Jon Favreau heard the whispers, the murmurs of "What the hey?" when he was selected by Marvel Studios to turn the comic-book empire's Iron Man into a movie. He heard them again when he talked the studio into casting Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man, the metal-suited hero of the piece.
The guy who starred in Swingers, who directed Elf, was directing Iron Man? And he wanted Downey to star?
"This is a moment in time when geeks are trend-setters," he says with a chuckle.
Favreau was fine with that. He had a plan. He was prepared. And those preparations began with a film that wasn't all he had hoped it would be.
"Zathura really felt like a prep film for Iron Man," he says of his failed 2005 fantasy. "It had a lot of the same issues, effects and all that.
"But it wasn't released. It escaped. And then it disappeared into obscurity. A lot of work went into it and I learned a lot about visual effects, how to direct around them.
"After that, I prepped John Carter of Mars for a year, which somebody else will now make. I brought the artists and writers over to this project when that one fell through, and it felt like all of that was just preparation for the sort of movie we ended up making as Iron Man. It feels like this was meant to be, like I've been building to this one for five years."
The writer-actor turned writer-director still can't believe his luck at landing this assignment. Ask Favreau, 41, what he brought to the table that makes Iron Man what it is, and expect a simple answer.
"My biggest contribution to this movie was getting Robert Downey Jr. hired."
But why? Why did he lobby so hard for the quixotic Downey, a former Hollywood "wild child" whose baggage, whose troubled history, is public record?
"Bingo," says Favreau. That's why he wanted him.
"Robert brings that wealth of experience, 'baggage' as you call it, and it enriches the role," Favreau says. "He doesn't have to do much. We can read all this personal history of his into it and it allows the film to maintain a family-friendly posture and attitude. But the audience knows that personal history, what he used to be like.
"Robert brings an authenticity to the role simply by what he's experienced publicly, in his life. He grew up in the public eye, much as Tony Stark has, living in a fishbowl, famous."
Favreau says he knew Downey would mesh nicely with his way of making movies -- juicing up dialogue between scenes, between takes, "trying out lines written on cocktail napkins the night before." The director would roll two cameras on set just to see what Downey might improvise in a take.
Favreau cast Jeff Bridges as Stark's colleague and possible foe, Obadiah Stane. He got him to shave his head.
And he wrestled with the story's politics. Iron Man was a 1960s creation, the story of a wealthy military ordnance manufacturer who builds himself an armored suit that flies, fires weapons and take whatever the world's evil-doers can dish out.
"To sweep that [militaristic] aspect of the character under the rug seemed like a missed opportunity," Favreau says. "We changed it to Afghanistan. I try not to preach too much as a filmmaker because I know my opinions might change. But I wanted to capture the anxiety we all feel and play around with what fantasy films do, which is to give complicated problems simple solutions. That's Superman stopping the runaway train or Spider-Man rescuing the little old lady from the mugger. It's escapism."
"I didn't want people to have to spend their Friday night having their nose rubbed in what they see in the news every day. We're not making In the Valley of Elah here."
Favreau laughs, and expresses, again, his disbelief
"All these people, actors, studio executives, they all went on trust, with this," Favreau marvels. "The script wasn't done. It was going to take two years. But I knew if they hired me and we could get Robert, it would be fun. We're a couple of dads who get most of our thrills these days out of the movies we make, so we put a lot into this for that reason."
Did it pay off? Those "trend-setter" geeks seem to think so. From the roar of approval at the first snippets of the film shown at last summer's Comic Con convention in San Diego to the flurry of recent posts on Harry Knowles' Ain't It Cool? website, the accolades have been pouring in.
"Better than all the X-Men films," crows a fan who has seen the movie. Downey was "perfectly cast," enthused another.
And a self-described fanboy who calls himself "El Jokalzo," tries for something like the last word when he raves, "300 had people yelling 'This is Sparta!' Iron Man will have people shouting 'I am Iron Man!'."