The story behind Downey's casting is the stuff of movie legend, as Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige and Iron Man director Jon Favreau succeeded in bringing a character to life that would pave the way for so many MCU heroes to follow him.
But while Downey was clearly the perfect choice to embody the genius billionaire playboy, philanthropist, was he Marvel's first option?
Robert Downey Jr. Almost Lost Iron Man Role
Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige gave a commencement address at the graduation ceremony for the University of Southern California (USC) on Friday, May 12, where he revealed new information about Robert Downey Jr.'s casting as Iron Man.
Feige remarked that he and his team looked for somebody with "the perfect mix of heart and strength and charisma," and the stakes were unbelievably high with the fate of the entire MCU's success resting on that actor's shoulders:
"When we were casting the role of Iron Man, we looked at so many different actors. We had to find the perfect mix of heart and strength and charisma. Being our first Marvel film out of the gate, the stakes could not have been higher. The success of the film and the future of our entire studio rested on the shoulders of this one person."
He went on to share that Marvel actually extended an offer to their top choice for Tony Stark: Clive Owen. The English actor "was not interested" in the role, turning it down and leading to Downey's casting with Marvel Studios in September 2006:
"And it was not an easy task, but together with my team and our casting directors and our director, Jon Favreau, we culled down our list, we pinpointed the right guy, and we extended an offer to our top choice - an actor who checked all of those boxes and who we were confident would be a huge hit. And his name, of course, was Clive Owen. He passed. He was not interested."
Owen rose to prominence in the late 1990s and went on to work in hit thriller and action movies like Sin City, The Bourne Identity, Children of Men, and Inside Man.
But while Owen passed on the role, Feige used that moment to realize that it's better to get "the right choice" than "your first choice." He went on to praise Downey for leading one of the most successful movies of the year when Iron Man arrived in 2008 and jump-started the MCU:
"And that is the unwritten rule of life. Not getting your first choice might just be the greatest thing that can happen to you. Because you know what’s better than getting your first choice? Getting the right choice. And in our case, of course, that choice was Robert Downey Jr., and the first movie we ever made as a studio ended up being one of the best-reviewed and highest-grossing movies of the year."
An MCU Without Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man?
Standing at 6'1" and boasting that classic action hero look, Clive Owen likely would have fit the mold for Tony Stark well if he'd taken the part, even being just about the same age as Downey as well.
Why he turned the part down is still a mystery, although this was at a time when Marvel Studios was far from a guaranteed success story. After all, Iron Man was the team's very first movie - one that focused on someone then seen as a B-list hero and had a real chance at not becoming a worldwide phenomenon.
Ultimately, Downey's portrayal of Tony Stark became one of the most iconic matches between actor and role in movie history, as he played the leading role in not only his own Iron Man trilogy but the entire Infinity Saga as well.
Iron Man would gross nearly $600 million globally, becoming the second-biggest financial hit of 2008 domestically and the eighth-highest-grossing film globally of the entire year while making the MCU as a whole a true reality.
Whether the solo movie would have had those same results with Clive Owen in tow can't be quantified, but Marvel fans are surely grateful that things worked out how they did, with the MCU now being the highest-grossing movie franchise of all time.