PLAYA VISTA, California — He has waged war on terrorists, alien dragons and Soviet supersoldiers alike. He's traveled to battlefields on Earth and beyond and been near death too many times to count. And now, Iron Man is getting his own movie.
And what a movie it's shaping up to be.
MTV News visited the set of the über-secretive superhero flick Wednesday, getting an eyeful of the elaborate sets, high-powered stars and the iconic Iron Man mask itself. If you're a geek, you know how big this is. If you're a popcorn-lover who digs movies like the "Spider-Man" and "X-Men" flicks, trust us: This is the one you'll be dying to see when it opens May 2, 2008.
"I've always been a big fan of comics — only Marvel comics actually, strangely," grins Robert Downey Jr., explaining what motivation an Oscar-nominated actor has to join the ranks of illustrated leading men like Tobey Maguire and Hugh Jackman. "I always felt like Tony Stark was one of the great characters."
These days, Downey is living out a childhood fantasy by immersing himself in that character. Transformed by a sharp suit, purple dress shirt and triangular goatee, he strikes a pose in the middle of the leather-and-glass-dominated Stark Enterprises office. It's as if we're eyeballing a freshly inked comic panel.
Stark's Trump-worthy office is a masterpiece of glass, leather and wood, overlooking a massive mural of a downtown-somewhere view. The minimalist look is broken up by airplane models, a big-screen plasma TV, and a framed diploma reminding us that "Anthony Edward Stark" received his physics and aeronautical degrees from MIT. Nearby, trophies (the Space Quest Award) and books ("The Tao of Physics") remind us that we're dealing with a hero as agile mentally as he is physically. To drive that point home — almost too hilariously — is a Photoshopped picture of a teenage Downey hanging with an '80s-era Bill Gates.
"[Stark is] a bit conflicted about the ramifications of weapons and what it means [to build them] in today's temperature and political climate," Downey explains. "And then he does something unusual."
As fans of the invincible one know, that unusual action yields an impregnable, red-and-gold suit of armor that blesses him with powers to rival any superhero. And when director Jon Favreau (see "Have Doubts About The 'Iron Man' Movie? Jon Favreau Wants To Hear Them") walks in carrying the trademark mask, the chills are reminiscent of the first time you saw Superman fly across a movie screen or Spidey slinging his web.
"We picked Robert because of his acting ability — and when you put this on, it really shines through," the "Swingers" star-turned-director beams, teasing Downey.
Activating a button near the mask, the Iron icon springs to life, shining lights out of each eye. Sleek, metallic and intimidating, the mask walks a fine line between the practicality of Green Goblin and the homespun warmth of the Rocketeer.
"The part that attracts me to Iron Man is he's not really a superhero," Favreau explains. "He's just an inventor and a normal mortal who wasn't bit by a radioactive bug or shot with gamma rays or anything. He's a guy who invents a suit, and he uses his mind to create the persona of the superhero he plays."
As for the rest of the outfit, Downey reveals that it takes three men to put it on him, while Favreau adds: "Robert is very good with the suit. ... [Iron Man] flies, he can shoot repulsor beams out of the palms of his hands and out of his chest. He has a lot of little gadgets that are rigged up into the armor, using other Stark technologies that are used on weapons systems for aircraft."
On this day, a dark-haired Gwyneth Paltrow (as sharp-tongued secretary Pepper Potts) and chrome-domed Jeff Bridges (Stark rival Obadiah Stane) are having an intense conversation at Stark's computer. In the adjoining entranceway, two elevators are accompanied by a green-and-gold bust of Tony's deceased dad Howard Stark, founder of Stark Industries.
"What is he up against? His biggest enemy?" Favreau says, stuttering slightly while avoiding the sinister presence of a nearby Bridges. "I don't want to ruin the movie, but it's himself. It's true."
For Exhibit A, you need look no further than the half-filled decanter of whiskey, sitting on Stark's table alongside cocktail glasses and a bucket of ice. Exhibit B can be found in Stark's basement factory set, located a few hundred feet across the soundstage: Mixed in with the machinery, classic cars and blueprints is a stocked fridge brimming with chilled martini glasses, olives and enough liquor to fuel a young Hollywood bash. In case you haven't figured it out, Stark's alcoholism is being foreshadowed for future films.
"He's a billionaire weapons industrialist manufacturer," Downey says of the territory they'll mine. "And [we'll also get into] all the other stuff that most people know."
Which includes the "Iron Man" origin story — now updated from Vietnam to Iraq — that features Stark's capture, torture and escape as a prisoner of war. On this soundstage, between the Stark Enterprises set and Tony's basement factory — which contains his silver Audi R-8, several vintage Harleys, a custom hot-rod with the license plate "STARK 5" (Favreau's real wheels) and an old-school oil-can collection — is an enormous Iraqi cave with man-size holes blown into the sides. Largely the site of the film's first act, it stands near another set designed to look like an airplane cabin.
"We're right in the middle of [filming], so we're right in the thick of things," says Favreau, who uses a personalized bicycle to shuttle between the sets of the huge stage. "And a lot of the cooler stuff on these films happens much later. We have [special-effects studio Industrial Light and Magic] working on the film, doing a lot of the CGI work, and I'm only seeing animatics of that."
So what's going on here is mostly heavy-duty acting, performed by respected thespians like Downey, Paltrow, Bridges and Terrence Howard (see "Terrence Howard Reveals Power-Thirsty Side Of Iron Man's Sidekick"). But later on, once Favreau's effects team gets to work, the director reveals that one scene in particular will unleash the full capabilities of the suit.
"From what I've seen, one of the most spectacular sequences has Iron Man flying and dog-fighting with F-22 jet fighters," Favreau beams, proud as a papa. "[He battles] the Raptors, the state-of-the-art for weapons technology."
"But sadly," Downey adds, brandishing a smile, "they're no match for the suit."
After 44 years of waiting, maybe — just maybe — we can hang in there for 12 more months.
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