Secrets of the Marvel Universe

After a decade of unprecedented success, Marvel Studios is at a pivotal moment: the looming farewell to some of its founding superheroes, and the rise of a new generation.

by Joanna Robinson for Vanity Fair | Photographs by Jason Bell | November 2017

On a sweltering October weekend, the largest-ever group of Marvel superheroes and friends gathered just outside of Atlanta for a top-secret assignment. Eighty-three of the famous faces who have brought Marvel’s comic-book characters to life over the past decade mixed and mingled—Mark Ruffalo bonded with Vin Diesel. Angela Bassett flew through hurricane-like conditions to report for duty alongside Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Rudd, Jeremy Renner, Laurence Fishburne, and Stan Lee, the celebrated comic-book writer and co-creator of Iron Man, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men.

Their mission: to strike a heroic pose to commemorate 10 years of unprecedented moviemaking success. Marvel Studios, which kicked things off with Iron Man in 2008, has released 17 films that collectively have grossed more than $13 billion at the global box office. The sprawling franchise has resuscitated careers (Downey), has minted new stars (Tom Hiddleston), and increasingly attracts an impressive range of A-list talent, from art-house favorites (Benedict Cumberbatch) to Hollywood icons (Anthony Hopkins and Robert Redford) to at least three handsome guys named Chris (Hemsworth, Evans, and Pratt). The wattage at the photo shoot was so high that Ant-Man star Michael Douglas was collecting autographs. 

They came for Kevin Feige, the unassuming man in a black baseball cap who took Marvel Studios from an underdog endeavor with a roster of B-list characters to a cinematic empire that is the envy of every other studio in town. Feige’s innovative, comic-book-based approach to blockbuster moviemaking has changed not only the way movies are made but also pop culture at large. Other studios, most notably Warner Bros., with the Justice League, have tried to create their own web of interconnected characters. Why have so many failed to achieve Marvel’s heights? “Simple,” said Joe Russo, co-director of Avengers 3 and 4. “They don’t have a Kevin.”

Before Feige, Marvel Studios wasn’t even making its own films. Created in 1993 as Marvel Films, the movie arm of the comics company simply licensed its characters to other studios, earning most of its money from merchandise sales. Feige was part of the team that pushed for the studio to take full creative control of its library of beloved characters, a risky move at the time. “For us old-timers—me and Robert [Downey] and Gwyneth [Paltrow] and Kevin—it felt like we were the upper-classmen,” Jon Favreau told me shortly after the photo shoot. “We were emotional . . . thinking about how precarious it all felt in the beginning.”

Feige has never really forgotten that feeling of uncertainty. He confessed that he experiences pangs of anxiety “multiple times” on every film, and told me he often wonders, “What is the movie that’s going to mess it all up?” But, as the vaunted Marvel Cinematic Universe enters its second decade, perhaps the more pressing question is: What’s the movie that’s going to keep it all going?

After Avengers 4, slated for release in 2019, at least some of the original characters who sit at the center of the billion-dollar Avengers team will be hanging up their capes and shields. That’s partially because the Marvel contracts with the actors who play them—Evans, Ruffalo, Downey, Johansson, Hemsworth, and Renner—are coming to an end.

Disney promises that Marvel has at least another 20 years’ worth of characters and worlds to explore but declines to offer up any secrets of that ambitious slate. Moviegoers, for now, will simply have to trust in Feige. “At the heart of Kevin is a real”—Scarlett Johansson paused before using the same word everyone does to describe her boss—“fanboy.”

THE FANBOY

On the morning of the premiere of the latest Avengers film—Thor: Ragnarok—Kevin Feige sits in his office on the Walt Disney Studios lot. Alongside a shelf of his trademark baseball caps, some stacked four deep, Feige’s walls and tables are adorned with reminders of the characters, narratives, and modern-day myths he’s brought to the big screen. But when it comes time to tell his own origin story, Feige smiles warmly at me before . . . pretending to fall asleep.

It’s not that he’s told the story too often—Feige rarely talks about himself in interviews—he just finds his own journey deeply uninteresting. Mark Ruffalo thinks this is actually the key to Feige’s success: “The people that I think are great, like Daniel Day-Lewis, don’t make it about them—it’s about the material,” he said. “You don’t see Daniel Day-Lewis trying to show you how great Daniel Day-Lewis is, and he’s our greatest actor. Kevin’s like that.”

Feige obligingly zooms through his biography for me: childhood in Westfield, New Jersey, in the late 70s and 80s, an obsession with blockbusters (Superman, Star Wars, Star Trek, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future), movies at the local theater every Friday night. Comics were O.K., but movies were his thing. Feige got into the University of Southern California—his goal since he was 11 or 12 years old—only to be rejected from its selective film school five or six times before he got in. All he wanted to do, his entire life, was make films.

Feige landed a college internship working for director Richard Donner and his wife, producer Lauren Shuler Donner. Later, when each Donner was looking to hire a full-time assistant, Feige thought the choice was clear. Richard Donner was one of Feige’s idols. But he ultimately decided to work for Shuler Donner—the busier of the two—and set himself on the road to becoming a producer. Which is how he found his way to Marvel and an important lesson in risk-taking.

Shuler Donner was a producer on, and a driving force behind, X-Men. One day on set, Shuler Donner and Avi Arad, then head of Marvel Studios, watched as an exasperated stylist, at Feige’s insistence, sprayed and teased actor Hugh Jackman’s hair higher and higher to create the hairstyle that would become the signature look of the character Wolverine. The stylist “eventually went ‘Fine!’ and did a ridiculous version,” Feige recalls. “If you go back and look at it,” he admits, “he’s got big-ass hair in that first movie. But that’s Wolverine!” The experience stuck with Feige. “I never liked the idea that people weren’t attempting things because of the potential for them to look silly,” he says. “Anything in a comic book has the potential to look silly. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to make it look cool.”

Feige’s passion and geeky attention to detail caught Arad’s eye. Arad hired Feige and sent his new employee to studios that licensed Marvel characters to monitor the company’s intellectual property, offer helpful notes, and generally serve as a Marvel ambassador. Feige watched directors like Sam Raimi with fascination and others, occasionally in “frustration” in the era of films such as Daredevil, Ang Lee’s Hulk, and The Punisher. Feige’s advice was sometimes ignored, and many of those films became notorious flops. “The answers,” Feige still says, explaining why comic-book adaptations go wrong, “are always in the books.”

By the time Arad had a financial plan in place for Marvel to finance its own films, Hollywood had turned its back on the superhero genre. Even Marvel’s most popular character, Spider-Man, disappointed at the end of his trilogy in 2007.

Feige downplays it now, but Marvel Studios bet everything on the first roll. Borrowing money by offering up film rights to its biggest characters as collateral and tirelessly pitching the idea to skeptical foreign buyers, Feige and Arad finally hired three directors to make movies for Marvel Studios: Favreau for Iron Man, Louis Leterrier for The Incredible Hulk, and Edgar Wright for Ant-Man. (Only Favreau would become part of the enduring Marvel legacy.) “People forget Iron Man was an independent movie,” Feige says.

The gamble paid off. Iron Man premiered to rave reviews and a huge box office in 2008, giving Marvel the financial cushion and industry credibility it needed to forge on with its strategy. Meanwhile, as the ranks of Marvel Studios swelled beyond a skeletal operation, its C.E.O. decided to depart. “You can talk to my friends and enemies, and they’ll tell you my weakest point is I’m a one-man show,” Arad said. Not wanting to deal with the infrastructure that comes with launching a major franchise, Arad stepped down before the first Iron Man hit theaters but not before anointing his heir apparent. At only 33 years old, Feige was officially in charge of the first significant independent studio since DreamWorks.

BIRTH OF A UNIVERSE

Marvel’s run as an indie studio didn’t last long. The Walt Disney Company had been looking for a producer of “tentpole” films that could expand its audiences beyond family-friendly fare and the girl-centric princess line. Marvel, with its built-in audience of young men, fit the bill, and Disney acquired the company in 2009 for $4 billion.

Even with Disney’s deep pockets, Marvel continued to run a lean operation.  On the wall of one of those early, drab offices hung a 1988 Technicolor poster by Marvel artists Ed Hannigan and Joe Rubinstein, crowded to the margins with hundreds of characters from all different story lines with the words MARVEL UNIVERSE emblazoned across the top.

Feige said he had long believed in the storytelling potential of weaving together Marvel’s superheroes and plots—in essence bringing that Marvel-universe poster to life. His hunch was validated by the media coverage around the astonishing $98 million opening weekend of Iron Man. Samuel L. Jackson’s brief appearance in that movie as Nick Fury initially was meant as an Easter egg, a knowing wink, for die-hard fans. “We put it at the end so it wouldn’t be distracting,” Feige said of the post-credits stinger that launched a decade-long trend. But after he saw how audiences—not just devoted comics fans—responded to Fury’s appearance, Feige knew the idea of cross-pollinating characters and movies had legs.

One early challenge was getting actors to sign up for Marvel’s ambitious vision. A character might star in one film, be part of an ensemble in another, and just make a goofy guest appearance in yet another. Jackson signed an unheard-of nine-picture deal with Marvel shortly after Iron Man came out. Feige found it particularly challenging to secure Chris Evans as Captain America. Evans, who’d previously tackled the comic-book genre as Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four movies, was hesitant to sign a long-term deal that would prevent him from doing other projects. Evans asked for a weekend to make his decision—Feige cited those few days as among the most nerve-racking of his tenure—before committing to six movies. Once Hemsworth agreed to play Thor Feige’s grand plan was under way.

Still, it wasn’t until a celebratory night in Rome in 2012, on the Avengers press tour, that the Marvel extended family really understood what its boss had planned. “I’m socially awkward,” Feige said. (“He’s short on kibitz,” Downey likes to say.) “So I talked about what we can do next.” As the hotel staff shushed them and the hour grew late, Feige pulled back the curtain on his master plan—or at least some of it. “I would like to take all of the comics and start to build the Marvel universe,” Feige declared. “We’ll have 15 productions in the next two years!”

THE MARVEL WAY OR BUST

Marvel’s first decade of moviemaking has not been without its misses and heartaches. Neither Iron Man 2 nor Thor: The Dark World won critical raves. Two prominent directors—Edgar Wright and Joss Whedon—very publicly parted ways with Marvel after squabbling with the studio over artistic control. Wright, who wrote an early draft of Ant-Man but left the project in 2014 before filming began, declined to comment for this story. Whedon, who wrote and directed two Avengers movies and severed ties with Marvel in 2016, did not respond to requests to talk about his departure. But in published interviews both men have said they felt they had to sacrifice their own vision to serve Marvel’s interests.

The exodus of two admired artists was not a good look for Marvel, which until then had enjoyed a fanboy-friendly reputation. From inside the family, James Gunn, Anthony Russo, and Evangeline Lilly described this period as a messy “divorce” and the tone around the studio as “uneasy.” Some critics argued that Marvel’s success spawned so many big-budget copycats that creativity didn’t stand a chance in Hollywood. Even one of Feige’s childhood heroes, Steven Spielberg, took a public shot at the glut of comic-book movies.

Feige doesn’t deny that directors need to play by a set of rules when they join Team Marvel, especially now that the concept of a single cinematic universe is non-negotiable. “Filmmakers . . . coming in understand the notion of the shared sandbox more than the initial filmmakers did because the sandbox didn’t exist then,” he said.

At the same time the studio seems increasingly willing to let directors be experimental and original in other ways. “Guardians is probably the best example of the audience validating even our more esoteric instincts,” Feige said. 

LIFE WITH IKE

It seems like more than happenstance that Marvel’s emphatic inclusiveness coincides with a long-overdue 2015 management re-structuring by Disney that put Feige firmly in control of the studio and quietly sidelined Isaac “Ike” Perlmutter, Marvel’s controversial chairman and former C.E.O. Perlmutter is a shadowy but essential figure in the world of Marvel. The 75-year-old mogul helped rescue Marvel Entertainment Group from bankruptcy in 1998, when he merged it with Toy Biz Inc., a company he co-owned. Though Perlmutter endorsed Marvel’s decision to make its own films, he clung to outdated opinions about casting, budgeting, and merchandising that ran counter to trends in popular culture, sources close to the studio said. For example, Perlmutter, citing his years in the toy-making business, reportedly made the decision to scale back production of Black Widow-themed merchandise in 2015 because he believed “girl” superhero products wouldn’t sell.

Director James Gunn chalked up every conflict he had making Guardians of the Galaxy to Perlmutter and the Marvel “creative committee”—a legacy of the studio’s early days—which read every script and gave writers and filmmakers feedback. Said Gunn, “They were a group of comic-book writers and toy people” who gave him “haphazard” notes. The committee, for example, suggested Guardians of the Galaxy ditch the 70s music that the film’s hero loves. Members of the creative committee declined to comment for the story. Perlmutter also declined to comment, but a person with knowledge of his approach said, “Ike Perlmutter neither discriminates nor cares about diversity, he just cares about what he thinks will make money.”

In August 2015, a few months after rival Warner Bros. earned serious feminist bragging rights with its announcement that Patty Jenkins would direct Wonder Woman, Disney confirmed that it had changed Marvel’s management structure: Feige would report to Alan Horn, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, ostensibly as part of an effort to integrate Marvel into the bigger Disney film family. Perlmutter remains chairman of Marvel Entertainment.

I asked Feige if he wished Marvel had make the first female-led superhero movie of the modern era before Wonder Woman. “Yeah,” he answered carefully. “I think it’s always fun to be first with most things.” Ever the fanboy, Feige got chills recounting the heroine’s powerful stand in No Man’s Land for me in his office. “Everything’s going to work out,” he said cheerfully. “Captain Marvel is a very different type of movie.”

THE AVENGERS, AND EVERYTHING AFTER

One week before the Marvel 10th-anniversary photo shoot, on the set of Avengers 4, I watched Marvel’s biggest stars lounge on comfy couches under a canopy in the long stretches between takes. Mark Ruffalo scratched Scarlett Johansson’s back, while Johansson, Chris Evans, and several other Avengers hunched over their phones in a competitive game of Words with Friends. I reached for a camera to record the moment—some of the most famous faces in the world lit up by phone screens just like the rest of us—but the ever vigilant Marvel security team had wrapped my phone in layers of protective tape. Later, Chris Hemsworth mentioned that very moment to me. “I thought, Could somebody take a photo of this? We’re all aware that this is going to be the last time we get to hang out like this.”

In true Marvel fashion, members of the original Avengers team will help pave the way for the new guard. The latest Captain America introduced fans to Boseman’s Black Panther while Downey’s Tony Stark mentored Tom Holland’s Peter Parker in Spider-Man: Homecoming—“serving at the pleasure of young Master Holland,” Downey said with characteristic flair. Spider-Man’s return to the Marvel fold is a coup for Feige, who helped orchestrate a hero-sharing arrangement with Sony.

To hear Disney C.E.O. Bob Iger tell it, Marvel’s next wave is just beginning. He notes that the studio has rights to 7,000 characters, who can travel anywhere their creators wish to take them. “We’re looking for worlds that are completely separate—geographically or in time—from the worlds that we’ve already visited,” Iger explained.

Marvel is “22 movies in, and we’ve got another 20 movies on the docket that are completely different from anything that’s come before—intentionally,” Feige said.

While Feige refused to reveal any details about the characters and stories Marvel has yet to introduce, he did promise a definitive end to the franchise that built Marvel. Avengers 4, he said, will “bring things you’ve never seen in superhero films: a finale.  There will be two distinct periods. Everything before Avengers 4 and everything after. I know it will not be in ways people are expecting,” Feige teased.

“Everything after,” without these Marvel mainstays, will be hard work. The studio constantly needs to cast new actors, develop surprising new narratives, and risk looking a little silly—as Feige did with Wolverine’s hair—all under the harsh glare of millions of fans and detractors watching the studio’s every move. Feige, however, has no worries about Marvel’s longevity, a point he illustrated by quoting one of his personal heroes: “On opening day, when people asked Mr. Walt Disney if Disneyland was finished, he said, as long as there’s imagination in the world, Disney will never be complete.” And as long as people are willing to watch superheroes save the world, Marvel—and Kevin Feige—won’t be done, either.

This article has been edited for girlsspeakgeek.com. The complete story appeared in Vanity Fair, Nov.2017.


December 1, 2017 | draft, Interview , | this post contains affiliate links

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