Robert Downey Jr.'s heroic comeback

  • Bang Showbiz
  • 2 May 2008
Iron Man

When you think of the stereotypical all-American superhero, Robert Downey Jr. doesn't immediately spring to mind. Hollywood bosses often go for young, handsome unknowns to play their fearless champions, take for example Brandon Routh as Superman. Or, they opt for smouldering hunks like George Clooney and Eric Bana who played Batman and the Hulk respectively.

However, Marvel Studios defied expectation by choosing Downey Jr. – a middle-aged Oscar-nominated actor more famous for his roles in serious dramas such as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Wonder Boys than mainstream box office successes. Even he was shocked to win the part, saying: "I wasn't top of anyone's list to play Iron Man. It was the chance of a lifetime and it has been a journey for me." But despite his initial reservations, Downey Jr. manages to inhabit the character, bringing humour and intelligence to the role.

In Iron Man, Downey Jr. plays genius billionaire weapons contractor Tony Stark, a character partly modelled on aviator and filmmaker playboy Howard Hughes. Stark's carefree life changes forever when his convoy is attacked during a weapons test and shrapnel becomes perilously embedded near his heart. He is taken captive by an Afghan warlord and ordered to build a devastating weapon for his enemies, but defies the threats on his life to create an indestructible suit of armour to keep him alive while he escapes.

After returning to America, Stark has a change of heart and vows to take his company Stark Industries, the US government's top weapons supplier, in a radically new direction – to save the world rather than destroy it.

As his nemesis Obadiah Stane - played by an unrecognisably bald and chillingly malevolent Jeff Bridges - takes control of his business, Stark holes himself up in his high-tech workshop developing a gold and red titanium suit to give his alter-ego Iron Man superhuman strength and protection.

Stark's vulnerability is visually emphasised by the glowing mini nuclear reactor he wears on his chest to keep the deadly shrapnel away from his heart. This also becomes the secret to his strength, as it helps to power his Iron Man suit. "It was like wearing the coolest Halloween suit ever", reveals Downey Jr..

Director Jon Favreau, whose previous credits include Elf and Zathura: A Space Adventure, believed the former Hollywood hellraiser was the perfect actor to portray the witty, womanising but ultimately flawed character. "Downey Jr. wasn't the most obvious choice but he understood what makes the character tick. He found a lot of his own life experience in Tony Stark," he explained.

When the Iron Man comic book stories were first published by Stan Lee in the 60s, Tony Stark was shot down while visiting Vietnam. The movie adaptation sees the superhero battling modern day adversaries and addressing the tension between the Eastern and Western world.

Favreau insists comic book heroes are more important in today's uncertain climate than ever because they offer people hope. He explained: "I think it's no coincidence that since September 11th, people have gravitated towards these simple good against evil stories. Here's this guy who can come in and thoughtfully get rid of the bad guys, save the good guys, and solve all of our problems. People are looking for escapism."

Downey Jr. – who has previously battled a well-documented drugs and alcohol addiction, which has seen him end up in prison, rehab or homeless on several occasions – has clearly drawn heavily on his own personal experiences to breath life into the role of Tony Stark. The role has also seemingly allowed him to banish the inner demons that have plagued him for the past 20 years. He acknowledges, "There is always going to be obvious questions of art imitating life".

It is no coincidence that during the movie Stark admits, "I am a man with many problems", particularly after Downey Jr. confesses to "balling up the script" during shooting and improvising in many of the scenes.

Downey Jr., 43, admits he was desperate to land an action role before he got too old, and threw himself into a strict exercise regime to prepare. "It isn't easy when you are approaching 40. I felt that if I was ever going to do a movie like Iron Man, I had to do it quickly before it became embarrassing being the guy in tights with the flabby body. It was about survival for me, having the strength to do the movie."

Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays Stark's devoted assistant Virginia "Pepper" Potts, confessed she wasn't a comic book fan before she agreed to star in the movie. She said: "I had more of a fairytale, Charlotte Bronte kind of youth. When I was approached with this I actually had never heard of Iron Man, so it was a real education. There is great sexual chemistry between Pepper and Stark. She protects him."

Paltrow, whose character helps Stark uncovers an evil plot with global implications, revealed the opportunity to work with Jeff Bridges was too good to turn down. "To most American actors, Jeff Bridges is a god." Bridges was "the first and only" choice to play Obadiah, claim Marvel bosses. The 58-year-old Oscar-nominated actor was so impressed with the script he shaved his head for the role. "I always thought that someday a part would come along and I would have to do it. It instantly transformed me into Obadiah," he says.

Although Paltrow relished the prospect of starring in her first comic book movie, wearing high heels while shooting action scenes took its toll on her body. Favreau failed to listen when he told him she had hurt her knee as she filmed a sequence where she runs away from the evil Iron Monger. Downey Jr. explained: "He was like, 'Yeah, anyway...' because, you know, that's your typical actress royalty issue. As it turns out, she had quite a devastating injury on her knee and immediately went into surgery the next day! If there's any time when it seems like she's just standing there, that's why!"

Iron Man doesn't just offer witty dialogue and a stellar cast. As is expected with comic book capers, the movie also delivers spectacular action scenes.

Favreau said: "We had tremendous freedom. The explosions had to be great, there had to be enough great action set pieces. I knew that the technology of the day - and I'm not that big a fan of CGI – but the work that's been done is very convincing right now. We tried to go that extra mile." Several highly entertaining scenes take place in Stark's state-of-the-art workshop while he is inventing his alter-ego. It is here that he learns to control the power of his suit and experiments with flying - at the cost of several of his gleaming sports cars - ably assisted by his over-efficient talking robots.

Terrence Howard, who plays Stark's trusted friend and military advisor Lt. Colonel James "Rhodey" Rhodes, underwent intensive training with the US Air Force to prepare for his role. He said: "It really helped me find the nuts and bolts of the character. I loved getting up in the air. I was going 400 miles an hour in a jet and when I took over the controls for the first time, it was an experience I will never forget."

Favreau has already expressed his interest in working on the follow-up to what is sure to be a huge box office smash. He is hoping to secure a trilogy and insists both the cast and crew are keen to reprise their roles.

Given the movie's impressive actions scenes, support cast and, of course, the terrific Downey Jr., it seems at least one Iron Man sequel is a dead cert.

Audiences are given their biggest hint as Rhodey longingly eyes up his best friend's titanium suit and vows, "Next time, baby".

by Lucy O'Loughlin

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