Movie Marvels: Kevin Feige guides resurgence of an iconic comic-book brand

For generations now, the colorfully costumed heroes and heroines of DC and Marvel Comics have been competing for readers’ attentions on newsstands and in comic-book stores. In recent decades, their never-ending battle has spilled over onto the big screen as well. DC struck first with a pair of landmark blockbusters—Richard Donner’s super-sized Superman epic in 1978, followed by Tim Burton’s Gothic noir version of Batman in 1989. Meanwhile, Marvel floundered, offering up such underwhelming outings as the infamous George Lucas-produced bomb Howard the Duck, a never-officially-released Fantastic Four movie made on the cheap by Roger Corman, and a justly forgotten Captain American feature starring Matt Salinger—the son of reclusive Catcher in the Rye novelist J.D. Salinger—in the title role.

For a long while, it seemed as though DC had cornered the market on comic-book movies. But the tide started to turn in 1998 with the well-received vampire action picture Blade, based on a semi-obscure ’70s Marvel character. Two years later, director Bryan Singer introduced moviegoers to one of the company’s signature titles, the X-Men. That film became Marvel’s first honest-to-God blockbuster and was quickly followed by vehicles for such iconic heroes as Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk and The Punisher. All told, the period between 2000 and 2010 saw a whopping 18 theatrical features made from major Marvel properties. In the same time frame, their Distinguished Competition mustered roughly half that number. (Although, to be fair, one of those features was Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the most acclaimed and commercially successful comic-book movie made to date.)

After initially licensing its characters to Hollywood, Marvel took a big step toward filmmaking independence in 2005, acquiring the funds to produce its own slate of movies though its film arm, Marvel Studios. Two years later, Marvel tapped Kevin Feige to be the studio’s president of production just as shooting was about to commence on its first feature, Iron Man.

Feige is by no means a newcomer to the Marvel universe; in fact, he has been part of the company since its cinematic (re)birth, serving as an associate producer on the first X-Men and working in various capacities on most of their subsequent productions, from Sam Raimi’s wildly popular Spider-Man trilogy to 2005’s Fantastic Four (not to be confused with the Corman version) and its sequel.

Under Feige’s watch, Marvel Studios has produced two Iron Man adventures that together grossed over $1.2 billion worldwide and kicked off the 2011 summer movie season with the Paramount release of Thor, which just passed the $400 million mark. July brings the studio’s next big Paramount release, Captain America: The First Avenger, directed by Joe Johnston (see our sidebar) and starring Chris Evans as the super-serum-enhanced freedom fighter who goes up against a cackling villain known as The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) in the midst of World War II.

As their past successes attest, Feige and his team have apparently found the right recipe for making comic-book movies that please the genre’s core fanboy crowd while also appealing to a wider audience. Asked to describe what makes a Marvel Studios joint special, Feige replies: “Our movies surprise people who think they’re just coming to see a lot of special effects. We always look to find the balance of the epic and the intimate, whether we’re focusing on a scientist on the run because his affliction turns him big and green or a billionaire weapons designer who wouldn’t seem to be very relatable at all. The best compliment we can get on all of our movies is, ‘You know, I don’t usually like these kinds of movies, but I really responded to this.’”

By Feige’s own admission, both of Marvel Studios’ 2011 offerings represent a significant risk for the still-young outfit in that they test the mass audience’s appetite for stories and characters that depart from the usual comic-book movie fare. With its mixture of gods and monsters, Thor is almost a full-fledged fantasy, while Captain America is a period piece that takes place in the early ’40s—long before the majority of the movie’s target audience was born.

“Frankly, that’s what always excited me about these films,” Feige says, on the phone from his Los Angeles office. “I liked the idea of putting two different kinds of comic-book movies into the marketplace this summer. We wanted to see if film audiences would embrace the unique nature of these particular heroes. Neither of these movies is your typical tale of a contemporary person who finds himself with extraordinary powers.”

Certainly in the case of Thor—a hammer-wielding Norse God (played by next-big-thing Aussie actor Chris Hemsworth) from the mystical realm of Asgard—fantasy is an integral part of the character. (And the film’s grosses indicate that moviegoers didn’t mind the fantastical flourishes, which Feige describes as a “huge relief.”) But Captain America’s comic-book counterpart has been part of the contemporary Marvel universe ever since the character was revived in the 1960s, which means the studio could have opted to place the movie in a more modern setting.

According to Feige, initial drafts of the screenplay did indeed take place both in World War II and the present day. Early on in the development process, though, he realized that approach wasn’t working. “The problem was that you didn’t have enough time to get to know the character,” he explains. “All of a sudden, people were calling him an icon and treating him as a costume as opposed to a character. Plus, his origin story takes place in World War II—that’s when he was created and when he was first brought into comics. So I decided that we needed to go full period; not only does Joe [Johnston] love that era, but it also allows us to do a whole first act with Steve Rogers [Captain America’s alter ego] as a scrawny, 98-pound weakling who just wants a chance to prove himself. It was always my hope that viewers would fall in love with Steve before he even puts on the costume and gets the muscles. And in the test screenings we’ve done up to this point, that seems to be the case.”

Naturally, winning the audience’s affection also hinged on finding the right actor to fill Captain America’s star-spangled uniform. Feige says that the casting process stretched on for quite some time and included what he describes as “elaborate screen tests” with between five to ten contenders, none of whom ultimately measured up. “We just weren’t getting that gut feeling and that’s always worrisome. So we went back to the master list and I saw Chris’ name. I hadn’t thought about him because he had been Johnny Storm [a.k.a. The Human Torch] in our Fantastic Four movies and I think I was holding onto some internal bias because of that. Since we weren’t finding what we wanted, this time his name really popped for me. So we had him come in and within ten minutes of reconnecting with him, I was convinced he was right for the part, not only physically, but also just in his attitude. He’d grown so much in the years since the first Fantastic Four film. I also appreciated that he hesitated about accepting the role because he knew how important it was. He didn’t want to just sign on as a lark; he took a week or two and spoke with his mother and his best friends and then he was willing to dive into it. I’m incredibly impressed with how he’s brought this character to life.”

Committing to the idea of a period Captain America adventure—and casting an actor who had previously played another prominent Marvel hero—are just some of the ways Marvel Studios has been taking chances with its parent company’s properties. Feige says that his experiences making Marvel movies at other studios have informed many of the creative decisions he’s made as president. “We had a pretty incredible run of films before we became our own studio. Most of the films we made with our studio partners were great and we probably wouldn’t have done much differently. But some of them were frustrating in terms of things being changed on the whims of certain executives’ tastes. So we’ve learned not to move away from the source material without good reason.

“For example,” he continues, “in the original comics, Captain America had a sidekick named Bucky Barnes, who was this 12-year-old camp mascot. These days, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to have a 12-year-old running around in battle. So in the film, we’ve made them contemporaries and best friends. We’ve also learned to take chances on casting and not think that there has to be a marquee name playing every character, because retrofitting the character to fit whatever flavor of the month has been cast never works. I’m not saying that happened a lot on the other movies, but it happened occasionally and it didn’t help. It’s funny, when we were beginning to make Iron Man, we found ourselves willing to take chances with our own characters that other studios weren’t willing to take. It comes down to confidence in our source material and confidence that the broader audience will respond the same way comic-book fans have responded all these years if we just do the characters justice.”

It was also during the shooting of the first Iron Man that Feige made one of his boldest decisions—to set all of the Marvel Studios films in the same universe, which he calls the Marvel Cinematic Universe or MCU. That idea took shape following a casual conversation he had with Samuel L. Jackson’s agent about whether the actor might be interested in shooting a small cameo as Nick Fury, the badass leader of a top-secret government agency known as S.H.I.E.L.D. “Sure enough, Sam’s a big comics fan and he was well aware that the new incarnation of Nick Fury has some striking similarities to himself,” Feige remembers. “So he came in on a Saturday for about two hours.”

The resulting scene, which appears at the tail end of Iron Man, features Fury confronting Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark in his home and informing the armored warrior that he’s just become part of a larger universe of heroes. “The general public responded to Sam’s appearance so well, it showed us that it’s not just comic-book nerds that love the idea of this broader, connected universe.”

Marvel continued to develop the concept of a larger MCU in Iron Man 2 and Thor, both of which feature appearances by Fury as well as new characters like leather-clad spy Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and ace archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Crucial objects from Marvel Comics lore started to find their way into the frame as well, including an object known as the Cosmic Cube, which is introduced in Thor’s post-credits sequence and, according to Feige, will play a significant role in Captain America.

All of this world building will pay off in a big way in May 2012, when Marvel Studios unleashes its most ambitious initiative to date—The Avengers, to be released by its new corporate partner Disney. Written and directed by geek god Joss Whedon, The Avengers is yet again something entirely new in the realm of comic-book movies: a superhero team-up adventure that assembles Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, The Hulk (now played by Mark Ruffalo in place of Edward Norton), Nick Fury, Black Widow and Hawkeye to battle a yet-to-be revealed threat, although Feige does confirm that Thor’s half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is one of the foes the supergroup will face.

“With The Avengers, we’re mimicking what comic-book publishers have been doing for years and years,” explains Feige. “We’re making a big crossover event that brings all of these characters together to face something incredible and epic.” It goes without saying that anticipation for The Avengers amongst comic-book fans couldn’t be higher—one of the most widely circulated photos from last year’s Comic-Con International was a shot of the entire cast standing arm-in-arm next to Whedon in front of cheering throngs packed into the San Diego Convention Center’s plus-sized Hall H. (While this year’s Comic Con line-up has yet to be confirmed, it’s hard to imagine Marvel Studios not premiering an Avengers trailer or early footage during its annual presentation to the geek masses.)

At the same time, though, there’s always the danger that packing the film with so many characters will make The Avengers feel overstuffed, a complaint lobbed at such past comic-book movies as Batman & Robin and even Iron Man 2. “The first step in avoiding that was hiring Joss,” Feige says. “If you look at his body of work, he regularly writes for lots of characters. ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ may be called ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer,’ but it’s really an ensemble piece and none of the characters ever get lost in the spectacle of whatever is going on. We’re in the fifth week of production on The Avengers and all of the actors have been very impressed with him. They all carry their own movies and I think everyone was worried about who would get the short end of the stick. But no one does because they’re all there servicing this larger story. The stuff we’ve shot is cutting together spectacularly and it’s just the character interactions that we’ve done so far—we haven’t shot much of the action sequences yet. I think the end result is going to feel very, very satisfying.”

While the past few years have been focused on building to The Avengers, after 2012 the direction of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is wide open. Sequels to Thor and Captain America are reportedly in the works, but as of now Marvel Studios’ only definite post-Avengers project is 2013’s Iron Man 3, to be directed by Lethal Weapon scribe Shane Black. “Audiences will see that Tony Stark is going back into his own world,” Feige says of the film, still in script stage. “There will be acknowledgements to the events of The Avengers and the character journey he took there, but he’s not going to be having tea with Thor and calling Nick Fury every five minutes.”

When he’s not charting the future of the MCU, Feige checks in on the Marvel properties that are still in the hands of other studios. Although he didn’t have much involvement with 20th Century Fox’s latest X-Men film, X-Men: First Class, he says that he did offer “quite a bit” of script and casting input to Sony’s next Spidey outing, The Amazing Spider-Man, due out in July 2012. “Those movies are offshoots to the MCU—they exist in their own little sub-universes,” he explains, adding that the rights for those particular characters likely won’t revert to Marvel Studios for some time. “The contracts are very old and very clear on who can do what when. So you won’t see the X-Men and the Avengers getting together anytime soon. But if you had asked me ten years ago whether we’d ever see an Avengers movie—especially after all of the lead characters had already starred in their own features—I would have said the chances were slim too. You never really know.” Unless, of course, you happen to be Marvel Comics’ resident expert, Uatu the Watcher. Say, when is he getting his own movie?

To read
FJI's interview with Captain America director Joe Johnston, click here.