In 2008, Marvel Studios made a gamble that should be studied in film classes and business schools for years to come when it released Iron Man, thus birthing the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marvel took Robert Downey Jr., who was something of a pariah given his legal woes and history of substance abuse, and had him play Tony Stark, the character who would become the backbone of a franchise unlike anything cinema has ever seen. This gamble was especially risky given that Iron Man was a B-list superhero at the time. So how did Marvel decide that Iron Man was the right character to begin this bold new venture? Why, he had the coolest toys, of course.
This wasn’t just the opinion of one person or an assumption either. According to the book The Big Picture: The Fight For the Future of Movies by Ben Fritz (via QZ), Marvel actually went to kids to find out which superhero they took to most, at the time hoping to break even on the Marvel movies, but profit off the toys and merchandise. Groups of children were shown pictures of various Marvel superheroes and told about their powers, abilities and weapons. The children were then asked which hero they would most like to play with as a toy and, to the surprise of many, Iron Man emerged as the clear victor in a landslide. That simple exercise put Tony Stark in pole position to be the first hero out of the gate for Marvel’s fledgling studio.
Personally I think Thor is probably a cooler action figure, but Iron Man isn’t a surprising pick when you consider a kid’s mindset, not knowing anything about these characters. Unlike most superheroes rocking tights, Iron Man has a badass suit of armor, so from an aesthetic standpoint, this makes a lot of sense. Plus he can fly, and he makes things go boom really well. Let’s also not forget that with all the different types of armor Tony Stark designs, that means Marvel could make numerous kinds of action figures, each one looking slightly or majorly different than the one before.
It is truly fascinating that one of the key decisions in the genesis of a multi-billion dollar franchise was made in part based on a bunch of kids in a room picking out what hero they want to play with. There is something simultaneously pure and cynical about that approach. It is pure in that given that comic books generally first capture our imaginations when we are young, so it makes sense to see what appeals to a kid when making a movie about such characters. On the other hand, what character could produce the best story wasn’t necessarily given as much weight, with the studio really hoping for the film to be a big budget toy commercial. Fortunately, those different facets met with a film that was creatively successful and a merch mover. The rest, as they say, is history.
The other thing to note here is that Marvel did not have the film rights to its most popular characters at the time. The company’s A-list, recognizable heroes, like Spider-Man and the X-Men, had been sold off years before following a bankruptcy. So Marvel was forced to choose from what were perceived as lesser options. But given the way things turned out, I don’t imagine it would go back and change things even if it could. And hey, Spider-Man is already back and perhaps the X-Men will be before too long as well.
So when you watch Avengers: Infinity War or Avengers 4 and marvel at how we get to live in a time with such fantastical movies that were once thought impossible, just remember that this all started as one big toy commercial, and thanks to the preferences of some kids, it turned into so much more.