Kevin Feige on Building the Hit Marvel Movie Machine

Jon Favreau Talks Iron Man 2, Avengers

Marvel Comics is now also Marvel Studios.

Whereas Marvel still has some film rights out there at operations such as 20th Century Fox or Sony Pictures Entertainment, the venerable publisher is now looking to steer its own course in the celluloid world, with movies that it finances and produces itself. And that hand on the wheel of that ship belongs to Kevin Feige.

Feige is Marvel Studios’ president of production, and with two flicks so far under the Marvel Studios banner, he’s been steering through calm waters and blue skies. The job is the culmination of a lifelong dream for Feige, a longtime comic book fan who has an action figure collection so prolific, it once outgrew his home and took over a shed in the back yard.

As Feige took time to reflect on the recent Marvel Studios offerings and cast an eye on the upcoming slate, it was, yes—another typical blue-skies day in his Beverly Hills office.

Jim McLauchlin: Kevin, so the first two Marvel flicks now that Marvel “is its own studio,” Iron Man and Incredible Hulk, have been big hits. Have you always been a genius, or is this a recent phenomena?

Kevin Feige: Ha! Thanks for the compliment. Others might disagree. It’s just…it’s just luck. [Laughs]

No, seriously, it’s wonderful to have the movies be as successful as they are and as well-received as they are. Clearly, we got into the business of doing these movies ourselves because we believe in our vision for these movies, and we believe that the success that we’ve had over the years is based on our instinct and our abilities to translate our characters. Now to be able to do that completely unencumbered—although I always say we have had great relationships with our studio partners, particularly with the Spidey films and the X-Men films—is nice. It’s nice to have full control to bring these characters to life the way we think they should be.

JM: So in layman’s terms, is your ability to do these “unencumbered” what Marvel Studios represents? How does this differ from previous arrangements in previous years?

KF: Well, there are a couple of different aspects. Clearly, the business arrangement is completely different, what with Marvel bringing in the funding and therefore participating to a much greater extent in whatever financial reward there is if the films are successful. We have a completely different arrangement with our studio partners. The studio purely markets and distributes the film, meaning that they put together the poster and the advertising and put it in theaters, in conjunction with us on the creative end. Everything else, from hiring the writers and the actors and directors, to putting it all together, to being on the set every day, to being there in the cutting room falls to us.

JM: So from a Joe-Comic-Fan or Joe-Movie-Goer standpoint, how is this visible? Is it as simple as Marvel Comics’ editorial department being more involved?

KF: That’s part of it. As we work on these films every day, and in fact go back two years…look at Iron Man for an example. We were living and breathing Tony Stark every day and trying to find the best Tony Stark we could for film and asking those basic questions: Would Tony Stark do this? Who’s the best villain? Who are the best allies? How do we put together a story that can best showcase who Tony Stark is? As we asked these questions, we realized there are other talented people who sit around and do the exact same thing every day, and it’s the people in our publishing division who write and edit and guide the Iron Man books.

So we brought out Joe Quesada and Axel Alonso and Tom Brevoort and Ralph Macchio and Mark Millar and Brian Bendis had a great brain-trust roundtable. It was a great experience, very, very helpful. And we think it was very successful for all parties.

JM: Obviously, Iron Man and Incredible Hulk occupy a “shared movie Universe.” I assume Thor will fold in as well? And of course, Avengers?

KF: What’s fun in having all these characters under one roof for the first time—the Marvel roof—is that just like in the comics, yes, we can suggest that they inhabit the same universe. Which is not to say that they’ll just be walking by each other’s windows and waving for no reason, but it is to say that while enjoying the solo experience of an Iron Man film, a Hulk film, a Thor film, a Cap film or whatever, those who want to see a deeper connection or deeper meaning will be able to find that. And it’s beyond just little Easter eggs in the background.

JM: The very notion of an Avengers movie—with multiple characters and one would assume multiple rights—seemed a pipe dream a few years ago. How does it come to pass that this can be a reality today?

KF: It’s a little bit of planning, a little bit of luck, and you end up with a studio that has the film rights to Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk and Ant-Man. And clearly, when you put them all together, you know who you get.

So it’s both—planning and luck. And now we take great care in putting it together. There’s a danger that happens in writing comics, it seems every 10 to 15 years, where you paint yourself into a corner or you get into such convoluted continuity that only the most hardcore of fans can figure it out. So we want to show people that our first two films under the Marvel Studios banner—the Iron Man film and the Hulk film—can stand completely alone. But at the very end of the film or even at the very end of the credits, yeah…there’s a 30-second piece that shows you a crossover is possible.

JM: You have a Runaways flick in the works, which is about as far afield as Marvel has ever strayed from superheroes in movies. Is Marvel looking to broaden its film reach? Might we one day see a Marvel flick that has nothing to do with superheroes?

KF: I’d argue that the term “superhero” is much too broadly used. Spider-Man, that’s a superhero movie without a doubt. But I’m not sure that Hulk is a superhero movie. I’m not sure that Iron Man is a superhero movie. I think towards the end of the movie, Iron Man pretends to be a superhero—he’s entertained by that notion. I think X-Men is a sci-fi movie.

But one of the things that I’m proud of our accomplishing over the years and want to continue to focus on in the upcoming years is expanding the definition of what a Marvel movie is and what it can be. And in that, we’ll help expand the definition of what a “comic book” movie is. So absolutely, you’ll see movies that are not just people running into alleys and opening their shirts and putting on a mask. Runaways is a great example of that. It’s a great concept, and one of the best original concepts to come out of publishing in…what? Easily one of the best of the last 5-6 years.

JM: Now that Marvel publishing and Marvel movies are much more closely meshed, how much of the publishing side is driven by the movie side? And vice versa?

KF: I think it’s all a two-way street. The film universe is separate from the comics universe, but clearly takes its inspiration from various incarnations of the characters that have been in the comics for, sometimes, as many as 50 or 60 years now. But the House of Ideas is still in New York, and that’s where they come up with the great stuff and the fun ideas that we can look to and be inspired by as we make movies.

JM: If indeed Iron Man and Incredible Hulk have been successful—and I guess numbers would indicate they have—what lessons have you taken out of these flicks? How will you apply those lessons to the future?

KF: There are hundreds…maybe thousand of lessons. When you have a new studio that’s had experience being part of movies like this, but never directly produced movies of this size and scale before, there’s a learning curve, which is sometimes steep. Thankfully, we’ve succeeded so far. Some people have referred to Iron Man as the most successful independent movie of all time…and that’s really what it was. It was completely outside of the Big Seven studios up until we completed the film and turned it over for marketing and distribution.

As we gear up on our next four films, operationally, there are lots of boring business things we’ve learned behind the scenes that we can streamline and make more efficient to get better. But creatively and in front of the camera, the success of the two films has just given us a big vote of confidence. We think that the way we’ve been doing things has been the right way. Now we just need to continue and not lose sight that staying true to the characters will ultimately give people the best experience possible.

JM: Speaking of numbers, yeah, we all like cash, but…how much of a psychological impact is there in box office totals? Do you go into a movie with an expectation, a number you need to hit to feel good about it?

KF: From a financial perspective, you have to think about what the film will generate in revenue so you can set a budget against it. But other that that…well, there’s just a joy that comes with making a successful film. And hokey as it may sound, that just comes from knowing people enjoyed it, and are maybe going back to see it again. That’s the biggest reward. You can drive yourself crazy and tie yourself in knots trying to anticipate what someone’s going to like or not like, and doing test screenings and opinion polls. But pay too much mind to that, and you’ll wind up with a big pile of mush. So we just continue to go with our gut and go with our instincts in terms of what’s going to work. The summer of 2008 has been a huge, huge victory for us so far, and tells us that people enjoy where our instincts are leading us so far.

JM: So Punisher: War Zone is December, 2008. What’s the latest on that? Where are you in process?

KF: Yes, that’ll be the next film based on a Marvel character, but it’s not a Marvel Studios production. Lionsgate is cutting the film together now, and working on a trailer that I think has just been released. They’ll be putting together a new trailer soon as well, and gearing up for release.

JM: And X-Men Origins: Wolverine is 2009. Where are you in process on that?

KF: That’s 20th Century Fox, where all three of the X-Men films were. They’ve finished filming in Australia. Hugh Jackman looks unbelievable. Gavin Hood, the director, I think has just finished his director’s cut.

JM: And correct me if I’m wrong, but as recent as June 19th, you were talking to Jon Favreau and Robert Downey as regards an Iron Man 2. What’s the status there?

KF: Uh…expect some announcements on that very soon. On that status.

[editor's note: while unofficial, reports Thursday suggest Favreau has indeed signed up for the sequel]

JM: That’s wonderfully coy, you. Is there any one person—or two, or a short list of people—you’d just give your eyeteeth to work with? One actor or one director you’d just plotz to bring into the Marvel fold?

KF: Y’know, the truth is, I guess there are lots, but until we start gearing up and casting, we really don’t wrap our heads around it. Like anybody else who sees movies or watches TV, I might see someone and say, “Wow, that guy really pops. Wouldn’t it be good to work with him someday?” But it’s really not until we get immersed in the character that we start looking at lists.

And it was really about halfway through that kind of process that Robert Downey emerged to us as Iron Man. So I really don’t like to get too focused on names in advance. My thought is, “The sky’s the limit.” Everything and everybody’s a possibility.

JM: Do you still have a shed full of action figures?

KF: You know what? I don’t have the shed anymore! I now have storage in my garage, which is a nice upgrade. And it’s filled with some very good stuff. The collection is not as all-encompassing as it once was. I think I went a little crazy for a while. I knew when I had Coneheads action figures…I had sorta crossed a line. So maybe about 10 years ago, I sold a lot of the more expendable ones. I now have more a core collection.

But right now, right next to my computer screen, I have some of the Temple of Doom action figures Hasbro just announced. How could I not want a Short-Round figure? It’s pretty awesome. Good times, man.

Freelance writer Jim McLauchlin runs The Hero Initiative [www.HeroInitiative.org] and writes for Newsarama, Playboy, Baseball America, SFX, and other publications.

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