What If Robert Downey Jr. Were Never Iron Man?

Hollywood spent years trying to crack Tony Stark, and now David Hayter is looking back at his 2004 script for New Line — and the unusual way the studio tried to develop the film on the cheap with David S. Goyer.
Photofest; John Wolfsohn/Getty Images
Robert Downey Jr. in 'Ironman' (Inset: David Hayter)

Ten years ago, the Marvel Studios revolution began.

Jon Favreau's Iron Man hit theaters May 2, 2008, and become a surprise phenomenon. Robert Downey Jr.'s charm helped turn a B-list Marvel character into the most bankable superhero in Hollywood, paving the way for Marvel Studios to become a juggernaut. Now 19 films in (and counting), the Marvel Cinematic Universe has earned $15.5 billion globally and has made the Avengers and its innovative shared universe the envy of every studio in town.

But before Tony Stark launched the MCU, the movie rights for the billionaire, playboy philanthropist had spent years bouncing around from Universal to Fox to New Line. Filmmakers such as Iron Giant's Tim McCanlies, horror director Stuart Gordon and even Quentin Tarantino were linked to Iron Man movies.

Then, in the mid-2000s, New Line tried a rather unique approach. The studio assembled three screenwriters with superhero cred and paid them to sit in a room and simply talk on camera about Iron Man for a few days. David Hayter, who helped launch the modern era of superhero films with 2000's X-Men and the 2003 follow-up X2: X-Men United, was one of those writers, and he was joined by David S. Goyer and Mark Protosevich.

"It was very unusual, and it kind of felt like they were developing the screenplay for a lot less than it would cost them typically to develop a screenplay," says Hayter, who is sharing his memories on the 10th anniversary of Iron Man. "But they paid us and then they hired me at the end of it to write the script, so it was great. It was very cool."

Like Hayter, his colleagues Goyer and Protosevich already had serious superhero bona fides. Goyer was known as a creative force behind Wesley Snipes' Blade films and soon would be reshaping the superhero genre with Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight trilogy as well as Warner Bros.' Man of Steel. A few years before joining the Iron Man think tank, Protosevich had written a planned sequel to Joel Schumacher's Batman & Robin, and would later help bring Marvel's Thor to the big screen.

"Basically, it was the three of us just fanboying out about Iron Man and all the things that make Tony Stark interesting and how to conceptualize the movie," says Hayter, who recalls with a laugh that he and Goyer showed up on the first day wearing the same Diesel shirt. (They truly were kindred spirits).

In 2004, Hayter landed the job to bring Iron Man to life. He reworked a script from Smallville creators Al Gough and Miles Millar, which had included the classic villain the Mandarin. Hayter opted to remove the character, instead making Tony Stark's father Howard the focus. 

Throughout the script, Tony rekindles his estranged friendship with Rhodey and grapples with the idea of Stark Industries developing weapons. He ultimately decides that it's an immoral business to be in and chooses to use his inventions (and his Iron Man suit) for good.

Howard Stark disagrees, and ultimately becomes a surprise villain in the form of War Machine, allying himself with Tony Stark nemesis Justin Hammer (who later arrived on the big screen courtesy Sam Rockwell in Favreau's Iron Man 2). Eventually, father and son duke it out wearing their competing armor in a way that's not unlike how 2008's Iron Man saw Tony fight his mentor Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges).

"There's been a lot more comic book films since then, and obviously things have changed to a certain extent. My feeling was always, you want to try to mirror your hero with your villain as much as possible," says Hayter of making Howard the villain. "If it's The Hulk, you want The Hulk fighting some huge, powerful monster."

As much as the internet loves alternate castings (Nicolas Cage and Tom Cruise are the names that seem to pop up as alternates for Downey), Hayter says he wasn't writing Iron Man for anyone in particular. Hayter, who is also an actor known for his voice work in the Metal Gear videogame series, instead tried to imagine himself in the role, though he was under no illusions that he'd be hired to play the hero.

Later, when Downey was cast, Hayter thought it was a brilliant move.

"One of the issues we discussed in the room between David Goyer and Mark Protosevich and myself was, 'How do you retain the fun of it and the audience sympathy when the lead character is an alcoholic?' Which we felt was a key aspect to his character. Robert Downey Jr. was so perfect for that, because he's had his own issues there and yet he remains so charming and so lovable and charismatic and it really was the ideal casting."

New Line gave Hayter positive feedback on his script, and the studio was working to land The Notebook director Nick Cassavetes to direct the project. But before a deal could be made, New Line's rights to Iron Man expired, and though the studio was interested in re-upping with Marvel, it wasn't meant to be. By this point, Marvel Studios had decided to make its own movies, and studio head Kevin Feige — along with Avi Arid and David Maisel — wanted Iron Man as its first leading man.

"It was very much the corporate reshuffling that kept the New Line version from being made, but I think New Line recognized as well as anybody the value of this character," says Hayter. "X-Men helped break open the door for heroes that weren't Superman or Batman. And Iron Man just seemed to be the next logical step. It's just so fun and action-packed. It perfectly fit where CG effects were at the time. And it just made a lot of sense."

Ironically, New Line is owned by Warner Bros., the studio behind DC's films. DC movies have struggled of late, with 2017's Justice League earning an underwhelming $657 million worldwide. To put that in perspective, less than a week after its release, Iron Man has helped lead Avengers: Infinity War to more than $800 million globally, with no signs of slowing down.

Hayter says he has no hard feelings about his script not making it to the big screen, and he has a great fondness for Favreau's movie, which earned $585 million worldwide — a huge win at the time that seems small by today's Marvel standards.

"I think the movie is amazing. Favreau is an incredible director and he really nailed it," says Hayter.