Ironman Scores, Marvel brand hits new high. The lessons are obvious.

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I've never been a huge fan of Ironman. When it comes to superheroes, I've always had a bit of a soft spot for Frank Miller's work with Batman (The Dark Knight, for starters), Spidey, and the X-Men (mostly Wolverine). Ironman though... eh. He was kind of a secondary superhero in a lot of ways. Not much of a point. Billionaire genius builds metal rocket suit, fights crime for fun. Bleh.

But that changed when I saw the first trailer for the motion picture version - which finally came out this weekend. Score #1: Casting Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark. Score #2: Letting fans/geeks make the movie. Score #3: A great set of trailers. (In sharp contrast with Indiana Jones 4, which so far has a horrendous trailer.)

Anyhoo. The trailer started getting excited about the movie, and I have been anticipating it ever since. I excitedely took the family to see it over the weekend, and... well... I was a bit nervous about it. It's Ironman, after all. How good can it be? I bought my tickets with a mixture of excitement and apprehension: What if it sucked? What if even Robert Downey Jr. and director John Favreau couldn't save a second-rate superhero in his first attempt at becoming a big screen success? (Remember Daredevil? Nuff said.)

But from the very opening scene (great editing), my fears evaporated into thin air. Ironman was rock solid, and yeah, Robert Downey Junior is without a doubt one of the coolest actors in Hollywood. Always has been. He shines so brightly as Tony Stark that he singlehandedly takes what could have been (should have been) an okay Marvel superhero flick into one of the best Marvel movie franchises to date. Don't believe me? Check out these review snippets from Rotten Tomatoes:

"Robert Downey Jr. nails Iron Man. More apropros, change nails to welds. For it is Downey who most significantly raises the quality bar of 'Iron Man' to the classic level of fellow comic book heroes Superman, Batman and Spider-Man. Welcome, new franchise."

"Move over, Superman. This lush, high-octane playboy never tasted so good. Iron Man has not only etched itself the mark of one of the best-reviewed films so far in 2008 but also one of the highest-rated superhero movies of all time."

"Robert Downey Jr., full-swing back into his acting genius, is exceptional as Iron Man. Life for Tony Stark is cool, and you can almost image him doing the Charlie Chaplin waddle across his workshop."

"This might be the most relevant superhero tale we have yet seen."

"Robert Downey Jr. delivers a knockout performance that alone is worth the price of admission to watch."

"It's Robert Downey Jr., having triumphed over his substance abuse battle, who puts the pedal to the metal and scores the freshest new franchise going."

"The best superhero movie since Spider-Man 2. Robert Downey Jr is the film's best special effect."

"Downey could have taken a tragic tack. But he has fun just figuring out how to make the armor suit work. His sarcasm and almost drunken Tony Curtis body language transform the scenes of Iron Man."

"In the proficient hands of Jon Favreau, abetted by a magnificent performance by Robert Downey, Jr., not only does Iron Man pay off, but it raises the stakes for comic book movies to follow, as well as the entire summer film season."

Yet here it is. The cold hard truth that Hollywood studio execs need to read and re-read and learn from:

"Dangerously dependant on Robert Downey Jr. for entertainment. He throws a one-man party during every scene. But when he's off-screen, the film wilts. (Yes, even with Jeff Bridges' anti-Dude.) Re-cast, it would only be a shade better than Daredevil."
Sure, the cgi is impressive, but without the superb casting and directing of Downey, the movie would not have been worth the $10 admission. Something Marvel must have figured out over the last year, when they decided to completely recast the "Hulk" Franchise for the upcoming Hulk sequel (The Incredible Hulk). Not that there was anything wrong with Eric Bana as Bruce Banner, but casting Edward Norton in the role for the sequel is pure genius. Too bad the cg design couldn't have been overhauled too.

Point: When first rate writers, actors and directors start lending their talents to movies based on comic book/graphic novels and take them seriously (as in "not just a mindless popcorn blockbuster cash cow) they raise the bar and wonderful things happen.

Spiderman 1 and 2.
Sin City.
And now Ironman.

Take my point and transpose it onto your brand or your agency's work: Are you really taking your latest campaign as seriously as you should? Are you really hiring and developing the very best talent you can? Are you as passionate about getting it right and making a splash as you should be? Are you really the brand development geek you could be? Should be? The design geek you should be? The wordsmithing geek you ought to be? The first rate art director you once dreamed of being?

Even if you aren't being paid like the A-list talent you hope to be, even if you don't have the fancy title and the cool business card and the cool office, are you really working it like Robert Downey Jr.? Taking an average movie script based on a silly second rate comic book superhero and elevating it to something remarkable, lasting and cool?

Or are you letting the source material, the client, the market or even your paycheck justify an half-assed effort on your part?

Half-assed efforts like Daredevil, Elektra, The Incredible Hulk (1) and X-Men 3, may make money, but they only serve to hurt the Marvel franchise. It's interesting to see how a studio, director, team of producers or a casting director can impact a brand so quickly: Botch a Marvel superhero movie, and the sum of its franchises starts slipping. Get one right, and the entire portfolio of Marvel franchises suddenly goes up in value. The same is true of Starbucks, Hyatt hotels, Volkswagen, Delta Airlines, or whatever brand or business you can think of: Every customer experience either erodes the value of your brand or elevates it.

Nobody gives a crap if you've worked for Miramax, Fox, Disney and Marvel if your projects have all been crap. Professionals rise to the top of their professions by taking even mediocre ideas, products, campaigns and projects, and elevating them to new heights. Period. Nobody is going to hand you a golden egg. They're going to hand you a heaping pile of steaming crap, and it's your job to turn it into a work of art. (And a lasting one at that.)

Some might call this alchemy. I call it my job. You call it your job. And that's what sets some of you apart from the rest. You can actually do this: Turn crap into gold. And people around you know it. (If they don't, what the hell are you waiting for? Show them!)

What you want to hear from your clients, bosses or audience EVERY SINGLE TIME you deliver a project is this: "I had no idea it would turn out this well."

And their next breath should sound a lot like a "wow."

Like many of you reading this blog, Robert Downey Jr. has always had the talent to rise to the very top of his profession. Unlike many of you, however, he didn't always have the right mental attitude, the right focus, the right amount of professional fortitude to put his tremendous talent to good use. Yet here he is, cleaned up, ready to make up for lost time, making a hell of a comeback, and handing a movie studio (and pop culture) a hell of a gift in the process. If he can pull that kind of comeback, knowing what hell he crawled out of, so can you. Stop half-assing. Stop hiding behind your "company culture," behind red tape, behind someone else's crappy work or behind an obtuse boss or client. Just kick ass. Period.




And go see Ironman. You'll have fun. Trust me.

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