The MCU has grown to become the biggest franchise in the world today, but there was a time before the superhero craze when the thought of an Iron Man movie seemed crazy - particularly one starring Robert Downey Jr., who had, less than a decade prior, spent time in prison for drug-related crimes.
But fast forward over 14 years and 38 MCU projects, the Iron Man trilogy stands as the seventh highest-grossing of all-time, Tony Stark is among the most recognizable heroes in the world, and Downey Jr. is one of the highest-earning actors working in Hollywood today.
Although looking back to that time when the fate of Iron Man was up in the air and Marvel was on the brink of bankruptcy, the studio had a backup plan in mind in case things didn't quite go to plan.
Iron Man Star Reveals Marvel's Back-Up Plan For Movie Failure
The Hollywood Reporter's Chris Gardner shared a clip from the Director's Guild of America's "Afternoon with Robert Downey Jr." event in which the Iron Man star touched on how Marvel Studios prepared for the potential failure of the MCU flick.
The MCU veteran was asked to expand on a previous quote he had given in which he compared making the 2008 blockbuster to "doing [their] version of a big-budget Robert Downey Sr. movie:"
“Another full-circle story. I exchanged my previous obsession with an obsession for this role and landed it — and lest we forget, it was Favreau who was pushing for me but knew he had to play the politics or he would have no leverage moving forward. Then we proceeded to launch a historic run of what is now the cinematic universe with [Jon] Favreau and I essentially doing our version of a big-budget [Robert Downey] Senior movie. With all the templates of a genre film, with our intention of making it as marketable as possible.”
Downey Jr. first revealed that expectations within the studio were low for Iron Man, so the cast and crew "were a little bit left alone" to develop the project:
"Well, I mean first of all, not too many people were thinking Iron Man was going to have an opening weekend or do much of anything, so we were a little bit left alone."
He went on to say that the movie was "ready to be written off if it tanked," just as Warner Bros. similarly canceled Batgirl for a tax write-off recently:
"I find out more every day about how that thing was financed, it was basically ready to be written off if it tanked."
The actor added that the team did not have "a lot of creatively aggressive eyes on [them]," which gave them an abundance of freedom:
"And so it was the perfect thing where there were not a lot of creatively aggressive eyes on us. And by the time they gave it to us, it was like united artists, like the lunatics took over the asylum."
Downey Jr. lastly recalled the words of Obadiah Stane actor Jeff Bridges, who compared the process to "doing a $200 million independent movie:"
"And I remember Jeff Bridges too, he was like, 'man, we're doing a $200 million independent movie, man.' And there was just that sense that, of course, it was much more organized."
Why Marvel Took A Chance On Iron Man
The apprehension toward developing an Iron Man movie may sound crazy in today's world, but back then, the armored Avenger was one of Marvel's lesser-known heroes. After all, the most famous heroes such as the X-Men, Fantastic Four, Hulk, and Spider-Man had all had their film rights sold off elsewhere.
Marvel had a restricted arsenal to work with at the inception of the MCU, and in fact, the story of how Iron Man become the first movie in the franchise is rather hilarious. A focus group of kids were shown a variety of heroes and asked which toy they would opt to play with, and Tony Stark's suited hero was by far the winner.
Clearly, the studio had some faith in this gamble, as evidenced by the $140 million production budget, although plans were made to minimize the potential damage. Taking a hands-off approach to allow director Jon Favreau more creative freedom may seem bold, but this helped minimize the time and resources invested.
This all ultimately worked out for the best as that creative team of, as Robert Downey Jr. called them, "lunatics," went on to develop one of the greatest and most influential superhero movies of all time, turning around a shocking $585 million box office haul and kickstarting a major franchise.
Iron Man is streaming now on Disney+.