Given the fact that the source material all comes squarely from hand-colored panels featuring characters that exist only in the imaginations of their creators, it's sometimes easy to forget that there are a lot of nuts-and-bolts considerations that go into bringing comic book characters to the screen. But over the course of the past decade, Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige has attempted to balance the commercial and creative sides of superhero filmmaking by enlisting high-profile filmmakers to breathe life into his company's one-dimensional creations—and Marvel has reaped enormous financial rewards as a result.
The studio's latest film, Thor, has already made more than $240 million worldwide, and Boxoffice sat down with Feige for a candid chat about the choices he and director Kenneth Branagh made to bring Thor to the screen. Additionally, he talked about the company's history of hiring different kinds of filmmakers for their adaptations, and offered some insights into the ongoing struggle to balance marketplace demands with making the best movie possible.
Just to get started, talk about how important it is to look at the entirety of a character's mythology as you're adapting them for the screen, as opposed to maybe a more recent or recognizable storyline to folks who are collecting the comics now?
Well, the segment of the moviegoing public that are collecting comics now is unfortunately relatively small. I wish it was huge, but it's not. So we look at all of the comics, whether it's from 70 years ago or 30 years ago or on Wednesday, as inspirations for the storylines. And in the case of Thor, if you're a fan of the comics, you can clearly see things that go right back to Stan [Lee] and Jack [Kirby], and also to Jay Messer from a year or two ago. So it's one of the great advantages of the job that we have this source material to pull from, and I would say that clearly that whole New Mexico portion of the movie was inspired by the last four or five years in the comics.
As the first Marvel movie that incorporates supernatural elements to the known Marvel movie universe, what was important for you as you introduced that to audiences?
With or without those building blocks of that existing cinematic universe, I wanted two things: I wanted to not pull any punches when it came to the magic and it came to the other words and it came to Asgard, the Rainbow Bridge, Mjolnir, and all of those silly names. These characters in these comics and in this case, these myths have lasted as long as they've lasted for a reason, because of the elements of them people respond to, and I wanted to make sure those elements were up on the screen and we didn't hide them in any way, or at the end of the movie you look up in the clouds and see the outline of Asgard. I wanted it to be there in the beginning of the movie. But the second most-important thing was to be able to bring that stuff to the screen in a way that whether people had any interest in sci-fi or any interest in comics, that they would buy into it. And to me, and that's one of the reasons that Ken responded to the material and that we responded to each other on this project, was because the only way to do is if you buy the characters reacting appropriately—by making it about the emotions between the characters. Ken said early on that he had this vision that was not far off from the way the movie starts now, on a giant cosmic scale that quickly, quickly funnels down to a father and two sons, because that's why people are going to respond to it. There's a segment of the audiences that's going to love the capes and the helmets and the outfits, and there's a segment that's going to go, what the heck is this stuff? But for the most part, both segments will respond to a father, a son, and to this family struggle and somebody who's sort of yearning to be better than they are.
How meticulous have you been about what you're letting audiences see? The posters emphasize "God of Thunder," but the clips have kind of taken the stuffing out of Thor a little bit. Why have you seemed to focus on the more humorous aspects of the film?
Well, those scenes in the movie clearly play as part of his character journey, as part of a guy who starts it's sort of a reverse-origin story—this is not about somebody without powers who gets powers and learns to deal with them, it's about somebody who's born with power, who has this power, and clearly does not know how to deal with them, and gets banished, cast out of his home and kind of needs to find himself, and frankly, needs to have the stuffing taken out of him. In terms of the materials, Paramount is excellent at selling big movies, and what they've learned is that people respond to that humor, people when you have a big God of Thunder, when the movie's named Thor and the preconceived notion is this guy is going to have a cape and a hammer and smash things, is that for me, I'm not sure, I think they're showing those clips to try to expand the audience while still having spots and things that show the enormity of it. Frankly, it's an unusual position to be in, and I'm excited, which is and it doesn't happen that often anymore, but there's huge parts of the movie that nobody's seen yet, and won't see until they go see the movie. Being a producer, that's exciting to me, that people actually get to sit down and go, okay, is this whole movie about a guy smashing mugs in a diner? No. Which I'm pleased about.
What's the process by which you choose directors to adapt your material to the screen, to balance fan expectation with filmmaking vision? For the first Hulk, for example, you had Ang Lee, who created something really unique, but by comparison, The Incredible Hulk was much more straightforward and conventional.
Well, we want to do both, and we usually have a pretty clear idea of how we want to introduce a character, and we've culled down hundreds of comics into dozens of comics in terms of the story and the elements that we want to put together. And we want to find a filmmaker that can do both; we want to find a filmmaker that can do the character justice from the comics. I'm not interested in reinventing a character, I'm interested in bringing a character who's been invented already in these books to life in the best way possible up on the big screen. I think [Jon] Favreau and Kenneth and now Joss [Whedon] on The Avengers, Joe Johnston on Captain America, I respond to all of them because of what they can bring to it—how they can elevate the material in a way. At no point did Favreau say, "I'm going to make the Favreau version of Iron Man!" That's usually a bad sign, if somebody comes in saying they're going to really put their stamp on it in a way that molds it into something that it's not. Favreau put his stamp on it by pulling out what it is—by making the best of what Iron Man is—and it's the same thing with Ken on Thor, and the same thing as what Joe's doing on Cap. Now, sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't; if a quote-unquote auteur will push and mold something, then it maybe becomes better, but we're interested in bringing these characters to life as they have existed in the comic book in the best way possible. And finding filmmakers that can enhance the material as opposed to redefine it or remold it.
How much do you think of each new Marvel movie in the context of the larger cinematic universe, as opposed to being a self-contained story?
They're all developed separately—they're all developed on their own with the sole intent of making the best movie possible for this character. We do have timelines and various markers that we like to keep track of across the movies, and head into future movies potentially. But that's always sort of the seasoning as opposed to the actual ingredients of the movie. We're in very early stages of talking about the story for Iron Man 3 with our writer-directors on that, and the discussions have been only about Tony Stark and Tony Stark's story and what we feel like putting him through in this movie. There's been no discussion of the connection between the other worlds, and there may not ever be a discussion about that. But again, it's the comics. In some comics, the heroes are standalone completely, and in other comics, they team up or gather into the Avengers. So it's always about whatever is the story we're telling. In the Thor film, the inclusion of SHIELD was based on the need for a Black Ops, for a CIA, for a Men in Black-type organization, and we had the end of that movie, before we had the beginning of Avengers, because we need these movies to work as their own movies—because that's what they are. If it were really just about making a bunch of small movies that led up to other movies, they would be a third of the cost and it would be a whole different exercise.
How many of your upcoming projects will operate in the same world as your current and previous adaptations, and how many won't fit or won't be connected?
Well, because they all come from the comics, and the comics for the most part, 90% of them is a shared universe, it's just assumed that they all take place within this universe. How much we go out of our way to play with that or suggest that depends on what the character is. Doctor Strange, which is only in long-lead development and has been for many years, has got one of the best origin stories of any of our characters, and like Thor taps into the cosmic world, he taps into this magic world. So between introducing Stephen Strange and making him the Sorcerer Supreme, exploring this sort of unabashedly magic side of the universe, I don't know how there would be room for Tony Stark to show up and wave, or have the Hulk come barreling down the street. I don't think there's the need.
You have a number of upcoming projects listed on the always-reliable IMDB. How many of those are being actively developed at the same time?
I think really what that is is a list of stuff that we have worked on at one point or another over the last ten years. Ant-Man certainly is, and it's something we hope to do soon with Edgar [Wright, director of Shaun of the Dead], although we've not announced anything yet. I mean, really the official stuff is Avengers and then Iron Man 3—those are the most active, of course. As I said earlier, Don Payne is working on the story for Thor 2, should we be so lucky, and our writers, Chris Markus and Stephen McFeely, who did Captain America for us, are starting to work on Captain America 2 because if we are going to make a sequel, we want to be ready, we want to be prepared for it. But we're not focusing a whole lot of attention on that right now because we're focusing on the first ones—and without that, there won't be anything else. And then there's the wish list—there's Doctor Strange, which I've been talking about for years, and Black Panther, more of the blue-sky development that comes down the line.
How hard is it to know how much to space out your films, especially when you make big scheduling announcements, to make sure each film has room to breathe, and that audiences don't tire of superheroes?
Well, there have been multiple Marvel movies in a summer going back to I think 2003, and there have been multiple superhero movies going back that far as well. And 2008 was sort of a big watershed moment not only because of Iron Man for us and the growth of Marvel studios, but the number one and number two movie of that year was The Dark Knight and Iron Man. Eight years after X-Men 1, however long after Tim Burton's Batman, I think what's really happening is that superhero movies are becoming the summer blockbuster action movies. So if and when people start getting tired of, oh, another big visual-effects extravaganza coming out in the summer, that's when I'd start to get worried. Because I do think, particularly this summer, Thor, X-Men, Green Lantern and Captain America, you couldn't have four more different movies. If they were all superhero movies about a guy putting on a mask and stepping out of an alleyway and fighting a mugger and having a secret identity, I would be worried, because you'd get bored. But thankfully, all of the characters are different. And it's the same thing with readers of comics; they don't read them week after week because they're all the same, it's because they're diverse. And this summer, what I think it will really show is people's appetite to expand the boundaries of what they consider to be a superhero. Thor's got a cape—that's about as superhero-y as you get, Captain America doesn't have a cape, and he's a soldier in WWII, the X-Men are dealing with the Cuban Missile Crisis, and they do have costumes, and Green Lantern is a cosmic policeman. So I'm pretty excited for this summer because they're all so different; if they were all the same, I would be nervous.
When you have a predetermined schedule for these films to be released, how do you make sure that the filmmakers have the creative freedom and the time to make each one the best it possibly can be?
There are two things. One is all movies nowadays, not just Marvel movies, not just superhero movies, but all movies of this size start with a release date. That's the moment it becomes real to the studio, that's the moment they start spending money, and allowing you to hire a crew and put together art departments and things like that. So that is just sort of the way it happens right now. And sometimes you have it a few years out, as we were lucky enough to, and then you do have the time to work on them. Thor was one of the longest periods we ever had, because after Iron Man came out, we announced a certain schedule, we started working towards that schedule, and we realized that we didn't have to rush quite as much as we felt we were rushing, and we spread it out a little bit more for exactly those reasons—and Thor was the result of having that time. Iron Man 3 we've been working on for a long time. For Avengers, Joss has been on it a year and a half, and we just started filming. So time isn't always the key marker; there are movies that were greenlit ten months ago that could end up being great, and there are movies that have had six years, and then you go, huh—six years? It's just about managing—how you manage that talent and how do you sort of drive the vision to the end result. And then, as we have just done with Thor, you put it out to the world and see how they respond.