There are so many superheroes in Hollywood these days that they’re tripping over each other’s capes, but director Jon Favreau has a secret weapon that will set the “Iron Man” franchise apart from the masked masses. Or perhaps it’s better to think of it a not-so-secret weapon.
“The fact that our hero has no secret identity — that opens up a lot of things for us creatively,” says Favreau, whose Marvel Comics character returns to the big screen on May 7. The high-flying franchise from Marvel Studios and Paramount Pictures picks up right where the 2008 hit film left off: with billionaire Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) revealing his secret identity to the world in open defiance of every municipal code in Gotham City and Metropolis. It was a bit jolting but Iron Man is the first major Hollywood superhero to soar over Los Angeles and, well, the laws of publicity are different here.
Favreau knows about the old conventions of cape movies (he had a small role in “Batman Forever” in 1995, after all), but the $585-million success of “Iron Man” was wired to avoid most of them and keyed instead on Downey’s wit and decadent smirk.
“The superhero genre has been picked over pretty thoroughly with all the different titles, sequels, reboots. It’s tough to keep it fresh and not do something that is derivative of something someone else has done. By taking a left turn at the end of the first film and making him a public figure, it opened it up to a whole lot of new possibilities. It goes beyond your standard secret identity/caped crusader model.”
The script by Justin Theroux (“Tropic Thunder”) takes the franchise on a trajectory that heroes rarely follow in popcorn films, Favreau said. “The rise of Caesar — there are mythic proportions to that. Other genres tackle that type of story on a regular basis but the superhero genre has not, up to this point. We were able to deal with the ramifications of fame and notoriety and high expectations.”
If anyone knows the riptides of celebrity, it’s Downey Jr., and Favreau said the star brought that into the mix for “Iron Man 2.”
“It allowed us to draw upon our experiences and certainly Robert’s experiences,” the filmmaker said. “Robert had strong points of view on these things. He was propelled quite publicly to a much more successful station and we were able to draw upon that. We were able to comment on the phenomena of celebrity as we know it today.”
Favreau said only “Fantastic Four” has really flirted with this type of story but those two films were more playful in tone. “Iron Man 2” will show Stark grinding the gears in his life as fame drags him down to earth. That’s exciting for Favreau, who said he saw a dangerous sameness in the big-screen tales of Peter Parker, Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent.
“Usually the hero is forced to live an even more bifurcated existence between the esteemed persona of the superhero version of himself and the humble or disguised existences of his secret-identity self,” Favreau said. “Those twin stories deviate more and more as the hero becomes more established. The hero starts to leave behind the secret identity. All of these franchises struggle to find their different angle on all of that as they move forward but the thing is it’s all fairly limited and limiting. There are only so many stories there. We’re flying in a different direction.”
— Geoff Boucher
Top, Jon Favreau at his office in 2008 (Ringo H.W. Chiu / For The Times). Second photo: Robert Downey Jr. in “Iron Man 2” (Francois Duhamel / Marvel Entertainment).
FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this post had the name of Caesar spelled incorrectly. Et tu, spellcheck?