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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The original Iron Man had to figure out its own tone

Illustration for article titled The original Iron Man had to figure out its own tone
Photo: Elisabetta Villa (Getty Images)

The first Iron Man film debuted with such phenomenal confidence that it set the template for a whole new kind of superhero movie storytelling. Twenty films later, Marvel is still largely building on the template of that original Iron Man film for its ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe. But the success of Iron Man—artistically or critically—was by no means a sure thing back when it was being made. It was the first film produced by the fledgling Marvel Studios, it starred an actor many considered washed-up or troubled, and it centered on a superhero most people had never heard of. So naturally, everyone involved was pretty damn anxious about getting the film’s tone right.


That revelation comes from a Deadline retrospective written by Geoff Boucher—who visited the Iron Man set back in 2007 and pairs observations from that visit with a more recent conversation with Marvel head honcho Kevin Feige. The observations from the set visit drill home the fact that everyone involved was really focused on giving the film just the right mix of comedy and pathos. That was especially true for director Jon Favreau, who got the gig based on the success of his Christmas comedy Elf. As Favreau explained back in 2007, “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 highlights the way Jason Bourne movies, James Bond movies, and Tim Burton’s original Batman movie all have wildly different tones that work for their particular style of action movie. And Favreau felt it was crucial that Iron Man carve out its own path. As he explained back in 2007:

We are discovering a lot about the tone and it will be the test of Iron Man. 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.

Favreau eventually (and presciently) notes, “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.”

The full article—which you can read on Deadline—has plenty of other great insights into the making of the first Iron Man. For instance, Favreau lent one of his own classic cars (a 1932 Ford) to Tony Stark’s car collection. But even more revelatory is the fact that the film’s final “I am Iron Man” reveal was actually ad-libbed by Robert Downey, Jr. When the filmmakers decided to keep that line in the final film they established the MCU as a universe largely devoid of secret identities—a huge shift for comic book movie storytelling.

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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. She loves sci-fi, Jane Austen, and co-hosting the movie podcast, Role Calling.