The film had been in development since 1990 at Universal Pictures, 20th Century Fox, or New Line Cinema at various times, before Marvel Studios reacquired the rights in 2006. Marvel put the project in production as its first self-financed film, with Paramount Pictures as its distributor. Favreau signed on as director, aiming for a naturalistic feel, and he chose to shoot the film primarily in California, rejecting the East Coast setting of the comics to differentiate the film from numerous superhero films set in New York City-esque environments. Filming began in March 2007 and concluded in June. During filming, the actors were free to create their own dialogue because pre-production was focused on the story and action. Rubber and metal versions of the armors, created by Stan Winston's company, were mixed with computer-generated imagery to create the title character.
Genius, billionaire, and playboy Tony Stark, who has inherited the defense contractor Stark Industries from his father, is in war-torn Afghanistan with his friend and military liaison Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes to demonstrate the new "Jericho" missile. After the demonstration, the convoy is ambushed and Stark is critically wounded by one of his own company's rocket-propelled grenades. He is captured and imprisoned in a cave by a terrorist group, the Ten Rings; Yinsen, a fellow captive who is a doctor, implants an electromagnet into Stark's chest to keep the shrapnel shards that wounded him from reaching his heart and killing him. Ten Rings leader Raza offers Stark freedom in exchange for building a Jericho missile for the group, but Tony and Yinsen agree Raza will not keep his word.
Stark and Yinsen quietly build a small, powerful electric generator called an arc reactor to power Stark's electromagnet and a suit of powered armor to aid in their escape. Although they keep the suit hidden almost to completion, the Ten Rings discover their hostages' intentions and attack the workshop. Yinsen sacrifices himself to divert them while the suit is completed. The armored Stark battles his way out of the cave to find the dying Yinsen, then burns the Ten Rings' weapons in anger and flies away, crashing in the desert and destroying the suit. After being rescued by Rhodes, Stark returns home and announces that his company will no longer manufacture weapons. Obadiah Stane, his father's old partner and the company's manager, advises Stark that this may ruin Stark Industries and his father's legacy. In his home workshop, Stark builds a sleeker, more powerful version of his improvised armor suit, as well as a more powerful arc reactor for his chest. Personal assistant Pepper Potts places the original reactor inside a small glass showcase. Though Stane requests details, Stark keeps his work to himself because he is suspicious of his company.
At a charity event held by Stark Industries, reporter Christine Everhart informs Stark that his company's weapons, including the Jericho, were recently delivered to the Ten Rings and are being used to attack Yinsen's home village, Gulmira. Stark then learns that Stane has been arms trafficking to criminals worldwide, and is staging a coup to replace him as Stark Industries' CEO. Stark dons his new armor and flies to Afghanistan, where he saves the villagers. While flying home, Stark is shot at by two F-22 Raptor fighter jets. He reveals his secret identity to Rhodes over the phone in an attempt to end the attack. Meanwhile, the Ten Rings gather the pieces of Stark's prototype suit and meet with Stane, who subdues Raza and has the rest of the group killed. Stane has a massive new suit reverse engineered from the wreckage. Seeking to track his company's illegal shipments, Stark sends Pepper to hack into the its database. She discovers Stane hired the Ten Rings to kill Stark, but the group reneged. Potts meets with Agent Phil Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D., an intelligence agency, to inform him of Stane's activities.
Stane's scientists cannot duplicate Stark's miniaturized arc reactor, so Stane ambushes Stark at his home and takes the one from his chest. Stark manages to get to his original reactor to replace it. Potts and several S.H.I.E.L.D. agents attempt to arrest Stane, but he dons his suit and attacks them. Stark fights Stane, but is outmatched without his new reactor to run his suit at full capacity. The fight carries Stark and Stane to the top of the Stark Industries building, and Stark instructs Potts to overload the large arc reactor powering the building. This unleashes a massive electrical surge that causes Stane and his armor to fall into the exploding reactor, killing him. The next day, at a press conference, Stark defies suggestions from S.H.I.E.L.D. and publicly admits to being the superhero the press has dubbed "Iron Man".
In a post-credits scene, S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury visits Stark at home, telling him that Iron Man is not "the only superhero in the world", and explaining that he wants to discuss the "Avenger Initiative".Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark / Iron Man:
Terrence Howard as James "Rhodey" Rhodes:
Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane:
Shaun Toub as Yinsen:
Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts:
Additionally, Faran Tahir appears as Raza, the leader of the Ten Rings; Paul Bettany voices J.A.R.V.I.S., Stark's personal AI system; Leslie Bibb portrays Christine Everhart, a reporter for Vanity Fair; and Clark Gregg appears as Phil Coulson, an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Will Lyman provides the voiceover during the opening award ceremony. Director Jon Favreau plays Happy Hogan, Stark's bodyguard and chauffeur, and Samuel L. Jackson makes a cameo appearance as Nick Fury, director of S.H.I.E.L.D., in a post-credits scene. Jackson's face was previously used as the model for the Ultimate Marvel imprint version of Nick Fury. Other cameos in the film include Stan Lee as himself, being mistaken for Hugh Hefner by Stark at a party; Tom Morello, who provided guitar music for the film, as a terrorist guard; and Jim Cramer as himself. Ghostface Killah had a cameo in a scene where Stark briefly stays in Dubai, but the scene was cut from the theatrical release for pacing reasons.
In April 1990, Universal Studios bought the rights to develop Iron Man for the big screen, with Stuart Gordon to direct a low-budget film based on the property. By February 1996, 20th Century Fox had acquired the rights from Universal. In January 1997, Nicolas Cage expressed interest in portraying the character, while in September 1998, Tom Cruise expressed interest in producing as well as starring in an Iron Man film. Jeff Vintar and Iron Man co-creator Stan Lee co-wrote a story for Fox, which Vintar adapted into a screenplay. It included a new science-fiction origin for the character, and featured MODOK as the villain. Tom Rothman, President of Production at Fox, credited the screenplay with finally making him understand the character. In May 1999, Jeffrey Caine was hired to rewrite Vintar and Lee's script. That October, Quentin Tarantino was approached to write and direct the film. Fox sold the rights to New Line Cinema the following December, reasoning that although the Vintar/Lee script was strong, the studio had too many Marvel superheroes in development, and "we can't make them all."
By July 2000, the film was being written for New Line by Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, and Tim McCanlies. McCanlies' script used the idea of a Nick Fury cameo to set up his own film. In June 2001, New Line entered talks with Joss Whedon, a fan of the character, to direct, and in December 2002, McCanlies had turned in a completed script. In December 2004, the studio attached director Nick Cassavetes to the project for a target 2006 release. Screenplay drafts were written by Alfred Gough, Miles Millar, and David Hayter, and pitted Iron Man against his father Howard Stark, who becomes War Machine. After two years of unsuccessful development, and the deal with Cassavetes falling through, New Line Cinema returned the film rights to Marvel.
In November 2005, Marvel Studios worked to start development from scratch, and announced Iron Man as their first independent feature, as the character was their only major one not already depicted in live action. According to associate producer Jeremy Latcham, "we went after about 30 writers and they all passed", saying they were uninterested in the project due to both the relative obscurity of the character and it being a solely Marvel production. Even the rewrites when the film had a script led to many refusals. In order to build awareness for Iron Man from the general public, and put him on the same level of popularity as Spider-Man or Hulk, Marvel conducted focus groups to help remove the general perception that the character was a robot. After the groups proved successful, the information Marvel received helped them formulate an awareness-building plan, which included releasing three animated short films ahead of the film's release. The shorts were called "Iron Man Advertorials", and were produced by Tim Miller and Blur Studio.
Jon Favreau was hired to direct the film in April 2006, celebrating getting the job by going on a diet, losing 70 pounds (32 kg). Favreau had wanted to work with Marvel producer Avi Arad on another film after they both worked on Daredevil. The director found the opportunity to create a politically ambitious "ultimate spy movie" in Iron Man, citing inspiration from Tom Clancy, James Bond, and RoboCop, and compared his approach to an independent film—"[i]f Robert Altman had directed Superman"—and Batman Begins. Favreau wanted to make Iron Man a story of an adult man literally reinventing himself after discovering the world is far more complex than he originally believed. He changed the Vietnam War origin of the character to Afghanistan, as he did not want to do a period piece. Art Marcum & Matt Holloway were hired to write the script, while Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby wrote another version, with Favreau compiling both teams' scripts, and John August then "polishing" the combined version. Comic book staff Mark Millar, Brian Michael Bendis, Joe Quesada, Tom Brevoort, Axel Alonso, and Ralph Macchio were also called upon by Favreau to give advice on the script.
Favreau planned to cast a newcomer in the title role, as "those movies don't require an expensive star; Iron Man's the star, the superhero is the star. The success of X-Men and Spider-Man without being star-driven pieces reassures [executives] that the film does have an upside commercially." However, in September 2006, Robert Downey, Jr. was cast in the role. Favreau chose Downey, a fan of the comic, because he felt the actor's past made him an appropriate choice for the part, explaining "The best and worst moments of Robert's life have been in the public eye. He had to find an inner balance to overcome obstacles that went far beyond his career. That's Tony Stark." Favreau faced opposition from Marvel in casting Downey, but would not take no for an answer, saying, "It was my job as a director to show that it was the best choice creatively ... everybody knew he was talented [and] certainly by studying the Iron Man role and developing that script I realized that the character seemed to line-up with Robert in all the good and bad ways. While preparing for filming, Favreau and Downey were given a tour of SpaceX by Elon Musk. Downey said, "Elon was someone Tony probably hung out with and partied with, or more likely they went on some weird jungle trek together to drink concoctions with the shamans."
Additional casting for the film occurred over the next few months: Terrence Howard was announced in the role of Stark's best friend Jim Rhodes in October 2006; Gwyneth Paltrow was cast as love interest Virginia "Pepper" Potts in January 2007; and Jeff Bridges was cast in an undisclosed role in February. Choosing a character to be the villain of the film was difficult, as Favreau felt Iron Man's archnemesis the Mandarin would not feel realistic, especially after Mark Millar gave his opinion on the script. He felt only in a sequel, with an altered tone, would the fantasy of the Mandarin's rings be appropriate. The decision to push him into the background is comparable to Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, or Palpatine in Star Wars. Favreau also wanted Iron Man to face a giant enemy. The switch from Mandarin to Obadiah Stane was done after Bridges was cast in that role, with Stane originally intended to become a villain in the sequel. The Crimson Dynamo was also a villain in early drafts of the script. Favreau felt it was important to include intentional inside references for fans of the comics, such as giving the two fighter jets that attack Iron Man the call signs of "Whiplash 1" and "Whiplash 2", a reference to the comic book villain Whiplash, and including Captain America's shield in Stark's workshop.
Favreau wanted the film to be believable by showing the construction of the Iron Man suit in its three stages. Stan Winston, a fan of the comic book, and his company, who Favreau worked with on Zathura, built metal and rubber versions of the armors. The Mark I design was intended to look like it was built from spare parts. The back is less armored than the front, because Stark would use his resources for a forward attack. It also foreshadows the design of Stane's armor. A single 90-pound (41 kg) version was built, causing concern when a stuntman fell over inside it, though both the stuntman and the suit were unscathed. The armor was also designed to only have its top half worn at times. Stan Winston Studios built a 10-foot (3.0 m), 800-pound (360 kg) animatronic version of "Iron Monger" (Obadiah Stane), a name which Obadiah Stane calls Tony Stark and himself earlier in the film as a reference, but is never actually used for the suit itself in the film. The animatronic required five operators for the arm, and was built on a gimbal to simulate walking. A scale model was used for the shots of it being built. The Mark II resembles an airplane prototype, with visible flaps. Iron Man comic book artist Adi Granov designed the Mark III with illustrator Phil Saunders. Granov's designs were the primary inspiration for the film's, and he came on board the film after he recognized his work on Jon Favreau's MySpace page. Saunders streamlined Granov's concept art, making it stealthier and less cartoonish in its proportions, and also designed the War Machine armor, but it was "cut from the script about halfway through pre-production." He explained that the War Machine armor "was going to be called the Mark IV armor and would have had weaponized swap-out parts that would be worn over the original Mark III armor," and that it "would have been worn by Tony Stark in the final battle sequence."
Production was based in the former Hughes Company soundstages in Playa Vista, Los Angeles, California. Howard Hughes was one of the inspirations for the comic book, and the filmmakers acknowledged the coincidence that they would film Iron Man creating the flying Mark III where the Hughes H-4 Hercules was built. Favreau rejected the East Coast setting of the comic books because many superhero films had already been set there.
Filming began on March 12, 2007, with the first few weeks spent on Stark's captivity in Afghanistan. The cave where Stark is imprisoned was a 150-to-200-yard (140–180 m) long set, which had movable forks in the caverns to allow greater freedom for the film's crew. Production designer J. Michael Riva saw footage of a Taliban fighter in Afghanistan, and saw the cold breath as he spoke: realizing remote caves are actually very cold, Riva placed an air conditioning system in the set. He also sought Downey's advice about makeshift objects in prison, such as a sock being used to make tea. Afterwards, Stark's capture was filmed at Lone Pine, and other exterior scenes in Afghanistan were filmed at Olancha Sand Dunes, where the crew endured two days of 40-to-60-mile-per-hour (64–97 km/h) winds. Filming at Edwards Air Force Base began in mid-April, and ended on May 2. Exterior shots of Stark's home were digitally added to footage of Point Dume in Malibu, while the interior was built at Playa Vista, where Favreau and Riva aimed to make Stark's home look less futuristic and more "grease monkey". Filming concluded on June 25, 2007, at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada. Favreau, a newcomer to action films, remarked, "I'm shocked that I [was] on schedule. I thought that there were going to be many curveballs". He hired "people who are good at creating action", so "the human story [felt] like it belongs to the comic book genre".
There was much improvisation in dialogue scenes, because the script was not completed when filming began (the filmmakers had focused on the story making sense and planning the action). Favreau felt that improvisation would make the film feel more natural. Some scenes were shot with two cameras to capture lines said on the spot. Multiple takes were done, as Downey wanted to try something new each time. It was Downey's idea to have Stark hold a news conference on the floor, and he created the speech Stark makes when demonstrating the Jericho weapon. Bridges described this approach as "a $200 million student film", and noted that it caused stress for Marvel executives when the stars were trying to come up with dialogue on the day of filming scenes. He also noted that in some instances, he and Downey would swap characters for rehearsal to see how their own lines sounded. The dialogue for the Nick Fury cameo scene was also changed on set, with comic writer Brian Michael Bendis providing three pages of dialogue for the part, and the filmmakers choosing the best lines for filming on set. The Nick Fury cameo was filmed with a skeleton crew in order to keep it a secret, but rumors appeared on the Internet only days later. Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige subsequently had the scene removed from all preview prints in order to maintain the surprise and keep fans guessing.
Favreau's main concern with the film's effects was whether the transition between the computer-generated and practical costumes would be too obvious. He hired Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) to create the bulk of the visual effects for the film after seeing Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End and Transformers. The Orphanage and The Embassy did additional work, with the latter creating a digital version of the Mark I armor. To help with animating the more refined suits, information was sometimes captured by having Downey wear only the helmet, sleeves and chest of the costume over a motion capture suit, and skydivers were filmed in a vertical wind tunnel to study the physics of flying. For shots of the Mark III flying, it was animated to look realistic by taking off slowly, and landing quickly. To generate shots of Iron Man and the F-22 Raptors battling, cameras were flown in the air to provide reference for physics, wind and frost on the lenses.
Composer Ramin Djawadi had been a fan of the character Iron Man as a child, saying that he always liked superheroes "that actually don’t have any superpowers". After Favreau's previous collaborator John Debney was unavailable to score the film, Djawadi sought out the role himself. Favreau had a clear vision of heavy metal music and guitars for the project, saying that Tony Stark was more of a rock star than a traditional superhero. Djawadi subsequently composed most of the film's score on guitar, before arranging it for orchestra. Djawadi had help with arrangements and additional cues from Hans Zimmer and Remote Control Productions, and Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, who makes a cameo appearance in the film, contributed guitar performances to the score. The film also features a big band-style arrangement of the Iron Man theme song from the 1966 cartoon The Marvel Super Heroes from frequent Favreau collaborators John O'Brien and Rick Boston. A soundtrack featuring Djawadi's score was released by Lions Gate Records on April 29, 2008.
The premiere was held at the Greater Union theater at George Street, Sydney, on April 14, 2008. The film was released in the United States on May 2, 2008, while the international release was pushed to April 30, 2008.
Marvel and Paramount modeled their marketing campaign for Iron Man on that of Transformers. In May 2008, Sega released an official tie-in video game based on the film on multiple gaming platforms. Downey, Howard and Taub reprise their roles from the film. A 30-second spot for the film aired during a Super Bowl XLII break. 6,400 7-Eleven stores in the United States helped promote the film, and LG Group also made a deal with Paramount. Hasbro created figures of armors from the film, as well as Titanium Man (who appears in the video game) and the armor from the World War Hulk comics. Worldwide, Burger King and Audi promoted the film. Jon Favreau was set to direct a commercial for the fast-food chain, as Michael Bay did for Transformers. In the film, Tony Stark drives an Audi R8, and also has an "American cheeseburger" from Burger King after his rescue from Afghanistan, as part of the studio's product placement deal with the respective companies. Three other vehicles, the Audi S6 sedan, Audi S5 sports coupe and the Audi Q7 SUV, also appear in the film. Audi created a tie-in website, as General Motors did for Transformers. Oracle Corporation also promoted the film on its site. Several tie-in comics were released for the film.
The film was released on DVD and Blu-ray Disc on September 30, 2008, in North America, and October 27, 2008 in Europe. DVD sales were very successful, selling over 4 million copies the first week and generating a gross of over US$93 million. There were a total of 9 million copies sold and an accumulated total sales of over $160 million (not including Blu-ray). For the home releases of the film, the image on the newspaper Stark reads before he announces he is Iron Man had to be altered because of amateur photographer Ronnie Adams filing a lawsuit against Paramount and Marvel for using his on-location spy photo in the scene. A Wal-Mart-exclusive release included a preview of Iron Man: Armored Adventures.
The film was also collected in a 10-disc box set titled "Marvel Cinematic Universe: Phase One – Avengers Assembled" which includes all of the Phase One films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It was released on April 2, 2013.
Iron Man earned $318.4 million in North America and $266.8 million in other territories, for a worldwide gross of $585.2 million.
In its opening weekend, Iron Man grossed $98,618,668 in 4,105 theaters in the United States and Canada, ranking No. 1 at the box office, giving it the eleventh biggest-opening weekend at the time, ninth-widest release in terms of theaters, and the third highest-grossing opening weekend of 2008 behind Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and The Dark Knight. It grossed $35.2 million on its first day, giving it the thirteenth biggest-opening day at the time. Iron Man had the second-best premiere for a non-sequel, behind Spider-Man, and the fourth biggest-opening for a superhero film. Iron Man was also the No. 1 film in the U.S. and Canada in its second weekend, grossing $51.1 million, giving it the twelfth-best second weekend and the fifth-best for a non-sequel. On June 18, 2008, Iron Man became that year's first film to pass the $300 million mark for the domestic box office.
The review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reported a 94% approval rating with an average rating of 7.7/10 based on 268 reviews. The website's consensus reads, "Director Jon Favreau and star Robert Downey Jr. make this smart, high impact superhero movie one that even non-comics fans can enjoy." In May 2008, Rotten Tomatoes review aggregator Jen Yamato identified Iron Man as the "best-reviewed film of the year so far". On Metacritic, the film achieved an average score of 79 out of 100, based on 38 critics, signifying "generally favorable reviews".
Among the major trade journals, Todd McCarthy of Variety called the film an "expansively entertaining special effects extravaganza" with "fresh energy and stylistic polish", while Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter praised the film, while nonetheless finding "disappointment [in] a climatic [sic] battle between different Iron Man prototypes [...] how did Tony's nemesis learn how to use the suit?" In one of the first major-daily newspaper reviews, Frank Lovece of Newsday lauded the film's "emotional truth [...] pitch-perfect casting and plausibly rendered super-science" that made it "faithful to the source material while updating it – and recognizing what's made that material so enduring isn't just the high-tech cool of a man in a metal suit, but the human condition that got him there". A. O. Scott of The New York Times called the film "an unusually good superhero picture. Or at least – since it certainly has its problems – a superhero movie that's good in unusual ways." Among the specialty press, Garth Franklin of Dark Horizons commended the "impressive sets and mechanics that combine smoothly with relatively seamless CG", and said, "Robert Downey Jr., along with director Jon Favreau [...] help this rise above formula. The result is something that, whilst hardly original or groundbreaking, is nevertheless refreshing in its earnestness to avoid dark dramatic stylings in favor of an easy-going, crowd-pleasing action movie with a sprinkle of anti-war and redemption themes".
Among major metropolitan weeklies, David Edelstein of New York magazine called the film "a shapely piece of mythmaking [...] Favreau doesn't go in for stylized comic-book frames, at least in the first half. He gets real with it – you'd think you were watching a military thriller", while conversely, David Denby of The New Yorker put forth a negative review, claiming "a slightly depressed, going-through-the-motions feel to the entire show [...] Gwyneth Paltrow, widening her eyes and palpitating, can't do much with an antique role as Stark's girl Friday, who loves him but can't say so; Terrence Howard, playing a military man who chases around after Stark, looks dispirited and taken for granted". IGN's Todd Gilchrist recognized Downey as "the best thing" in a film that "functions on autopilot, providing requisite story developments and character details to fill in this default 'origin story' while the actors successfully breathe life into their otherwise conventional roles". Noting the cultural elements of the film, Cristobal Giraldez Catalan of Bright Lights Film Journal wrote, "Iron Man is far more than playboy fantasy; it is American foreign policy realized without context [... and] with narrative and directorial precision, once again provides the high-fidelity misogyny and anti-Muslim rhetoric Hollywood is known for."
Roger Ebert and Richard Corliss named Iron Man as among their favorite films of 2008. It was selected by the American Film Institute as one of the ten best films of the year, and by Empire magazine as one of The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time. Tony Stark was also selected by Empire as one of The 100 Greatest Movie Characters of All Time, and on their list of the 100 Greatest Fictional Characters, Fandomania.com ranked him at number 37.
A sequel written by Justin Theroux and released in the United States on May 7, 2010, saw Favreau, Downey, Paltrow, and Jackson returning. Don Cheadle replaced Terrence Howard in the role of Colonel Rhodes, who is also seen as War Machine. Also starring are Mickey Rourke as villain Ivan Vanko, Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer, and Scarlett Johansson as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff.
Disney, Marvel Studios, and Paramount Pictures released a second sequel on May 3, 2013, with Favreau opting to direct Magic Kingdom instead, but still reprising his role as Happy Hogan. Downey, Paltrow, and Cheadle also return, while Shane Black took over directing, from a screenplay by Drew Pearce. Guy Pearce also starred as Aldrich Killian, and Ben Kingsley as Trevor Slattery.