Turnabout? It's Marvel-ous

Who: Marvel Studios topper. Weaving B.O. web with Spider-Man, other comics.

What: Looking to build an invincible line of box office superheroes.

What They’re Saying: Marvel is back in the game thanks to hits like “Spider-Man” and “X-Men,” but comics catalog rich enough to make it a player?

HOLLYWOOD — When Marvel Entertainment was struggling to emerge from bankruptcy in 1998, Avi Arad stood before a group of bankers who were deciding the company’s fate.

At issue was who would gain control — Arad, and partner Ike Perlmutter, or corporate raider Carl Icahn.

Arad laid it out in terms the bankers could understand: “Spider-Man” alone is worth $1 billion, he said, and Marvel has 4,700 other characters that can be licensed in the same way. He also appealed to their cherished childhood memories of the crime-fighting Spidey.

That potent combination of revenue and nostalgia carried the day. Arad and Perlmutter, former execs at Marvel subsid Toy Biz, got control of the company.

As it turns out, there’s little doubt the receipts from the movie “Spider-Man” will be worth more than $1 billion when revenues from a panoply of licenses are tallied, from DVDs and videogames to toys, T-shirts and, of course, comicbooks. The floor of his small office now looks like a Verve Cliquot farm. Already crammed with boxes of action figures, Kellog’s Spider-Man cereal boxes and web-frosted Spider-Man Pop Tarts, a dozen champagne giftbaskets have arrived, and it makes navigating it difficult.

Arad, 53, now president and CEO of movie division Marvel Studios, will gladly take such problems any day. He finds himself the executive producer of a movie that shattered records with its $114 million domestic opening and race to more than $225 million in its first two weeks. It is a landmark that vindicates the many years of struggle when the entire project looked doomed as a result of Marvel’s financial woes and battles for the rights to make the picture.

“That was the best news of all on Friday night when we were all celebrating at Sony when the first numbers were coming in,” Arad tells Variety. “We knew then that we were not going to look stupid on Monday.”

Arad, much like his treasure trove of superheroes, seems poised to vanquish all foes. In the next two years, Marvel Studios will roll out one tentpole pic after another, including “The Hulk,” directed by Ang Lee and starring Eric Bana, Nick Nolte and Jennifer Connelly for Universal, and Fox’s “Daredevil” with Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner.

In addition, Marvel has a deal with Artisan to create 15 feature films or TV series based on Marvel characters. Projects in development include “Iron Fist,” starring Ray Park (“The Phantom Menace’s” Darth Maul), and scribe Jonathan Hensleigh making his helming debut on “The Punisher.”

That roster excludes the swath of sequels that already are lined up to follow recent Marvel hits: “X-Men 2,” “Blade III” and “Spider-Man 2,” which Sony has already planted on May 7, 2004.

Seeing all these films come to fruition is a dream long in the making for the Israel-born Arad. He started out designing toys for Mattel, Hasbro and Tyco. He joined Perlmutter at Toy Biz in 1993, whereupon the company received the license to produce action figures based on Marvel characters in exchange for the comicbook giant taking partial ownership of the company.

Aside from Stan Lee, Arad has been one of the most vocal evangelists for the magic of Marvel. When the company was plagued with financial difficulties, Arad remained adamant that the characters had to be turned into spectacular movies to get Marvel out of its morass.

His boss at the time, Ron Perelman, was hesitant. It wasn’t until Arad and Perlmutter staged the Toy Biz coup that he could set his movie machinery in motion.

Now ensconced at Marvel Studios’ offices in West L.A., Arad believes he’s found a structure for continued success. For all of the upcoming pics, Arad wants to exploit the “Spider-Man” formula by putting together a movie that is “a love story, a chick flick, a date movie, a testosterone movie, a kid movie and still warm and fuzzy and nostalgic to the baby boomers.”

“It has to work on an emotional level,” Arad says. “You need a hero and a woman to love and action that’s off the wall.”

Casting is a critical element, according to Arad, who says he sought actors who were willing to push themselves both physically and emotionally to inhabit roles that he considers American icons.

“In ‘Spider-Man’ we got Tobey Maguire — the next Tom Hanks — and Kirsten Dunst,” he says. “In ‘Hulk’ you will be able to get close to Bruce Banner and be in love with Betty. I mean, Jennifer Connelly, you don’t have to reach far to fall for her. On ‘Daredevil,’ Ben Affleck wanted to play the character since he was a kid, and Jennifer Garner knows that if things go well, there’s going to be an Electra movie. These people want to do more than get into a kind of silly-looking suit.”

Although going for an emotional angle should power the upcoming movies beyond the rabid Marvel fan base, Arad says the company will remain loyal to the community that exclaimed “Make Mine Marvel!” when Stan Lee first urged them to do so decades ago.

“When the Marvel logo comes on at the start of ‘Spider-Man,’ people were clapping,” Arad says. “To a goddamn logo! It’s a nice feeling. In the old days, it was very tough to get a date if you didn’t have a 44-inch neck. Now geeks are in.”

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