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When Marvel Studios first came up with the idea to assemble “The Avengers” on the bigscreen six years ago, the company had a lot to lose.

In order to raise $525 million from Merrill Lynch to finance its first slate of films — including “Iron Man,” “The Hulk,” “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger” — Marvel gambled the movie rights to those properties as collateral. “The assets were on the line,” Marvel Studios prexy Kevin Feige told Variety. “It was make-or-break. If the movies hadn’t worked, something would have happened and it wouldn’t have been good.”

With five films that have earned a collective $2.3 billion and “Avengers” selling out theaters around the globe, Marvel has proved the risk was worth taking — especially after Disney bought the company for $4 billion in 2009.

“It’s a very fun transition of you spending so long telling people why you think it’ll be great, and why you should do it, and then it shifts to everyone telling you why it works,” Feige said.

Critics have praised “The Avengers,” and since it began opening worldwide late last month, the pic has hauled in $218 million, with China, Japan, Russia and the U.S. (where it opens Friday) yet to go. It’s expected to fly past the $623 million in worldwide grosses that “Iron Man 2” earned. That makes the decision to produce “The Avengers” seem easy in retrospect, but with a $220 million pricetag and an unproven helmer in Joss Whedon (who hadn’t tackled a project of this scale before), the film could have been fraught with the cost overruns, expensive talent deals and runaway egos that can put creativity on the backburner for big studio projects.

A tentpole maven

Fortunately, Feige wasn’t new to setting up superhero franchises, having helped produce “Spider-Man” and “X-Men” at Sony and Fox when Marvel was licensing its characters as film properties, now considered an unfortunate mistake. In order to launch “The Avengers,” first announced in 2008, after the success of “Iron Man,” Feige first had to build a Marvel universe that played out in theaters through the introduction of the group’s superheroes and other characters that cameo in the pics.

To pull off that daunting task, Feige needed to focus on the bottom line. That meant operating what many in Hollywood call “the Marvel way,” which has affected everything from overhead to production and marketing costs.

“It means questioning every cost, every dollar,” Feige said. “We don’t take any of (our success) for granted. We always ask, ‘Do we really need this?’ If the answer is no, then you do it another way. It makes things much harder because it’s easy to spend money. But it can often lead to just more efficient ways of doing things.”

That includes lensing pics in tax break-friendly states such as New Mexico, Ohio and North Carolina, not to mention Marvel’s way of brokering talent deals.

“The most difficult part was laying the groundwork, and the most important part of the groundwork was the cast,” Feige said.

To afford actors that include Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Ruffalo, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Jeff Bridges and Don Cheadle, in the past, Marvel needed to lower salaries (that grow with each film) while offering one very attractive carrot: the chance for each to star in his own franchise — but also cross over into others for years to come.

Jackson, for example, inked a nine-picture deal, while most of the other main actors have signed on for six. Downey’s initial deal was for four.

“That’s a big commitment for any actor,” Feige said. “I would always say, ‘If these movies don’t work, we won’t make others.’ But the goal is to make sure these movies work.

“The three-picture deal has become standard if you want to do serialized storytelling,” Feige added. “But we knew, in the best-case scenario, we wanted to have the Black Widow character (played by Johansson) appear in ‘Iron Man’ films, ‘Avengers’ films and maybe even in a Black Widow standalone movie. You need longer deals to give you the flexibility to build that kind of Marvel cinematic universe.”

Wave of comicbook pix

Helping to lock down the thesps was the success of “Spider-Man” and “X-Men,” as well as DC’s revival of the “Batman” franchise.

“It changed everything,” Feige said. “The time was ultimately right for actors to seek out roles in these kinds of (superhero) movies. When we started putting together ‘Iron Man,’ there had been a lot of great comicbook movies with a lot of great actors in them. Marvel Studios became a place where people could feel safe.”

Feige stresses that the Marvel way isn’t just about controlling costs. “For us, character and story have to trump everything else,” he said. “We have to look at the long term vs. the short term.”

For Disney, that long view includes relying on Marvel to deliver movies but also franchises that can spin off TV shows, games, consumer products and eventually rides at its theme parks — a mandate from Mouse House chief Bob Iger.

Still, it’s no surprise that Marvel is trying to be fiscally responsible. “It goes back to Marvel being a company that was bankrupt not too long ago and how they turned things around,” Feige said.

Feige’s feifdom

Feige has long held the creative reins at Marvel Studios, ultimately deciding who writes and directs its films, a last that has included Jon Favreau, Louis Letterier, Kenneth Branagh, Joe Johnston, Whedon and now Shane Black (with “Iron Man 3”).

“It’s not a prerequisite that the directors need to be well versed in comic lore, but you certainly need to have a passing knowledge and have a love for what the story could be,” Feige said. “These are people who have to feel they have no choice but to dedicate the next few years of their lives to make these movies because it creatively calls to them.”

But they have to make the films appeal to more than just fanboys.

“The main idea is to make a movie that appeals to both the fanboys and fangirls who have known these characters for years and to those who are hearing about them for the first time in the trailer,” Feige said. “It’s a bit of a fine line.”

Despite all the planning for “The Avengers,” Feige was still surprised at “how quickly people embraced the notion of the superhero team-up,” he said.

“I thought it would be a slower burn and that it would just be fans wanting that,” he said. “Then the Monday after ‘Iron Man’ opened, and Sam Jackson was in the eyepatch, everyone started talking about ‘The Avengers.'”

Six years later, Marvel is now planning “Avengers” sequels. It’s also developing films around Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, the Inhumans and Guardians of the Galaxy as potential new franchises, while the Johansson, Renner and Jackson characters could be spun off into their own standalone actioners. It already has sequels for “Iron Man,” “Captain America” and “Thor” dated through 2014.

Disney will market and distribute all of those films. “Avengers” was its first after buying out the rights for the pic from Paramount, which released the “Iron Man,” “Thor” and “Captain America” films.

The next “Captain America” will be set in the modern world — not WWII — and put the star-spangled hero in “a wholly different genre than we’ve done before,” Feige said. “It’s all about surprising the audience” with Marvel’s films to keep audiences interested and coming back.

He’s the ultimate fanboy he wants to keep happy.

“It’s a luxury to be in a position as a producer to make the movies you’re interested in seeing,” Feige said. “I always wanted to change the definition of the superhero movie. I always believed in these kinds of movies.”

The Avengers

Budget: $220 million
The challenge: Make fanboys happy while attracting new auds, keep costs low enough to warrant sequels.
Marketing strategy: Promote everywhere from Comic-Con to the Tribeca Film Fest, where it closed the event with a New York preem.
Rollout: Opened April 25 in intl. territories with $218 million to date.
Variety review: “However questionable an idea it may have seemed initially, and at times along the way, Marvel’s cinematic master plan for its comicbook all-stars pays off in extravagant fashion with ‘The Avengers.’ Like a superior, state-of-the-art model built from reconstituted parts, Joss Whedon’s buoyant, witty and robustly entertaining superhero smash-up is escapism of a sophisticated order.” – — Justin Chang