Sporting a devilish goatee and casual designer threads, Robert Downey Jr. takes a seat inside his trailer on the set of Iron Man and unzips a pouch containing a nice fat cigar. He snips off the end of his stogie but doesn't light it. He's too busy talking (and talking) about the thrill of playing a superhero. ''I remember running into Keanu after he got back from The Matrix, and he said, 'Brother, it feels like I've been on another planet,''' Downey says. ''Well, I feel like I'm on Planet Iron Man. And it's the greatest.''
If you sense that the 43-year-old former Hollywood bad boy and onetime Oscar nominee (Chaplin) is enjoying his moment, you'd be right especially considering he could have a hit on his hands. Adapted from the long-running Marvel Comics series, Iron Man tells the story of Tony Stark, a brilliant munitions mogul who becomes a crime-fighting knight in high-tech armor after a brush with death. The film, directed by Jon Favreau (Elf), costars Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jeff Bridges, and is stuffed with enough F/X eye candy to give fanboys retinal diabetes. For Downey, Iron Man completes the arc of a remarkable, slow-building comeback since 2002, when he was released from a court-ordered rehab stint for a seemingly untamable drug addiction. ''It was a risky piece of casting, but all the more intriguing because of it,'' says Marvel Studios production president Kevin Feige. ''Like Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, it's a move that takes this movie to another level.''
To be clear, Iron Man isn't an ironclad blockbuster. For starters, the character lacks the bigger-than-comics profile of Spider-Man and Superman. The film is also Marvel's first franchise effort since becoming an autonomous and fully capitalized production company. Prior to Iron Man, Marvel relied on studios to fund its films. Now the company's paying for the films itself; that means huge rewards if Iron Man and Marvel's other summer release, a reboot of The Incredible Hulk, hit, and a huge loss if they don't. With a reported budget of $180 million, Iron Man will need to be one of the summer's biggest hits if it's going to pay off, and recent creative woes on Hulk suggest Marvel's ambitious new leadership might be struggling through a learning curve.
Nonetheless, Downey is clearly psyched for a chance to prove himself anew, not to mention join Hollywood's brotherhood of action heroes. ''I'm an actor because I'm crazy about movies,'' he says. ''I've had occasion to hang out with Bruce Willis, but when I do, I don't think of him as Bruce Willis. He's John McClane and that's all there is to it, because I love Die Hard. All the guys I've grown up with in this business, all my peers, they've all gotten their superhero ya-yas out, except me. Until now.''
NEXT PAGE: ''I had to negotiate a minefield of questions when I [pitched Downey as Iron Man]. His past was ultimately a nonissue.''