Elf director Jon Favreau credits the 2003 Will Ferrell-led Christmas comedy for landing him the director’s seat on Iron Man, Marvel Studios’ first self-financed blockbuster that would launch the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008.
“Elf made money and I was sort of on a list of directors that were hireable,” Favreau says in The Directors’ Roundtable, a special feature included exclusively on the Avengers: Infinity War digital release.
Favreau — coming off sci-fi action adventure and box office bomb Zathura: A Space Adventure — was approached by Marvel Studios, then in its infancy as a studio now financing its own films after Marvel sold the screen rights to popular characters like Spider-Man and the X-Men to outside studios Sony and Fox.
“They approached me about it and there wasn’t really a script or anything... They had some story ideas. I kinda didn’t know what I was gonna do with it, but I thought it was a cool concept,” Favreau said. “At the time, Transformers was being made, so I was real confident that hard surfaces would look good in CG.”
Iron Man was mostly formed on the fly: actor Jeff Bridges, who played warmonger and mogul Obadiah Stane, said the film “had no script” and the filmmakers worked from “an outline,” with much improvisation both in front of and behind the camera. That approach, coupled with then-atypical leading man Robert Downey Jr. as an unlikely superhero, helped lead to Marvel Studio’s trademark half-serious, half-jokey tone.
“I don’t even think they knew it was gonna be funny,” Favreau told the roundtable. “I remember when we first screened it, [Marvel Studios President] Kevin Feige was like, ‘Whoa, this is pretty funny!’”
Feige produced with X-Men and Spider-Man producer Avi Arad and longtime Marvel Studios producers Victoria Alonso and Louis D’Esposito, as well as frequent Favreau collaborator Peter Billingsley — best known for his role as four-eyed Ralphie Parker in seminal 1983 holiday classic A Christmas Story.
Iron Man would emerge as an unexpected mega-hit in the summer of 2008, grossing more than $585 million at the worldwide box office and establishing the shared universe that has since earned more than $17 billion in worldwide ticket sales — making it the highest-grossing movie franchise of all time.