Heavy mettle

The Baltimore Sun

Even more than his love of gadgets, more than his appreciation of the comic-book ethos that inspired Iron Man, director Jon Favreau's success in bringing the Marvel Comics superhero to the big screen came down to his success as a mediator. Consider the creative forces he had to bring together.

There was Iron Man himself, Robert Downey Jr., an actor of unquestioned talent and commanding presence, but one weighed down by a personal life that hasn't always been his greatest asset.

There were the folks at Marvel Comics, gatekeepers of the Iron Man mythology since his creation in 1963, who were bankrolling their first movie (after depending on others for such mega-franchises as Spider-Man, X-Men and Fantastic Four).

And there was Gwyneth Paltrow, an Oscar-winning actress with a patrician background, not known for her star turns in superhero fantasies, but who glows with a mix of confidence and playfulness as Iron Man's unrequited love interest, Pepper Potts.

That may not seem like the most homogenous collection of talent ever assembled. But somehow, Favreau made it all work. "Your job," he says, "is to maintain a certain tone and sensibility. You try to keep all these wonderfully creative people consistent to one vision."

In Iron Man, the result is a thrilling start for a new superhero movie franchise that should keep everyone - fans, artists, financiers - happy. Not that balancing all those competing interests and philosophies was ever easy, Favreau says.

"We [would] all sit in my trailer for almost half a day and hammer things out and all negotiate," Favreau says of the collaborative process behind his fourth film as a director. "Robert was usually, 'I've seen that scene a million times before,' and Marvel would be, 'Oh, but if you do that, no one will know what we're talking about, and you have to fulfill certain genre demands.' And I'd be there at the hub of the wheel trying to come up with either lines or an interesting way to fulfill the genre, but we struck a really good balance. There were no histrionics, but there was a lot of negotiation."

Still, it wasn't simply Favreau's skills as a negotiator that served Iron Man so well. The movie's overriding sense of fun, a sustained levity that never gets in the way of the serious business at hand, helps separate it from the rest of the superhero pack.

Jeff Bridges, who plays Obadiah Stane, business partner and surrogate father to Iron Man's alter ego, millionaire industrialist (and munitions manufacturer) Tony Stark, warns not to underestimate Favreau's responsibility for the finished film.

"What really attracted me was the chance to work with Jon Favreau - I love Swingers - and Robert Downey Jr.," he says. "Both of those guys are interesting choices for Marvel to make, especially with Jon, heading up this big comic-book movie.

"Hearing Jon's take on the thing," Bridges says, "how he wanted to make it grounded in reality - he hit that right tone."

Favreau, born in Queens, N.Y., in 1966, has an instinctive feeling for the way city kids can deflect fantasy with a wisecrack - and then buy into it anyway. That combination of cheek and sincerity has been a benchmark of his directorial efforts. It's what made Swingers a hip vision with a heart of gold, Elf a family-film smash and Zathura a video hit in family rooms (and game rooms) everywhere. And it's what keeps Iron Man stirring and funny even when its hero goes on the offensive about corruption within the military-industrial complex.

Favreau may have looked like an odd choice to helm a potential superhero blockbuster when Marvel announced him for Iron Man. But for most of his career, he's maintained a healthy balance between sass and sentiment. Swingers depicted barely employed actors in Los Angeles living an overgrown Gen X version of a hedonistic Rat Pack life, but underneath the retro-chic and bad-boy wit was a yearning for something sweet and simple.

His breakthrough, the Christmas comedy Elf, was flippantly sweet - novel, because it had real Yuletide spirit as well as the charming incongruity of lumbering Will Ferrell in an elf suit. Favreau should have notched another pop milestone with the underrated Zathura, a charming, scantly promoted storybook adventure about a '50s game of outer-space exploration that comes to life and helps unite a pair of battling brothers.

Favreau says making movies has allowed him to "delve into these areas that you've locked away, and somehow pull the lid off of them and explore them, whether it's emotional themes, parent themes, death themes - or, as in Elf, shooting places that you wanted to have the run of when you were growing up: locking up and controlling Sixth Avenue for a few nights. It's a big deal that allows you to make peace with things within you. All the things you think scarred you a little are really your gifts creatively."

It's also provided him with unrivaled access to the biggest toy store an overgrown kid could want.

"They always say car collectors start by buying the cars they always wish they had when they were little," he says. "So I'm the guy who was pining with all my being for an R2-D2 of my own, the guy who couldn't wait for the action figures that weren't ready in time for Christmas after Star Wars came out. ... And now I go and I'm mixing the movie on the Skywalker Ranch and talking to George Lucas and going to the archive, and seeing the real R2-D2 there."

Favreau, characteristically, gives most of the credit for Iron Man's success to his actors.

"I knew that if Robert believed in the phone book and read it, it would be great," he says. "My challenge was to make Robert sign off on what we were going to do. ... He was always my secret weapon. Always, always."

Understandably, Downey, a 43-year-old actor with a history of substance-abuse problems and a reputation for not-always-appropriate intensity, may not have been the kind of guy Marvel had in mind to play Tony Stark, the playboy industrialist who undergoes an almost-literal change of heart to become Iron Man.

"He was not the kind of guy we were talking about casting when I was brought on," Favreau acknowledges. "We were talking about someone younger, starting a franchise, someone not so public in all of the high and low points of his life. A company that's putting out their first movie as a studio, starting a franchise that could be a success that lasts close to a decade, to cast a guy in his 40s, who people have strong opinions about based on his past. ... He's not necessarily a clean slate."

Yet, says Favreau, "When he was cast, it took a great weight off the film. He came in and looked great, was at a great part of his life and had a great attitude. He was game - 'I could do this, I know what this guy has been through.' It was almost destined in his mind."

As an extra benefit, Favreau adds, "he really had a tremendous amount of respect and chemistry for Gwyneth. Any time they were together, I was home free."

michael.sragow@baltsun.com chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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