a simple, inspired solution to these complicated times.”

The other contemporary leap from the comics is cutting-edge technology, which includes not only the nifty flying suit but Stark’s myriad techno-toys and gadgets, from a talking computer and obedient robot assistant to an interactive holograph design system.

An actor himself (he plays a supporting role in the film), Favreau insisted on letting the thesps improvise on set, reworking the script constantly. He let Downey and Gwyneth Paltrow (as his updated Miss Moneypenny, Pepper Potts) play out their scenes through many takes with two cameras constantly rolling. “I wanted the freedom and spontaneity of those scenes to offset the very staid overly planned feel of f/x movies,” he says, “to maintain a playful tone.”

In reconceiving the anachronistic fawning secretary role, Paltrow brought “class and intelligence,” says Favreau, who still outfitted her in teetering heels and a startling backless evening dress. The movie goes further than the comics with Stark and Potts’ simmering — sexless –romance. “Everyone wants Archie to wind up with Betty,” Favreau says, “even though he’s looking at Veronica.”

Favreau worked closely with f/x supervisor John Nelson’s teams for more than a year to devise intricate mixes of live action, rigged f/x stunts, CG animation and Stan Winston’s real Iron Man suits and puppeteers, which had to meet his high standard of realism.

He also worked on comic timing and strived to reveal Stark within the virtual environment of the Iron Man helmet, a touch that adds an intimacy to the character’s exploits.

“I wanted to add as much intricacy and layers to the technology as we could to make it not feel like a costume,” Favreau says. “And we used CG to add a lot of peripheral details.”

Dealing only with the small Marvel team, Favreau felt he was working on “a big independent film,” he says. “I had the most freedom on this.”

Enmeshed in the Marvel universe, Favreau hopes to launch another comicbook series such as “Captain America,” “Thor,” or “The Avengers.” Marvel prexy of production Kevin Feige expects Favreau to move right onto the “Iron Man” sequel: “He’s right here with us; he’s one of the biggest fanboys.”

Engaging with fanboys was one of the learning experiences the director took on with “Iron Man.” He kept website guessers at bay by planting purposely inaccurate material online, including suggestions of the presence of Samuel Jackson and Hilary Swank in the film. (They’re not in it.)

“A lot of interest and white noise snowballed,” Favreau says. “I wanted to keep some surprises after two years. There was a dialogue between us and the fan base. They figured a lot of things out. They’re like profilers. I’d take the rumor
s and play a game of cat and mouse. I have to keep some mystery.” Favreau, though, swears he never directly lied to fans on his MySpace page.

Now that Favreau has established the “Iron Man” origin story, he’s aching to get his hands on the next one (which will likely give Stark sidekick Terrence Howard’s Rhodey the chance to morph into War Machine).

“It’s a lot of heavy lifting,” Favreau says. “We discovered the tone, understand the technology. We can go to town on the next one.”

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