It’s safe to say Avengers: Infinity War is a big movie. Ten years and eighteen films in the making, Infinity War packs in more characters and action than any sane movie should contain, delivering the payoff for an entire cinematic universe in a single feature-length film. When a movie like Infinity War presents you with the full scope of the MCU in a single blast, it can be hard to remember that the whole venture started off as something smaller, more intimate, and very much the product of the industry’s quiet king of crowd pleasers, Jon Favreau.
It’s been ten years since Iron Man hit theaters. The standalone that started it all, Iron Man set the template for Marvel movies, built a cult of personality around its star, and introduced the joyful tone that has come to define the MCU brand. Everyone knows that Kevin Feige is the mastermind behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and he deserves every share of credit that comes his way for building and maintaining a phenomenal, unprecedented cinematic experience. But somewhere along the line, Favreau’s fundamental contributions to the franchise have become, not quite ignored or forgotten, but diminished. Which is insane when you consider how well Iron Man holds up a decade later in the pantheon of MCU films and how much the DNA of that movie still thrives in the lifeblood of the franchise. And Favreau’s fingerprints are all over it.
There are no two ways about it. Favreau was critical in launching the MCU and defining the flavor of that Marvel-brand movie experience. He established the breezy Marvel tone, leaning into the formula of the action and livening it up with killer character moments. He’s the person to thank for casting Robert Downey Jr. in his career-defining role as Tony Stark. Downey’s smarmy but heartfelt, cocky-meets-charismatic performance embodied the spirit of Iron Man, turning the then mid-tier comic book character into a household name and reviving Downey’s career in a single stroke.
These days, Downey’s king of the Marvel sandbox, becoming Tony Stark incarnate with his famed on-set compounds, well-tailored suits, and unwavering smirk. But when Iron Man‘s production was gearing up back in the late 2000s, Downey was still seen as a risk. Despite being sober for years, he was just beginning his career comeback and still seen as a dangerous candidate to shoulder Marvel’s self-financed franchise. Favreau fought for him to be cast, holding strong despite multiple “no”s from the studio end until the actor finally won over the studio team in the screen tests.
The gamble paid off. Downey has become the backbone of the franchise. And once Downey signed on, other big names came on board too. “Robert was a great beacon for other actors,” Favreau told EW. “Gwyneth Paltrow came on board, and Jeff Bridges. It went on from there — this tremendous wealth of talented people who are going to bring life to this thing that could otherwise have been a cartoon.” The so-called godfather of the Avengers, Downey became a top-billed star, earning astronomical paychecks with each new film. He shouldered three standalone Iron Man movies, three Avengers movies, a co-lead role in Captain America: Civil War, and a supporting role in Spider-Man: Homecoming. His personality and wit have become an anchor of the franchise. Favreau fought for that too, carving out time on set for improv, playing to Downey’s strengths. As Favreau succinctly told 100.3 Jack FM, “It was my job as a director to show that [Downey] was the best choice creatively…and now the Marvel Universe is the biggest franchise in film history.”
That wasn’t the first time Favreau played a key role in launching an actor’s career into the stratosphere, As a filmmaker and a performer, Favreau has an eye for talent and a drive to foster it. Favreau’s first feature script was for Swingers, the Doug Liman film that launched Vince Vaughn’s career. He gave Will Ferrell his first film lead with Elf, helping his career blossom from that of an SNL headliner to a full-on movie star. When he learned that Ferrell’s Elf costar Zooey Deschanel had a “great Doris Day voice,” he rewrote the script to highlight it. As a filmmaker, he takes joy in watching people fulfill their talents and in turn, it makes his films a joy to watch.
Both on camera and below the line, Favreau is always looking for ways to mine his cast and crew for their skills. Just look at his pick for cinematographer on The Lion King, DP legend Caleb Deschanel, who proved his knack for capturing the majesty of nature in films like Black Stallion and Fly Away Home and is poised to bring that quality to the photoreal CGI environments of the Disney remake. Read any interview with Favreau and you’ll notice how quick he is to call out his crew by name, singling them out for the unique talents they bring to the fold.