Iron Man went from a B-hero to Marvel’s movie star because he had the best toys

Heroes aren’t born. They’re built.
Heroes aren’t born. They’re built.
Image: AP Photo/Ric Francis
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Theatergoers have collectively spent more than $15 billion at the box office on Marvel movies since the comic-book-company-turned-film-studio launched its superhero movie-verse with Iron Man 10 years ago today (May 2). There was a time when Marvel thought those movies wouldn’t make money.

The comic-book publisher, which emerged from bankruptcy when it merged with Toy Biz in the 1990s, sold off the film rights to many of its top characters, such as Spider-Man and the X-Men, years before it began making its own movies. It saw how those studio partners, including Sony and Twentieth Century Fox, were profiting from its characters (Spider-Man set records when it was released in 2002). And, in the mid-2000s, Marvel decided to get into the movie business for itself. The hope of chief executive Ike Perlmutter and the other Marvel executives at the time was to break even on productions and make money selling toys and other products tied to the films. Licensing was the bulk of Marvel’s business then and revenues increased with each movie featuring its characters.

It had one star it still held the rights to, Captain America, and an assortment of B-team heroes like Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Hawkeye that had name recognition but little cachet outside of comic-book shops to carry its films. Here’s how Ben Fritz, in his book, The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies, describes how Marvel determined which superhero would lead the company’s first feature:

Marvel brought together groups of children, showed them pictures of its superheroes, and described their abilities and weapons. Then they asked 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 kept the Iron Man production lean by hiring Jon Favreau, who had never helmed a big-budget picture before, to direct, and Robert Downey Jr., who was affordable following substance-abuse and legal woes, to star. (Today, Downey Jr. is one of the highest paid actors in the world, and Favreau is one of Disney’s most-trusted hitmakers with the The Jungle Book reboot and upcoming live-action The Lion King to his name.) The budget in the end was $140 million—for comparison, Sony’s 2007 movie Spider-Man 3, produced around the same time, cost $258 million. But, with a hero of dubious appeal, an unproven studio, and misfit talent attached, Marvel had a hard time getting companies to make and stock Iron Man toys ahead of the film’s release. It tried attaching the character to toy deals already in the works for Spider-Man 3 with little avail. ”We couldn’t give Iron Man away, nobody wanted it,” said one Marvel executive, in Fritz’s book. “So there was not very much merchandise on the shelves for the first movie.”

Fortunately for Marvel, the movie itself became the moneymaker when it was released on May 2, 2008. It opened with $99 million at the domestic box office—two-thirds more than Paramount, its distributor, expected. It was the second-biggest opening weekend ever for a non-sequel, behind Spider-Man. When all was said and done, it grossed more than $585 million worldwide at the box office, or four times its production budget.

The film boosted Marvel’s revenue nearly 40% to $676 million in 2008. The release even renewed interest in Iron Man comics, with total sales rising 22% in 2008 to about 47,900 copies per month on average, following seven straight years of declines, Comichron data show. The following year, Disney bought Marvel for $4 billion. Retailers were more than happy to stock Iron Man toys when the next film came around in 2010.

The character remains a hot seller today. Iron Man action figures made by Hasbro, which has licensed the rights to make Marvel toys since 2006, has consistently brought in an average of $18.7 million in global retail sales from 2011-2016, the furthest back Euromonitor data provided to Quartz goes. According to the NPD Group, toys based on Marvel properties garnered around $350 million in the US alone in 2017. And Disney, Marvel’s parent, was the top global licensor of 2017, with $53 billion in sales of licensed products.

The future of the Iron Man movie-verse is unclear. Downey Jr.’s Iron Man—which has appeared in nine Marvel movies, the most of any character—could end its run after Avengers 4 next year, when the actor’s contract ends. But the mentality of using Marvel films to sell Marvel toys hasn’t changed. The new guard of Marvel characters such as Ms. Marvel and Black Panther will pick up that mantel. After Black Panther‘s record box-office run in February, ”I pretty much guarantee you that this coming Halloween and even Christmas, you’re going to be seeing a lot of Black Panther merchandise in the marketplace,” Disney CEO Bob Iger said at a Morgan Stanley conference.