What Are Artsy Film Actors Doing in a Comic Book Movie?

"Iron Man" comes with a surprisingly accomplished cast of stars.

May 2, 2008— -- What are Robert Downey Jr., Gwynneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard and Jeff Bridges, all actors familiar to the art-house crowd, doing in a Hollywood big-budget, comic-book superhero movie?

Besides collecting a hefty paycheck, the cast of "Iron Man," which hits screens nationwide today, appears to be revamping a well-worn genre that has critics cheering and box-office watchers predicting a lucrative opening weekend.

"There's no question, this will be the No. 1 movie this weekend," said Paul Dergarabedian, the founder of Media by Numbers, a box-office tracking and analysis firm in Los Angeles. He predicts the film will rake in more than $75 million.

"It has indy sensibility, and it's still highly entertaining," added Dergarabedian, who has seen the film. "I think there's going to be a lot of crossover. A lot of the audience that wouldn't be interested in this type of movie will come out to see Gwynneth Paltrow, Robert Downey Jr. and Terrance Howard. The film is more sophisticated but still fun enough and comic-book enough to appeal to the true fanboys of these comic-book movies."

Paltrow has an Oscar, and Downey, Howard and Bridges have each been nominated for an Academy Award.

"It's not your run-of-the-mill superhero movie," Paltrow said. "The talent is so incredible."

Even the film's director, Jon Favreau, who wrote and starred in "Swingers" and directed the movie "Elf," is better known on the independent film circuit.

Perhaps most surprising was the casting of 43-year-old Downey as the superhero Iron Man and his alter ego Tony Stark, a middle-aged boozing billionaire weapons manufacturer. Favreau knew immediately that Downey was his superhero.

"Sitting across from him, the light bulb just went off over my head," he said. "I realized that this is the guy who could bring me home. This is the No. 1 draft pick that's gonna take me to the Super Bowl."

The only problem was that Marvel, the comic book company that publishes Iron Man and produced the film, didn't share Favreau's vision -- at first.

"There was an unequivocal, resounding 'No' when I presented him," Favreau said, "and they were people who were fans of his."

Marvel's problem, according to Favreau, was that Downey would be better known than the character he was playing, unlike Tobey Maguire when he started with the "Spiderman" franchise. Favreau fought for Downey and ultimately won.

Downey was intrigued by the challenge of playing against type and bringing something new to the comic-book superhero genre.

"It was more about the mythology of the genre picture that I thought could be fun and cool and wind up turning into more than just another paycheck," Downey said. "[Stark's] superpower is his mind, his ability to invent. And I think that's something that all of a sudden makes it applicable to every man, woman and child who goes to see it."

The Dallas Morning News praised Downey's superhero debut for its "brains and brawn." Getting into shape was another issue for the actor, who is pushing middle age.

"I decided to make a bit of an intervention on myself and see if I could actually get in shape," he said. "When I was in my 20s, you train for six weeks and you look good for the next six years. Now, I train for six months and I look good for six minutes."

Paltrow took on the role after Favreau convinced her to.

"He was like, 'It's gonna be a good movie. It will be a summer movie, but it will be good. I promise you,'" she said. "It was really that."

The people she was working with were more important than the type of film she was doing.

"I have an affinity for working with people I think will be inspiring, and that could be any genre," Paltrow said.

"I wanted to work with Robert ever since I was little," she said. "And Jeff Bridges is, like, if you're an American actor, he's like God."

Audiences will be seeing a lot more of this cast. Downey, Paltrow, Bridges and Howard all have signed on for "Iron Man 2" and "Iron Man 3."

"If you had named off this cast five years ago and said: 'Name that movie,'" box-office watcher Dergarabedian said, "no one would have guessed it would be the kickoff movie of the summer in 2008. Things are changing in the superhero genre. And audiences are going to start to become spoiled and expect this level of acting and writing."