I’ve been speaking to Kevin Feige about Marvel movies now for the better part of 12 years.
The first time I met him, it wasn’t as a reporter, but rather as a writer. At that point, Marvel was working with Lionsgate to develop a slate of mid-sized movies based on their characters, sort of like the program that Devin Faraci recently wrote about, and my writing partner and I went in to pitch on a “Deadpool” movie. Keep in mind, this was before they’d even made the first “X-Men,” so there was no template yet for what a Marvel movie looked like. Even in that meeting, though, the feedback we got from Kevin was concise and demonstrated that he was a real fan of the character and not just an executive trying to squeeze some cash out of an intellectual property.
Sitting down with him at the Four Seasons to talk, there was no formality at the beginning, no need for introduction. Instead, we just dove right into the conversation, starting with some discussion of the way “Iron Man 2” seems to be working harder at laying the groundwork for the larger Marvel Universe than any film released previously by the studio. I asked how hard it is to build a larger multi-series multi-film franchise while also trying to focus on each film individually.
“It’s hard, frankly, because you don’t want the audience to feel like they have to do homework before they go to a movie. We live in this every day, and someone who reads your website may recognize Captain America’s shield in Tony Stark’s stuff he gets from his father, but a large part of the audience isn’t going to do that.” He made an interesting comparison to the Harry Potter series. “I’ve never read the books, but every time a movie comes out, I go see it opening weekend, and then I usually only see them once. I’m sure there’s tons and tons of stuff that I don’t get, but I get enough to carry me through the movies.”
Asked if he feels like he’s missing something that way, he said, “I’m sure I am, but it doesn’t feel like it. I get it. It’s the next year in school. He has to fight Ralph Fiennes again. And I may not get all the names flying at me, but there are very few times I feel like my enjoyment of the film suffered because I didn’t get something.” He compared the difference between that feeling and “Lost,” where he’s so far behind at this point that he just gave up. “With our film, people remember that he got a suit and he said, ‘I am Iron Man’ at the end, and that’s all they really need to remember.”
We talked about how concerned some of the other critics I spoke to at the screening the night before had been that audiences won’t follow much of what happens. “There are lots of people who never saw the scene at the end of the first one, and even if they did, they thought he was just some weird guy. And for peopel who haven’t seen that scene, now there’s some weird guy who shows up at a donut stand. And all they really need to know is that he’s a weird guy who wants to recruit Tony for something, and they have some history together.” He compared Fury’s role in the Marvel Universe movies to the role that Gandalf plays in “Lord Of The Rings,” a sage voice that shows up to offer important advice, then vanishes again.
I asked if we’ll see John Slattery in any other Marvel movies or if Howard Stark would show up with a different actor in the role. “To be honest with you, we usually sign people up for multiple performances, but I’m not sure if we did that with him. Certainly, though, Howard Stark is an important part of the continuity, especially moving forward.”
As with Justin Theroux, I was curious to talk to Feige about the challenge of making these giant technically precise movies that have such key story and franchise beats to communicate while still keeping things loose on-set. “You have to,” he said. “You have to let things breathe.” He talked about how there would be times they’d try a take of a scene and everyone would love it, except it no longer fit the movie they were making. “Sometimes it comes down to ‘You have to say this one thing, or nothing else works.'” He has enough faith in the process that when they’re not experimenting on-set, it feels off. “I’ll find myself watching a scene where they’re doing exactly what’s on the page, and I’ll say, ‘Are we sure there’s nothing better?’ It works so well for us.” Asked if Theroux was always on-set, he says there’s a policy on all of their films now. “If a scene does change, we want to encourage that, but it’s a game of catch-up to make sure everything else still works, too.”
I asked him how they managed to keep the image of what Mickey Rourke looks like in the film’s final act a total secret before the first screening. “It’s impossible to do these days, and the only way to really do it is to structure your visual effects pipeline so nobody has access to those scenes until the very last minute. Those grabby-hand marketing department guys can only get what’s done.” I told him that I was afraid I’d seen all the film’s big visual ideas before walking into the theater, only to be surprised by how much I hadn’t seen yet. “I’m glad you said that. Jon and I were afraid at one point that people could cut together the whole film from the trailers.” We talked about how Sam Rockwell is almost completely absent from the trailers.
“And now he’s one of my favorite things about the movie,” Kevin replied. “It’s just that the nature of his scenes, they don’t really cut well into trailer beats.” We talked about how Rockwell was originally a contender for the Tony Stark role in the first film and how watching his work here is like getting a glimpse at what might have been. “Well, yes, except he’s the completely unrepentant Tony Stark.” He said they worked hard to not stack the film with different villains all pursuing different agendas. “In many ways, Justin and Ivan are just two sides of the coin.”
We also talked about how they kept Black Widow’s role in the film a mystery. “Yeah, that was tricky,” he laughed. “Since she’s got a big SHIELD logo right there on her arm, we had to photoshop that out of all the early materials we sent out.” Since the first film was such a hit, they were under far more scrutiny this time. Even so, though, it seems like people always treat Marvel like the underdog on every movie.
“It is a position we’re comfortable with,” he said. “I like being able to surprise people. And no matter how big these movies get, we kind of still feel like it’s amazing anyone’s letting us make the movies we like.” He says you have to shut out fan reactions as much as possible while working and just stay focused on what you’re trying to do as a filmmaker. “The minute you’re sitting around some board table talking about audience expectations and demographics and return on investments, creativity goes out the window. Marvel has to be the House Of Ideas.”
I started my next question by congratulating him on the announcement of Joss Whedon as the director of “The Avengers,” and he put on his best poker face before answering. “We haven’t announced that.” I rephrased by saying there are rumors about Whedon and if he were the guy, what is it that makes him attractive to Marvel on a film like this? “I can’t talk about that in particular, but I can say that we like choices that cause debate among people. All of the filmmakers that we look at for our films have pros and cons, and the most important pro for us is having a point of view and bringing something to the table that we might not otherwise have.” He wasn’t going to confirm Whedon, but he went on to explain, “Look, we can help a director with the effects or the massive size of the production. I still remember after ‘Zathura,’ Favreau wanted to do everything with models.” One last laugh, and he said, “Yeah, he’s changed that tune a bit.”
“Iron Man 2” is now playing, and should be f’ing up box-office records all weekend long.
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