Movie history is awash with iconic lines: "Here's looking at you, kid." "Go ahead, make my day." "I am Iron Man."
And just as with the first two, that last statement couldn't have been uttered by anyone other than the actor who said it, Robert Downey Jr.
But it could have been, if Marvel wasn't feeling adventurous and Jon Favreau hadn't gotten his way when it came time to cast the part of billionaire genius Tony Stark, who designs a flying metal suit he can save the world in after he's injured on the job (selling weapons to people fighting endless wars) and ends up with an electromagnetic implant holding his heart together.
Because even though Downey is the Iron Man that soared in three stand-alone films, as well as the charming, sardonic glue holding much of the sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe together, he wasn't at the top of anybody's list.
Jon Favreau, who was hired in 2006 to direct Iron Man, was the first to be turned on to what may now feel like the seeming inevitability of Downey as the star, but at the time was just a hunch that he was the right man for the job.
But, Favreau told Rolling Stone in 2008—after the movie had come out and made half a billion dollars worldwide and Downey was a superstar after a rough turn-of-the-21st century that included embarrassing drug-fueled arrests, many court appearances, prison time and who knows how many missed opportunities—Marvel told him "under no circumstances are we prepared to hire him for any price."
"We both went, 'That's interesting,'" and then forgot about it when Downey's name came up, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige recalled to the Los Angeles Times.
Favreau, who also directed Iron Man 2 and played Tony's friend and associate Happy Hogan in multiple Marvel movies, kept advocating for him, though, and eventually Marvel agreed to a screen test.
Obviously, after that, there was no one else.
But this wasn't a process that happened overnight, and there was a handful of other actors who at one time or another were somebody's ideal Iron Man. It's now been 10 years since Iron Man 2 came out, still only the third of what would ultimately be a 23-film (to date) saga, and it's almost impossible—yet fascinating—to picture any of these guys wearing the Iron Man suit, cracking Tony's jokes, romancing Pepper Potts, mentoring Spider-Man, sparring with Captain America and swiping Thanos's glove:
"Much to my surprise, I really didn't fit any of the criteria for the kind of actor they thought they should cast," Downey told the Los Angeles Times in 2008.
Ultimately, he was paid a reported $500,000 (plus back-end points) for the first Iron Man movie, so Favreau got to have it both ways—a very familiar face at an up-and-coming (or up-and-comebacking) price.
By the time they were shooting The Avengers, however, Downey had a beyond-sweet deal, and his eventual haul for that film alone was said to be about $50 million.
"Isn't that crazy?" he acknowledged when GQ asked him about it in 2013. "They're so pissed. I can't believe it. I'm what's known as 'a strategic cost.'"
It would have been difficult for anybody to get their minds around the height of the mountaintop he was perched on, considering where he had been and where he ended up. "Nothing makes perfect sense," Downey said. "I've explored it so much, and right now I just look back at [his past] as: It was certainly character-building."