As Iron Man celebrates its 10th anniversary and the birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it's interesting to remember that plans to bring old Shellhead to the screen were in motion for nearly two decades before Robert Downey Jr. strapped on the armor.
That's right: it was 10 years ago today (May 2, 2008) that Iron Man opened in theaters across North America and arguably changed the course of pop culture and movie history. Not only did the movie revive the career of one of America's best actors, but it proved that even a so-called "B-lister" in the comic book realm could resonate with the public. And the first official Marvel post-credits scene — a cryptic meet-and-greet between Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark and Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury — laid the first cornerstone for the multi-billion-dollar juggernaut that is now the MCU.
Iron Man made his comics debut in March 1963, in issue #39 of Tales of Suspense. It wasn't long after that he made his first TV appearance, on the animated show The Marvel Super Heroes (where he was voiced by John Vernon, aka "Dean Wormer" of Animal House fame). And while Tony Stark has continued to appear on animated programs from the 1980s right through the present day, the idea of a live-action Iron Man feature film did not start to coalesce until 1990, when Universal Pictures bought the rights to the character.
1990 – 2000: Cruise to nowhere
You have to remember that back then, Marvel Studios wasn't even a gleam in 17-year-old Kevin Feige's eye. Marvel Comics was, at the time, owned by Revlon executive Ron Perelman, and was about to enjoy an early 1990s boom in comic book collecting. But the big screen had remained frustratingly out of reach for the company; a 1944 Captain America serial aside, the only live-action movies Marvel had to show for itself at the time were 1986's disastrous Howard the Duck (strangely enough, also a Universal release), and two low-budget direct-to-video duds based on The Punisher and Cap again (the latter not officially released until 1992).
Perhaps it was the monstrous success of Tim Burton's 1989 film Batman that sparked Universal to go looking for a comics property all its own (no coincidence that Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark shared a few common characteristics), but the studio went ahead and optioned Iron Man at a time when all Marvel could do was sell the film rights to its characters instead of making the movies on its own.
Universal didn't have such high aims for the project: the plan was for Iron Man to be a low-budget affair directed by Stuart Gordon of Re-Animator fame. It's very likely that had this first version of Iron Man been completed, it too would have joined Marvel's short parade of direct-to-video offerings. But nothing ever came of that and the rights ended up going to 20th Century Fox in 1996.
With Nicolas Cage and Tom Cruise both reportedly expressing interest in playing Tony Stark, Fox commissioned a screenplay from writer Jeff Vintar (based on a story by Vintar and Stan Lee, and featuring MODOK as the villain) and allegedly approached Quentin Tarantino about directing the proposed film. But the studio, which was already developing Marvel properties X-Men, Daredevil and Fantastic Four, decided it had too many superhero movies in the works and dropped Iron Man. Just imagine if Tony Stark had stayed at Fox and become part of its Marvel universe!
2000 – 2006: A new line in the sand
The rights shifted to New Line Cinema in 2000, where screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (the Pirates of the Caribbean series), as well as Tim McCanlies (The Iron Giant), worked on adapting it for the screen. McCanlies finished a script in 2002 that featured a cameo from Nick Fury — as a means to set up a Fury movie — and New Line approached Joss Whedon to direct the picture, years before Marvel Studios tapped the Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator to write and direct The Avengers.
When talks with Whedon didn't work out, New Line next approached Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook) to get behind the camera, while Smallville creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar toiled over a new script that reportedly involved Tony facing off against his father, Howard Stark, with the latter in the War Machine armor (a lot of these early Iron Man scripts, just like with any comics-based property it seems, played fast and loose with the character's established canon).
It's easy to see why New Line may have been so gung-ho on making an Iron Man movie for a while: 2000 was the year that Fox released X-Men to surprisingly strong box office and reviews, indicating that a superhero movie didn't have to have the words Superman or Batman in the title to succeed. And then in 2002, Spider-Man was released, shattering box office records and launching the first blockbuster comics-based franchise since Batman and Robin crapped the bed in 1997.
But New Line couldn't "crack it," as they say around this town, and after nearly six years of development, while watching studios like Fox and Sony eat their comic book lunch, the company let the rights go... and they returned at long last to Marvel.
2006 – 2008: To infinity and beyond!
Things had changed for Marvel in the 16 years since Iron Man was first optioned by Universal. The company had gone bankrupt, changed owners, and relaunched itself while the public's hunger for comics went up and down with the times. But one thing was certain: Fox, Sony, and other companies were now developing and producing movies based on Marvel characters, and in many cases profiting handsomely. Meanwhile, the source of all these characters and stories — while cashing the checks from those films for sure — was nevertheless relegated to the Hollywood equivalent of the kiddie table with a pat on the head.
That changed in 2004, when then-chief operating officer David Maisel secured a revolving line of credit to the tune of $525 million from Merrill Lynch to produce up to 10 movies based on characters that Marvel still owned the film rights to. When Iron Man came back into the fold in November 2005, it was announced as the first film in the revamped and relaunched Marvel Studios, which would act as an independent studio.
All the previous Iron Man scripts were discarded in favor of a fresh start, while Jon Favreau was hired to direct the picture in April 2006. Favreau and newly named president of production Kevin Feige oversaw the completion of several scripts by different teams of writers, taking elements from each screenplay and combining them into the finished version (although changes would continue to be made throughout filming). While both the Mandarin and the Crimson Dynamo — two signature comic book villains — appeared in early versions, the film finally settled on Obadiah Stane/Iron Monger as the antagonist.
In September 2006, against fierce opposition from Marvel execs and distributor Paramount, Favreau cast Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark. Downey Jr. had been nearly unemployable in Hollywood for several years, due to his ongoing struggles with addiction, although he had gotten clean and begun a mild career resurgence with films such as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Zodiac. Iron Man would relaunch his life and career in ways that Downey Jr. himself had probably never dared to dream.
On March 12, 2007, filming on Iron Man began on sound stages in Playa Vista, in the southern part of Los Angeles, 16 years after the idea of an Iron Man movie was first entertained and 44 years after the character first appeared in the pages of Marvel Comics. The rest of the story from here, as they say, is history, and now it only remains to be seen whether Tony Stark survives the events of Avengers 4 and continues enjoying life and saving the world in the universe he helped create.