Kevin Feige on Avengers, Marvel Universe-Building, and the Legacy of Elektra
The most revealing tidbit to come from talking with Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige is the idea that he equates box office success with the quality of a film – not the kind of mega-million dollar marketing campaigns that put characters’ faces on soda cans, or comic book fandoms that date back half a century, or any other factors that will surely help Marvel’s The Avengers seize the box office crown this Friday. Instead, with twelve years at Marvel and billions in box office under his belt, the exec who’s been integral to the new golden age of the superhero movie is still, refreshingly, idealistic when it comes to making movies: “Every time we actually do it, I get very excited and can’t believe that we pulled it off.”
Movieline caught up with Feige to discuss this week's superhero super-team up flick The Avengers and its place in the larger, rapidly-expanding universe of Marvel comics adaptations — a tremendously successful world of comics-to-film franchises that Feige and Co. aim to keep proliferating with plans for upcoming sequels like Iron Man 3, Thor 2, Captain America 2, and possible spin-offs for Avengers characters The Hulk, Hawkeye, and Black Widow as well as vehicles for Guardians of the Galaxy, The Inhumans, and Doctor Strange.
With so many properties and potential franchises swirling around in the ether, Feige discussed the triumph of achieving what was once thought to be impossible at Marvel, the gratification of hiring out-of-the-box directors for their superhero movie launchpads, why Patty Jenkins might yet become the first woman to helm a Marvel movie, and the reason why female-driven superhero movies have earned a bad rap (looking at you, Elektra).
I wonder just how much is knocking around in your brain, between the films you’ve made and are making and the Marvel library in front of you, all those potential stories…
Well, I will tell you there are a lot of brains at work on this, so there are a lot of things knocking around. There are a lot of people in the mix — Louis D'Esposito, our executive producer and co-president, Victoria Alonso and Jeremy Latcham, we all have it in our brains. I will say that you are absolutely correct — what knocks around most is the potential storylines, and that’s how we make all of these movies and how we connected the dots. We worked on all the individual movies first, and first and foremost they all had to work as their own movies. But as we were working on them we started to keep track of some things that the writers and filmmakers of one movie were doing anyway and we started to track them and realized that we could utilize those later down the line.
That’s how the Cosmic Cube came about; what started as a little seed would grow and grow and grow to The Avengers. So there were always things that we’d keep track of and now we have enough people that there are a few people on staff who just do that, when potential ideas come up I go, “Keep a record of this — we might be able to connect this to something.” Or, more likely, it’s just potential ideas for full movies — who can the bad guy be in Iron Man 3, what should we put Thor through in his next movie, where’s Cap going now that he’s here in the modern day… all of those things. And we have lots of great comic books to actually give the true information to it.
When you started at Marvel a dozen years ago, were you confident back then that this sort of multi-franchise potential could be achieved?
I was young enough and naïve enough to believe that we could do all of this. [Laughs] And I was often confronted by listing the number of projects that we were working on; most production companies or studios have a lot of movies in development and are only going to make one of those movies, at most. So here I was saying, "Oh, we’re working on this movie and that movie and that movie and this movie," and I remember somebody saying to me once, "You know you’re not going to make all those movies. You’re going to make maybe one of two of them." But I was like, "I think we’ll make them all!"
And have you?
We have! I mean, there are certainly others like Guardians [of the Galaxy], like Inhumans, like Doctor Strange that we haven’t yet, but I am confident that we will. So there’s a lot of satisfaction now, on the eve of Avengers, that this thing that was deemed impossible has actually occurred.
Was Avengers in particular a holy grail kind of film?
Well, every movie is a holy grail. I love movies, I grew up loving movies, I want to make movies. So every time we actually do it, I get very excited and can’t believe that we pulled it off. I can’t believe that we pulled off a period Captain America movie. I can’t believe we pulled off a Thor movie. I can’t believe we made Tony Stark as known a character as Peter Parker or Bruce Wayne. So every one of those, and Avengers is frankly just one stop in the road to continuing to do that, I hope.
What’s your perspective on your career and what this moment — bringing multiple franchises together, opening Avengers on the heels of a string of successes — specifically means for you?
Well, it is equal parts gratifying that something that started as an idea among five or six people in a small room talking about, "Wouldn’t it be great to get the financing to make our own movies — think of the things that we could do," has now led to this moment where we’ve been able to do that. And, you know, it’s always daunting. Part of the bet — two bets — was one, we would be able to bring all of these characters together into one movie and have that movie work and be relatable to people who have never seen any of the other movies, and the other bet is that we’d then be able to take those characters and break them apart again, and put them back into their own worlds and movies and have them be just as interesting. And even build an even bigger level of spectacle and mythology individually as they can build together. We’re five weeks out from starting Iron Man 3 under the leadership of Shane Black and I think he’s done that. We have a script and a direction that we’re very confident is going to be as unique and unexpected as the first Iron Man.
That’s a tall order to fill.
Yeah — and it’s very, very different. I want all of the movies to be different.
How does that play out in Iron Man 3?
Tony very much goes back to his world and his life in California and quickly finds himself in a situation that removes him from any of the access to any of the characters and people he met in Avengers. He has to do it all on his own.
Shane Black replaces Jon Favreau in the Iron Man series, and over in the Thor sub-franchise Kenneth Branagh did not return for the sequel, while Patty Jenkins was briefly in place. What’s your strategy in terms of hiring directors in these franchises? The Twilight films hopped around with a new director for each installment, and the same appears to be happening for The Hunger Games…
Sure, and the James Bond films — there are so many examples. There are no rules. There is no right or wrong, truthfully. You can have one filmmaker continue on through various movies and have them all be great, you can have one filmmaker continue on through a series of movies and have them decline, you can have new filmmakers come in and ruin everything, you can have new filmmakers come in and improve upon everything. So I don’t think there is any hard and fast rule to it. The way that we’ve been doing it is always matching a director to the material and the direction that Marvel sees these characters going in.
Not having enough time between sequels seems to be a common public reason for directors not continuing…
I don’t know if that’s ever been the case with us necessarily, two or three years between films is kind of the norm. And it always varies. But what’s important to us is finding somebody that we believe can take the bones and the structure of the movie that we want to do and make it better, build upon it and bring an unexpected touch to it — and that’s why we don’t need to find big directors who have done big, giant movies like this before. Most of the time we don’t, we find people that they call "outside of the box choices" until, knock on wood, they make the movie and then they’re the hottest commodity in town. I like that. I like that Ken Branagh is now doing a giant movie for Paramount that he never would have been able to do pre-Thor. And Favreau’s one of the top directors in the world. Joss Whedon’s now going to be one of the top directors in the world. Joe Johnston kind of already was, and still is, of course, as is Alan Taylor who is working for us now on the next Thor movie. I believe he’s going to find his career going on that same trajectory.
What happened with Patty Jenkins and the Thor directing gig?
You know, we sort of talked as much as we would. Sometimes it’s just not a right fit. We were very encouraged and excited about working with Patty and I hope to make a movie with her someday. It just wasn’t going to be this movie.
Not that I believe that there are any discernible gender-based differences between filmmakers, but I did like the idea of a woman helming a Marvel film.
No, and you know what I said then was that we didn’t hire her because she was a woman and it didn’t work out, it had nothing to do with that. We want new tastes and new points of view coming in. Patty’s going to make giant movies someday, and I hope one of them is for us.
The superhero genre is so dominated by “fanboy” culture –
Disney’s made up these awesome shirts that say “fangirl,” and the “A” is the Avengers “A” for that exact reason!
There’s been talk of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow getting her own spin-off films. How far along are we from seeing the next female superheroine in her own story?
Well, I think you saw it in Avengers. I think that’s one of the many amazing things Joss Whedon can do. I think people are going to be surprised by how powerful Scarlett is in this movie, and how evolved her role is. We have already planned her next appearances and where to take that character because we believe in it and we believe in her in a big, big way. When will there be a standalone? Both is what we’re heading toward. A lot of it is that we’re only going to make two movies a year, maybe sometimes it’ll be one movie a year like this year, maybe someday it’ll be three movies a year just depending on what comes together. But really, it’s two movies. So there’s kind of a backup on the runway right now in terms of when can something go. We do like when some of the characters appear in other people’s movies.
Everybody likes that!
Yeah. And that’s probably where you’ll see Black Widow next. But my favorite scene in Avengers is when Loki and Widow are having their scene together and Loki’s in a cell, and he’s trying to rile her up by mentioning things like “the hospital fire.” Who knows what those things are? We haven’t seen any of those things in other movies! What were those things, what do they mean? I love that. I’d love to explore that deeper.
My experience in watching Avengers was that I left wanting to see a lot more of Hawkeye and Black Widow. There’s always traditionally a romance element to these movies, but that was the pairing I wanted to see much more of. Maybe I’ll make my own fan fiction…
[Laughs] That’s great.
What can you say in the way of an Ant-Man update?
Well, we’ve been working on that movie for forever, it seems. I saw Edgar [Wright] again last night and what I’ve been saying because I believe it to be true is that it’s closer than it’s ever been before.
Going back to the subject of women and the female presence in this community, obviously you’re trying to make four-quadrant movies here.
I hope so.
What do you think is the primary reason behind the lack of female superhero stories in this genre? Are they trickier to tell, address different kinds of themes?
No – I think there were some bad ones, and they got a bad rap because they weren’t particularly good and they didn’t make a lot of money. There’s a movie called The Hunger Games that came out a few weeks ago, and just because it’s not based on a comic doesn’t mean that’s not a female superhero movie. That’s what she is. And it did tremendously well. So I think when they’re done well, the audience will come to it.
When in your estimation have they been done well before?
Well, I would say Kill Bill, or I could go as far back as Alien and Aliens. When they’re done good, they are just awesome hero movies. It’s only when they don’t do well that they say, "Oh, it’s because it was about a woman." No, it’s because the movie was bad.
How do you feel about a movie like Elektra, then?
[Pauses] Did you enjoy that movie?
I enjoyed… parts of that movie.
Right. [Smiling] I think if that had been a better movie, more people would have come to see it.
The Avengers is in theaters May 4.