Swagger is one of those great words ruined from overuse by lazy sportswriters when describing the attitude and approach of athletes and teams. The great ones have it, flaunt it, feed off it, radiate it.
If you were in the wildly-overcrowded Hall H Saturday for the Iron Man 2 panel at Comic-Con International: San Diego, there was no question that what was emanating from the stage when director Jon Favreau and his top-drawer cast took command of the Con, was pure, unadulterated, 100% natural, no preservatives… swagger.
How confident were they? They ended the panel 15 minutes early.
Team Shellhead did what it set out to do, reclaim Hall H from the Twilight ‘tweeners and stake their claim as the first Must-See Movie of 2010. Why take up any more time than necessary?
Efficiency is a Favreau trademark. Principal photography on the film wrapped on time a week before the Con. He told reporters afterward the presentation for San Diego had been in the works for months.
“It was a little nerve-wracking, because last time we came out of nowhere. And this time, everyone was like, Okay, whaddaya got for us?” Favreau said.
What they ‘got’ was a trailer packed with hints of what’s in store for Tony Stark. First, he’s facing off with the U.S. government over ownership of the Iron Man technology. Rhodey is caught in the middle of this dispute. Somewhere in here fit Justin Hammer and Ivan Venko (Whiplash), who have teamed up for reasons yet unknown to take down Stark. The Black Widow is also lurking. Electric whips crack, bombs fill the skies and War Machine opens fire.
Samuel L. Jackson is also back as Nick Fury, helping to continue to set the table for an Avengers movie which Marvel producer Kevin Feige says will include Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. and likely the Black Widow.
But it all started with Iron Man. The 2007 hit was a huge gambit, the first self-financed big-budget movie from Marvel Productions. Not only did it earn $583 million worldwide, it launched the Marvel movie brand and its ambitious slate of inter-connected films, and provided instant credibility.
When you’re responsible for that kind of success, how do you not have a little extra pep in your step?
Backstage immediately after the panel, Robert Downey Jr. was holding court like a king, or a Don. He greeted well-wishers with a smile and a handshake before going to meet with the press.
“…The great thing about sitting there in the hall with 6,000 people was watching Don Cheadle in his full bad-assness,” Downey Jr. said. “This is the first time I’ve seen the properly almost-done CGI version of War Machine, and they [the Hall H fans] just went bats**t crazy and so did I because I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s right. ‘The new real-deal Holyfield in this movie is Don as Rhodey as War Machine, and it’s going to be cool.”
Swapping out actors in a key role is a nightmare scenario for most franchises. Look what the revolving Caped Crusader scenario did to the first Batman movie series.
But if there were questions on anyone’s minds in Hall H about Don Cheadle taking over for Terrence Howard as Rhodey, they were forgotten amid the explosion of fandemonium in Hall H when War Machine briefly appeared.
“I thought the reaction to [the] footage was fantastic,”Cheadle said after. “I had never seen it before [today] and it was really impressive.”
As for stepping into a role originated onscreen by a fellow Oscar-nominated actor, Cheadle said he took the practical approach.
“Somebody’s going to be disappointed,” he said. “I don’t have any control over people's perception of my ability to take over another character so, I don’t really spend a lot of time worrying about that.”
That was hard, “Favreau said about replacing Howard. “I mean, it was very hard. I like Terrence a lot. I think he’s very talented and um…it would have been a different process working with him than with Don. Don’s a guy that I understand…he and I think alike. He’s a producer and a filmmaker. He brings a different set of skills and abilities to it.”
He also didn’t bring much knowledge of the Iron Man mythos to the role. Cheadle, who said there have been no talks of a War Machine spin-off movie, admitted he “didn’t know there was a guy inside [the Iron Man suit] until the first movie. I thought it was a robot, which is why I wasn’t really into it.”
Scarlett Johansson also joins the cast as Natasha Romanov, a.k.a. Russian spy The Black Widow. Johansson, who described the Iron Man 2 sets as “huge” and “over the top,” says she read many of the Widow’s comic book story arcs.
She also trained for five months to get in fighting shape, and proudly claims she did 97% of her own stunts.
“I wanted to give it everything that I had. And I hate to see a movie where you see a character and you don’t buy that he’s going to [be able to] beat the living s#&t out of you.”
While the Comic-Con footage of her in action drew loud cheers, she knows some geeks don’t buy her yet as the Widow.
“I totally get it. I have the same reaction when I hear they’re remaking something like…‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’… how is that possible?” Johansson reasoned. “For me, it was more about proving to myself…and to the fans…that I was the right person for this job. “
Another newcomer to the set, Sam Rockwell, is portraying weapons manufacturer Justin Hammer. What little we saw of him in the trailer hints at a fast-talking sleaze ball. The actor says Hammer’s relationship with Stark is similar to the rivalry between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.
“He’s trying to shake things up a little for Tony. He’s taking over where Tony left off [in the weapons business],” Rockwell said.
Rockwell, who says his taste for comics as kid ran through Conan, Hulk, and the occasional Spider-Man issue, says his incarnation of Hammer came mostly from ideas bounced between him and Favreau.
“We messed around with the idea of a smoking jacket or an ascot…or slicking his hair back but we decided to just invent our own thing.”
As the guy whose name is above the title, Downey Jr. seems to relish the extra attention and responsibility that comes with the territory. He also knows that, with the training wheels off the franchise, they can really push the boundaries of the superhero movie genre.
“I think by getting over the origin-story anxiety … it’s harder to tell a cooler story than an origin story,” the actor said. “… But the nice thing is the more we looked, the more we talked and the more we kind of studied each other’s uh, eyes and hearts about… a) how happy we were and satisfied we were with the result of the first one, and b), the obligation of the serious sleeve-rolling competition of … how much of our asses can we work out to try and [top the first one].”
“I have this false sense of security that comes with doing No. 2 to a comic book movie “according to Favreau. “They always tend to be the ones that … you get the origin story out of the way, its playful, its fun, a lot is forgiven… Once I get my cast locked down and I believe in them, I’m more relaxed than they are because it’s on them, but I know I got the right guys.”
Favreau went out of his way to praise Rourke – who was not at Comic-Con – for his portrayal of Whiplash.
“Mickey gave us the freedom to have a lot of fun within this world and maintain our tone, while still having this sense of doom hanging over the film,” Favreau said.
On a Favreau set, freedom is apparently a two-way street. Both Rockwell and Cheadle said the riffs and adlibs with Downey Jr. began as soon as they arrived on set.
What does that say about the confidence, the swagger, of a director, that he trusts his actors enough to let them freelance on a film as huge and with as much riding on it as Iron Man 2”
When the topic of the Avengers movie came up again, Favreau said he honestly has no idea if he’ll even want to direct it after being involved with Iron Man for four-plus years at that point.
Of course, few people actually believe he would turn down the chance to helm the ultimate superhero team-up movie if offered, including Favreau it would seem.
He admitted it was difficult having to drop out of directing the upcoming comedy Couples Retreat due to conflicts with Iron Man 2, saying it was hard to just be an actor on a project he was involved with from the start.
‘It’s strange when you have to change those hats cause I’m not used to that and uh, going from…just being uh, from directing and creating this world to just being Happy Hogan in The Avengers …I’m not going to lie, it would be strange. I’ll also be involved as an executive producer, but its a lot different being a consultant on something and the guy calling the shots. They’re a lot of people collaborating on Iron Man, but I know at the end of the day, the buck stops here. There’s a lot of pressure, but I enjoy it.”