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A hometown hero

He's rich, egocentric, well groomed and morally compromised. In the Marvel pantheon, 'Iron Man' finally represents Los Angeles.

January 13, 2008|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

YOU can't find Metropolis on a real U.S. map but if you did, it's a sure bet that its harbor would sit on the Atlantic. The same goes for Batman's gloomy Gotham City. The real Manhattan, meanwhile, can claim both Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four while the X-Men live in (of all places) suburban New York.
Hollywood has been churning out multiple masked-man films in recent years, but how come their heroes all live on the East Coast? The Hulk bounced through San Francisco on film years ago (not that anybody was paying attention), but what about Los Angeles, the second-biggest city in America, which somehow doesn't rate an NFL team or a local hero?
"That's going to change in a big way," a smiling Jon Favreau promised a few months ago on the Playa Vista set of "Iron Man," which opens May 2. Favreau was standing in front of a huge window with a faux view of the twinkling lights of the Malibu coastline. "L.A. is getting a superhero that's perfect for the city."
That's true. In Iron Man, a Marvel Comics character who dates to 1963, the City of Angels is getting a hero who is sleek but self-centered, fabulously rich but morally compromised and (most fittingly) built for speed but bad for the environment.

"He has to live in Los Angeles and there's a real sense of the place in his story and in his character," says Favreau, who grew up reading the comics and has devoted three years to bringing the armor-plated hero to the screen. "A lot of things that are unique to Southern California are in this film. I couldn't imagine it being anywhere else."

The region's aviation industry history and singular car culture, for example, helped shape the images and sensibility of the film, and Howard Hughes is a strong, if unlikely, model for Tony Stark, the alter ego of Iron Man, who is portrayed by Robert Downey Jr. Downey isn't the only highly regarded actor on board for the film: There's also Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard and Jeff Bridges.

"The quality of the cast, the pure talent involved, it speaks to the ambition of the material and the fact that this movie is trying to accomplish more than some people might expect from a comic book movie," said Kevin Feige, president of production for Marvel Studios, which is launching its own brand with this film (distributed by Paramount Pictures) after watching traditional Hollywood powers earn more than $2.7 billion off its characters since 2000. "There's a story here and a hero who is going to surprise people."

The character was a surprise right from its four-color beginnings when writer and co-creator Stan Lee envisioned a story that had geopolitical shadings and a less-than-shining protagonist. Back then, Stark was a young, handsome and arrogant inventor and munitions mogul who is eager to help the war on Communism and travels to Vietnam to see how his mini-transistors are helping American campaigns in the country.

He gets badly injured, though, and captured by enemy forces who put him to work on a weapon that will help their cause. But that invention -- a flying suit of armor with powerful weapons -- provides Stark with his escape and a new outlook on his role in the world.

The core of that story was deeply appealing to Favreau, who has made two youth movies, "Zathura" and "Elf," that possess old souls and an unexpected slyness. He updated the setting to Afghanistan and focused on the notion that the suit is more about salvation than super-sizing; the Iron Man costume is like a giant pacemaker of sorts and it's the only thing keeping the flawed hero's battered heart pumping.

There's something especially satisfying about the casting of Downey, who gives Stark a droll sense of humor and irony that immediately sets the character apart from the stiff heroes that have filled so many movies.

During a break in shooting, Downey -- still wearing a round, glowing chest-piece that is part of the suit's coronary support system -- said he's having a blast playing the hero and he's eager "to get my picture on a Slurpee cup like Johnny Depp."

Downey said he hopes that "Iron Man" will fly across L.A. skies for the next few years as a franchise. "The films that used to be made about comics characters were so shallow in ambition and cardboard in their plots and characters, it wasn't worth anyone's time. That's changed, and this is great, this is like playing an American version of James Bond in a flying Ferrari suit."


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