Marvel's machine in gear

'Iron Man 2,' 'Thor' among 2010 slate

Marvel shares Monday soared to an all-time high in the wake of "Iron Man's" $102.1 million opening. But the studio could find itself renegotiating an enriched deal with Robert Downey Jr. to ensure his participation in the fast-tracked sequel, "Iron Man 2," set for release April 30, 2010.

Executives seemed all smiles during a conference call as they reported strong first-quarter financial results, raised full-year guidance and boasted of their newest franchise. They hesitated, however, when Wall Street analysts asked whether Downey would star in "Iron Man 2."

While the studio has options for two more films in the "Iron Man" series at prenegotiated terms with Downey, Gwyneth Paltrow and Terrence Howard, studio chairman David Maisel refused to confirm Downey's participation in "Iron Man 2." Given that the movie outperformed expectations, industry practice would suggest that Marvel will have to sweeten the pot to reward the movie's star.

The company already has general ideas of where it wants to take the sequel's story line and plans on sitting down with Downey and director Jon Favreau this week to nail down a direction before hiring writers.

Looking beyond "Iron Man 2," Marvel said it will roll out "Thor" on June 4, 2010, and "The First Avenger: Captain America" on May 6, 2011.

"Thor" will be released about six weeks after "Iron Man 2," and Marvel is waiting for a script polish from scribe Mark Protosevich ("I Am Legend"). Matthew Vaughn no longer is attached to direct the project because his holding deal expired December.

"It's very much a Marvel superhero story but against the backdrop of nothing you've seen before," Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige said in describing "Thor" as a period fantasy in the vein of "The Lord of the Rings."

The "Captain America" project is looking for a rewrite as well as a director.

All of Marvel's movies, beginning with "Iron Man," are now being designed to lead up to the July 2011 release of "The Avengers," which will see Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America and Thor teaming up. The studio has Zak Penn on board to write the project, which he will do so in concert with the development of the other projects during the next year and a half.

"It will tie in with all the other films preceding it," Feige said. "Almost nothing is cooler than three or four of your favorite heroes coming together for some mega event."

Marvel hopes that the same actors who portray the heroes in the individual movies will reprise their roles for "Avengers," though no agreements are in place. Although Samuel L. Jackson makes a surprise appearance as Nick Fury in "Iron Man," that does not necessarily mean the actor will be back as super spy Fury in "Avengers."

"That was a stunt and a treat for fans," Feige said.

No release date has been set for Marvel's "Ant-Man," which is being co-written by Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, with Wright on board to direct. Wright likely will tackle Universal's "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," which has Michael Cera attached to star, before getting down to work on "Ant-Man."

Feige said he wasn't worried about over-crowding from his company's fare or from competing studios' comic book projects.

"Comic books are like novels; as long as they are not the same, as long as the films can stand on their own, I'm OK if there's one every two or three weeks," he said.

In his conference call, Maisel said that his production team, unlike that of New Line, which for years sat on "Iron Man" rights without turning it into a feature film, was able to succeed where more entrenched players failed.

Maisel also said that -- now that Marvel has more control over the movies its characters star in -- audiences can expect some cross-referencing. For example, Downey's Tony Stark, Iron Man's alter ego, will pop up in the upcoming "The Incredible Hulk," and the Hulk might be featured in "Iron Man 2."

In fact, Marvel proved that its five-year goal of becoming a full-fledged movie production company was worth the wait, and investors rewarded the company by bidding its shares up 9.4% on Monday to $33.10. It was the day's leading gainer on The Hollywood Reporter's Showbiz 50 stock index.

The share price, the highest Marvel stock has been since going public in 1998 at a split-adjusted $4.54, values the company at $2.6 billion, just shy of the market capitalization of DreamWorks Animation.

Marvel posted a $45.2 million profit in the first quarter, or 58 cents per share, besting by a wide margin the 43 cents that Wall Street predicted. Revenue fell 26% to $112.6 million, though beat projections of $111.7 million.

Marvel said it would earn up to $1.55 per share this year on revenue of up to $400 million.