At the center of the two biggest pop culture empires of this generation, the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the “Star Wars” franchise, lies one architect who helped launch them into modern greatness: Jon Favreau.
Fifteen years ago, the actor-turned-filmmaker directed a film about a B-list superhero with a not-yet-bankable movie star when comic-book films were more flukes than surefire hits. That movie turned out to be “Iron Man,” starring Robert Downey Jr. (with Favreau also playing his right-hand man Happy Hogan) and, after dozens of spinoffs, theme-park rides and box office records, the rest is comic-book history.
Recently, Favreau has traded his Repulsor gloves for lightsabers. He’s charting the future of “Star Wars” across several TV series, beginning with “The Mandalorian,” the flagship Disney+ show that debuted on Day 1 of the streamer. The Western-themed “Star Wars” series premieres its third season on March 1, and it’s already spawned several spinoffs and an adorable mascot with its lovable alien Grogu, aka
For his contributions to television, Favreau will receive a star Feb. 13 on the Hollywood Walk of Fame near the El Capitan theater, where several of his projects, including “The Mandalorian,” “The Lion King” and “The Jungle Book,” premiered.
“I have a lot of really good memories working on Disney projects, Marvel projects, ‘Star Wars’ stuff. A lot of really special memories for me are in that particular area of Hollywood Boulevard,” Favreau says. “I like that I’m part of the texture of the neighborhood.”
Before his Marvel and “Star Wars” eras, Favreau got his first film role in the 1993 sports biopic “Rudy,” where he crossed paths with Vince Vaughn, then credited as Vincent Vaughn in his debut. The two became friends and collaborated on “Swingers” in 1996, a breakthrough in both of their careers. Favreau wrote the buddy comedy and co-starred in it with Vaughn, who is also getting a star on the Walk of Fame this year.
Favreau, who gets recognized by Marvel and “Star Wars” fans frequently, is still spotted in Las Vegas, where some of “Swingers” shot. “If I’m in Vegas, it’s probably going to be ‘Swingers,’” he says. “Older people tend to remember me from my earlier work and from ‘The Chef Show’ and ‘Chef.’ For millennials and younger people, it’s usually Marvel because I’m Happy Hogan. People know me a lot from my work as a character actor. Among ‘Star Wars’ fans, they understand my involvement behind the camera as well. I have to take an educated guess when somebody walks up to me on the street and what they know me from, but I can usually tell by the T-shirt they’re wearing or how old they are.”
Favreau recruited Vaughn again for his directing debut, the crime comedy “Made” in 2001, then delivered one of the most enduring modern Christmas movies, “Elf,” in 2003. The filmmaker is shocked to realize “Elf” celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, but says he set out to make a perennial holiday hit all those years ago.
“That was our goal, that we could be part of that pantheon of classics that families watch together every year,” Favreau says. “We really embraced making it feel like it could air right alongside ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ or ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ It felt old even when it first came out, because of the stop-motion animation, the themes, the music, John Debney’s beautiful score and, of course, Will Ferrell at the center of it, bringing so much humanity and humor to it.”
Even though he’s expanded the worlds of “Iron Man” and “The Mandalorian” into expansive franchises, Favreau says the beloved “Elf” story, which at one point had a sequel in the works, is better left alone.
“I think there’s always room for new Christmas movies; that particular film, I don’t know what story would be told after that. It’s very complete,” he says.
After making “Zathura” in 2005, a spinoff of 1995’s “Jumanji,” Favreau set his sights on the fledgling Marvel universe with “Iron Man,” which turns 15 this year.
Before the birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there had been Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” trilogy and Fox’s run of “X-Men” and “Fantastic Four” movies, but their momentums fizzled, sequels were axed and reboots launched years later. Favreau says “there was some skepticism if there was room for any more” superhero movies, but it was Christopher Nolan’s dark, gritty “Batman” films that gave the “Iron Man” team hope.
“Those really brought a lot of quality to the genre,” he says. “We presented a different tone, but hopefully something that was just as satisfying and brought humor to it and a sense of fun and, of course, Robert Downey at the center of it all.”
Dozens of interconnected sequels and Disney+ shows later, the MCU is the blueprint for building a tightly woven storytelling world. After directing “Iron Man 2” and executive producing “Iron Man 3” and the “Avengers” series, Disney and Lucasfilm sent Favreau on a very important quest in a galaxy far, far away.
In 2019, the modern “Star Wars” sequel trilogy came to a divisive end and capped off the Skywalker Saga, with no plans revealed for the future of the beloved sci-fi franchise. Instead, “Star Wars” headed to the small screen. “The Mandalorian” told the story of a lone, helmeted bounty hunter, played by Pedro Pascal, who travels the galaxy while protecting the cute, infant alien Grogu. Set in the timeframe between “Return of the Jedi” and “The Force Awakens,” it’s an unexplored era of “Star Wars” that Favreau had the freedom to expand upon.
Favreau has already built out “The Mandalorian” mini universe with “The Book of Boba Fett,” which reintroduced the iconic bounty hunter, and “Ahsoka,” the upcoming series starring Rosario Dawson as the fan-favorite protege of Anakin Skywalker. And then there’s “Skeleton Crew,” created by Marvel’s “Spider-Man” director Jon Watts, which Favreau is executive producing. Jude Law stars in the series, which is a Spielberg-esque coming-of-age story set in the same “Mandalorian” era. “Skeleton Crew” is scheduled to air this year, but unlike Boba Fett and Ahsoka, the characters will not first appear in “The Mandalorian.”
“Each storyteller brings their own personality to it. The groups that are working on [‘Skeleton Crew’] are led by Jon Watts, whom I collaborated with on all the ‘Spider-Man’ movies. This has been a real fun time and the great filmmakers that he’s engaged with have been bringing their perspectives as well,” Favreau says.
When asked about bringing Mando and Grogu to the big screen, Favreau says the agenda was always to plot out “Star Wars” stories for streaming on TV.
“There’s always an opportunity when you have a set of characters and stories that people connect with that you could cross media into different areas. Marvel does it quite effectively,” he says. “It’s just a matter of where our time should be spent and what the appetite of the audience is. With all these stories we’re telling, it definitely is a full-time job just keeping this going with what we’re doing now. Television has a much different rhythm and schedule than film does.”
It’s a very Marvel-ous approach to building out the “Star Wars” universe, but Favreau says the two franchises rub off on each other.
“I speak to [Marvel Studios president] Kevin Feige regularly, and we’re always watching each other’s stuff,” he says. “Clearly I’ve worked in the MCU and I’m dealing with people who worked in ‘Star Wars’ for a long time. There’s a lot of overlap, and certainly in the fan base. I think one informs the other, that’s just the nature of storytelling, on the technological side as well as stylistically.”
A tech enthusiast, Favreau pushed the boundaries of motion capture and CGI directing Disney’s photorealistic “Jungle Book” and “Lion King” remakes. On “The Mandalorian,” he helped pioneer the Volume, a massive, state-of-the-art video wall that can render complex backgrounds quicker than ever. These advancements in technology excite Favreau about the future of storytelling.
“Whether it’s display screens, virtual reality, augmented reality, real-time render, game engine technology, all of these weave back and forth and inform one another. Machine learning is allowing for a lot of technologies to accelerate,” he says. “We always have to be mindful of not letting the progress get ahead of us and always having a human element that informs the way technology is being utilized. I think storytelling is a really important nexus point.”
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