Casting Comics: IRON MAN

To commemorate the 90th birthday of pioneering comic book artist Jack “The King” Kirby, we’ve decided to premier our new, semi-regular feature, “Casting Comics,” by taking a look at the casting for an upcoming adaptation of a character Kirby helped design, Iron Man.

First appearing in March 1963’s Tales Of Suspense #39, Iron Man is in reality millionaire – and later, thanks to inflation, billionaire – industrialist Tony Stark. While on a business trip to Vietnam to see how a product of his Stark Industries was helping the war effort there, Stark is wounded and then captured by a Vietnamese warlord who demands that Stark build armaments for him. With the help of another captive, Yin Sen, Stark secretly builds a suit of mechanized armor that will not only help him escape, but which serves to keep his heart, in danger from a lodged piece of shrapnel, beating.

Cultivating a rich playboy public persona to hide his superhero activities, Tony Stark can be seen as publisher Marvel Comics variation on DC Comic’s Bruce Wayne/ Batman secret identity. But instead of keeping his heroic duties hidden, Stark introduces Iron Man to the world as his personal bodyguard and corporate mascot. For the upcoming film, director John Favreau has scored a casting coup in having Robert Downey Jr. (left) playing Stark. Growing the facial hair to match the comic character’s look isn’t all that Downey brings to the role. During one of the character’s periodic downturns, Stark took to drink, eventually becoming an alcoholic, though ultimately he would overcome his addiction. One doesn’t have to be an avid follower of the tabloids to know that Downey himself has suffered through, and emerged from, his own addiction problems. If the film addresses this plot line or if it is being saved for a future installment, expect Downey to bring an honesty to the material that many other actors might not be able to bring.

Tony Stark’s secretary and one-time love interest is Virginia “Pepper” Potts, a feisty red head. Plucked out of the anonymity of the Stark Industries secretarial pool after fixing an accounting mistake made by Stark himself, Pepper became Stark’s invaluable aide, known for her competance in helping Stark run his business as well as speaking her mind when needed. Although blond, Gwyneth Paltrow (right) certainly sounds like a strong choice based on her work in such varied films such as Sliding Doors (1998), The Royal Tenebaums (2001) and Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow (2004). Comics fans obsessing over Paltrow’s hair color need not worry, some early spy photos from the set clearly show her sporting an appropriate dye job.

Rounding out Tony Stark’s inner circle of friends in the film is Jim Rhodes, being played by Terence Howard (left). Rhodes is a helicopter pilot who Stark meets following his escape from Vietnam (updated recently in the comics to the First Gulf War). In the comics, Rhodes would become Stark’s personal pilot and confidant, temporarily donning the Iron Man armor during Stark’s alcoholic period before getting his own armored identity of War Machine.

Every good hero needs a dastardly villain, and Tony Stark has Obadiah Stane, a rival businessman who ultimately builds his own weapons suit to attack Iron Man as Iron Monger. (And yes, a “monger” is generally defined as someone who sells something, but since Stane manufactures military weapons it sort of fits…) While Jeff Bridges (right) is known for his wavy coif, some recent paparazzi photos of Bridges show that he is sporting the same bald pate that Stane does in the comics.

Also joining in the cast will be Shaun Toub (left) as Stark’s fellow imprisoned inventor, Yin-Sen.

More interesting is Samuel L. Jackson’s appearance as Nick Fury (right), head of the secret spy organization SHIELD. As reimaged for Marvel Comics’ Ultimates imprint, Fury was intentionally modeled on the actor, with his permission. Iron Man is the first production under Marvel Comics’ own Marvel Studios, with several of the publisher’s characters slated for film adaptations in the coming years including the Incredible Hulk, Captain America, Ant Man and Nick Fury himself. Speculation holds that some characters, such as Jackson’s Fury will crossover between films, culminating in the superhero team-up film The Avengers, tentatively scheduled for 2011.

Perhaps the trickiest part of adapting Iron Man from the comics to the big screen is making the character’s suit of armor look realistic and plausible. Director Favreau was faced with the question of which version of the Iron Man armor to go with. Over the nearly 45 years the character has been published the one constant has been change when it comes to Iron Man’s armor. In his first appearance, he sported a dull gray armor, reflective of the scrounged materials Stark had on hand. However, he soon built a second a similar suit but which was gold in color. Over the years, the gold look became the red and gold livery more familiar to comic readers today, with changes being made as dictated by the ever changing roster of artists working on the book and the influence of real world technological advancement. For a majority of the film, Favreau has decided to go with the most recent design of Iron Man’s armor, although for the origin sequence of a captive Stark building his first suit, he goes with a design that closely resembles the initial gray armor.

Interestingly, in this era of near photo-realistic computer generated imagery, director Favreau choose to use practical suits on set for as much of the film as he can. It is a strategy he also used on his previous film, the science-fantasy Zathura. At last month’s San Diego Comic Con, Favreau unveiled a short montage of clips from the film, showing off both suits of armor in action. To an astonished audience, Favreau stated that with the exception of the closing shots of Iron Man in his red and gold armor flying past two Air Force jets, all the views of the hero were actual suits worn on set.

Iron Man is currently set for release on May 2, 2008.

Special thanks to staffer Bill Gatevackes for graphical assistance.
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About Rich Drees 6964 Articles
A film fan since he first saw that Rebel Blockade Runner fleeing the massive Imperial Star Destroyer at the tender age of 8 and a veteran freelance journalist with twenty years experience writing about film and pop culture. He is a member of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle.
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