While there are plenty of comic book adaptations hitting theaters this year, only two truly matter: The Dark Knight and, amazingly enough (given the character’s lack of popularity), Iron Man. The former is currently being marred by the unexpected death of star Heath Ledger, while the latter is benefiting from a kick-ass trailer and plenty of buzz. Iron Man’s screenwriters, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, the team partly responsible for Children of Men, found themselves in Santa Barbara, California this week at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Last year, Fergus’ directorial debut, First Snow, based on a script the duo co-wrote, made its premiere at the fest that remains one of the best kept secrets on the circuit. This time around, they are jurors for the competition and, lucky for us, talking Iron Man.
Fergus and Ostby are quick to admit they were not fans of the Iron Man character before the movie was offered to them by director Jon Favreau who had previously worked with them on an adaptation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, John Carter of Mars (now at Pixar). It’s not that they disliked the armored superhero, though; he just never appeared on their radar (again, that lack of popularity). Marvel Comics quickly remedied their ignorance with an Iron Man bible that chronicled the character’s long history since his debut in 1963 – a multi-millionaire, now billionaire, Tony Stark uses his company’s weapons, technology, and super-intellect to build a suit of mechanized armor to kick a whole lot of communist, now terrorist, ass. Though the screenwriters say Marvel gave them much latitude, Favreau had a major mandate for them.
“John wanted it to be more fun,” Fergus says. “He didn’t want it to be Batman, where he’s skulking around, or Jason Bourne and all these angst-ridden heroes. So’s [Tony Stark], but he’s also a party animal, he’s fun, and he deals with his issues by being extroverted, not staying at home, skulking in the mirror.”
Having Robert Downey Jr., a recovered alcoholic and addict – not to mention arguably the best actor of his generation – to play the drunk Stark brought even more life to the character. “What’s great about him is, you give him an idea and he takes it three more levels – and usually in front of the camera where you had no idea it was coming.”
Considering the work that goes into shaping a major movie franchise, especially out of such a relatively obscure character, one would expect there to have been added pressure, but Ostby insists that wasn’t the case. “I think a story’s a story. All these great characters Stan Lee had were grounded in something real and heartfelt, so you take that, try to modernize it.”
It helped that Stark’s transformation into a hero trod on familiar thematic territory for the screenwriters, too. “It’s the same as Children of Men, and most stuff we work on,” Fergus explains. “[Tony Stark’s] a real man, trying to recreate himself not physically, but psychologically. [These characters] are really living shallow, horrible lives, and then they have a huge reckoning and have to tear it all down.” For example, when you discover that the weapons research company that made your father rich and provides for your excessive lifestyle is actually the source of terrible global evil. “What happens when you think you’re one of the good guys and wake up to find out you’re one of the bad guys? Who are the bad guys? They’re your customers. You helped created them."
“One of the other things we loved a lot about Iron Man is there’s nothing supernatural about him,” Fergus continues. “He’s just using his mind to create technology to do what his body can’t – to build the ultimate good guy out of the material he used to build bombs with. That’s just a great reversal of a guy’s psyche.”
After the interview, I couldn’t help but hope that Fergus and Ostby would tackle more comic book adaptations given their ability to peel away all the excess to get at the mythological heart of a character. Turns out they are. After the writers' strike ends, their next project is Cowboys and Aliens – “Spielberg meets John Ford” kind of stuff, they call it.