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

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Posted by Kelly Konda

Grew up obsessing over movies and TV shows. Worked in a video store. Minored in film at college because my college didn't offer a film major. Worked in academia for a while. Have been freelance writing and running this blog since 2013.

14 Comments

  1. Kind of hilarious, but really not surprising if you ever looked into Perlmutter for just a minute. Good thing that there was more to Ironman than just a cool suit.

    I wonder who was the second fav….my money is on cap because of the shield, but maybe the children preferred the hammer or the muscles…..

    Reply

    1. I wondered the same thing. I can’t imagine any of the kids were too crazy about the idea of a Doctor Strange or Ant-Man toy. It probably would have been Captain America or Thor. You would think some might have gravitated toward Black Panther, but there’s nothing at all flashy about his suit or even his abilities. Still, “And this hero has super sharp nails which spring out of his gloves like a cat’s claws” might have held some sway with any kids in the focus group who had a pet cat at home.

      Reply

      1. Nah….kids like toys which either fly or have removable stuff. Also bright colours.

        Naturally NOW I bet there is a huge demand for Black Panther toys…and I bet that Marvel barely covered it, considering the spiff job they did for Black Widow so far.

      2. I was actually surprised to look back and realize that Black Panther was among the 10 characters they put up as part of the Merrill Lynch deal. I thought he had been tied up at New Line in that failed attempt to make a Black Panther movie starring Wesley Snipes, but that obviously had fallen through long ago enough that Marvel had the rights back by 2004. And, yeah, I completely agree – I’m sure they gave very little thought to Panther or Widow in their presentation to the kids. Lack of name recognition, not toyetic enough, but also probably just not the will to make those movies considering how long Panther eventually took to happen and how we’re still waiting for Widow.

      3. Under Perlmutter there was no chance for either. But in a way this makes it now so much sweeter when those “minority” movies rake in the big cash.

      4. Looking back on it, I was so, so, so wrong to underestimate how much of a difference it was going to make when Kevin Feige was made answerable only to Alan Horn and Bob Iger and the films were taken totally away from Perlmutter. The more I’ve read about him since then the more he seems like the world’s absolute boss from hell with really antiquated, cynical, usually unreasonable views about what consumers want. I occasionally feel bad for the Marvel TV people who still have to work for him and are now pretty much totally cut off from the films as part of the civil war going on inside of Marvel.

      5. I have the feeling that Disney is trying to get rid of Perlmutter….he is bad for business after all. Disney has a certain reputation after all.

      6. According to Ben Fritz’s book, Perlmutter and Bog Iger got along famously at first. Or, more accurately, Perlmutter appreciated that Iger was a straight-shooter and not at all the standard Hollywood type that Michael Eisner was. David Maisel arranged the meeting since he’d worked at Disney prior to joining Marvel, but he did so by first approaching Disney without Perlmutter’s approval. It was pretty much 50/50 whether or not Perlmutter would fire him and his team once he found out. However, when Perlmutter heard of the possibility to sell for billions while somehow still staying completely in control he was all for it. Iger and Disney were choosing to look the other way even though it was well known in the industry that Perlmutter had, for years, been constantly harassing Sony about Spider-Man, calling them up and complaining about things he didn’t actually have a legal right to complain about since the deal clearly allowed them to do whatever they damn well pleased with the character. The hope was that Iger would be better at handling Perlmutter than Pascal and Lynton had been at Sony.

        I don’t know if that’s what’s ended up happening or not. Ever since Feige executed his successful divorce from Perlmutter we barely ever hear about the guy anymore, other than from some strange lawsuit he got caught up in against his neighbors. But I suspect you’re right – if Disney could just buy him out and make him go away they would in a heartbeat, and employee morale at Marvel would probably shoot straight up.

      7. I guess Disney is sitting this one out…Perlmutter isn’t the youngest after all, I am sure they just wait for an opportunity to force him into retirement. Disney certainly has the power to move control away from Perlmutter.

  2. […] Marvel executive said "We couldn’t give Iron Man away, nobody wanted it. So there was not very much merchandise on the […]

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  3. […] Marvel executive said “We couldn’t give Iron Man away, nobody wanted it. So there was not very much merchandise […]

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  4. […] Marvel executive said “We couldn’t give Iron Man away, nobody wanted it. So there was not very much merchandise […]

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  5. […] Marvel executive said “We couldn’t give Iron Man away, nobody wanted it. So there was not very much merchandise […]

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  6. […] Marvel executive said “We couldn’t give Iron Man away, nobody wanted it. So there was not very much merchandise […]

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