Iron Man: A Proud Movie Tradition of Flying Blind
As you probably know, "Iron Man 2" comes out this Friday. So, did you guys all watch that first movie, that "Iron Man" movie? Probably you did, I think, because a lot of people did and you guys are people, and so that works, because of math. Here's a fun fact* about that movie: It totally kinda really didn't have a script.
(*For the purposes of this essay, "fact" shall be defined as "assumption of questionable accuracy based on interviews of celebrities and comic book professionals read on the internet." Fact: this is the definition of "fact" given in the Wikipedia statement of purpose.)
Okay, okay, I hear you asking: how could I, a part-time comics blogger on the Internet, possibly know anything about the real behind-the-scenes of a huge Hollywood blockbuster?
Simple. Jeff Bridges told me.
This is from an interview at In Contention:
"They had no script, man! They had an outline. We would show up for big scenes every day and we wouldn't know what we were going to say. We would have to go into our trailer and work on this scene and call up writers on the phone, 'You got any ideas?' Meanwhile the crew is tapping their foot on the stage waiting for us to come on."
But as much as I love Jeff Bridges -- especially when he comes rolling up on a Segway chomping on a monster cigar with a look on his face that says I WILL EAT THIS FILM -- he's still an actor, and actors pull stuff like that all the time, talking up their own contributions at the expense of the screenwriters. So I'm not taking his word alone, I need corroboration. How about a couple of renowned comic book writers?
Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar were both tapped to join the Iron Man Brain Trust, a group of people from Marvel flown in as consults on the Iron Man movie. Both of them have talked about the experience publicly, and their stories, when taken together, help us form a clearer picture of what might have happened.
In an interview at IGN, Bendis describes being flown to the set to advise Favreau and the rest of the creative team: "...we got the script, and it was in pretty decent shape," Bendis says. "A lot of the stuff you saw [on the screen] was there." Now, this seems to fly in the face of Bridges' bold assertion above, but I think there's a pretty simple way for these two versions of reality to co-exist. It all hinges on Mark Millar's part of the story.
Millar's version hasn't been captured in an on-the-record interview anywhere that I can find, but he's talked about it at conventions, and the story has been widely reported and never (I believe) contested. Millar's claim is that the original script of the film featured not Bridges' Obadiah Stane, but rather The Mandarin as the film's main villain. Millar reportedly talked Favreau out of using the Mandarin character altogether, arguing (rightly, I think) that the character had far too many roots in the racist "yellow peril" style of pulp villain for a 21st century audience's comfort level. Millar convinced Favreau to make Bridges' character, who was being set up as a potential sequel villain, the main villain of the first film.
Now, in Bendis' interview, he makes it very clear that, when he and Millar were brought in, they were brought to the set of the film. "They were literally building the caves, and we got to walk through them," he says. Which means that even if they hadn't started shooting, sets and props and plans were being made based on a script that was written around an entirely different villain than the one that made it into the finished film.
So, this is how Bendis and Bridges get to both be right. There was a script, and you can tell when you watch the film what it encompassed -- the tightly constructed origin story, the well-paced first half, and a lot of snappy-dialogued scenes. You can also tell where it starts to go off the rails: as soon as Jeff Bridges shows up, because when they wrote the script, no one knew he was going to be the villain. That's why every scene with Bridges doing something evil feels like it was shot at four in the morning on a borrowed backlot. That's why the third act is an unholy mess, culminating in a climax that plays out almost exactly like this:
Robert Downey Jr.: Jeff Bridges is too awesome! Gwyneth, throw the doohickey switch to set off the hoozamawhat!
Gwyneth Paltrow: But if I do that, you'll die!
Robert Downey Jr.: Do it anyway! I will die...a hero.
(Gwyneth flips the hoozathing, and there's a big explosion, and...he doesn't die. No explanation, he just...doesn't. And then on to the next scene.)
Obviously the film still worked, it was a lot of fun, and it made an unholy amount of money. But when you stop to think about it, the fact that a studio would greenlight a $140 million-plus production without taking the time to make sure the script was good, or even finished, is INSANE. But as Jeff Bridges says in the same In Contention interview:
"You would think with a $200 million movie you'd have the s**t together, but it was just the opposite. And the reason for that is because they get ahead of themselves. They have a release date before the script, 'Oh, we'll have the script before that time,' and they don't have their s**t together."
So there you have it. The saga of the huge-budget Hollywood movie made on a wing and a prayer. And the thing is, there's no reason to believe it's atypical. In fact, there's every indication that on May 7, we'll get to relive it all over again. From an MTV news article dated less than two months before principal photography began on Iron Man 2:
MTV News caught up with Gwyneth Paltrow at the red carpet premiere of her new film "Two Lovers" and asked the talented "Iron Man" actress [about the lack of] "Iron Man 2" news.
"They haven't even given me a script yet," Paltrow told MTV News. "They don't tell me anything. I could be, like, a costume assistant in it. I know nothing."
And so it goes. But I think we can all agree on at least one thing: whoever shaved Jeff Bridges' head and put him on a Segway with a cigar deserves a damned Oscar. And that's a fact.