They asked a bunch of kids which superhero toy they’d most want to play with. There, I’ve given away the big reveal hinted at in the title of the post. But don’t you want to know how this all came down to toys?
“If you needed to launch a Hollywood franchise-are those the superheroes you would really turn to?”
That’s what The Los Angeles Times openly wondered in response to Marvel Studio’s 2004 announcement it had secured debt financing from Merrill Lynch to fund a set of new comic book movies based on characters like Captain America, Ant-Man, Black Panther, Cloak & Dagger, Doctor Strange, Hawkeye, and Nick Fury. It was a fair question to ask at the time given the trajectory of all superhero movies to that point, but it’s one which the Times and other tastemakers and prognosticators would later look back on with shame when Marvel Studios took its B team straight to the top of the box office record books.
It all started with Iron Man, the superhero movie which zigged toward comedy and sincerity at a time when the competition was zagging toward dark and gritty. Projected internally by Marvel to top out at $100m domestic across its entire theatrical run, Iron Man shocked the world in 2008 by opening to a then-astounding $98m on the way to a domestic/worldwide split of $318m/$585m.
Chalk it up to right movie, right time. Or Jon Favreau’s stellar direction. Or the pitch-perfect performances from Robert Downey, Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow. Or the months of hypes they’d built up after debuting the trailer at Comic-Con. Or, quite simply, the fact that Iron Man has one of the cooler-looking suits in comic book history. Either way, Iron Man was a huge hit, and four years later The Avengers team-up cracked a billion and forever changed the film industry.
But why did Iron Man have to be first the first character adapted to the screen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Why not Captain America, Black Panther, or Thor? What made Marvel say, “Yes, we should make the story of a rich playboy genius with no superpowers but a really cool iron suit our first movie”? Is it because of his vague similarities to Batman?
No, it was mostly the suit.
To back up for a moment: Iron Man wasn’t actually part of Marvel’s original deal with Merrill Lynch. Neither was Thor. In 2004, they were each promised to other studios, but at the urging of Marvel Studios COO David Maisel, those deals were axed to give them more options as well as to lean into Maisel’s plan for a series of interconnected movies.
So, Marvel Studios heads Avi Arad and Maisel along with president of production Kevin Feige had Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Black Panther, Ant-Man, and the rest to choose from. They had enough money to adapt each character into their own individual movie, but they disagreed over who should be the first one up. Arad favored Captain America, thinking he had the best name recognition among the bunch. The others weren’t so sure.
Ben Fritz’s book The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies describes what happened next:
“To decide which film to make first, Marvel convened focus groups. Marvel brought together groups of children, showed them pictures of its superheroes, and described their abilities and weapons.Then they asked the kids which ones they would most like to play with as a toy. The overwhelming answer, to the surprise of many at Marvel, was Iron Man.
‘That’s what brought Iron Man to the front of the line,’ said a person who helped to decide which movie Marvel would self-produce first.
Marvel executives in New York went ahead with plans for a slew of new Iron Man toys yet to come out in 2008, while Arad, Maisel, and their team, including the fast-rising Feige, got to work on a movie intended to sell those toys.”
We might have thought Robert Downey, Jr.’s name helped tip the favor over to Iron Man for Marvel, but he wasn’t even cast, attached, or even a twinkle in Marvel’s eye when they conducted those focus groups. No, it all came down to toys, which isn’t actually all that shocking.
Whether something is toyetic enough has been helping decide movie’s fortunes since Star Wars, and Arad actually came to Marvel from a toy manufacturing background. So did Marvel’s head honcho at the time, Ike Perlmutter. He especially viewed superhero movies as toy-deliver machines. Otherwise, they served little to no purpose to him. Both Arad and Maisel had previously sold Perlmutter on the idea that in success their roster of characters could be worth a billion in movie ticket sales, which, really, whose not going to love that?
However, what had really set Perlmutter off was his frustration over having his toy manufacturing plans overly reliant on the whims of the Hollywood studios making the X-Men and Spider-Man movies. When Fox, for example, suddenly pushed up X-Men’s release by 6 months Marvel’s planned X-Men toy line turned into a disaster.
Marvel Studios, really, was just a way for Perlmutter to cut out the middleman (the film studios) and regain fiscal and institutional control over a product which primarily existed in his mind to help sell toys. Arad, Maisel, and Feige choosing to go with Iron Man first was thus their way of appealing to what Perlmutter valued most.
The irony is that it didn’t work, at least initially and definitely not how they planned. The business model was supposed to be break even on the films, rake in profit on the toys. But no one wanted to make Iron Man toys. Even when Marvel tried to force those companies which wanted Spider-Man 3-related toys in 2007 to make and stock Iron Man toys in 2008 they found few takers. “We couldn’t give Iron Man away, nobody wanted it,” a Marvel executive said. “So there was not very much merchandise on the shelves for that first movie.”
Iron Man would just have to be content with making $100m in profits on ticket sales, helping Marvel’s stock price to jump 9 points in a single day. Of course, once Iron Man hit theaters toy manufacturers wanted in on the business, and after the failure speedbump of Marvel’s second film, The Incredible Hulk, the hits (and toy sales) just kept on rolling in.
Source: The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies by Ben Fritz