How the MCU Was Made: ‘Iron Man 2’ – Contract Troubles, Recasting, and Creative Disputes

     May 7, 2020

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When people talk about the successful high-wire act of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the unprecedented forging of a path towards the team-up film Marvel’s The Avengers, they sometimes forget one major stumble on that road: Iron Man 2. The sequel was greenlit quickly after the first Iron Man proved to be a massive success, and after fans went nuts for that Nick Fury cameo in the post-credits stinger. So Marvel Studios’ plan for the sequel was to lay even more track for the idea of an extended universe, but a rushed production schedule, creative disagreements, and actors unhappy with unprecedented contract demands nearly derailed the whole thing entirely. The result is a muddled if not entirely disastrous sequel that, in hindsight, could have had far worse implications for the MCU ahead.

When director Jon Favreau was developing Iron Man, he and his team discussed crafting a trilogy of sorts for the Tony Stark character, with Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stane originally intended to become Iron Monger in the sequels. But after Favreau and the team became concerned that their original villain for Iron Man, the Mandarin, would be too fantastical, Iron Monger was moved up to Iron Man 1 and the intent was to figure out how to do the Mandarin down the road.

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Image via Marvel Studios

After Iron Man became a huge box office and critical success, and Robert Downey Jr. successfully staged his comeback with the 2008 one-two punch of Iron Man and Tropic Thunder, Favreau and Downey began discussing ambitious ideas for Iron Man 2. One comics arc that particularly interested them was “Demon in a Bottle,” which zeroes in on Tony Stark’s alcoholism. This would tread familiar territory for Downey, who had his own very public struggles with substance abuse in the past, but soon became a point of contention with Marvel Studios, who wanted to shy away from anything too “controversial.” These films were, after all, made to sell toys.

But there was another factor that was causing hiccups in the early days on Iron Man 2: time. Three days after Iron Man hit theaters in May 2008, Marvel Studios announced that Iron Man 2 would hit theaters on April 30, 2010. That gave the filmmakers less than two years to develop and write a script, cast, shoot, and edit the visual effects-heavy movie. Which is part of the reason Favreau approached negotiations to return to the director’s chair cautiously, not officially signing on to direct until July of that year.

Fresh off of working with writer/actor Justin Theroux on Tropic Thunder, Downey lobbied for Theroux to take point on the Iron Man 2 script, and so the sequel officially got underway. However, when it came to getting the cast back together, that was a task easier said than done.

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Image via Marvel Studios

Downey was contracted to return and did so, but negotiations with Terrance Howard—who played Colonel James Rhodes in Iron Man 1—broke down. Howard earned the biggest payday on the first Iron Man and was the first actor cast in that film, but back in these days Marvel Studios was notoriously stingy when it came to actors’ salaries. The details of Howard’s Iron Man 2 negotiations were a point of contention—the Hustle & Flow actor claimed he go no explanation for his firing, noting “There was no explanation, apparently the contracts that we write and sign aren’t worth the paper that they’re printed on sometimes. Promises aren’t kept, and good faith negotiations aren’t always held up.”

But reports swirled that there had been tensions on the set of Iron Man 1 between Howard and Favreau, and that Favreau was unhappy with Howard’s performance on the first movie and ended up recutting and reshooting scenes he was in. Rumor had it that Favreau and Theroux set about reducing Howard’s role in Iron Man 2, and as a result Marvel came to the actor with a lower salary offer—although Theroux would go on to publicly dispute that they ever considered cutting down Rhodes’ role in the script. It was never made explicitly clear who walked away from the negotiation table first—Howard or Marvel—but the end result was that the role was recast with Don Cheadle.

Howard wasn’t the only actor to encounter contract issues during the development of Iron Man 2. In working out a contract for Samuel L. Jackson to play Nick Fury in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Marvel Studios approached the veteran performer with an unprecedented nine-movie contract. Jackson was understandably taken aback, and at one point negotiations broke down entirely with Jackson stating, “”There was a huge kind of negotiation that broke down. I don’t know. Maybe I won’t be Nick Fury.” He eventually signed on, and nowadays Marvel’s six- and nine-movie contacts are commonplace, but at the time Jackson was worried he was signing the future of his career away.

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Image via Marvel Studios

Then there was Mickey Rourke, who was offered the role of the villain Whiplash in the wake of his buzzy award-winning comeback performance in The Wrestler. Rourke initially bristled at Marvel’s salary offer of $250,000, but signed on when the offer was raised—although he would later come to regret it. More on that later…

Given that Iron Man 2 was seen as a significant stepping stone towards The Avengers, Marvel wanted the movie to introduce Black Widow. The studio entered talks with Emily Blunt for the role, and it was nearly hers until scheduling conflicts with Gulliver’s Travels (of all things) forced her to back out. That’s when Scarlett Johansson was approached, and the rest is history.

Filming proceeded on Iron Man 2 without a finished screenplay, which caused even more tensions and stress on set. And while Favreau and Downey were famously rewriting Iron Man 1 throughout production, they still had the benefit of a longer development time on that one. On Iron Man 2, they were racing a ticking clock, and since Marvel was becoming more hands-on with including teases for upcoming MCU movies and storylines, the loose nature of the script made things that much more difficult.

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Image via Marvel Studios

Then there was Rourke. Rumors swirled that he and the crew/Marvel weren’t really get along, and the actor would eventually go on to complain that the complexity of the character was left on the cutting room floor:

“When I did Ivan Vanko in Iron Man, I fought… You know, I explained to Justin Theroux, to the writer, and to [Jon] Favreau, that I wanted to bring some other layers and colors [to the character], not just make this Russian a complete murderous revenging bad guy. And they allowed me to do that. Unfortunately, the [people] at Marvel just wanted a one-dimensional bad guy, so most of the performance ended up the floor.”

Rourke took aim specifically at both Marvel and Favreau, claiming they didn’t fight for a more complex baddie:

“If they let you play the bad guy with other dimensions other than one-dimensional. You have to fight for that though, to bring layers to the character. Otherwise, if you’re working for the wrong studio or let’s say a director that doesn’t have any balls, then they’re just gonna want it to be the evil bad guy. […] So, if you’re working with some good studio guys that got brains and you’re working with a director with a set of nuts that’ll let you incorporate that then it’s fun. Otherwise, you end up with what happened on Iron Man.”

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Image via Marvel Studios

But while some of the development and production of Iron Man 2 was rough, the release was anything but. Critically, while everyone agreed the sequel wasn’t near as good as the first film, the reaction wasn’t as unkind as the film’s reputation has gotten in hindsight. Again, at this point Marvel had only made the excellent Iron Man 1 and the forgettable The Incredible Hulk, so this movie wasn’t yet following an unprecedented run of successes.

Iron Man 2 opened to $128 million at the box office on opening weekend, at the time the fifth-highest opening weekend of all time. It went on to gross $623.9 million worldwide, an improvement on Iron Man 1’s $585.1 million. Indeed, after all that did go wrong beforehand, the release of Iron Man 2 was something of a relief to Marvel Studios. And while the potential was surely there for the interconnected MCU to derail this early in its history—much like how Zack Snyder’s DCEU plans essentially imploded—Marvel Studios had the benefit of a less saturated marketplace and Robert Downey Jr.

Indeed, while Warner Bros. clearly struggled to get its own DC version of a cinematic universe off the ground, and essentially failed with the abysmal release of Justice League and subsequent semi-reboot of the properties as well as a course-correction, they were also releasing their DC movies after Marvel had already successfully launched the Avengers movies and countless other properties. But looking back on Iron Man 2, Marvel had similar struggles, many of which seeped over into the press. They simply had the benefit of the doubt at the time, and successful launches of Thor and Captain America subsequently put the MCU on surer footing leading up to one heck of a gamble: Marvel’s The Avengers.

But before they could get there, Marvel had to attempt to bring fantasy into the realm of the MCU. Next week, we look back on the making of Thor.

If you missed my previous How the MCU Was Made articles, click the links below:

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