Helmer departs Marvel's billion-dollar franchise

Fanboys were up in arms on Tuesday upon hearing the news that Jon Favreau won’t return to helm “Iron Man 3″ for Marvel Studios and Disney.

There was a nearly unanimous, Internet-wide cry that his ankling the project was the death knell for the film franchise he launched for the comicbook company in 2008, with Robert Downey Jr. starring as billionaire Tony Stark and his armored superhero alter ego.

But while Favreau had expressed interest in helming a third installment, he was never officially onboard the project, nor has a script even been written for him to direct yet.

One thing that’s certain, however, is Downey’s involvement given that the thesp has final approval on whom Marvel and Disney choose to direct the actor in the hardware.

While a major force in helping get Marvel Studios up and running, Favreau has been a creative cog in a machine that has strategically focused on ways to get the comicbook company’s stable of superheroes in megaplexes, on TV, on homevideo and across the Web — and create a rare overall storyline that connects every character and world together at the same time.

It’s a daunting effort whose oversight falls fully in the hands of Kevin Feige, Marvel Studios president of production, and it can seem a bit frustrating to filmmakers who want free rein over the direction of a pic’s development.

Then there’s the addition of Disney’s own decisionmakers, who in October paid Paramount $115 million for the distribution rights to “Iron Man 3″ and “The Avengers.” Par will still release “Thor,” directed by Kenneth Branagh, and Joe Johnston’s “Captain America: The First Avenger” next summer.

Joss Whedon is directing “The Avengers,” which unites Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Incredible Hulk and Hawkeye. Favreau is an exec producer on the project.

With “Iron Man 3’s” plot based on events that take place in next summer’s “Thor,” “Captain America” and “The Avengers,” not to mention a growing cast of crusaders that make appearances in other films, Favreau started finding other projects more appealing.

That includes “Magic Kingdom,” another potential franchise at Disney that Favreau is already developing and will revolve around a family trapped in Disneyland at night, when the park’s rides and attractions come to life.

He is also busy wrapping up work on “Cowboys and Aliens,” another potential franchise he may help launch for Universal and DreamWorks. Pic, starring Daniel Craig, Olivia Wilde and Harrison Ford, bows next summer.

Had Favreau returned for “Iron Man 3,” it would have been a rare threepeat for a franchise director.

Few helmers have filmed a trilogy of pics — Christopher Nolan, Sam Raimi, Gore Verbinski and, of course, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are exceptions with the “Batman,” “Spider-Man,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Indiana Jones” and “Star Wars” films.

But don’t count out Favreau from the franchise just yet. He could still return as an executive producer. And then there’s his cameo, which nearly grew into a co-starring role in “Iron Man 2″ as Stark’s chauffeur Happy Hogan. The character is likely to return in future films.

Marvel isn’t showing any signs of stress — yet. It’s focused on launching “Thor” and “Captain America” while assembling “The Avengers” but is eager to tap a new director who can help build “Iron Man’s” third installment.

It’s looking for a helmer who will be able to keep one of its top film properties fresh (to a degree) while also being able to rein in ever-escalating production costs as each pic grows in scope.

“Iron Man 3″ is still skedded for May 3, 2013.

Still, Favreau’s contribution will be unforgettable. The first “Iron Man” earned $585 million worldwide, while this summer’s follow-up generated another $621 million around the globe.

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