Marvel Boss Confirms Surprising First Choice for Iron Man

Robert Downey Jr. wasn't Kevin Feige's first choice to play ol' Shellhead in 2008's Iron Man.

By now, the final line of the first MCU movie is iconic: “I am Iron Man.” And not only do we all know that the line was delivered by Robert Downey Jr., many of us also know that it was improvised, one of the many instances of the cast taking an improv approach to the film. But it almost never happened, as MCU chief Kevin Feige originally had someone else in mind to don the stylish facial hair of reformed weaponeer Tony Stark.

During the commencement address to graduates of the University of Southern California (via The Direct), Feige sought to teach the assembly a lesson about dealing with unmet expectations. When casting Iron Man, Feige and the other producers at the newly-formed Marvel Studios searched for an actor with “the perfect mix of heart and strength and charisma.” This actor would be the center of the movie that would launch a franchise, so “the success of the film and the future of our entire studio rested on the shoulders of this one person.”

Thanks to the work of Feige, director Jon Favreau, and others, the team found the perfect choice, “an actor who checked all of those boxes and who we were confident would be a huge hit.” That actor? English star Clive Owen. “He passed,” Feige revealed. “He was not interested.”

To readers today, that revelation might be a bit of a shock, but they’re forgetting what a great run Owen had in the 2000s when Feige and Favreau were casting Iron Man. After breaking out in America with roles in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park and The Bourne Identity, Owen became a bankable leading man, especially in genre films.

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Between 2004 and 2007, Owen put striking performances in King Arthur, Spike Lee’s heist film Inside Man, the post-modern action movie Shoot ‘Em Up, and, most notably, Alfonso Cuarón’s moving dystopia, Children of Men. So high was Owen’s stock that he was also a top choice to play James Bond in the 007 reboot Casino Royale.

Conversely, Robert Downey Jr. was still beginning to crawl back to respectability. The son of an avant-garde director, Downey burst onto the scene as a member of the 1980s Brat Pack, acting in movies such as Weird Science and Less Than Zero, as well as joining Saturday Night Live in 1985. However, substance abuse plagued Downey throughout this period, climaxing with his being fired from hit tv series Ally McBeal in 2002. Even after hitting rock bottom and getting sober, studios were still reluctant to hire the once-promising actor, despite strong turns in films such as Shane Black’s directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and David Fincher’s Zodiac.

It turns out, it was that struggle that made Downey such a perfect choice for Tony Stark. Which is exactly the point that Feige wanted to impress upon the new graduates. “And that is the unwritten rule of life,” he told the attendees. “Not getting your first choice might just be the greatest thing that can happen to you.”