Kevin Feige, Dan Buckley and Paul Gitter, Marvel

Tony Stark might seem at first like just another self-involved billionaire playboy with little on his mind but sipping cocktails and chasing beautiful women. Turns out, though, he’s a deep thinker capable of taking on a whole new set of priorities—and the Iron Man alter ego—after a near-death experience at the hands of some really bad guys. First up: Change his entire life and, oh yeah, save the world.

In other words, Stark is a man with quite a to-do list, but he has the advantage of being a fictional character. What’s remarkable about Iron Man, the ’08 summer blockbuster, is that an equally high-stakes drama was playing out behind the camera—this one all too real and with none of Tony Stark’s gadgetry to help things along. The heroes (three of them) were wearing collared shirts, not armor. Maybe they weren’t out to save the world, but they were taking on plenty of new priorities of their own.

Marvel Studios, a $525 million venture that had grown out of the iconic comic book brand, was swaggering into the battle royale of the movie biz. Not only was Marvel fully financing its inaugural effort (to the tune of $135 million), it would position Iron Man to kick off the summer movie season, during which the big Hollywood studios typically pull in 40% of their yearly haul. Marvel Studios was the first new standalone studio since DreamWorks SKG (which launched in 1994) to be able to greenlight its own $100 million-plus popcorn flicks. The rewards could be enormous. The risk definitely was.

No pressure, right?

As Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige recalls, the whole idea was “to expand the definition of a traditional comic book film.” Let old guard super heroes jump into phone booths to pull on their leotards. Marvel was betting on a new kind of savior: Smart, wry, flawed, substantive. “We’re looking at our characters in terms of their story and their potential to speak to a broad audience,” Feige said. “To us, that was Iron Man.”

To millions of American moviegoers, it was Iron Man, too. The film powered to the top of the box office when it premiered to more than $100 million in May and went on to grab a $317 million domestic take. There’s another $250 million and counting from international markets.

Betting big on a flawed but complex and likable hero that few non-fanboys had ever heard of didn’t just turn into one of the year’s most inspired marketing strategies, it’ll serve as a template for the new Marvel. With a strategy of using its “House of Ideas” for inspiration, Marvel plans to mine its stable of some 5,000 characters to produce fully owned action-adventure films, TV, DVD and sequels, with an eye to creating long-running franchises. Meanwhile, the machinery of its consumer products division will be busy licensing everything from Halloween costumes to toys, videogames and pajamas. Along the way, Marvel has come very close to an achievement that’s eluded many a movie studio: True brand status in its own right. Not bad for a company that filed for bankruptcy a decade ago.

Fantastic Three
Behind these efforts are Feige and two other key execs: Dan Buckley, president and publisher of Marvel Enterprises, home of Marvel Comics; and Paul Gitter, president of consumer products-North America, of Marvel Entertainment. Feige, a self-professed comic geek who’s often included on “most influential” lists in the superhero entertainment genre, is overseeing the switch from Marvel as an intellectual property source for other companies to an independent Hollywood player.

“We’re looking at the marquee names, but also at great stories and lesser-known characters,” Feige said. “Regardless of how many comics they’ve sold or TV series they’ve had, if it can be a great movie, we’ll pursue it.”

Buckley, another lifelong comic fan, has launched a vast, digital Marvel world and pumped up sales of classics like The Avengers while mining more graphic novels and making high-profile deals with such best-selling writers as Stephen King.

During Buckley’s seven-year tenure, distribution for comics in general has grown from mom-and-pop hobby shops to mainstream booksellers, exposing the genre to a much broader audience. Marvel has also courted popular creative talent like Mark Millar (Wanted, Kick-Ass), rebooted famous franchises and developed crossover books that blend characters in new settings. “It’s vital for us to develop content that expands the genre,” Buckley said.

Heroes for the Home
Iron Man’s success aside, more evidence of Marvel’s marketing savvy will probably enter the picture this fall. That’s when Iron Man will rocket into American homes via DVD, triggering a second shockwave of popularity. Marvel will be ready for it by stocking stores with an arsenal of movie merchandise.

As head of consumer products, Gitter shepherds the lucrative deal with Hasbro and presides over a division that’s aggressively pursuing alternative distribution while convincing big retailers that Marvel is not a one-shot movie opportunity but a long-term solid bet.

Since his arrival at Marvel six years ago, Gitter has had change in mind. Foremost was courting mass retailers with three-to five-year plans for Marvel properties, not the usual four-week grab-‘n-go timed to a movie’s stay in the theaters. Gitter slid down the demo ladder by creating Spider-Man and Friends, a line for infants and toddlers. He also reached for trend-conscious tween girls with repurposed art on T-shirts and accessories. “We’re changing the perception about merchandising,” Gitter said. “We’re movies, DVDs, publishing, animation, digital. We’re able to paint a much bigger picture now.”

Star Status
Marvel is hardly the first studio questing for the elusive status of brand, but observers say it’s well on its way. Fans have been known to erupt when the company’s red-and-white logo appears on screen, and that’s before a single frame of film.

“They deliver a very consistent level of quality, great stories, incredible special effects and flawed, interesting characters,” said Rob Moore, vice chairman of Paramount Pictures, whose 10-year deal to distribute Marvel movies started with Iron Man. “When people see the Marvel name they know they’re getting a big exciting movie that’s appealing to adults and is safe to take the kids to see.”

Since Marvel’s big-screen foray goes back to 2000 with the first X-Men movie, some people might argue that they’ve already leased out their best-known characters. Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Blade, Ghost Rider and ongoing blockbuster franchises X-Men and Spider-Man made more than $5 billion—and tucked it into other studios’ pockets.

But Marvel, having secured Merrill Lynch financing, now has the wherewithal to dig into its deep vault and develop such properties as Thor, Captain America, Ant-Man and The Avengers. Indeed, if what Marvel accomplished with The Hulk is any proof, the studio knows what it’s doing. Though second only to Spider-Man in popularity, The Hulk became a ridiculed movie five years ago in the hands of director Ang Lee. Relaunched this summer in a real-world setting and given a more heroic tenor, Hulk was taken seriously by fans again to the tune of $244 million gross worldwide.

All of which has been enough to win the genuine admiration of many in the rock-’em-sock-’em world of superheroes. “They’re not just concerned about building standalone franchises for their popular characters,” said Adam Fogelson, president of marketing and distribution at Universal Pictures. “They’re creating a Marvel film universe.”

Photo by Frank Veronsky.