The Parable of Iron Man: How One Big Hire Can Make All The Difference

In 2008, Marvel was on the ropes, or at least the movie-making part of the business was.

Just look at the last eight movies featuring Marvel characters released before April 2008:Blade Trinity, Elektra, Man-Thing, Fantastic Four, X-Men: The Last Stand, Ghost Rider, Spider-Man 3 and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Average Rotten Tomatoes score of those eight movies: 33 percent (which, by the way, is terrible).

Seeking improvement, Marvel Studios took full control of several characters and planned an ambitious “universe” of movies, where different heroes in different films would interact with each other and get together once every few years to make The Avengers. Of course, for it to work, the entire investment was based on making movies that people, you know, liked.

When Marvel revealed this plan and the super heroes that would make it happen, i.e. Thor, Captain America, Black Widow, etc, critics laughed and called it Marvel’s “B” team. Needless to say, expectations were low when the company released Iron Man in the spring of ‘08, based off the hero who, at the time, was best known for Jerry and George’s argument about whether he wore underwear under his metal suit.

Then, the impossible happened: the movie was a raging success, with it earning a 93 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and more than half-a-billion dollars. Why? Sure, there were all the special effects and the pretty girls and all that, but the past eight Marvel movies had that too.

The difference was Robert Downey, Jr., who was cast in the lead role of Tony Stark, aka Iron Man. Critics and moviegoers agreed: he carried the film.

“At the end of the day it’s Robert Downey Jr. who powers the lift-off separating this from most other superhero movies,” Robert Ebert wrote in his review of the film.

A Pattern

There is a misnomer that every movie Marvel Studios released after Iron Man was a smash hit. The fact is Marvel Studios discovered a pretty simple formula: release a movie without Downey, and it would make less than half-a-billion dollars. Release a movie starring Downey, and it would make more than $500 million.

After Iron Man, Marvel Studios released The Incredible Hulk, which earned a 67 percent rating from Rotten Tomatoes and $263 million. Then, it went back to Downey in Iron Man 2, which made $623 million and earned a 73 percent rating from Rotten Tomatoes.

The next two Marvel movies – Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger – were both given good reviews, with the two earning a 77 and 79 percent ratings from Rotten Tomatoes. Yet while they were both profitable, they both failed to hit that half-a-billion threshold, with Thormaking $449 million and Captain America taking in $370 million.

The next two Marvel Studio movies were a tour de force for Downey. In May of 2012, The Avengers (which featured Downey) was released, and raked in an incredible $1.5 billion, making it the third-highest grossing film of all time. In May of 2013, Marvel Studios releasedIron Man 3, which earned $1.2 billion and is the sixth-highest grossing film of all time.

Recently, Forbes Magazine reported that Downey was their highest paid actor for the year, as he earned $75 million between June 2013 and June 2014. Most of that money was from residuals from the Iron Man and Avenger movies.

“If there’s one actor who has proved himself indisposable, it’s Robert Downey Jr.,” themagazine wrote. “Downey reigns as the highest paid man in Hollywood because at this point, it would be incredibly difficult for Marvel to continue to making Iron Man and Avengers films without him.”

Ask Marvel Studios if Downey is worth that money, and they would probably say he’s worth double. After all, the evidence is pretty strong that Marvel Studios essentially rode one great hire, Downey, along with solid (although ultimately replaceable) stars to make their billion-dollar enterprise.

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