The Marvel movie universe is powering towards its third phase, after a strong first phase and great performances so far from Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World. Now, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Avengers: Age Of Ultron, Guardians Of The Galaxy and Ant-Man all promise more thrills and thunder in the local multiplex. But despite ushering in a new era of Hollywood giganticism, with eye-watering budgets and super-cool filmmaking tools, the studio has tried to keep a down-and-dirty ethos on set. “Once you put your hand over the budget figure”, Jon Favreau told Empire on the set of Iron Man back in 2008, “you realise that this is just an independent movie.” Apart, we’re guessing, from the arc reactors, super-hammers and Disney logo. Here we go backstage to see how they put it all together...
Jon Favreau gives notes to Jeff Bridges and Faran Tahir on set
Marvel’s first face-off set Robert Downey Jr.’s genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist Tony Stark against Jeff Bridges’ millionaire, douchebag, misanthropist, ratbag Obadiah Stane. Here Stane and Faran Tahir’s Raza, the terrorist leader of the mythical Ten Rings, go about their nefarious business. Stark’s first stab at the Iron Man armour – the Mark 1 – stands in the corner of frame en route to being cannibalised for the Iron Monger clobber.
Robert Downey Jr. prepares to make a desert storm
California’s Olancha sand dunes stood in for Afghanistan – the real Afghanistan was off limits to even RDJ – and here lends its barren beauty to the bit where Tony Stark nearly blows it into the Pacific. While the cave sequences (directly inspired by footage of real Taliban caves networks) were built as sets, the Afghan exteriors, including this scene where Tony showcases Stark Industries’ latest weaponry, required some tricky days 200 miles north of LA. For two of them, winds of nearly sixty miles an hour sent the whole production ducking for cover.
RDJ, booted but not yet suited
“Robert really wanted to play the role,” Jon Favreau enthused to Empire back in 2008, tracing Downey Jr.’s hands-on approach to Tony Stark to the first days of prep a year previously. “The minute we hired him, he opened an office right next to mine, and he was there for pre-production, training and researching the character and discussing it with us.” Given how universally loved Downey’s Stark is, the collaborative approach clearly worked.
The big winner...
Len Wiseman, Joss Whedon, Nick Cassevetes, and hard as it is to imagine, Quentin Tarantino were all linked with or actively attached to Iron Man at different points. More diverse styles it’s hard to imagine: an insight, perhaps, into Marvel’s struggles to nail a storyline and tone for Ol’ Shellhead’s first outing. The final choice, Jon Favreau, arrived promising “a Superman movie directed by Robert Altman” that would reference James Bond, Christopher Nolan’s Batman, RoboCop and Tom Clancy’s spy novels.
Enter Rhodey Mark 2
It’s not just the Iron Man suit that’s had different iterations. Contract wranglings saw Don Cheadle (pictured) replacing Terrence Howard as Tony’s pal and the future War Machine, Col. James Rupert Rhodes. It could have derailed the story, but happily the transition was executed with Rachel Dawes-like seamlessness. Fanboys took to the man who, Howard has since revealed, was originally earmarked from the role. “I never had any beef with Don about it,” he explained in a Sway In The Morning interview. “Initially, [Marvel] wanted Don for that role, but my agent pushed me in."
Boss and star confer on set
This is a rare shot of Marvel honcho Kevin Feige on set. The studio’s CEO is the steady hand on the tiller, “the geek who inherited the Earth” in Empire’s words, steering an ever-more ambitious slate to the screen, but franchise-building hasn’t been risk-free. Early pitfalls were swerved only by adhering to the DNA of the comic-book characters. “People talked about the risk of casting Robert Downey Jr.,” he recalled in GQ, “the risk of doing Iron Man at all, the risk of a period Captain America movie, the risk of doing a Thor movie, the risk of going into production on an Avengers movie before Thor or Captain America were even released. But all of that, I would say, was based on not just mine but everyone at Marvel's confidence in the material.”
Tony Stark, Happy Hogan and friends
The second film followed up Iron Man’s $585m triumph with a dart back in time into Tony Stark’s troubled past. There was exuberance, but now it was the lopsided, hiccuping kind as RDJ’s superhero tried to salve his soul – and a body being poisoned by the arc reactor that saved him – with booze. On set, the skyrocketing confidence of cast and crew was kept in check by a fear of laziness creeping in and a collective dropping of the Iron-ball. “Could we have skated through a sequel?,” wondered Robert Downey Jr. rhetorically. “Would it have made the same numbers? Yes, sure. And that annoyed me. We had to earn it twice as much this time.”
A superhero Savile Row
Robert Downey Jr. preps for a take in the Stark lab/warehouse/garage/playroom, with Suits Mark I through VII behind him and the intelligent new Mark 42 (we don’t know the Roman numeral for that) in the foreground. Yes, that’s the one where the pieces are rocket-powered and can fly at high speed towards your face and crotch. Yes, Stark is a braver man than us.
Slippery customers, Marvel, as the Mandarin demonstrated in Iron Man 3. The (possibly) Chinese uber-bad had been floated as a possible Stark nemesis since the first film – he is to the Ten Rings what the Emperor had been to Darth Vader. At least, that’s how the conventional wisdom had it. But with poker-faced glee, Marvel had turned its ace into a jack and gave us… well, the toast of Croydon.
On set with a pre-super serum Steve Rogers
Based in Santa Monica, Lola VFX broke fresh ground with Chris Evans’ wimpification into a pre-serum Steve Rogers. We’re not even going to pretend to know how they did it, except that it involved green screens, a body double (English stage actor Leander Deeny), digital ‘plastic surgery’ and quite possibly magic. The result seamlessly scaled the 99kg Evans into a 63 kg Rogers.
Joe Johnston pores over his maps
Marvel’s directorial merry-go-round could have seen Jon Favreau presiding over Cap. He opted for Iron Man, leaving Joe Johnston, whose take on The Rocketeer cleaved close to the adventuresome tone Marvel were gunning for, with a run at the job. Citing Raiders Of The Lost Ark as his masterclass in “doing period”, the Texan explained his Method approach to the challenge. “We shot the whole film on super wide lenses because it’s the way they shot films in the '40s”, he told Box Office, “[as] they didn't have long lenses. It forces you to see that whole world.”
Lord of the Nine Realms, conqueror of worlds and Port Talbot’s finest…
The studio seemed to be firing out fully-fledged superheroes with near abandon by 2011. Marvel’s Norse god, the mighty hero of Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby’s 1962 comic, was given the Henry V treatment by Kenneth Branagh, the unlikeliest Marvel fan in Midgard. “I stood in the Belfast newsagent shop, a young boy transfixed,” Branagh wrote in Empire of a boyhood outing. “I was there to spend my pocket money on my confection of choice: a tub of chocolate mousse. But something else caught my eye – this image of a superhero with long, blond hair, like Samson or Hercules. Suffice to say, my pocket money was not spent on the chocolate mousse that day.”
Kenneth Branagh gives direction to Natalie Portman and Chris Hemsworth
It was July 12, 2008 when Branagh first got the Kevin Feige call. He was shooting Wallander in Sweden, a world (and a dozen or more degrees) away from this New Mexico location he’s overseeing two years later, and needed some persuading that Thor was for him. “It took three months to work out if we – myself and Marvel – wanted to make the same movie,” Branagh recalled, explaining that the scenes set on Earth were his only non-negotiable. “But I was very glad to have that proving process before we both took a big, deep breath.”
The first Marvel movie to breach the magical billion dollar mark it may be (and then some), but The Avengers didn’t assemble itself easily – despite the relaxed appearances here. “It’s tough,” grinned Kevin Feige on set, “but they’re all tough”. Tough elements included: managing more arcs than a Parisian architect, husbanding the super-colossal budget, juggling the schedules of Hollywood’s most in-demand actors over the 92-day shoot, turning Cleveland into Stuttgart... and at the end of all that, making sure no-one thought it had Diana Rigg or Patrick Macnee in it.
Earth’s mightiest hero
If Joss Whedon is now firmly enshrined as a fanboy messiah, the popcorn Scorsese and Marvel’s go-to script fireman (he’s since had a hand in Thor: The Dark World as well as Agents Of SHIELD), it’s not come exactly easily. “I haven’t had that much trouble making a screenplay work since Serenity,” he recalled of the Avengers’ head-scratchingly complex structure. “It was an up-all-month job.”
Brothers in (really muscly) arms
Thanks to some smart writing and a global outbreak of Hiddlemania, the Thor/Loki storyline has now matched Tony Stark’s tribulations in fans’ affections. A character who could have been Zod-lite has become a major Marvel asset (even if he won’t be turning up in Avengers 2) and Chris Hemsworth’s Thor goes from strength to... well, even more strength. Here, the beefy Norse dude is sporting bare arms, as per the early comic-book run, and is sans cape, a nod to the 2010 Ultimate Comics incarnation.
One-time friend of War Horse, Empire’s second sexiest actor, slinky dancer and all-round good guy, Tom Hiddleston has the versatility befitting of a God of Mischief. “Acting is an act of imagination,” he explains of The Avengers’ challenging sound stage work. “It is supplying the truth for things that aren't in fact there. But that's the job, that's the discipline, and I love it. It's just like playing as a kid, just with bigger toys.” Like this Chitauri Sceptre.
Director Alan Taylor trouble-shooting with a Dark Elf
The director and evil minion pal are in consultation in Surrey’s Bourne Woods, recent home to movie mayhem both big (Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Snow White And The Huntsman), and even bigger (Gladiator, Robin Hood, War Horse). The dark elves, or ‘dökkálfar’ for the Norse purist, are the handmaidens of Malekith the Accursed, denizen of the dark realm of Svartalfheim – a sentence that’s worth a bazillion in Scrabble. Prosthetics designer David White gave the dark elf helmets eyelines that slanted slightly upwards to ensure the extras playing them maintained a suitably proud bearing.
Christopher Ecclestone on location in Iceland
See this man? Looks grumpy, right? That’s probably because he is. Christopher Ecclestone’s transformation into nasty Malekith took six hours – followed by 45 minutes in wardrobe – and left him with an acting challenge he likened to “washing your feet with your socks on”. While Ecclestone was doubling up as a Dark Elf warlord, Iceland’s volanic landscape was masquerading as Svartalfheim, the Dark Elves’ realm.
Idris Elba cancels another apocalypse
Ignoring the early online protests (“Norse deities are not of an African ethnicity!” mouthbreathed one web poster), Idris Elba has become a fan favourite as Heimdall, Asgard’s security chief, even if he’s not been overly employed so far in Thor’s outings. “Norse by way of Hackney” is how the man himself puts it. One day they’ll let him leave Asgard and then bad guys everywhere had better watch it.
Louis Leterrier and Ed Norton prepare for some Hulking out
With its tricky birth and painful afterlife, The Incredible Hulk is the closest a Marvel movie has come to turning green and splitting open its shirt. Louis Leterrier had a year to turn a scriptless production into something big-screen worthy, a process he describes as “tremendously stressful”. A concertinaed post-production period was only part of the challenge. “You haven’t tested it in your head,” recalled Leterrier. “You didn’t run it over and over again and cover all of the plot holes and figure it out. It’s a marathon that you sprint.” It’s a miracle it all turned out half-decent. Since then, Marvel’s long-termism and longer prep times has kept its directors off the Xanax.
Move over Airwolf, it's Airwidow...
You've heard of the Huey Cobra; now here's the Black Widow 'copter, a sleak chopper that comes in two colours: black and slightly blacker. The Russo brothers, Joe and Anthony, envisaged their Cap sequel as a thriller that eventually morphed into an action movie and this sequence, shot at Marvel's home from home, Raleigh Manhattan Beach Studios in LA, falls firmly into the latter bracket. Steve Roger's ally-turned-dating-guidance-counsellor Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) continues to move slowly out of the shadows in Captain America: The Winter Soldier - and further into the spotlight.
Captain America goes Captain Phillips
The opening seajacking of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s cargo ship/mobile office Lumerian Star offered the filmmakers an early chance to go handheld with some of the more boots-to-asses moments in the movie. This stylistic departure was overseen by District 9 cinematographer Trent Opaloch. “For us the choice to go handheld was philosophical,” explains co-director Joe Russo. “We wanted the movie to be vérité, so you would feel as if you were there. With handheld you get the fluidity of the camera as it follows action: you can track a punch to a face and then whip back to the character throwing the punch.” Here UFC champion Georges St-Pierre gets a solid vérité-ing from Cap.
A bridge too far?
Sebastian Stan’s one-armed bandit, a man with a recent past murkier than a derelict aquarium, gets plenty of big moments in Part Deux. For Stan, the lone gunman in a conspiracy so cunning and sinister it’d double-cross its own mum for an extra fish finger, the role took him back to school. Evil school. “I dove into the whole Cold War history,” he recalls. “I looked at the KGB, I looked at all kinds of spy movies, and all kinds of documentaries about that time. I grabbed anything from that time period and anything about brainwashing.” With seven movies remaining in his Marvel contract and plenty more scope for research ahead, he’ll be a quiz night fiend for years to come.
You, Me and Stevie
Russo brothers Joe (left) and Anthony (right) are already confirmed to return for Cap 3. "We're just in the formative stages of it right now," they explain. "We've started breaking the story with writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely." Their '70s-era touchpoints for The Winter Soldier were married with a yen to keep the storyline grounded. "As part of the audition process, we showed Marvel a lot of videos," Joe remembers, "[including] actual car chases, Krav Maga demonstrations, special-forces training videos." Their dedication to a real-world mood impressed Marvel top dog Kevin Feige sufficiently for him to hire a pair of filmmakers with minimal action experience.
Everything’s gone green
Cap 2’s commitment to in-camera effects and location filming inevitably gave way in its splashier moments to visual effects and green screen work – because, hey, it’s really frickin’ hard to build a real helicarrier. ILM and Scanline VFX were two of the five effects houses that worked to bring Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s superhero back to the screen. Cap’s powers, explains Chris Evans, remain “very meat and potatoes” in the second instalment. “They mesh well with a ‘70s thriller. It would be more difficult to put, say, Hulk in that kind of context.”