“There were a lot of expectations behind Black Panther and Captain Marvel and [Avengers:] Infinity War and [Avengers:] Endgame,” acknowledges Kevin Feige, the chief creative officer of Marvel Studios, as we sit down in his memorabilia-filled office on the Disney lot in Burbank to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast.
The ballcap-clad 46-year-old was the architect of an unprecedented 11-year series of 22 intertwining superhero films, a venture which has been described as “one of the most ambitious undertakings in Hollywood history,” and the massive commercial success of which has been called “a performance run that will one day be looked upon as nothing short of historic” — indeed, all 22 films topped the box office in their opening weekend, and collectively grossed $8.2 billion domestically and $21.5 billion worldwide. Now the most commercially successful producer in Hollywood history, he has been called a “dominant producer voice in a way that Hollywood has not seen since the golden era”… “the ultimate geek done-good”… “a movie producer who is a legitimate household name” and “one of the key figures, if not the key figure, in the modern Hollywood landscape.”
But even for Feige, the recipient of the Publicist Guild of America’s Showmanship Award in 2013 and the Producers Guild of America’s David O. Selznick Achievement Award in Theatrical Motion Pictures in 2019, closing out that 22-film series last April with Anthony Russo and Joe Russo‘s Avengers: Endgame, an epic which was lauded by critics (it is at 94 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) and became the second-highest-grossing film of all time domestically ($858.37 million) and highest-grossing film of all time internationally ($2.8 billion), was a relief. He continues, “To meet those expectations, and exceed them in many cases? I’m still processing it, to be honest with you. Because for five years, our goal and our superstition was delivering on the promise of a finale in a way that wasn’t expected, in a way that people weren’t anticipating. And seeing audiences around the world respond to these characters that we’ve lived with for 10-plus years, they’ve lived with for 10-plus years, was a really remarkably emotional experience.”
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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below.
Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Gervais, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Ryan Murphy, Julia Roberts, Jerry Seinfeld, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Sacha Baron Cohen, Carol Burnett & Norman Lear.
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Feige was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and raised in Westfield, New Jersey. He grew up obsessed with movies more than comic books, but was drawn to something film and comic book franchises share in common. “I always loved, and was never cynical about, expansive, multi-storied, epic storytelling,” he says. “I liked getting invested in worlds and in characters and following them through to unexpected places.” As he graduated from high school in 1991, his classmates who signed his yearbook already saw the writing on the wall, he recalls: “Every single signature said, ‘Good luck in L.A.! We know you’re gonna make it big in Hollywood!'”
Indeed he did move to Los Angeles shortly thereafter, enrolling at USC and, after five rejections, transferring into its prestigious film school, which had been attended by one of his heroes, Star Wars creator George Lucas. In the spring of 1994, he landed an unpaid internship with Richard Donner, the director of a superhero movie Feige loved, 1978’s Superman, and Donner’s wife Lauren Shuler Donner, a producer, eventually working his way up to serving as their receptionist and then a paid production assistant. Ultimately compelled to choose between working with Richard or Lauren, he went with Lauren, having noticed that she, unlike her husband, was always busy. Feige assisted her on 1997’s Volcano, 1998’s You’ve Got Mail and, fatefully, 2000’s X-Men, the first film made from Marvel content.
Marvel, up to that point, had licensed its characters to other Hollywood studios, which built movies around them. Avi Arad, its chief creative officer, was impressed by Feige, whose knowledge of Marvel and attention to detail on the set of X-Men was obvious. He recruited Feige to the company, where Feige’s job was to liaise with the studios that had licensed Marvel’s characters. Consequently, from 1997 through 2006, Feige says, “I got to see the inner workings of almost every studio in town… at the highest levels, and it was an amazing, amazing learning experience.” He continues, “There were some movies that you can look at it in that time period that were excellent. There were some movies in that time period that were not as excellent. And I got to see how that happened or why that happened, thinking always, ‘One day, if I’m in a position of power, I’ll do things this way, I’m going to not do things like that.'”
In 2006, Marvel committed to making its own movies, securing financing from Merrill Lynch to make 10 films over five years — beginning with 2008’s Iron Man because, Feige says, “We really believed in the character of Tony Stark. We believed in being able to do a version of a hero that people hadn’t seen before — the redemptive arc that he has through the film — and the notion that it’s not superpowers, it’s a vehicle, and the vehicle sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. That his intellect is the superpower, we thought was very interesting.” The company bet the farm on Robert Downey Jr., signing a three-picture deal with the trouble-plagued actor to play Tony Stark/Iron Man. Iron Man proved a giant hit, and the next four Marvel films were announced on the Monday after its opening weekend.
Feige, even during the making of Iron Man, realized the potential for a Marvel Cinematic Universe — “the notion of epic storytelling that encompasses the same characters through many different periods.” He elaborates, “We could begin to blend them together and build a universe on the big screen the way it exists in the comic book universe.” Initially, the dream was just to get to a fifth film: “For the longest time, Avengers [the first Marvel release to bring together a large group of its superheroes] was our horizon line, what we were aiming for,” Feige recalls. But following Marvel’s 2009 acquisition by Disney for $4 billion — “the greatest thing that ever happened to us,” in Feige’s view — the sky was the limit.
One of Feige’s priorities was to increase the diversity of the superheroes Marvel featured in films. It was widely reported that he met resistance to that from Isaac “Ike” Perlmutter, the chairman and former CEO of Marvel Entertainment. So, in 2015, on the basis of Feige’s remarkable success up to that point, Disney ordered a management restructuring, and as a result Feige began reporting directly to Disney studio chief Alan Horn, whose leadership Feige hails as outstanding. And, under this new arrangement, Marvel released two trailblazing films in 2018 — Black Panther, the first Marvel film with a predominantly black cast, and Captain Marvel, the first Marvel film centered on a female superhero — which both proved to be giant blockbusters and cultural game-changers.
Feige, long the president of Marvel Studios, was named its chief creative officer in October, a promotion reflective of his growing portfolio. Now that Disney has acquired Fox, characters like Wolverine and Deadpool can, he notes, be integrated on screen with Marvel’s characters. Now that Disney has launched its TV streaming service, Disney+, characters can also move between the big and small screens, he confirms, noting that the company is now developing shows based around Ms. Marvel, the studio’s first Muslim superhero, as well as She-Hulk and Moon Knight. (Feige also revealed that all three of those characters will appear on the big screen after their Disney+ debuts.) And, in something of a full-circle moment, Feige, who fell in love with superhero movies as a kid by watching Star Wars, has been invited into another Disney silo, Lucasfilm, to produce an upcoming installment of Star Wars. He gushes, “I love that world and I love the notion of exploring new people and new places in that universe.”
The generally upbeat exec did betray one bit of frustration and disappointment when asked about the anti-Marvel movement sparked by recent comments made — and a New York Times op-ed written — by fellow filmmaker Martin Scorsese. Scorsese wrote, “Many of the elements that define cinema as I know it are there in Marvel pictures. What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk.” Feige, responding to the charges for the first time, told me, “I think that’s not true. I think it’s unfortunate. I think myself and everybody that works on these movies loves cinema, loves movies, loves going to the movies, loves to watch a communal experience in a movie theater full of people… I think it’s fun for us to take our success and use it to take risks and go in different places. Everybody has a different definition of cinema. Everybody has a different definition of art. Everybody has a different definition of risk.” He closed, “Some people don’t think it’s cinema. Everybody is entitled to their opinion. Everyone is entitled to repeat that opinion. Everyone is entitled to write op-eds about that opinion. And I look forward to what will happen next. But in the meantime, we’re going to keep making movies.”