The Big Picture

Marvel Studios turned to children for guidance in deciding which superhero to center their films around, leading them to choose Iron Man. Kids’ heightened interest in Tony Stark shaped Iron Man‘s character-first narrative, which became the standard of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Highlighting the vulnerability and humanity of Tony Stark made Iron Man a groundbreaking superhero film and set the standard for future Marvel films.

As the saying goes, “Out of the mouth of babes comes wisdom.” Long before Marvel Studios was the pop culture juggernaut of today’s world, they were a tiny, bankrupt company just dipping their toes into the waters of Hollywood. 20th Century Fox owned the X-Men, and Sony Pictures Entertainment owned Spider-Man — what heroes did Marvel have left to center a bankable movie around? At the time, not much. They were left with superheroes classified as “B-tier,” aka familiar to comic aficionados but nothing to necessarily write home about. Ultimately, studio executives positioned Iron Man as their launching pad for a tentative Marvel Cinematic Universe, but they didn’t make that decision out of the blue. They took the advice of children. At one time, kids held total power over the future of entertainment.

Image via Marvel Studios

As a medium, comics aren’t exclusively for children. Of course, younger demographics are a fertile market and comic publishers often target them to achieve maximum profit. If toys and merchandise sell as well, that’s a considerable bonus. When Marvel Studios was in its infancy, focusing on toys seemed their safest bet after a failed deal with Sony. A The Wall Street Journal piece from 2018 details Marvel’s bumpy origins circa 1998. The company was struggling financially. In contrast, Sony Pictures, which only held the DVD rights to Spider-Man, had an obvious long game in mind: a blockbuster movie and dollar signs.

When Sony employee Yair Landau asked for the webslinger’s rights in full, then-Marvel leader Isaac “Ike” Perlmutter offered them a go big or go home deal: give Marvel $25 million in exchange for the publisher’s B-tier heroes that are now household names (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, etc). As reported by Landau, Sony executives were “quick and decisive” in their response: “Nobody gives as s*** about any of the other Marvel characters. Go back and do a deal for only Spider-Man.”

His long-shot offer disdainfully dismissed, Perlmutter gave Sony their coveted Spidey rights for $10 million and looked elsewhere to generate profits. The Wall Street Journal piece describes Perlmutter as “envious and enraged” and well as “famously frugal.” Hollywood had already proven too risky for this penny-pinching chief to take a leap of faith, so he focused on marketing toys. It wasn’t until David Maisel worked bargaining magic with Bank of America’s Merrill Lynch investing division — $25 million to finance Marvel Comics films with a 5% producer’s fee specifically for Marvel — that Perlmutter returned his attention to movies.

Having said that, Perlmutter’s strategy was still based around selling superhero toys. The eventual Toy Biz company co-owner and billionaire turned to children-filled focus groups with one question: “Which action figure would they want to play with?” The answer was indisputable: the one and only Iron Man. The Marvel phenomenon was born.

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Focusing On Character Made Marvel Great

Image via Marvel Studios

Choosing which superhero would lead the MCU wasn’t all these kids contributed. Their heightened interest in Tony Stark, the man behind the armor, shaped Iron Man‘s character-first narrative that would be the MCU’s modus operandi for a time. According to Joe Quesada, Marvel’s former Chief Creative Officer and a long-time comics writer-artist, a small team at Marvel also conducted focus groups aimed at adjusting misconceptions about Iron Man. To quote Quesada: “Kids who had zero knowledge of the character had no interest in him because they thought he was a robot. But when they found out that there was someone in the suit suddenly interest went off the charts and they wanted to know all about him and who could build [and kick ass in] such awesome armor. Information like that helped us sculpt a plan to build awareness way in advance of the movie.”

Guidance in hand, Perlmutter turned the keys to the Marvel kingdom over to indie director Jon Favreau, who in turn convinced the unwilling studio to cast Robert Downey Jr. as their leading man. So much rested on this creative duo’s shoulders, both in the moment and in retrospect. Iron Man was designed to spawn sequels and spin-offs. They were building a titan from the ground up. That very dilemma pitted Iron Man the movie against the Hollywood system almost as much as Tony Stark battled his demons in a cave with a box of scraps. The kids had it right: highlighting the man behind the armor and the pathos inside the man is why the MCU exists. Iron Man made Tony Stark vulnerable, haunted, compensatory, and redeemable. Coupled with Downey Jr.’s one-of-a-kind humanism as a performer, Iron Man tapped into the fragile heart of what makes a hero and set the standard for Marvel films to come.

On the surface, trusting kids with a multi-million dollar project capable of making or breaking a company’s Hollywood future was, to put it lightly, a gamble. Circa the early 2000s, hiring Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. stacked gamble upon gamble in a Jenga tower that would make Vegas odds blanch. Marvel’s success in the film industry was always a precarious endeavor. Yet aren’t the best success stories the ones that emerge from uncertainty? It’s fitting that the world domination studio brass envisioned happened just so the studio could sell some toys. Who knew kids were so prophetically discerning?

 The kids are alright!  Read More