Just hours before officially unveiling the first footage from “Avengers: Age of Ultron” to the Comic-Con International crowd, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige was already looking ahead to the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Joining a small panel of journalists for an intimate roundtable discussion on the impending slate of Marvel films, Feige gave candid responses on the broad tapestry that’s already being planned beyond next year’s “Avengers” sequel, from immediately pending projects like “Ant-Man” to still-percolating films like “Doctor Strange” to far-off concepts like a third “Avengers” outing and the studio’s hopes to expand MCU’s cosmic side even further after “Guardians.”
What follows is an inside look at the unfolding plans for broadening the scope of the MCU from Marvel’s top executive.
The understanding is that when Joss Whedon pitched for “Avengers,” he kind of pitched this film to you, with Ultron. Is that accurate?
Kevin Feige: Well, no. I mean, that wasn’t in the first pitches or anything like that, but I would say, it’s certainly fair to say, soon into the development of the first movie — this happens on a lot of movies — you start talking about what’s next. What would you do? And then Ultron came up very early on there. And Joss legitimately was just like, “What do you mean what do you do? You do one thing: It’s Ultron.”
So you’ve been designing towards this movie, maybe more than anything else Marvel has done so far?
I think, yes, for a handful of reasons. One, because there’s certain images and story beats from Ultron’s appearances in the comics that we’ve loved for so long and that because we always knew that that’s what would be the next villain we’ve been thinking about and beginning to prep. Also because it’s now the culmination of phase two. So every choice that was made in “Iron Man 3,” and “The Dark World” and in “The Winter Soldier” was all, A) to make these movies as good as we could make them, but B) also knowing that it means things could be very, very different at the start of “Avengers 2,” than they were at the end of “The Avengers.”
Are we going to get any Thanos in “Avengers 2?” There was some of him in “Guardians in the Galaxy,” and it was clear that when he gets a movie, it’s going to be a big deal.
Right. I’m glad it feels that way. That’s the idea. He’s not a part of “Avengers 2.”
Is that going to be part of the “Avengers 3” game plan?
I think Thanos kind of does what he wants, shows up where he wants to. And I’m not going to tell him otherwise, so you don’t know exactly. Smirking at the end of the first “Avengers.” But you know, we’re still making “Avengers 2,” so nothing’s definitive one way or the other, actually.
Can you talk about the choice of how Thanos, specifically, is portrayed in “Guardians?”
The idea was for it to be just another step forward based on what we saw in “Avengers.” So in “Avengers,” you didn’t see anything but the back of his throne. You saw his sort of turn into camera, 3/4 smirk. We wanted Ronan to be the bad guy. We wanted to focus on the creation of the Guardians team itself, so we didn’t want to spend too much time with Thanos, but we wanted to showcase that there’s a guy behind the guy, right? The Emperor in “The Empire Strikes Back” to Darth Vader. So we wanted a little bit more, a little bit more attitude, see him and hear him for the first time. And just to get, which is one of my favorite shots in the whole movie, him leaning back on his throne and smirking, which he does on every cover of every Thanos comic book — which is cool.
There’s a trend toward the advancement of creation of characters that are very CG but have recognizable voices, like Rocket and Groot. Is that affecting where you’re going in 3 and 4?
Yeah. It’s all — utilizing technologies is what all these movies are about. I would say that the technology — certainly with Thanos — it’s not just a vocal performance, it’s a facial performance. Like Mark Ruffalo with Hulk: It’s not just [Ruffalo] grunting him. It’s [Ruffalo] acting. It’s his face. That’s what Thanos is. And that’s not what Rocket was or Groot, necessarily, but it’s casting both. Andy Serkis is the king of that, obviously. I have not seen “Dawn of the [Planet of the] Apes” yet, because I have no time in my life, but it’s amazing. And it’s about both. It’s not, “Oh, good — we don’t have to hire a big actor now. We’ll just have a voice come in.” You want a great performance, and the reason we were comfortable moving forward with seeing as much of Thanos as we do in “Guardians,” is because we had a great actor who was willing to put the dots on his face and do the performance.
Is that Ultron, too?
Yeah, for sure. James Spader, he’s more than just the voice. I think you’ve heard us, and Joss, talk about that a lot. He was on set for every single one of his scenes in those MOCAP rigs you’ve seen, with the cameras coming around and pointing at his face. And then the mural footage. You guys have probably been to sets and seen it. And that, again, was another reason we were ultimately comfortable in pulling the trigger on Ultron. Yes, we liked him. Yes, we talked about him a lot. But the fear always was, there are a lot of robots. There are a lot of robots in the world. There’s a lot of robots in movies. How do we do it differently? Well, one, you have Joss Whedon write dialogue for him. And then you have James Spader bring him to life, through his entire body language and his verbal language.
Once you get all the newer properties launched, do you ever envision doing something so massive to bring in all of your characters, “Secret Wars” style — like “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World of Superheroes” kind of thing?
We’ve joked about the “Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” yeah. I mean, I don’t think it’s about setting a Guinness Book of World Records for the most characters in one movie. That’s daunting, and that is ripe with opportunities for disappointment. And everybody’s just like, “Hey, me too! I’m here!” Which is, frankly, what we’ve always wanted to avoid in our connected universe. But yes, each character that is introduced in the MCU, that gives the opportunity for that character to pop up in other properties in unexpected ways.
We saw a multitude of more MCU announcement [dates]. Can you talk about how that extra one got added at the very end, and how many of those we can expect to learn about today?
No and no. The last one was just a scheduling thing. There are other studios that were moving their chess pieces around on their chessboards, which is why that had been in the works. Which is why that other 2018 date came up a few days after the initial release.
Is that changing maybe when we can see “Avengers 3?”
Well, we haven’t really talked about what we’d see “Avengers 3.” I presume we’d like to stick to three years between Avengers movies like we did [between the first and second]. So it will probably be three years between “Avengers 2” and “Avengers 3.”
Can you talk about the ratio of sequels to new properties in the new movie dates you’ve announced?
We’ve only really, really announced through “Ant-Man,” But if you look at 2014 and 2015 — now, let’s hope that “Guardians” succeeds when it opens next week — but I do like the notion of the existing franchise with “The Winter Soldier” that we had this year, doing unexpected things with it. Taking it to new unexpected places, and then, the second movie of the year being an entirely new franchise, entirely new storyline. Next year, we’re doing the same thing with “Age of Ultron” and with “Ant-Man.” And I see that that could continue where it fits.
How difficult is that as opposed to just dropping everything and rebooting?
It’s fun. I mean, the comics lay the groundwork for all of it, of course, and for ways to do it well and for ways to avoid it. I mean, continuity sometimes collapses in on itself in the comics every few decades, and I think we want to be wary of that in how we tell these stories and how we look at the interconnectivity. I love the notion that you can just watch all three “Captain America” films at the end of the day as a self-contained trilogy, or you can watch “Avengers” 1 and 2 and be up to speed, more or less. Or you can watch the “Iron Man” films as a trilogy, but you can also watch them in each phase, and also watch them, one day, in a relatively complete saga. I think that’s cool.
Is there a chance that some of the characters from the upcoming Netflix shows are going to bleed into MCU?
We haven’t talked about that yet really, because it’s early days for that, and “Daredevil” is production right now. But it is the same universe, so [there’s] always potential for that.
When you look over the Marvel catalog, how do you choose who to spotlight?
I would say it’s a combination, but it ultimately comes down to, what do we think would be cinematic? What do we think would be the kind of movie we want to make? So with “Guardians,” we very much wanted to — you’ve heard me say this before — go to the other side of the cosmic universe. [There is] an amazing amount of outer space-based storylines in our comics, and we only sort of just scratched the surface of that in the other movies. And it felt like time, with “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and our tenth Marvel Studios MCU movie, to do that. That we’d earned the right to say, “Let’s bring a bunch of characters no one’s ever heard of.” If it was just about public consciousness, I’m not sure we would have done half the characters that we’ve done up to this point, and certainly not Guardians. But it’s about what we think the public would be interested in, because it’s what we sort of are interested in as we want to spend two or three years working on a project.
In the way you got the story kernels for “Avengers 2” while working on “Avengers 1,” do you see a similar thing happening for “Avengers 3?”
Sure. For sure.
As actors come on, are they locked into long-term deals because as the picture keeps increasing, there’s more and more pieces? It’s hard to keep people around.
Yeah, everyone signs for multiple pictures. How many pictures, it varies. The nine pictures, twelve pictures stuff is more rare. Usually, a traditional three with some options for a few other appearances is more the norm. Everyone is, I think you know, is locked up through, I think, “Avengers 3.’
Hank Pym’s notorious for two things in the comics, and one of them is now what Iron Man’s going to be notorious for in “Avengers 2” — the creation of Ultron. And the other one is that unfortunate spousal abuse story.
Guess what we’re not doing! [Laughs] Look, Hank Pym did a lot in the comics, and he’s a super cool character. And the spin that we have on him being played by Michael Douglas is even more unique, even more different. I would say that some of the spirit of that plays into his temperament in the film, plays into his gruffness in the film. It certainly does not, in this movie, go to spousal abuse.
In broad strokes, what would you say “Ant-Man,” and then “Doctor Strange,” will add to Marvel’s slate, in terms of tone, that we haven’t seen before?
Well, you first talk about “Ant-Man” as a heist movie. It’s also a mentor/mentee hero passing the torch film, which we haven’t done before. So those are two unique elements for us in that film.
With “Strange,” it is a classic Marvel origin story, because he’s got one of the best origins ever. It’s our opportunity to go into that, take that left turn into the supernatural. Now, what is the definition of supernatural? It varies. We like the idea of playing with alternate dimensions, and Strange, in the very sort of Ditko, crazy sort of acid trip way, traveling to different dimensions and traveling through other realms is something that we think is very, very cool. Playing with the perception of reality. I just watched the Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Cosmos” series, which is amazing, and it may as well be an acid trip. It may as well be “Doctor Strange.” It is mind-bending, and it’s all based in physics and based in quantum mechanics. We’re going to play a lot with the notion of that as an explanation for how the sorcerers do what they do.
Are you go to introduce more and more [characters]? Are you getting pressure to increase the amount of films you put out a year?
Well, I think if you look at some of those dates that we’ve announced, we’re going to three in a few of those years. Again, not because there’s a number cruncher telling us to go to three, do more than two pictures a year, but because of the very reason just laid out: It is about managing those franchises, film to film, and when we have a team ready to go, why tell them to go away for four years just because we don’t have a slot? We’d rather find a way to keep that going.
Can you talk about which of Marvel’s cosmic characters are on your radar to maybe do solo films as you build out that side of the MCU? Characters like Nova, Warlock –?
To do solo films? I think if “Guardians” works the way we certainly hope it works, that would probably be the franchise to meet a lot of those people. That would be our entrance into numerous other cosmic folk. If we spin any of those out into individual movies, that’s a question for down the line. But I think we would see those kind of characters in a future “Guardians” movie.