Building a superhero from scratch is noisy and hazardous. "Let's find a place where it's quieter!" The man shouting was Kevin Feige, the president of production for Marvel Studios, the Hollywood start-up that takes flight on May 2 with its first film, "Iron Man." Feige was walking, carefully, through one of the film's massive Playa Vista sets where a whirling metal saw was kicking up a cascade of bright orange sparks.
Once in a quieter corridor, Feige gushed about its special effects, but then said the greatest asset of the film is a hero with weakness hard-wired into his psyche. "That's what makes Marvel characters special, they are people who become heroes but also have flaws and they struggle with them," he said. "Look, the costumes can easily be the stars of these movies if you let them be . . . you have to flesh out the character. They battle bad guys, but they also battle these things within themselves."
Launching a major movie production company right now seems like a dicey venture. But the Marvel formula has been a spectacular success for other studios the last eight years. The self-doubting Spider-Man, the bickering Fantastic Four, the misunderstood X-Men and all the other Marvel misfits have racked up a stunning $5 billion in worldwide box office, most of that for Sony and Fox. Marvel now wants its own spot at the table. After four years of planning and winning over Wall Street, "Iron Man" is the first step in the company's quest to go from intellectual-property fount to a stand-alone Hollywood player that can greenlight big-time popcorn movies.
Feige's boss and friend, David Maisel, chairman of Marvel Studios, is pleased to be standing on the deck of a ship that can go in deep water. "We're the first since DreamWorks started 14 years ago that can greenlight its own $100 million movies. It doesn't happen very often." True, though Marvel is not a studio in the most traditional sense (it has fewer than three dozen employees, no lot, and it will turn to Paramount Pictures as its primary distribution pipeline.)
It makes for an intriguing story arc for the Marvel brand name, which next year celebrates its 70th anniversary. The beginning was not an ambitious one. The year after Superman landed at the newsstands, pulp-magazine publisher Martin Goodman decided to take a flier on this new "comic book" craze. The venture hardly looked like the stuff of history -- the pragmatic Goodman had a fairly low opinion of his newsstand products. "Fans," Goodman once said, "are not interested in quality."
Still, that first issue produced two lasting characters, the Human Torch and Namor the Sub-Mariner, and they were soon followed by patriotic World War II creation Captain America. But it wasn't until the 1960s that Marvel seized on an identity that really mattered in American pop culture. That's when Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and the other creators in the self-styled "House of Ideas" gave the world its first soapy superheroes, masked men who saved the world but somehow lost the girl, bounced their rent check and hid out from the police. Kirby's art, meanwhile, was so kinetic and surreal that Superman, over at rival DC Comics, instantly seemed like a caped Pat Boone, stiff and slow to understand the new rhythm.
For decades, none of Marvel's New York-based success story really mattered to Hollywood. Then in the late 1990s a new Marvel boss, Avi Arad, made it his crusade to get his company's classic heroes on the silver screen. The breakthrough came in the 2000 Fox film "X-Men," which was deeply loyal to the comic book and starred Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. Its success started a cinematic windfall for all those old Lee, Kirby and Ditko characters, who were belatedly ideal for a moviegoing public in love with CGI wizardry and outsider heroes.
"The intention now," Feige said with a smile, "is to keep the streak alive."
That's easier said than done, especially since Marvel's most powerful properties have already flown across the screen for other studios. And there's the savage marketplace realities of today. Why go into the movie-making biz now?
Maisel said the question is the wrong one. "We're not in the movie business, we're in the 'Iron Man' business right now. Marvel owns the intellectual property. We have an Iron Man video game coming, the toys, the comics, we have an animated television show coming, a direct-to-DVD animated Iron Man movie last year. We're going to have an Iron Man ride at an amusement park in Dubai in a few years. We have a different perspective."
The Beverly Hills office of Marvel Studios has been quite the scene in recent months. One afternoon you might see Robert Downey Jr., the star of "Iron Man," another time it might be Edward Norton, who gets green this June in "The Incredible Hulk." Edge of U2 has dropped by too, working on the music for Tony-winner Julie Taymor's planned Broadway musical of "Spider-Man."