Kevin Feige first worked as an associate producer for the original X-Men movie in 2000. He has since been involved in all of Marvel’s movies, as well as becoming President of Marvel Studios in 2007. That makes him the closest thing to a mastermind behind Marvel’s incredible motion picture run in the past six years, a run that continues today with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In an exclusive interview with Mania, he talked about the Marvel movie juggernaut and some of the secrets behind its success.
Question: What was your first experience with Marvel Comics as a kid?
Kevin Feige: It was probably toys and cartoons. Certainly the Bill Bixby Hulk series and the Spider-Man cartoon from the 60s. And never mind the Marvel characters. Richard Donner’s Superman was a huge, huge influence. Even the Adam West Batman show was a big part of my childhood. It was always movies, though. That has always been my obsession. The Star Wars movies. Indiana Jones. All the movies that people loved and grew up with during that era. Robocop. Robocop could have easily been a comic, just a comic book movie not based on a comic.
Q: Didn’t Marvel do a Robocop comic?
KF: Afterwards, afterwards. But I didn’t know why there weren’t more comic book movies. I would always be more inclined to go to the movies on Friday than the comic book shop on Wednesday. But I absorbed a lot of it as I grew up, and a lot of my friends read the comics. I picked it all up by reading theirs. Then the X-Men cartoon started in the 90s, and the Batman animated series started opening my eyes to the possibilities there. I was working for the company making the first X-Men movie, and it was like “Wow!” Why does a movie like Batman & Robin happen when you have so much wonderful source material to draw on? And that’s what we’re trying to do here.
Q: My wife PA’d on Birds of Prey. She has an answer to that question.
Q: So a certain bar gets set. Bryan Singer does the X-Men movies, Sam Raimi does Spider-Man, and suddenly you have a set of really good Marvel movies to compare yourselves to. How do you take those examples and run with them to where you’re at now?
KF: We had all the Marvel characters except for those guys: Spider-Man, The X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Daredevil and a few others. As far as Hollywood and the media was concerned, those were the only superheroes to have. “There’s nothing left!” they said. Well, there was a lot left. A whole lot. “But why debate it?” we said. “Let’s just show it. Let’s put our money where our mouth is.” And that’s what the first Iron Man was all about. The job at hand was to make a movie that was just as good as the best of our studio movies. Even the Fantastic Four movies were money makers. So let’s make a profitable movie that closely represents the potential that can be found in our characters. Iron Man was that movie, and we’re so fortunate that the audiences agreed.
Q: And even then, you had the seeds for something bigger.
KF: That was just a pie in the sky notion, that Sam Jackson cameo at the end of Iron Man. If it hadn’t worked, it would have been just a fun little throwaway for the fans. That’s why we put it after the end credits in that move, so that it wasn’t distracting. If he showed up in the middle of the movie, it would have been like, “What is Sam Jackson doing here in an eyepatch?” But if we put it after the credits, fans would see it because fans usually stay until after the credits, and we thought that fans would spread the word. What we didn’t expect was seeing columns in Entertainment Weekly and other big media outlets saying “Who is Nick Fury? What does this mean?” And people started to fall in love with this notion of a shared universe.
Q: So at what point did this stop being a pie in the sky idea and become a viable plan?
KF: We were in an agreement at that point with a lending company that had given us the money to make these movies to do two a year, so we knew we had to do that. Iron Man was so profitable that we paid off that loan right away, but we still had this two-a-year plan on the table. It was the Monday after Iron Man’s release that we announced Iron Man 2 and Captain America and Thor, and maybe The Avengers too.
Q: You mentioned the first Fantastic Four movie, which brings us to Chris Evans. Were you worried about the Human Torch connection there?
KF: Frankly, he was not on the initial list for Cap simply because of that. We did a lot of very thorough screen tests with a number of great actors, Sebastian Stan among them. We didn’t think Sebastian was the Captain, but I think we offered him Bucky on the spot. It probably was the Johnny Storm bias that kept Chris out of our consciousness for the first round. Then when we didn’t find our Captain, we went back to the list, and I asked, “Why isn’t Chris Evans on the list?” He had done a little film with Bryce Howard called The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, and he was great. More importantly, he showed he could work really well in a period setting. We had to talk him into doing it, and of course we’re very glad that he did. I don’t remember the fans being too down on the choice, but there was some buzz about turning Captain America into a jokey guy. Well Johnny Storm’s the jokey guy. Cap isn’t. And Evans is a good actor who can play a lot of different moods.
Q: How did you plan to incorporate the kind of gritty espionage saga that The Winter Soldier is into the same universe that has a space raccoon?
KF: I’ve always believed that each of these movies needs to be unique, even though we also want to tie them into this larger universe. Iron Man 3 is very different in tone and texture from the first two Iron Man films. That was very intentional. That was our way of escaping the dreaded sequelitis, or threequelitis, where you’re just regurgitating the same thing. I really, really didn’t want to do that on a movie we were in charge of. We had a couple of advantages on that front, one of which was The Avengers, which acted like a big reset button. That also made Iron Man 3 really Iron Man 4, so hey, why not take him out of the suit and see what happens? What if he narrates the movie? What if he meets a little kid? We had all of that even before the big twist with the Mandarin.
With The Winter Soldier, we wanted to see what kinds of genre we could cross with a superhero movie. We knew where we wanted to take Cap. We knew we wanted him to question authority, to be uncomfortable with the orders he’s given in his new role. Kind of like what Cap encountered when he was first thawed out in the comics, leading up to Watergate. Well what’s cool about the Watergate era? The great thrillers that arrived in that period. The paranoia and the grit. SHIELD was made for that kind of intrigue. I had this idea in the back of my head that the SSR, which is the organization that Cap belonged to in the first film with Tommy Lee Jones and Haley Atwell, defeated Hydra and absorbed some of its scientists a la Operation Paperclip. We saw in The Avengers that SHIELD was attempting to play with some of Hydra’s toys. What if the problem ran much deeper than that? And suddenly we had our movie.
Q: Was that why you cast Robert Redford? To get that vibe of 70s thrillers?
KF: That was one of those miracle moments you run into from time to time, not unlike a phone call I got from Sam Jackson’s people when we were working on Iron Man. For months, almost for a year, we were talking about all these great Robert Redford movies. Three Days of the Condor. All the President’s Men. Then we get a call from this agent. “Hey I just signed Robert Redford. Do you have anything for him?” “Yes. Yes we do.” We made a few adjustments to make the role worthy of him, and he was amazing. The first day he came in, he said, “I read the script and it feels a lot like this movie I did called Three Days of the Condor.” We knew then that we had something special.
Q: You could almost strip away the comic book elements and still have this work as a very good thriller.
KF: We try to do that with everything. Less so in Guardians, but we always try to think about strong character and story. If we have that, then the comic book elements become cool garnishes rather than the purpose of the exercise. Is it still interesting without the costumes and the superpowers? If it is, then we’ve got a winner.
Q: Casting plays a big role too.
KF: Casting is great, and Joss Whedon is a genius in that regard. Take Bruce Banner, which we had to recast after The Incredible Hulk. We were wringing our hands about who we were going to get, and worrying about continuity, and then Joss says “what about Ruffalo?” Well he didn’t know it at the time, but Ruffalo had auditioned for the part that Edward Norton ultimately got, and he was a close second. Joss picked up on that without even knowing! Something similar happened with James Spader in Ultron. Spader loved what we were doing and he loved the movies, and he asked us about them right before he went off to make Lincoln. We didn’t have anything then, but two years later, Joss says, “You know who I want for Ultron? James Spader.” And it was done.
Q: How do you attribute getting all these great performers? Redford and Spader, Ben Kingsley for the Mandarin? It’s an embarrassment of riches!
KF: I don’t think we’d be getting those guys if the movies weren’t delivering. And the minute that stops, those phone calls will stop. Hopefully, it will help keep us sharp and where we need to be. And we don’t always get everyone. Not everyone’s beating down the door. But thankfully, there’s lots of people who are interested. And we need to be respectful of that. I mean we could have put Spader in some throwaway cameo anywhere along the line, but we don’t want to waste someone that talented. We only want to do it if it’s going to be great, if we can’t imagine anyone else doing it. Michael Douglas was that way for Ant-Man. He was just perfect for the part, and I think we’re going to get a great movie out of that.
Q: Do you have any favorite characters you’d like to see? Any personal bias in who you’d like to see show up, regardless of their standing in the Marvel pecking order?
KF: Oh yeah. Falcon was like that, Ultron was like that. Sometimes in their own movies, sometimes as part of a larger ensemble like here. Doctor Strange was one of those characters. The Inhumans. We’d love to make a franchise out of characters like those.
Q: Is it at all possible to get the X-Men and Spidey involved in this universe?
KF: Well, you never say never, but right now there are no plans. The rights are very complicated. But one of the nice things about our situation is that we are in complete control of the rest of the Marvel Universe. So we can talk about where we’re going for the next seven, eight years. And, God forbid, if a movie doesn’t work, then we alter things. But for the most part, we’ve stuck to a very long-range plan since 2006. And I don’t know how to fit Spidey and the X-Men in to that plan with things as they are. Hugh Jackman and Andrew Garfield have been extremely cool in their enthusiasm for such a project, and they’re very supportive of what we’re doing here. But I don’t know that the various studio heads who make that call agree with them.
Q: I have friends who want to see a Secret Wars miniseries on HBO.
KF: Why HBO? Why not a movie?
Q: Because on HBO, it could be 10 hours long.
KF: Nice. If they can find a way to make it happen, I’m in!
Q: I’ll send you the script.