As 'Iron Man 2' showtimes fill up, Hollywood hunts next comic book hero

'Iron Man 2' showtimes are selling out fast. How does a lesser-known comic book character become a multimillion-dollar movie franchise? Star power, a solid story, and a little help from the real world.

Paramount Pictures/AP
Mickey Rourke appears as 'Whiplash' in a scene from Iron Man 2. Showtimes of the film at midnight Friday brought in a reported $7.5 million.

Robert Downey Jr.’s superhero character, now in its second outing in “Iron Man 2,” was not a well-known figure from the Marvel comic book stable.

But the roguish Tony Stark’s leap to the silver screen has paid off handsomely for the company, now owned by Disney, indicating to movie executives all over town that the appetite for superheroes is healthy.

The challenge they now face, with most of the major figures already deployed onscreen – think Batman, Superman, Spiderman, The Hulk, X-Men – is how to gauge which of the thousands of less-familiar comic book super heroes from decades past have the power to duplicate the box-office bravura of this weekend’s magnetic movie magnate. ("Iron Man 2" reportedly raked in $7.5 million from 12:01 a.m. Friday showings alone, and has the opening-weekend record set by “The Dark Knight” in its sights.)

To make the leap from the page to the big screen, the next big superhero must have some sort of fan base, a compelling backstory, and most important, says Stephen Fishler, CEO of Metropolis, Inc., “the ability to translate easily from a drawing into a live-action world.” There are characters that live in a really great graphic, comic book world, he says, but try to put them onscreen and it will either be impossibly hard – think Aqua-Man who lives underwater – or as in the case of a character named, Galactus, who wraps himself around people, a downright silly costume for an actor to wear for an entire movie. His personal favorite is one of Marvel’s earliest creations, Sub-Mariner, who unfortunately, also lives in the water.

But the upcoming studio slates suggest there is no lack of will to try: Thor, Human Torch and Nick Fury. The trend will continue as long as the genre makes money, but also, as long as the world continues to be a dangerous and chaotic place, says Greg Garrett, author of “Holy Superheroes,” and “The Gospel According to Hollywood.” “Superhero stories will continue to be appealing narratives,” he writes in an email. “The idea that someone is watching over us is a tremendously powerful narrative, and superhero films carry the same kind of weight as religious narratives positing a controlling intelligence in the universe. Both allow us to believe that there is some sort of order in all the chaos, and that however difficult things become, someone has the power to stand against the forces of violence and evil,” he adds.

Marketing plays a key role in translating comic book popularity to movie success, says Chris Anderson of The Marketing Arm. The first step is finding an interesting, appropriate, and buzz-worthy actor to play the lead. Robert Downey Jr. was well-cast as Iron Man, he says. And as movie fans (not necessarily comic book fans) began to learn more about the character and the film, the buzz grew. The smart approach to marketing lesser-known superheroes is to begin with the core-fans – these pockets of loyal, passionate comic book fans and use the various social media to build awareness, say Mr. Anderson. “If this audience is on board,” he says via e-mail, “they become champions of the film and the buzz begins to build organically around the project.“

“Iron Man 2” is a good example of the other ad ploys to pull out in support of an unknown hero, such as, say, Iron Fist or Black Panther, says Caleb Hill, product VP for Unicast. Not only do you stack the movie with stars, from Mr. Downey to Gwyneth Paltrow, Scarlett Johansson, and Samuel L. Jackson, who are actually marketable brands themselves and can use their own social networks to sell the film, but you look for as many other products as possible, he says. The film brims with brand names: Burger King, Diesel, Dr. Pepper, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Land O’Frost lunchmeat, Royal Purple Motor Oil, to name a few. “That way,” says Mr. Hill, “you can leverage those products to get attention from people who care about them but might never have thought of going to a superhero movie.”

Studios have held early screenings at the large comic book fan shows such as the annual San-Diego event Comic-Con. But, in the end, Mr. Anderson adds, a really well made film is the make-or-break.

Regardless of how well marketed a film is, “if movie-goers leave the theater having hated the film, it will die a quick death.”


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