Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige has some real first-world Hollywood problems: As head of one of the most commercially and creatively successful operations making movies today, Feige has multiple franchises — and franchises within franchises — to manage, an increasing public hunger for fresh new characters to debut on screen, and literally thousands of time-tested characters to cull from throughout the rich history of comics’ House of Ideas. It’s the best kind of quandary: Which movies does Marvel make first?
Feige has led Marvel’s charge to the top ranks of Hollywood with the tactical genius of a wartime general, and he certainly has a battle plan in place for the studio’s carefully mapped-out future. In a one-on-one conversation with CBR News, Feige holds some cards close while turning over others, as he discusses a plethora of topics: The incubation of “Guardians of the Galaxy” from comics B-listers to marquee movie stars; raising the Avengers bar in unexpected ways for “Age of Ultron,” recognizing and appreciating the growing demand for Marvel’s first female-lead film; and, if a talking raccoon can sell tickets, even considering redeeming the big screen potential of the unfairly maligned Howard the Duck.
CBR News: Where did you find the glimmer of inspiration in the “Guardians” comic books, which despite 50 years of history wasn’t one of Marvel’s marquee properties, to take these semi-unknown characters and put them out there in a film?
Kevin Feige: Well, it was a combination. All of us at Marvel — and when I say us, I’m talking about Alan Fine and Joe Quesada and Dan Buckley and Louis D’Esposito and Jeremy Latcham — had been fans of what Joe and Dan and Alan did in the comics of the “Guardians of the Galaxy” starting in 2008, and how they re-launched that — and it was just fun! And seeing Rocket with that gun, and that attitude in Groot, this oddly emotional guy, and Star-Lord, Peter Quill, it seemed like a ,lot of fun — so much so that we thought, “Hey…!”
We had this writer’s program at the time which was designed to do two things: Nurture up and coming screenwriters, and be a Petri dish for various properties that we didn’t necessarily have any active plans for, but that we thought might be cool some day to make a movie out of. And a lot of good things came out of that program. Chris Yost, who has a writing credit for “Thor: The Dark World” and who’s working on the next Thor film now came out of that, and the cold draft for “Guardians of the Galaxy” [written by Nicole Perlman] came out of that. And that was really the first time I went, “Wait a minute! That is more than maybe ‘someday.’ This could actually be pretty fun.” And it was with the support of Alan Fine and that team that as we were laying out Phase Two — this was three or four years ago — that it felt like, “Hey, we all love this kind of movie. There hasn’t been this kind of movie in a long time.” This was before Disney bought “Star Wars” and there’s renewed interest and life in the “Star Wars” franchise. To say, “Hey, let’s do Marvel’s version of a big space opera,” we all sort of had our hands in there together to say, this is the one we should do.
After seeing it, I think everybody’s imagining this film is going to be hugely successful. How do you hope you can leverage “Guardians,” to break open the cosmic side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Because I feel like these characters probably work best as a group, rather than doing a “reverse Avengers” with them in spinoff features.
Sure. Well, after “Iron Man 1,” we announced “Iron Man 2,” and “Thor” and “Cap” and “Avengers.” And the big question was “How are you going to get Thor into the universe? Iron Man was very real-world.” He’s really not, if you look at it, but I appreciate the sentiment. What they really mean is it felt believable, which I think [applies to] all movies — this movie needs to feel believable. People don’t ask that anymore because we’ve already done it, and we’ve opened the cosmic side of the universe with Thor. We opened it a little bit more with The Other and Thanos and the portal above Stark Tower in “Avengers” and now, clearly, we spend most of this movie out there.
What I’m excited about is, it just continues to broaden the palette that we have for the MCU and to tell all the stories that the comics have been telling for years and years and years. I think the notion that the cinematic universe consists of something as real world as a billionaire who used to make weapons and wants to repent that in Tony Stark’s story, or something as out there as Peter Quill, who now adventuring on the other side of the galaxy with a maniac, two thugs and an assassin. People accept that and appreciate that, and as we go further in upcoming movies, it just gives us, again, a broader canvas to play with. We’ll continue that in “Age of Ultron.” We’ll continue that in “Ant-Man,” sort of. “Ant-Man” is a more contained sort of character, heist movie. And then, when “Dr. Strange” comes about, that, I hope, will start to broaden the canvas and expose the canvas even more into the supernatural side, into that undercurrent of magic which is really sort of about alternate dimensions and parallel dimensions and that end of the comics.
You just locked in several future release dates with some mystery slots through 2018. I assume you know what’s in those slots. Can you give me a bird’s-eye view of the plan for the next phase is?
Not really, but I will say that what I hope it is: To continue the combination this year that we’re doing to next year, that I hope we continue, which is the further advancement of an existing franchise and the creation of a new something original. This year, we had “Winter Soldier,” which was very successful, thankfully, and very different than its predecessor — a World War II movie to a very visceral action movie. And then we also have “Guardians” which is the one we’re talking about is new. Next year, “Age of Ultron,” a giant leap forward to that franchise and for the development of those characters, and then “Ant-Man,” something totally new. I hope that in the coming years, we’ll be able to keep that balance going.
How close are we to a Marvel film with a female lead? Because I’m feeling a groundswell of demand in that direction.
I think you’re right about that, and I think it comes down to timing, which is what I’ve sort of always said, and it comes down to us being able to tell the right story. I very much believe in doing it. I very much believe that it’s unfair to say, “People don’t want to see movies with female heroes,” then list five movies that were not very good, therefore, people didn’t go to the movies because they weren’t good movies, versus [because] they were female leads. And they don’t mention “Hunger Games,” “Frozen,” “Divergent.” You can go back to “Kill Bill” or “Aliens.” These are all female-led movies. It can certainly be done. I hope we do it sooner rather than later. But we find ourselves in the very strange position of managing more franchises than most people have — which is a very, very good thing and we don’t take for granted, but is a challenging thing. You may notice from those release dates, we have three for 2017. And that’s because just the timing worked on what was sort of gearing up. But it does mean you have to put one franchise on hold for three or four years in order to introduce a new one? I don’t know. Those are the kinds of chess matches we’re playing right now.
Because of Marvel’s sustained success, I feel after the situation with the directorial shift “Ant-Man,” a lot of people wanted to see that as a chink in the studio’s armor. What do you want to say about it at this point? I feel like there may have been a lot of wrong assumptions about that situation.
Well, I’ve not been shy about saying the project is as good a shape as it’s ever been. I would expect anybody in my position to say that, but I really believe it and always believed that the proof will be in the pudding, so to speak — that on July 17 of next year, everybody can judge for themselves. I hope everybody will do what I do when I go to a movie, that I think most people do, which is when they sit in that theater, and the lights go down, and the image begins, that it’s a clean palette; that for the most part, people leave everything else behind and just watch the movie at hand. What we’re going to do in the next year is what we’re going to do on “Guardians.” It’s what we did on “Winter Soldier.” It’s what we do on every movie: Make the best movie possible.
Tell me about raising the bar when it comes to “Age of Ultron,” the things you want to do to take the franchise to a new level.
Well, sometimes I think raising the bar can be equated with spending more money or making a bigger action scene, and while “Avengers [Age of Ultron]” cost more than the first one did, and while there will be big action scenes, what we think raising the bar means is surprising people, exceeding their expectations in ways that they weren’t expecting. If all anybody was expecting were more explosions, that would be the easiest thing in the world to do. We get to deliver that every time — that would be simple. But I don’t think that’s what people want. I don’t think that’s what people mean by raising the bar. I think they want to be surprised, and they want to learn more about the characters. What Joss is doing in that movie is both. [He’s] delivering a level of spectacle that is unmatched, certainly, in any movie we’ve made, maybe amongst any movie ever made. But at the same time, and more importantly, [we’re] growing the characters and altering the character’s relationships in unique and surprising ways which can impact movies that come after.
Tell me about working with these two great CGI characters, Rocket and Groot, that the audiences are clearly loving out of the gate and are a step forward even from the success of the Hulk in “Avengers.” How did those successes tell you how to get where you needed to be with “Age of Ultron” and doing similar kinds of more developed CGI characters.
It’s a good question. I haven’t looked at it that way. I do think that every movie informs the movie after it. It’s a different filmmaking team, the effects vendors and things like that, but I do think we learn lessons on every movie that we carry into the next movie. And you look at Hulk, which I think is a very successful CG character in “Avengers,” as we’re continuing that in “Age of Ultron” as we go forward. Yes, just having the confidence to say, again, that we can get great performances out of animated characters.
With the success of something unique like Rocket, could you see Marvel doing a “Howard the Duck” movie somewhere down the line? The right way?
[Laughs] I think it would be fun to lay claim to Howard and to remind people that he’s more than just a pseudonym for film failure. And that he is a Marvel character. That would be fun.
And no legal wrangling over pants with Disney this time!
No. I wasn’t even aware of all that stuff until recently!