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Comic-Con ’07’s Fantastic Filmmakers: ‘Iron Man”s Movie Team Shows Their Heavy Mettle

[IMG:L]After 44 years of battling evil, it’s about time Iron Man got some respect.

Although he’s never been subjected to the sort of ribbing that Aquaman receives, Ol’ Shell Head–as he’s affectionately known–has yet to enjoy the kind of widespread notoriety that some of his Marvel Comics brethren like Spider-Man, the Hulk, Captain America and the Fantastic Four have known.

This despite an impressive resume: Iron Man was one of the premiere–and continuously published–heroes of the Marvel line, created in 1963 by no less than Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; he’s a founding member of the Avengers; his alter ego Tony Stark’s a rich and famous playboy industrialist in the Howard Hughes mold; and he’s even triumphed over alcoholism. So, where’s the love for this knight in golden armor?

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From the looks of the reaction of the fans at Comic-Con after being treated to a preview of his upcoming big screen adventure, it looks like it’s finally here. The Iron Man footage prompted the biggest buzz of the Con, and now suddenly all eyes are on the Armored Avenger. And the A-list assemblage of talent behind the film is committed to delivering on the promise of the sneak preview that took everyone by surprise.

“Iron Man, I think, is different certainly from like the DC heroes,” actor-director Jon Favreau, who’s helming the film, told Hollywood.com. “Where Batman is the character and Bruce Wayne is his cover story. Superman is the character and Clark Kent is the disguise. Tony Stark is the character and Iron Man is his alter ego that he only first begins to explore.”

“I think that later on as the character develops is when there’s more of a conflict and what he stands for and how hard it is to be Tony Stark when you really become Iron Man,” Favreau said. “I think that you’re going to be seeing more of Tony Stark and you begin to learn who Iron Man is as Tony Stark learns who he is.”

[IMG:L]The Man in the Iron Mask
Robert Downey Jr. plays the hero in the iron suit, and he wowed the Con audience in clips that show Stark’s glib, cocky devilishly charming side as a prosperous arms dealer as well as his fear, humanity and heroism when he’s faced with a life-changing decision involving the technology he’s created. “He just starts off as a guy who’s desperate to save his own life and is very surprised that he was put into a position where he has to so,” said Downey. “I don’t think that he had a sheltered life, but that he was just probably in a lot of denial about the ramifications of what he did for a living.”

Stan Lee said that he created this character on a dare to see if, in the very anti-establishment mid- to late-’60s, he could make a Howard Hughes-type billionaire weapons manufacturer in a very non-military industrial complex society but have him have this wound,” Robert Downey Jr continued, alluding to a heart injury that prompts Stark to don a suit of armor to keep himself alive and ultimately use his technology to save lives rather than cause destruction. “Stan said that they got more fan mail for this than they got for any other characters, and particularly from women who felt that somehow or other they could turn Tony around. That’s before Al-Anon,” he laughed, alluding to the character’s later battle with the bottle, which may play into the film’s plotline.

Four decades after the character’s creation, Downey says Iron Man’s origins are more relevant that ever. “I think it’s a film about survival and being conflicted,” he said. “I think it’s a pretty apt metaphor for the 21st century human being because we have such a wealth of information and ability, and yet 20 years ago you couldn’t just go online and say, ‘Oh, that’s my opinion that I’ll register here.’ You had to go out and say or do something about it, or write a letter or something. I just love that kind of ‘take action’ thing. It’s basically someone who’s been sheltered by choice and then takes action.”

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[IMG:L]Iron Who?
Favreau’s aware that the despite the simplicity of the concept–the superhero in high-tech armor that saves his life literally and metaphorically–Iron Man’s lack of name-brand recognition among general audiences initially posed a challenge. “With this title, Iron Man, most people out there in the world they think it’s a Black Sabbath song,” he joked, wisely incorporating the heavy metal classic into the film’s teaser scenes.

Co-star Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays Pepper Potts, Stark’s girl Friday, love interest and all-around moral compass, admits she’s one of the masses who had to be introduced to the long-running character as an adult. “I’d heard of Iron Man. I’d heard of Spider-Man because my brother had comics around, but I didn’t really know anything about comics except for my brother’s Underroos in 1982.”

But Terrence Howard, who plays Stark’s devoted best friend James “Rhodey” Rhodes, who in the comics eventually assumes the Iron Man mantle when Stark succumbs to his alcohol addiction, was extremely familiar with his character, which had a particular resonance to him as a young boy. “I discovered it in like 1978 or 1979,” Howard said. “I was 9 or 10 years old. My father gave it to me. I asked him, I said ‘There’s no black superheroes.’ That’s why I didn’t like [comic books] and he said, ‘Well, here’s one right here: James Rhodes.’”

“I fell right into that,” Howard continued. “The power to stand up and the power to be raised in the traditional sense, to owe so much to the government and to tradition and to sit up and say, ‘But I owe more to humanity. I’ve got to go and fight this cause even though it’s duplicitous to my career.’ I was formed by James Rhodes because I’ve been a rebel my entire life, but a rebel with a cause. We need to be more socially conscious to what’s taking place in the world now. We can’t sit back and let it all happen. We have to give our voices because there’s power to that, and sometimes you have to put a little muscle behind it.”

Before he could win over mainstream audiences, Favreau knew the first step was to get the stamp of approval from the hard-core fans that populate Comic-Con. “This is the only place that you could come and everyone, all 6,500 people sitting in there, know who the guy is and what he stands for, what the movie better do or not do and what the pitfalls are from having seen other books adapted in a way that they didn’t think was respectable or geared towards them. So I knew sooner or later we were going to have to face this group of people.”

After showing the audience the eye-popping footage of Stark in both the original gray Mark I armor–an effect achieved, remarkably, without computer animation–and the more traditional sleek red-and-gold Mark III look, created by special effects master Stan Winston and executed in slick CGI by Industrial Light & Magic (Favreau couldn’t resist pulling the fans’ legs with first unveiling “test footage’ that turned out to be crudely animated clips from the little-remembered Iron Man TV cartoons from the ‘60s) the director was pleased that the comic cognoscenti seemed appropriately wowed.

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The unveiling came after a careful, concerted effort to keep images of the armor under wraps during production. “At a certain point we had to release the image of the Mark I, which was a tremendous leap from what was in the books, and so that was good,” Favreau explained. “We had a nice little reaction from that. Then [we showed] the Mark III with the red and the gold and they liked that too. So, little by little we got our feet wet until finally I was like, ‘Let’s just show them what we got.’”

It took some extreme eleventh hour effort to get the shots just right to impress the crowd. “Fortunately, because of the Stan Winston suits that we’re built, we had a lot of new camera footage to show,” said Favreau, “and ILM scrambled to get those last five shots together so that we could show him flying in the high-tech version of the suit, too. We liked it. It played well and we said, ‘Let’s see if this dog hunts.’ We put it out there and it worked out well.”

[IMG:L]The Assembly Line
Although in the story Iron Man is the product of one visionary man’s genius, behind the scenes creating Iron Man was utterly a team effort. The film is Marvel Productions’ first major foray into launching a character franchise on its own, without a big studio’s hands-on approach (Paramount Pictures is distributing the film), and the filmmakers and actors were given more latitude than a usual superhero film to find its way collaboratively.

“The character is a combination of Jon and I,” said Downey, explaining their approach to building not just Iron Man but Tony Stark. “His direction and my execution. And sometimes my ideas and then his direction of those ideas. My line of dialogue that he scratched and then challenged me to write something better, or his line of dialogue that I judged and we shot anyway, or something that we wrote together and looked at it on paper and said, ‘Wow, this isn’t going to work –’ and then we shot it and it really worked.” 

Howard says Favreau’s experience in front of the camera helped build the team effort “Jon’s an improvisational actor, and so that makes him an improvisational director. Which means that it makes him humble enough to recognize that even though we might have a great script there’s a better one out there. He’s gathered all these great actors together and great people to make the film, and he trusts them.”

“Some days we wouldn’t get out first shot off for seven hours because we were rewriting and trying to make it work and we only had five more hours to shoot and we never fell behind,” Howard continued. “Not once did he say, ‘No, we’ve got to shoot this.’ Many times we would shoot three different versions of the scene – the way that Robert and me and wanted to do it, the way that Jon wanted, and the way that Marvel dictated it should be done.” 

Paltrow sought out a role in the film for the opportunity to work with Favreau and the cast, particularly Downey. “It’s always been a dream of mine to work with him and I was so happy to have the opportunity because he’s just amazing,” she said. “He’s so free and he’s so present when he’s working, and he tries all this great stuff and it just feels very electric. It feels new. You don’t feel like you’re trudging through your day. There’s always something unexpected happening.”

Downey said that, after an extended sabbatical from acting to pursue marriage and motherhood, “Gwyneth’s instincts were really, really sound. Jon’s and mine tended to not be far off on any given day, but if we weren’t sure then we’d check in with her. Then Terrence is so smart and has such a knack for a lot of the dialogue and ideas, there were times when he wasn’t in a particular scene that he contributed to”

Sharing scenes with his co-stars, Howard quickly joined in the mutual-admiration. “Robert would fight, fight, fight to make sure that every single scene, every moment of every scene was perfect. He would not surrender no matter what. Gwyneth, there’s a grace about her that you can’t deny on camera and when something’s not right she’s going to defend the truth. She’s not going to defend that handrail of mediocrity, which is normally the basis of compromise. She stands up for truth and now I know what I need to make a film successful creatively.”

[IMG:L]Comic Book Heroes
If including input from his cast Oscar-caliber actors–including Jeff Bridges, who plays Stark’s rival Obadiah Stane–was a natural, Favreau said he also sought out ideas from a less-famous source: the generations of fans who’ve grown up with Iron Man.

“With movies of this kind there’s a real dialogue between the fans and the filmmakers. If you don’t accept it, it’ll backfire,” the director said, knowing that he had more than a little to prove to genre audiences given his resume of mostly comedies like Elf. “When you’re dealing with a character like Iron Man and you’re coming into it without a body of work that would suggest that you can do a good job with this movie of this genre, you have to make a case for yourself.

“The fans are a tremendous resource for me to learn what people expect of this character,” Favreau said of his forays onto fan-driven sites to monitor the emerging buzz on the film, “because there’s no way that I can go through 40 years of comic books and learn everything that I need to learn about this guy. So in parsing that information and hearing back what people have to say, even when they’re talking to one another and you get to sort of listen in on those conversations on the various sites. You learn what people like, who they gravitate to, what their concerns are…We listened to them. Do it and you’re not just humoring them to try and get their support. You actually show that what they’ve talked to you about or what they’ve talked to each other about has influenced the way that the movie was made.”

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