‘Iron Man’ is the buzz-magnet movie that kicks off the summer season

[29 April 2008]

By Julie Hinds

Detroit Free Press (MCT)

When Jon Favreau explains his role as director of “Iron Man,” the Marvel superhero movie that opens Friday, he relies on his own superpower: candor.

“I’m not operating the camera,” he says. “I’m not performing, really, in it. I’m not building the costumes or the sets and I’m not doing the CGI work. What your job is as a director is to maintain a tone that’s consistent and create a personality for the film. You’re sort of quality control, so you’re watching everything, even though you’re doing nothing.”

For comic book adaptations like “Iron Man,” quality is everything to the core audience. Comic fans don’t just sit around and wait for such films to come out. They follow their progress obsessively and watch for any sign that the source material is being neglected or disrespected.

Instead of hiding from the scrutiny, Favreau embraced it. Early on in the project, he created a MySpace page to communicate with fans. He also courted them at events like Comic-Con in San Diego and WonderCon in San Francisco, fan gatherings with immense clout in Hollywood.

“I got to stand in front of 5,000, 6,000 people and show footage and hear right from them what they thought, and then read on the Internet what they were saying around their water coolers,” says Favreau during a phone interview where he needs little prompting to sound geeked about his movie.

“Look, it’s an overwhelming time to be a filmmaker in the public eye. But there’s so much available to you if you’re not intimidated by it.”

Favreau’s lack of fear paid off. It’s fair to say the advance buzz on “Iron Man,” which stars Robert Downey Jr., has a rosy molten glow, the kind that usually translates into a huge opening weekend. But more than that, the film seems poised to become the rare comic book movie that generates admiration as well as ticket sales.

WHAT’S THE BUZZ ON THE SUMMER’S OTHER SUPERHEROES? “The Incredible Hulk” (June 13) Good buzz: After 2003’s ponderous and financially disappointing “Hulk” by director Ang Lee, fans are eager to give the big green guy a cinematic do-over. If the new movie can liven up the drama and add more Hulk-smash action to the fight sequences, it could be a hulking hit. Bad buzz: It’s incredible how much gossip there’s been about artistic disputes between new leading man Edward Norton and the producers. An unhappy star? Negative publicity? No wonder the Hulk’s so angry. “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” (July 11) Good buzz: The first “Hellboy” in 2004 was a strange little film with a tormented red hero whose looks only a hell-parent could love. It was helmed by director Guillermo del Toro, who scored big last year with the visually stunning “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Bad buzz: “Hellboy” can’t compete with the other superheroes in terms of budget or star power (Ron Perlman has the title role again). And now that Del Toro has a bigger profile, the critics will be even more critical. “The Dark Knight” (July 18) Good buzz: With 2005’s melancholy “Batman Begins,” director Christopher Nolan created a Batman 2.0 good enough to wipe away those memories of George Clooney in a rubber suit. Christian Bale has clicked as the Caped Crusader and Heath Ledger is said to have delivered a magnificently edgy interpretation of the Joker. Bad buzz: Ledger’s death casts a pall over the movie and makes marketing it difficult. Watching his performance will be a sad reminder of what might have been, which may be too much gloom even for Batfanatics.

“Everybody thinks it looks like it’s going to be the coolest movie of the summer,” says Rob Worley of Madison Heights, Mich., founder of Comics2Film.com. “It’s definitely got a cool factor `Hulk’ hasn’t displayed yet.”

Yes, “Iron Man” is going up against the green dude with anger-control issues and some other superheroes in what’s going to be a busy season for comic geeks. The June 13 opening of “The Incredible Hulk,” the reboot of the series launched with the 2003 “Hulk,” will be followed by “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” on July 11 and “The Dark Knight,” Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to “Batman Begins,” on July 18.

And that’s not counting movies in the spirit of comic books, like “Speed Racer,” an update of the animated TV show by the Wachowski brothers, on May 9, and “Hancock,” a Will Smith romp about a less-than-perfect superhero in need of an image rehaul, on July 2.

For hardcore comic buffs, the opening of a superhero movie is always fraught with anxiety. Will the filmmakers preserve the integrity of the character, or will they use the brand as an excuse to drape a flimsy plot around spectacular fight scenes?

“To me, the writing is much more important than the special effects,” says Richard Rubenfeld, an art history professor at Eastern Michigan University who organizes exhibitions on comic art themes. “If it doesn’t have a strong story and characters, it’s just eye candy.”

Thanks in large part to Favreau’s efforts to include fans in the process, “Iron Man” is being greeted with anticipation, not skepticism. But it’s been a long road. There has been talk since the 1990s of a movie version of the 45-year-old Marvel series about the arrogant playboy who flies around in a cool metal suit. Back then, megastar Tom Cruise was reportedly interested in the role.

Those attempts never came together, and, eventually, the rights to “Iron Man” reverted back to Marvel. Instead of relying on outside studios, the company announced plans to self-finance a slate of projects, with “Iron Man” as Marvel’s first effort.

This raises the stakes for Marvel financially and artistically. Before, if changes were made to characters for budget reasons or to court a mainstream audience, it could always be blamed on a boneheaded studio executive.

“Now that it’s Marvel with their own money, I think we owed something to the fans, to at least take into account and consideration what the source material was,” says Favreau, who starred in and wrote “Swingers” and directed “Elf” and the family sci-fi flick “Zathura.”

Iron Man, who debuted in 1963, isn’t an A-list superhero like Batman or Superman. Non-comic fans may know the phrase best as the name of a Black Sabbath song.

“We’ll give him an A-minus,” says Dan Merritt of Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Mich. “He’s big in the pantheon of Marvel characters. But it’s going to be a challenge to really get him to be a household name.”

Worley, who’d rank Iron Man on the B-list, says being a lower-profile character can be an advantage, because “filmmakers have a little extra leeway with what they can do, because fans aren’t as possessive.”

In the Iron Man origin story, Tony Stark is a wealthy weapons designer, suave, cocky and anti-communist, who has inherited a major industrial company from his father. On a visit to Vietnam, he’s injured and captured, but he creates a metal suit that saves his life and helps him escape back to America for a life of bad-guy fighting.

Favreau wanted the updated version to address the anxiety of the times, but without a specific political agenda. The movie opens in Afghanistan, where Stark has traveled to show off some new weaponry to U.S. soldiers.

“I really liked the image of here he is in a convoy, listening to AC/DC, sipping a Scotch, joking around without a care in the world and then, bang, he finds himself in a hostage video, which hits such a deep fear,” says Favreau.

Although Favreau had talked at one time about casting a relative unknown, the starring role went to 43-year-old Downey, who can juggle depth and humor as an actor and whose former battles with drug addiction echo the alcoholism that is part of Stark’s darker side in the comic books.

Favreau calls casting Downey the single most important element in the film.

“I got a guy that was bringing a whole body of work and a whole lifetime of experience to the role. He wasn’t sort of the obvious choice. My pitch was always, look at how everybody felt about `Pirates’ (of the Caribbean) when they heard Johnny Depp was cast. ... It turned into, Wow, this could really be cool and fun.”

Also bringing a touch of acting clout are Gwyneth Paltrow as Stark’s girl Friday, Pepper Potts; Terrence Howard as his Air Force pal, James (Rhodey) Rhodes; and a bald Jeff Bridges as business executive Obadiah Stane. Favreau has a tiny part as Stark’s chauffeur, Happy Hogan.

Favreau wanted the movie to be grounded in as much realism as possible, yet have a style that was “a little more rock `n’ roll” than a dark epic like 2005’s “Batman Begins.”

He was keenly aware of the strengths and pitfalls of the computer-generated imagery that’s so dominant in modern action movies. With a laugh, he describes a meeting with the special-effects team at Industrial Light & Magic where “I walked into ILM and they assembled everybody from the facility and the first thing I said was, `I hate CGI.’”

What Favreau really meant was he prefers a certain restraint and clarity to his action scenes.

“I would show them footage of `Top Gun’ ... completely not digital at all, completely practical, and say when Iron Man is flying, it has to look like this, which means that we have to limit the camera angles. ... And I showed them `Stealth’ and I said, it can’t look like this, where the camera is moving wherever you want to. Even though it should be, on paper, more exciting and dynamic, because there’s so much more creative freedom, it loses me.”

He describes sending up aerial units to film sequences “and we’d film real planes and replace the plane with Iron Man so that the camera moved in a proper way.”

Favreau, who grew up reading comics, was a fan of several Marvel series. But he’s glad, from a special-effects perspective, that he got to direct a superhero who isn’t clad in tights.

“I always liked Capt. America, but I would have been very scared to direct that because it’s ultimately a human form, an organic form, in the costume. Here, you had ... hard surfaces and metal, and so that allowed us to do what CGI does best.”

Still, for a director like Favreau, it all comes back to the man, not the metal.

“The fact that he doesn’t have superpowers and any kid can imagine that they can climb into that suit and be Iron Man, to me, is really about the fantasy of flying,” says Favreau. “It’s like living your dreams.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/iron-man-is-the-buzz-magnet-movie-that-kicks-off-the-summer-season/