What Does It Take to Create a Billion-Dollar Superhero?

iron_man_three_ver9_xlgSuperheroes have never been more powerful. Tony Stark — the genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist at the heart of Iron Man — has earned himself the coveted position of ‘character with the single highest grossing film’ with the release of Iron Man 3over $1.1 billion worldwide in just about a month, all on a budget of $200 million.

As of May 27, the three film adaptations of Marvel’s Iron Man have grossed approximately $2.633 billion worldwide, and had a collective production budget of $540 million. That’s a top-line return of 388 percent. The first two films were distributed by Paramount, a subsidiary of Viacom (NYSE:VIA), and the third was distributed by Disney (NYSE:DIS). All three films were produced by Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios, which is a subsidiary of Disney. Disney acquired Marvel Entertainment — previously listed on the NYSE as MVL — for approximately $4 billion in cash and stock in 2009, one year after the release date of the first Iron Man film.

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It’s important to point out that what Disney really acquired with its purchase — aside from talent — was intellectual property. The Disney umbrella now shelters a library of characters including Iron Man, Spider-Man, X-Men, Captain America, Fantastic Four, and Thor. Each of these characters has a narrative and a fan base that is decades old, and as Disney and Time Warner (NYSE:TWC) have found out, highly engaged.

These entertainment giants know that the secret to blockbuster success, the kind that pulls in more than $1 billion in worldwide sales in under a month, is owning the right intellectual property.