The first Iron Man movie is what made the MCU possible. The movie turned the Avengers into the most beloved group of superheroes in the world and made Robert Downey Jr. a star once again. Iron Man also helped Marvel Studios grow into what it is today, with the help of Disney, which purchased Marvel a year after its release. Finally, Iron Man also set up one of the original content pillars of Disney Plus, which is the streaming home of the MCU.
It might sound strange to think of the first Iron Man as anything but a massive success. But when Marvel made the movie, success wasn’t guaranteed. In fact, Marvel was prepared for the movie to bomb, and RDJ recently explained what it was like working on the film in that environment.
Marvel picked Iron Man for the movie as it had no other options. It had licensed all of its popular properties to other studios, including X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man. Therefore, all it could do was hope a lesser-known hero would make an impact. But the studio wasn’t ready to spend more cash on the project than it needed to.
What if Iron Man failed?
RDS talked to The Hollywood Reporter’s Chris Gardner during the Director’s Guild of America’s Afternoon with Robert Downey Jr. The actor offered a few tidbits from making Iron Man in the process, indicating that it was always their intention — him and Jon Favreau — to make a great 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.
But Marvel didn’t have high hopes for the film’s financial success. “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,” the actor revealed. The movie was “ready to be written off if it tanked,” he went on, explaining that he finds out more every day about how Iron Man was financed.
Marvel’s hands-off approach worked, RDJ says. “It was the perfect thing where there were not a lot of creatively aggressive eyes on us,” he said. “And by the time they gave it to us, it was like united artists, like the lunatics took over the asylum.”
That was just Marvel’s way of saving resources on a project it knew could fail spectacularly.
Downey Jr. further recalled that others got the same impression that Marvel was giving them a lot of freedom. “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.”
Thankfully, Iron Man never tanked. The movie pulled in more than $585 million on a $140 budget. And the best part is that it kicked off a sprawling universe of interconnected stories worth tens of billions. And we can’t wait for RDJ to return to his Iron Man role for Secret Wars.