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Why A Former Marvel Executive Had To Fight To Cast Robert Downey Jr. As Iron Man

Robert Downey Jr. almost lost out on the role of Iron Man, only for one former Marvel executive to go to bat for him... and, thankfully, he won that battle.

In a New Yorker profile about the emergence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe by Michael Schulman titled "How the Marvel Cinematic Universe Swallowed Hollywood" — the cheeky subheading reads, "Robert Redford, Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Rudd, and Angela Bassett now disappear into movies whose plots can come down to 'Keep glowy thing away from bad guy'" — Schulman speaks to David Maisel, a man who was instrumental to the success of the early days of the MCU. In recent years, though, his name hasn't been a part of the conversation... but the way he tells it, it's thanks to him that Downey Jr. scored this defining role.

Apparently, when it came time to cast Tony Stark, Marvel was down to two choices: Downey Jr. or Timothy Olyphant. Maisel says the studio didn't exactly mince words about Downey Jr. ""My board thought I was crazy to put the future of the company in the hands of an addict," Maisel told The New Yorker. "I helped them understand how great he was for the role. We all had confidence that he was clean and would stay clean." Obviously, he won the argument and the rest was history, but this is a pretty surprising take to uncover after years of MCU supremacy (in which Downey Jr. clearly played a huge role).

In many ways, David Maisel was the mind behind the MCU

Everyone familiar with the MCU is familiar with Kevin Feige's name, but maybe not David Maisel's... which is definitely a shame. When it comes to Maisel's role in creating the MCU, it becomes pretty apparent that, as Maisel puts it, we wouldn't even have this massive cinematic universe if it wasn't for him. As Maisel tells Schulman, without him, "the M.C.U. would never exist. It's like a Thanos snap." 

"Most people right now think Kevin started the studio," Maisel continued. "They don't know me at all."

In fact, it seems to be quite the opposite; Maisel was the one who conceived of the idea that Marvel should start making movies, even flying to Palm Beach to visit Mar-a-Lago and meet with former Marvel chairperson Isaac Perlmutter. Though Perlmutter didn't initially love the idea because he was much more focused on merchandise, another former Marvel executive told Schulman, "David had a sense that, if Marvel could own its own movies and control its destiny, it would change the course of cinema history." Maisel was right, and he obviously convinced Perlmutter eventually.

After several stumbling blocks, "Iron Man" was a go, Jon Favreau was attached to direct, and Maisel won the battle to cast Downey Jr. After working on "Iron Man" as chairman with Feige as head of production, Maisel engineered the sale of Marvel to Disney and crowned Feige as the new studio president... bringing forth a new era.

For his part, Feige thinks Robert Downey Jr. was the perfect choice for Iron Man

In the post-Maisel years at Marvel Studios, Feige has been open with his praise for Downey Jr.'s turn as Tony Stark. In a YouTube video celebrating 15 years of "Iron Man" alongside Jon Favreau, Feige was nothing if not effusive. Calling the choice "one of the greatest decisions in the history of Hollywood," Feige elaborated: "I remember on later movies – we'll talk about them on the 15th anniversary of those – there were dark days. I would say to Robert, 'We wouldn't be in this mess if it wasn't for you,' meaning we wouldn't have a studio if it wasn't for him."

Feige's not wrong; right up until Downey Jr. left the MCU after "Avengers: Endgame" in 2019, Tony was a constant fan-favorite, and without his signature charm, the first "Iron Man" may not have soared as high as it did. In any case, Maisel helped this momentous casting decision happen in the first place — and even though more people know Feige's name, his legacy lives on.

As Schulman wraps up his time with Maisel, the former executive passes him a small globe and asks him to hold it in his hands. Apparently, Maisel gave one to the Dalai Lama, with the idea that the sacred leader can hand it from person to person, creating a shared experience. "My globe is now his. It's going to become a piece of art around the world," Maisel said. "I feel the same way about Marvel."