Just five years ago, Iron Man was on the fringes of pop culture. Marvel Studios capitalized on the opportunity to make Iron Man the flagship superhero of Phase 1 on the way to The Avengers, and with the help of a resurgent Robert Downey Jr. and an eager Jon Favreau, turned Tony Stark into a household name. I try to capture that journey with Iron Man by the Numbers, a feature that provides a numbers-based snapshot of each movie and its place in the filmography by looking at the box office, critical reception, and miscellaneous facts.
Hit the jump for a comprehensive review of Iron Man, Iron Man 2, and Iron Man 3.
Worldwide Gross: $585 million
- 1990 – Year when Universal first bought the rights to develop a feature adaptation based on Marvel’s Iron Man comics. The resounding success of Batman in 1989 must have sent studios searching for superhero properties. Iron Man kicked around Universal for a few years before Fox bought the rights in 1996, where it lingered for a few more years before Fox sold the rights in 1999 to New Line. Over the years, Tom Cruise and Nicolas Cage expressed interest in playing Tony Stark, and the project passed through the hands of Quentin Tarantino, Joss Whedon, and Nick Cassavettes. After a decade-plus of false starts, the rights reverted back to Marvel in 2005. Marvel Studios decided to make Iron Man their first independent feature with director Jon Favreau.
- 469 – Issues in the first four volumes of The Invincible Iron Man comic series, first published in 1968. Marvel estimates that Iron Man appeared in over 600 stories in the greater Marvel universe to pull from for the movie.
- 580 – Words in the Book of Obadiah, making Jeff Bridges’ research into playing Obadiah Stane very easy: “Obadiah is an interesting name, so I Googled it and discovered that it is the shortest book in the Bible. It’s only a couple of pages, so I read it and it’s all about retribution, of which there is a great deal in this story.”
- 60 – Speed of the winds in miles per hour the crew endured over two days to shoot the exterior scenes for Tony’s captivity in the desert, subbing the Olancha Sand Dunes for Afghanistan. They almost stopped production, but Favreau decided to press on because “cinematically it had such a great visual quality that if you wrote it into a script you could never really achieve those conditions artificially. … So we put goggles on all the bad guys, and wrapped them with scarves and just let it play out.”
- 2 – Cameras used for some dialogue scenes to capture improvised lines in the moment. The story beats were set, but the script that connected them was not. Favreau and Downey capitalized on the freedom to come up with a good deal of the dialogue and try out different versions of the scenes over different takes to see what works.
- 90 – Weight in pounds of the Mark 1 suit. Downey describes his time, in the Mark 1 suit: “I’d been training all these years and thought I was pretty tough, but the first time I put on the Mark 1 suit, I almost had a personality meltdown. I’m not claustrophobic, but after moving around in it for a couple of hours your spirit is kind of broken and you’re like, ‘Okay, time to bring in the stunt team.'”
- 3 – Pages that acclaimed comic writer Brian Michael Bendis wrote for Samuel L. Jackson’s cameo as S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury. Bendis sets the scene: “I get a mysterious late night call from Marvel’s Kevin Feige. He drops the scoop on me that Sam Jackson is coming in to do a cameo the next day but they have no dialogue.”
- $75 million – Estimated marketing cost on top of the $150 million budget.
It’s easy to forget now, but it was unclear at the time if this whole Marvel experiment was going to work out. There wasn’t precedent for a comic book company forming a studio to indendently produce its own theatrical feature adaptations. Downey had recuperated his image in smaller fare, but violates the movie superhero template of casting an actor still on the rise. Favreau had only recently graduated from indies and it was a stretch to argue that Zathura (with its $65 million budget) prepared him for blockbuster action. But Marvel had a clear vision for its property. Downey’s colorful past informed his portrayal of the lovable playboy billionaire jerk. And Favreau’s indie comedic sensibility was a breath of fresh air. Iron Man somehow works, defying the odds to set an the tone for Marvel Phase 1.
Iron Man 2
Worldwide Gross: $624 million
- $250,000 – Initial salary offer to Mickey Rourke to play the villain. Rourke only signed on when Marvel raised the offer. Terrence Howard did not reprise his role from the first movie in part because Marvel reportedly proposed a 50-80% pay cut from his Iron Man salary. Favreau also negotiated for months to find the right salary to return. Jackson publicly wondered if he would return: “There was a huge kind of negotiation that broke down. I don’t know. Maybe I won’t be Nick Fury. Maybe somebody else will be Nick Fury or maybe Nick Fury won’t be in it. There seems to be an economic crisis in the Marvel Comics world so [they’re saying to me], ‘We’re not making that deal.'” Jackson eventually signed a deal to appear in up to nine more movies, so he will continue to be Nick Fury for years.
- 3 – Hours a day, 6 days a week Rourke worked with his dialect coach “just to learn how to speak a paragraph of Russian dialogue.”
- 25 – Pounds Robert Downey Jr. gained for the sequel, bulking up from 150 to 175 pounds over the first few weeks of filming.
- 1/2 – Time in days that Scarlett Johansson fretted over her costume: “I’ve never worn anything like it before, so I had a freak-out moment that lasted about half a day, but then I said ‘Okay, time to suck it up’ and just went full force into getting in shape to wear the costume and perform the physical action so it looked just right.”
- 6 – Months that pass between Iron Man and Iron Man 2. The first movie famously ends with Tony Stark announcing, “I am Iron Man.” Favreau explains why they flashed forward six months: “In that time period, Tony has been the subject of a lot of publicity and he’s been trying to figure out what to do with Stark Industries because he isn’t manufacturing weapons anymore. If he was the most famous man in America after the first film, he’s definitely the most famous man in the world in the new one.”
- 17 – Race cars built for the Monaco crash sequence. Special Effects Supervisor Dan Sudick says it was “a five-month process since we had to figure out the shots, design the track system, and do all of the math for all the gags.”
- 11 – Visual effects studios (over 550 individuals) that worked on the film from around the world.
There is a faction opposed to my cold, mathematical approach to movies, and they are right when it comes to Iron Man 2. Twenty years from now, comic book cinema scholars will look at the numbers (73% on Rotten Tomatoes, 7.1 on IMDB, same $300 million domestic/$600 million worldwide as Iron Man) and conclude Iron Man 2 was a big hit that everyone liked just a bit less than the original. (This is known as the Crystal Skull fallacy.) Maybe that is true in a broad sense, but Iron Man 2 felt like a bloated letdown two years after the surprise pop of Iron Man. Just check out the positive yet damningly faint praise. The sequel was just fun enough (hard to ruin Downey mugging for two hours) to serve its purpose as a very profitable placeholder on the way to The Avengers.
Iron Man 3
Worldwide Gross: TBD
- $115 million – Amount Disney agreed to pay Paramount , the distributor behind Iron Man and Iron Man 2, for the worldwide distribution rights for Iron Man 3 and The Avengers, tying up a couple of loose ends following Disney’s $4 billion acquisition of Marvel.
- 1999 – Year when the story opens in flashback, as insisted by “I’m Blue” playing over the Marvel flipbook opening credit, leading into a Y2K New Year’s Eve party. We see how Tony met scientist Maya Hansen, the inventor of Extremis, and Aldrich Killian, the villainous abuser of Extremis.
- 42 – Latest iteration (or “Mark”) of the Iron Man armor. Tony got up to Mark 7 in The Avengers, and in the aftermath of saving the world, throws himself into designing dozens of suits. The Mark 42 armor is special: Tony can summon and control all the separate components as needed (when it isn’t malfunctioning, anyway).
- 10 – Rings that form the logo of the terrorist group the Ten Rings, fronted by the Mandarin. The Mandarin is Iron Man’s arch nemesis in the comics, so Marvel primed the film series for his appearance from day one, with the Ten Rings capturing Tony in Iron Man. But Favreau wanted to hold the Mandarin until a sequel: “The big villain is the Mandarin, but the Mandarin is not the type of villain where, right off the bat, you could watch them squaring off. … I look at Mandarin more like how in Star Wars you had the Emperor, but Darth Vader is the guy you want to see him fight. Then you work your way to the time when lightning bolts are shooting out of the fingers and all that stuff could happen.”
- 4 – Minutes of extra footage in the Chinese print. Apparently the additional scenes are nothing but extraneous characters and product placement, but the unique release strategy led to…
- $21.5 million – Opening day gross in China, setting the single-day national record. The movie also set opening-day records in Philippines, Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, and South Africa.
Iron Man 3 is a superhero movies that has seen all the superhero movies. By handing the keys to writer/director Shane Black, the man who explicitly dismantled Schwarzenegger-era action flicks with The Last Action Hero and tongued the cheek of harboiled noir with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Marvel fully embraced the meta-commentary that comes when you take the Hulk away from Ang Lee and give him to Joss Whedon. It is an interesting choice of brand identity in the comic book movie duopoly, where DC has stumbled into a super-serious vision for their flagship heroes dictated by Christopher Nolan’s Batman. (The Superman reboot Man of Steel, produced by Nolan, appears to follow suit.) This contrast is best illustrated by the presentation of terrorist villains. The Bane of The Dark Knight Rises and the Mandarin of Iron Man 3 are kindred spirits, larger-than-life ideologues who mobilize through monologue. But Ben Kingsley is asked to give a less traditional performance, as the Mandarin represents a very different kind of threat. Since this is Ben Kingsley, his scenes are among the most entertaining in the movie.
That is no small task, since the twisty script by Black and Drew Pearce fires on all cylinders to deliver entertainment at every turn. The story holds together just enough, with such flare, that I had little interest in looking for plot holes, although I expect they could be found. It helps to have Robert Downey Jr. as your ace in the hole, dressing up all the exposition you need with quippy banter. The supporting cast is full of capable banter partners. Don Cheadle feels underused, but still impacts with a limited role. Gwyenth Paltrow finally feels properly used as Pepper Potts and handles the transition from screwball comedy foil to damsel in distress to action heroine with surprising grace and charm. Rebecca Hall is unfortunately a muddled plot device of a character, but it is to her credit that I wish they gave her more and better things to do. Ty Simpkins surprises as a young, precocious tech wiz who helps Tony find his way—he practically hiccups every line to walk the right side of the “annoying kid actor” line.
I am very curious to see how Iron Man 3 fits in the greater Avengers universe as the official start of Marvel Phase 2. There are seams: Black and Pearce don’t really know how to integrate the Avengers story—Tony Stark teamed up with a god, a monster, and a time traveller to defeat aliens who opened up a portal in the sky—with the Iron Man universe, where heretofore all good and evil derived from comparably mundane technology. Hey, write what you (don’t) know: Tony’s attempts to reconcile “what happened in New York” (the movie’s euphemism for the events of The Avengers) result in crippling anxiety attacks that skirt around the central conflict rather than addressing it. It’s not a real concern for the standalone movie, but Iron Man is the face of the Marvel cinematic universe that no longer makes sense to him. Maybe this issue is why Marvel has taken the stance, “Let’s not take ourselves too seriously.” Iron Man 3 is further proof that is a viable and enjoyable short-term strategy. That is merit enough. But this is the first time I wonder if DC’s approach—importance through self-importance—might achieve more in the long run despite Marvel’s incredible head start.
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