Cinema Jackpots! – IRON MAN

by John S. 

Cinema Jackpots! is series that explores films with uncertain origins which ultimately became popular smash hits. Everyone loves a good success story. Join us as we explore how these movies caught lightning in a bottle and triumphed.

THE CONTESTANT: Iron Man

THE ODDS: A film being released is often merely tip of the proverbial iceberg. Unseen are the years and years of development hell and endless dance of one-step-forward-three-steps-back. Iron Man was a prime example of that. The long history of stop-starts began roughly around 1990, and involved at various times such varied filmmakers and stars like Stuart Gordon, Nick Cassavetes, Nicholas Cage, Tom Cruise, and Quentin Tarantino. The studio handling the project also changed a few times. Finally, in 2005 Marvel Studios decided to take control and produce Iron Man as their first independent feature – largely because they felt that the character was long overdue for a cinematic debut.

Actor Jon Favreau (Swingers) was chosen by Marvel in 2006 to direct Iron Man. Favreau had been making a name for himself as a director from helming such features as Made, Elf, and Zathura. The Iron Man project would be his largest-scaled one yet. From the start, Favreau was keen on casting a relative unknown, arguing that superhero films are carried more by the brand rather than the performer. Ultimately, however, he settled on a somewhat surprising choice: Robert Downey Jr.  Downey’s history of drug use, rehabilitation, relapse, and recovery had been well-documented. However, he’d made a strong comeback in Gothika, A Scanner Darkly, and – most notably – Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Still, many eyebrows were raised by his selection. The addition of less controversial stars like Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges, and Terrence Howard in key roles helped smooth things over.

However, Favreau had more issues to contend with than just his choice for the lead role. Market research had shown that  Iron Man, while popular among comic book fans, was not as well-recognized by mainstream audiences compared to other superheroes. Focus groups and special animated films intended to raise awareness of the character in advance of the film’s release were launched. Add to that a shooting script that had all the major story beats plotted out but not all of the dialogue, with Favreau encouraging the cast to improvise. Despite the recent success of Batman Begins and Fantastic Four in reviving the somewhat moribund superhero genre, there was no guarantee this would extend to Iron Man as it approached its domestic release on May 2, 2008.

THE GAME: In its first weekend of North American release, Iron Man drew in just over $98 million and nabbed the number 1 spot at the box office. This amount was markedly higher than the opening bows of Batman Begins and Fantastic Four, superhero films with arguably more recognizable and popular lead characters. Even more auspicious was the mostly favorable reviews of the film, citing Iron Man’s fresh, kinetic feel that deftly combined sunny breeziness with no-nonsense seriousness where needed. Also singled out for praise was the cast, especially – in a gratifying twist – its controversial lead who happily turned out to be the best thing about the film.

By the time Iron Man finished its North American run, it had grossed just over $318 million, with an additional $260 million or so from overseas – for a total global gross of around $585 million. Considering the film’s long development history and the various uncertain elements it faced during pre-production and production, this was a superhero equivalent of a Fairy Tale Ending; epecially for Robert Downey Jr. who had proven many people wrong by being the consummate professional – and the perfect Tony Stark.

THE VICTORY:  Robert Downey Jr. was ultimately the best actor to play Tony Stark, a billionaire with a reckless, troubled past whose moral awakening forces him to re-think his values and must ultimately make a choice about how to go forward. This is a dilemma that Downey has obviously faced in real life. There is something very poignant about the conflicted quality he brings to Stark which none of the other actors considered for the role could have matched.

However, it’s not just his emotional real-life journey and triumph over addiction that worked to his advantage: Downey’s rapid-fire improvisation skills and edgy charisma also lent themselves well to his performance. This combination of light and dark, coming naturally to him, made him perfect for the role. He is instrumental to Iron Man’s success. When he says at the end of the film, “I am Iron Man,” it is aptly satisying on many levels.

More important than box-office success, though, is what Iron Man sparked: a vibrant, exciting cinematic universe, more expansive than any other in modern cinema history. Marvel Studios were strategic when they decided to roll out their own films. They were not content with a simple series of loosely-connected sequels. They wanted to create a complex World. Successive films like Iron Man 2 & 3, the Thor films, the Captain America trilogy, AntMan, Spiderman: Homecoming, The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy 1 & 2, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Avengers: Infinity War sought to carry forward what Iron Man started. The result is a highly-entertaining galaxy of films building momentum with each release – headed for a much-anticipated climax: Avengers: Endgame.

With Endgame currently capping off the saga in spectacular fashion, the legacy that Iron Man started is more evident than ever. None of what followed would have been possible without that first success which eventually led to a sea change in how Hollywood makes movies. Marvel’s skillful World-Building has been imitated by the DC Extended Universe and even the James Bond and Mission: Impossible movies (to varying degrees of success). An inter-connected universe of movies seems to be the wave of the future. Whether or not you agree with this change, you can’t deny the impact Iron Man and the rest of the Marvel movies have made.

NEXT CONTESTANT: Get Out – “Just Because You’re Invited, Doesn’t Mean You’re Welcome…”

Mark Blum and his BlumHouse Productions brand have been instrumental in the success of many low-budget horror films, including the Paranormal Activity films and the Insidious series. At first, this 2017 BlumHouse flick looked to be another solid (if atypical) entry into the company’s popular line-up of fright flicks. However, when all was said and done Get Out (a clever, creepy cross between The Stepford Wives, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) had grossed far more than everyone’s best expectations, impressed even critics who normally don’t like horror films, and made Oscar history: writer-director Jordan Peele became the first African-American screenwriter to win the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay – and for a horror film, no less.

 

John S. is a Scarecrow volunteer who loves James Bond, Jason Bourne, Italian Gialli, Argento, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Theo James in anything, Steve Zahn in everything, Halloween (movie & holiday), South Park (cartoon & neighborhood), and Scarecrow Video – not necessarily in that order.

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