Geoff Boucher, who earned the admiration of the geek set with the Hero Complex column he launched several years ago in the Los Angeles Times, kicks off Deadline’s San Diego Comic-Con with a look back at Iron Man, the film that distilled a superhero formula that would launch Marvel Studios to a $4.2 billion Disney deal and an unprecedented string of blockbusters in the decade that followed.

Disney-owned Marvel Studios’ geek influence is so profound that it is skipping San Diego Comic-Con, bypassing the mecca of superhero worship because it can afford to wait and promote its spectacles at Disney’s own D23 Expo. The most consistent cog in Disney’s unprecedented global movie dominance, Marvel’s three most recent blockbusters over a mere five months — Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War and Ant-Man and the Wasp – grossed $3.7 billion, nearly matching the price Disney paid for Marvel in 2009, the year after Iron Man‘s release. Marvel has generated six of the top 20 global grossing films since then, topped this summer by Avengers: Infinity War crossing the $2 billion mark. It falls behind only Avatar, Titanic and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Black Panther’s $1.3 billion gross lands it in ninth place, and its critical acclaim and cultural impact give Marvel its most viable awards candidate so far.

Iron Man 2008
Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

“It’s Marvel’s universe,” one rival executive told me recently. “We just live in it.”

It is hard to imagine Marvel’s run stretches back only a decade, but it all began on May 2, 2008, when Paramount released Iron Man, launching Marvel as a real studio. Released by Paramount, it grossed $585 million worldwide. It created a fresh narrative for Robert Downey Jr, eventually making his struggle with addiction a footnote in his life as he rode the character to become one of the best paid actors in Hollywood. It established that Jon Favreau belonged in the event film sandbox, despite the failure of the Jumanji sequel Zathura. And it set Marvel’s Kevin Feige on an unparalleled run of success as gatekeeper of the Marvel Comics Universe.

“When you talk about Marvel’s rise, Iron Man set the tone of all of it,” said Joe Russo, who with brother Anthony directed this summer’s Avengers: Infinity War and the second installment that comes next summer. Downey’s Iron Man character was a key component in their Captain America: Civil War and the two Avengers sequels that were set up by that film. “I remember coming out of a midnight screening and as a comic fan feeling that visual effects had reached a point where my imagination as a comics fan could realistically be rendered on a movie screen for the first time.” Said Anthony Russo: “It was like watching The Lord of the Rings, so wonderfully done, thrilling and exhilarating that I’ll never forget the feeling of wishing we were playing in this zone as filmmakers.”

Iron Man
Marvel

I got to spend time in 2007 with Feige, Downey and Favreau on the set in Playa Vista, CA set of Iron Man, and can share for the first time their hopes and dreams, in their own words. None could have dreamed the profound impact the film would have on their lives and careers.

“We made choices and we believed in what we were doing,” Marvel Studios president Feige told me last week as he recalled constructing the first major superhero movie Marvel co-financed. “We didn’t know with certainty what would work and what wouldn’t work. If we were wrong, that would have been the end of it. [Marvel] could’ve been a one-off studio if it didn’t work. But — in a way — we didn’t have anything to lose at that point so it allowed us to just go with our instincts.”

A Star Is Re-Born

The biggest and most successful gamble in the history of Marvel Studios was to cast Downey as Tony Stark. Nobody ever questioned the prodigy actor’s talent; it was his track record of getting into personal troubles that by Downey’s own admission left him a long shot for a role that he saw as a glove fit. He has said — without a shred of bitterness because the problems he has put in the rear view mirror were all self-inflicted — that nobody wanted him. Except for Favreau, who would not stop advocating for Downey when other candidates for the role came up.

None of them had Downey’s combination of an electric wit, sense of mischief bordering on recklessness, and acting chops evidenced by a slew of terrific performances that included his Oscar-nominated turn as Charlie Chaplin. These qualities seemed as tailor-fitted to Stark as the metal suit. But other candidates were safer bets because of Downey’s well publicized baggage. Finally, Feige agreed to give Downey the screen test that forged his and Marvel’s future.

“I prepared for the screen test so feverishly that I literally made it impossible for anybody to do a better job,” Downey has said. “I had never worked on something that way before; I was so familiar with six or nine pages of dialogue, I had thought of every possible scenario. At a certain point during the screen test I was so overwhelmed with anxiety about the opportunity that I almost passed out. I watched it later, and that moment came, fluttered and wasn’t even noticeable. But to me it was this stretched-out moment of what keeps people from doing theater for 30 years — just an unadulterated fear of failure…I had prepped myself to the point where I was able to tumble over in that wave and not be dashed by it. I see that all the time. People think they’re ready for something; they’re prepared, they’ve checked their equipment, and then the first thing goes wrong on the landing craft and they’re just dead in the water — boom, you’re done. You’re floating up on the beach.”

Iron Man
Marvel

On that Iron Man set in 2007, Downey had no crystal ball to show him how his life would soon change, that his financial struggles would soon be over as his paydays swelled reportedly as high as $80 million, after he burned off the options on his initial modest deal. But he saw himself in Stark, and knew that this was the opportunity he needed to change his station from respected actor to movie star. Much like Tony Stark does in the movie, Downey embraced his power and grew up.

Sitting in his trailer after a long morning, he munched on salmon cakes and mused about a Hollywood career that dated back to 1985’s Weird Science but had never given him the chance to star in a big-budget franchise film or, as he put it, to “be on a Slurpee cup” like most of his generational peers.

“I’m the only guy that I know — the only one that’s left — from that group of guys I started out with, guys like [Keanu] Reeves or [Johnny] Depp or [Nicolas] Cage — that has not had this kind of experience,” he told me. “The kind of experience that I’m on the verge of as we speak. And it feels really cool and really good. And it kind of keeps my ass on point a little bit. This kind of character and what you want to represent or not [to young fans], that’s not lost on me. Like for instance, I have a cigar now and then, and I have a potty mouth. But I did this interview with Esquire a few months ago and it was really fun and really great but I think I peaked-out on the chain smoking and the expletives. And I think now this is an opportunity to let my image go to a different place.”

The Marvel brand now has plenty of franchise faces (Chris Hemsworth, Chadwick Boseman, Chris Evans, Chris Pratt and Paul Rudd among them) but in the beginning it was essentially the Downey show, and his instinct for recognizing the importance of controlling the message was spot on. The three Iron Man movies, as well the The Avengers films, began with Marvel’s ability to bottle up the charisma, swagger and boundless star potential of Downey. Downey has since hovered over the Marvel Comics Universe: he will have played Stark in 10 films by the time his contract ends with next year’s Avengers climax. As we sat together in 2007, Downey hinted that Marvel might have saved him as well. “I’m doing things different now. I’ve got a great reason to change things in my life,” he said. “And, oh man, it’s really, really, really hard to change if you don’t have a good reason.”

You’ve Got To Have Heart

Tony Stark is a man with heart problems — he invents the Iron Man suit to be a life-support system for his bum ticker as well as a weaponized wardrobe — and it opens up plenty of opportunities for metaphorical moments over the course of the first film and its sequels. When Stark first arrives on screen he is cynical, spoiled and narcissistic. Said Downey: “He is the guy that Bruce Wayne pretends to be.” Stark was born rich, got richer selling weapons, but that starts to change when he faced his own death and takes on the mantle of Iron Man.

That mix of emotion, angst and humor was vital to the film’s success and became the chemistry that informs the story choices and the alchemy formula for all of the Marvel films and characters that followed, a thematic unifier that so far has eluded many of the films that have come from the DC Comics. Back in 2007, director Favreau explained during a break in filming that the beating heart at the center of the film was essential to ensuring that Iron Man wasn’t just about the sound and fury of superhero battle scenes.

“We’re trying to find the emotional reality of what it would really be like to go through this ordeal and these experiences,” Favreau said back then. “We didn’t want to do the action movie thing where the hero is wisecracking his way through it all; that approach just drains everything by reducing the stakes.”

Iron Man
Marvel

Favreau said the screen history of the sci-fi and superhero genre was full of films that presented heroes who look cool in action but ultimately left audiences feeling cold. Director and star agreed early that Tony Stark needed to take his lumps and be more “man” than “iron.”

“One of Robert’s big things is he always wants to be damaged by the things that happen to his character and he wants to show the damage done,” he said. “There should be a grittiness about showing the cost of the life he is living. It shouldn’t be a Schwarzenegger lack of consequence, where he fights through a war zone and doesn’t have a scratch. Now for Iron Man, we have to find that right level of damage that fits the movie. It shouldn’t look like Fight Club.”

The success of Marvel heroes in recent years has surpassed most of the cinema adaptations of DC Comics, and that is due in part to the Marvel tradition of characters who struggle in their personal lives and grapple with defeat and despair.

DC has been at this longer, beginning in the FDR years when DC Comics introduced costumed heroes who had little in common with the working-class citizens they protected: Superman was an alien but looked like a Greek god; Batman was born fabulously wealthy; Wonder Woman and Aquaman were sculpted heirs of royalty. A very different type of costumed hero arrived in the 1960s when Marvel Comic creators like Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko introduced hard-luck heroes like Spider-Man (a nerdy kid from Queens who gets bitten by a radioactive bug), the X-Men (outcast mutants who are feared and hated) and Hulk (a radiation victim scientist who transforms into a raging green monster).

Like many Marvel heroes, Iron Man’s origin begins with affliction and requires sacrifice that tests his courage. That, Favreau explained, would be as important to the movie’s success as the special effects.

“He was living the good life and now he carries the heavy mantle of being a superhero after being a happy-go-lucky guy,” Favreau told me. “He’s rich, he’s good-looking, he’s got women, he’s surrounded by toys, and then suddenly he has all this responsibility. It’s about coming of age and becoming an adult. The interesting aspect is that when we meet him he’s an adult who hasn’t grown up but that charmed existence is abruptly wiped out. This movie is the origin story, it’s about answering the call and rising up. If we do it right, maybe we will get to see him go on to different chapters of his story in other films.”

No Identity Crisis

After years of Superman and Batman films, audiences were accustomed to superheroes struggling to protect their secret identities, even as the trope tested the patience of audiences. Superman: The Movie (1978) delivered on its promise that audiences could “believe a man can fly.” It was harder for them to swallow the idea that no one recognized the Man of Steel whenever he wore glasses.

One of the most memorable moments in Iron Man came when the film jettisoned all of the baggage of a secret identity. When Tony Stark admits to a packed press conference that he is Iron Man, it flouted 40 years of Marvel Comics tradition, but fans didn’t seem to mind a bit. The line was not scripted — it was a Downey ad-lib — so it took a measure of courage to include it. The audience reaction gave Marvel Studios the confidence to do it again when they brought Thor to the screen (in decades of Marvel Comics, he had a secret identity as Dr. Donald Blake) and to make other fundamental changes to characters without fretting about fan backlash.

Iron Man
Marvel

Feige told me by phone last week that this was a pivotal early point in the Marvel Studios history that echoes still.

“That success inspired us to go further in the trusting ourselves to find balance of staying true to the comics and the spirit of the comics but not being afraid to adapt and evolve and to change things,” Feige said. “It’s a fine line. If you’re changing something for no reason, that’s one thing, but if you’re changing something because you want to double-down on the spirit of who the character is? That’s a change we’ll make. Tony Stark not reading off the card and not sticking with the fixed story? Him just blurting out ‘I am Iron Man?’ That seems very much in keeping with who that character is. It just hadn’t been done in the comics before, but it was something very much in keeping with the comics character and what he could have done. I think it did inspire us on all the movies. What I love now — 20 movies in — is how fans expect the MCU to change and adapt. They expect us to be inspired by the comics as opposed to being slavishly devoted to them.”

Keep Your Enemies Close

In Iron Man, the enemy trying to bring down Tony Stark — Stark inherits the company from his father, but wants out of the weapons business after his wares are turned on him, by terrorists, and nearly kill him — turns out to be his trusted mentor. Played by Jeff Bridges, Obadiah Stane plots to take over Stark Industries and do away with the genius tycoon that shares the company’s name. The emphasis on Stane was expanded while the production was underway (a nod to the strong screen chemistry between Bridges and Downey), but it would echo often in Marvel movies: old friends become new enemies and the legacy of the past circles back in the lives of heroes.

Iron Man 2008 Poster
Marvel/Paramount/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

On the set, Favreau said he admired the way Sony’s Spider-Man films intertwined the life of the hero and the villains he faced. Spider-Man faces threats from strangers, but his most memorable foes are often known to him — family friends, a school mentor, a work colleague — and that creates extra dimensions to the drama and loss.

“If you are a superhero who only fights aliens or mobsters, that doesn’t necessarily reverberate when you take the costume off,” he said. “But if the fight is with someone you know or someone who knows you, then it’s hard not to take your work home with you. Tony Stark’s only superpower is his intellect. He is truly human. The whole superhero thing is really just exaggerating to mythic proportions what goes on in everyday life. That’s what they did such a good job with in [the Sam Raimi-directed] Spider-Man films by bringing in villains that are a presence in Peter Parker’s life and not just these threats that only show up when he’s wearing his mask.”

Location, Location, Location

After decades of Gotham City and Metropolis films, Sony’s Spider-Man and Fox’s Fantastic Four films introduced moviegoers to superheroes who lived in New York City and grounded the sci-fi elements and humanized the action by interacting with recognizable real estate. Feige was an executive producer with credits on both those franchises. When he got his shot with Marvel Studios to go to the next level as a producer, he made it a priority to import that approach. Feige said Favreau’s work on the holiday hit Elf — which presented Will Ferrell as a refugee from Santa’s workshop roaming the streets of Manhattan — was a major component in his selection to direct Iron Man.

On the set, Favreau explained that with Iron Man, he wanted to break new ground in superhero geography by making the first great contemporary superhero movie in modern-day Los Angeles. Tony Stark resides in Malibu, in the bluffs overlooking Point Dume. The L.A. freeways were used to great effect as a setting for the climactic battle scenes as the hero gets flattened first by his nemesis Iron Monger, and then by a mom behind the wheel of an SUV. Favreau said another moment in the film, the one where Iron Man zooms past the Santa Monica pier, was inspired by his commute to work. “I live in Santa Monica and I was driving by and thought, ‘If I could fly, I would fly by here.’ “

Los Angeles was present in more ways than landscape and skyline. The Southern California tradition of car culture was reflected by the vintage and rare automobile collection Stark stores in a sub-basement of his seaside estate. That is a passion shared by Favreau, too, who lent his treasured 1932 Ford to the production and proudly pointed it out to visitors. Also important was the aviation industry — and especially its maverick tycoon, Howard Hughes — which informed the film in ways that distinguished it from East Coast adventures. Both Iron Man sequels would echo and expand on the West Coast themes, and the Hughes influence would shape the character of Howard Stark, the father of Tony and a key figure in the Captain America films.

The Best Support

The first Marvel movie went for a supporting cast with big names and major credibility — Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow and Terrence Howard — and that would be echoed in every Marvel film that has followed, with the likes of Michelle Pfeiffer, Anthony Hopkins, Robert Redford, Tommy Lee Jones, Rene Russo, Michael Keaton, Marisa Tomei, Michael Douglas, Mickey Rourke and Ben Kingsley. For Iron Man, the cast choices were meant to send a signal to Hollywood, the media and film fans that Marvel Studios wanted to make movies that would be taken seriously.

Iron Man 2008

On the Iron Man set, Favreau explained that he knew firsthand that cast choices could send a message. “I remember when I first heard that Disney was going to make Pirates of the Caribbean and I thought, ‘They’re going to make a movie out of a ride?’ I kind of shrugged and maybe even dismissed it on some level. Then when I heard that Disney was making Pirates of the Caribbean and Johnny Depp was going to star in it? Then I thought, ‘This could be interesting.’ That’s what having Robert on board does for you, that’s what having Jeff Bridges and Gwyneth Paltrow on board does for us. We want to make a movie that people notice and take seriously. We’re hoping to make something that a lot of people want to see.”

After Favreau made the ground-breaking The Jungle Book for Disney, he is turning The Lion King into a live-action musical and is also attached to direct The Magic Kingdom, in which the Disney park rides come to life.

Chasing Tone

A crucial part of the MCU alchemy is tone, which sets it apart from most of the recent DC Comics adaptations that have missed the mark with critics. One key to that is the respect that Feige and his Marvel Studios team have shown to the source material — the classic Marvel Comics issues that seized the imaginations of readers with their blend of pathos, humor, cosmic spectacle and everyday life. In past decades, Hollywood often gutted the essential traits of superhero stories when they took them to the screen. The Marvel Studios approach has been guided by Feige’s childhood love of Marvel. In our look back phone call, Feige told me that the best superhero movies are made by filmmakers who delve into the pages of source material instead of disregarding its value. When he got his start in Hollywood almost 20 years ago, there were very few producers or directors who didn’t think the value in comics was limited to the artwork.

“I don’t think a lot of people back then — and it sounds outrageous but I believe it’s true — it did not occur to the decision-makers at the time to actually look at the comics, even if they were basing the movie on them,” Feige said. “I think it was easy to dismiss the comics then. If a producer saw one of the goofier or sillier elements on the cover of one comic then they just would toss it aside. ‘Oh, we’re not going to do that!’ For one thing, maybe you could do that in a movie. And number two, why not read the actual story and look for the emotion and complexity of the characters? Why not look at it and say ‘OK, we can adapt the costumes to be on a screen and the aesthetic to fit the cinematic look of today.’ The comics that mattered to fans were the ones with three-dimensional characters galore. And that’s what you want to put on the screen. And that’s what we have tried to do since the first day of Iron Man.”

Tone, and its importance in transferring the Marvel Comics magic to the screen was a topic that came up frequently on the set of the first film. Favreau told me back in 2007 that tone was a huge priority, even if it often seemed an intangible moving target. With a sigh, he added that the easiest way for a superhero film to fly off course was mishandling that.

“We are discovering a lot about the tone and it will be the test of Iron Man,” the director explained. “If you have a buddy action movie where everybody is cracking wise but there are explosions going off all around them and they take it all in stride and keep rolling along — that creates a distance that’s fun but ultimately it makes it difficult if you ever ask that audience to take an emotional ride with you also. What we’re trying to do is find the way to infuse humor and fun but also have a sense of danger and life-or-death consequences. We are looking for opportunities for humor throughout the film that don’t undermine the stakes. The test for our success is if the humor can co-exist with the story by staying true to the moments and these changes he is undergoing.”

Iron Man Kevin Feige Robert Downey Jr Jon Favreau
Feige, left, Downey and Jon Favareu
Associated Press

A few hours later, Favreau returned to the topic, underscoring its importance for him, as the filmmaker hoped the superhero franchise he was launching would be fun, smart, thrilling, emotional and entertaining to fans of the comic, all over the word.

“The trickiest thing of all is dialing in the tone, it’s the hardest thing to get right and to sustain in a way that appears effortless and authentic,” Favreau told me. “You look at the Jason Bourne movies, and he isn’t making jokes because he is in a mode of survival in a world with a lot of grit and intensity like the 1970s films. Compare that to James Bond [in Casino Royale] and there’s a different achievement with the tone because there is some room for swagger and irony in his world, but the films still maintain the sense of violent menace. And people get hurt. On the other end of the scale, you have a movie like Tim Burton’s first Batman, where there’s a melodrama and camp-iness that make Gotham City fun and engaging but not at the expense of the darker elements in the story. We have a lot going in our favor. We have the comics and the tradition of this character. We have a great team. And we have Robert in the suit. I feel good about it. I think we can make this thing fly.”