When Tony Stark isn't suited up in metal saving the world, the self-described "genius billionaire playboy philanthropist" zips around town in an all-electric Audi e-tron.
"Iron Man 3" kicks off a summer blockbuster season that will see hundreds of speeding, squealing, exploding, airborne, rolling and smoking vehicles in dozens of high-adrenaline films.
Chloe Moretz's Hit-Girl won't just don a purple cape in "Kick-Ass 2" — she'll do so on a color-matched Ducati Panigale. When Hugh Jackman's Wolverine travels to Japan for some superhero soul searching, he's whisked through the streets of Tokyo in an Audi A8 Spyder.
Then there's Roman, played by Tyrese Gibson, who jumps from a Ford Mustang moments before it's crushed by the tracks of a tank in the sixth installment of the supercharged franchise "Fast & Furious."
"[In] every one of these movies, the action gets bigger, the story gets better and we wreck a lot more stuff," says Dennis McCarthy, car coordinator for "Fast & Furious 6," which alone features more than 300 vehicles.
Yes, that's a three with two zeros — including 10 Dodge Charger SRT8s, nine Ford Mustangs, and a smattering of Aston Martin DB9s and Range Rovers, few of which survived filming.
Most of the vintage muscle cars favored by Dom (Vin Diesel) were sourced "like everyone else," McCarthy says, through Craigslist, eBay, AutoTrader and swap meets. The Dodge SRT8s and Ram trucks were provided by the manufacturer, as was the Ducati Monster 1100 ridden by Gisele (Gal Gadot) and the Harley-Davidson XR1200X that was customized into a flat-tracker and flogged by Han (Sung Kang) on camera. The Harley now sits in director Justin Lin's office.
As summer films become more explosive and action-oriented, so, too, are the cars and bikes that are featured. But as much as vehicles add a level of excitement and engagement to filmgoers' experience, viewers are increasingly sophisticated. It's no longer acceptable to simply place the most current or desirable product; the cars have to be true to character.
"For me, the biggest focus with putting vehicles in the movie is to make them work for the movie and not seem like product placement," says James Mangold, director of the upcoming Marvel film "The Wolverine," starring Hugh Jackman and, briefly, a Ducati Diavel and Audi R8 Spyder.
Most of the riding and driving is done by a female character named Yukio who nicks vehicles from her wealthy boss and uses them to perform "hard stops, hard pull-ins and pulling into tiny spaces at high speed," says Mangold. "But we're the movie about a guy with claws, so the real action in our film is more hand-to-hand and physical."
Despite the limited screen time, the Ducati Diavel and "The Wolverine" are a "perfect fit," says Stefano Sbettega, marketing and communications director for Ducati North America. "It's a fantastic combination of what the motorcycle represents and the Wolverine, who is somehow devilish and has a huge following all over the world."
The other two films in which Ducati bikes will race across the big screen this summer also feature female riders — in "Fast & Furious 6" and "Kick-Ass 2."
"It's not something we planned," Sbettega says. "But we're certainly happy it's coming up. It's good to let the female audience see and understand that motorcycles are not just toys for boys."
Just as the films are fantasies, so is the idea of ownership. Placing vehicles in a high-profile movie promotes a fantasy that marketers hope will translate into sales.
"Three percent of the population has a license to motorcycle in this country, so the upside is significant to put motorcycling on the map," says Dino Bernacchi, marketing director of Harley-Davidson and former branded entertainment director for General Motors. "When you see a cool scene with a cool person riding a motorcycle, it starts to seed that desire."
As part of an ongoing partnership with Marvel comics that began with "Captain America" in 2011 and continued with "The Avengers" last year, Harley-Davidson provided a V-Rod for "Iron Man 3." And it's extending the action off the big screen to the Web, where consumers can create their own superheroes and design their own bikes. A similar promotion in conjunction with "The Avengers" yielded 60,000 customer leads, Bernacchi says.
Audi has likewise partnered with Marvel on "Iron Man" "to not only boost brand visibility but to create a platform to showcase the latest cutting-edge technology," says Loren Angelo, marketing director for Audi of America, which has provided multiple cars for all three installments of the "Iron Man" franchise.
"Specifically with 'Iron Man,' the franchise seamlessly integrates the product in a way that is able to reach automotive enthusiasts [and] current and aspirational luxury buyers, as well as create fans of the brand in a smart, strategic and efficient way that is fun and engaging," he says.
The number of advertising impressions generated through a blockbuster film and its many distribution channels, Angelo says, is "worth millions at a fraction of the cost."