Set Visit: Marvel head honcho Kevin Feige on the impact of ‘Captain America 2’

Captain America, Thor and Iron Man may be the names you see in the titles, but the real hero of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — including the upcoming “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” — is Marvel Studios President of Production Kevin Feige.

I was among a group of journalists who sat down with Feige on the set of the super-sequel last year, where he discussed how it fits into Marvel's big picture, and how it differs from 2011's “Captain America: The First Avenger” and 2012's “The Avengers.”

Chris Evans plays the hero in all three films, with Marvel vets Sanuel L. Jackson (as Nicky Fury) and Scarlett Johansson (as Black Widow) being joined by newcomers Robert Redford (as a top S.H.I.E.L.D. exec) and Anthony Mackie (as Falcon) joining them in “Winter Soldier.”

“First Avenger” took place mostly in WWII, when the titular super soldier (Chris Evans) was frozen, only to be thawed in the 21st Century where he fights alongside Iron Man, Hulk, Thor and the other Avengers. 

“Winter Soldier” finds Cap still adjusting to the modern day, while working under the increasingly morally ambiguous government agency S.H.I.E.L.D. 

“This sort of is a third entry,” Feige said of the film.  “'Avengers' played a little bit with his feelings of what it was like to be in the modern day, but they didn't have a whole lot of time. So, it did feel like this was absolutely the right time to deal with how he can come to terms with a past that is long gone and is seemingly never coming back, dealing with the shades of grey of the modern era and being part of an organization like S.H.I.E.L.D. Just perhaps as he's finding niche for himself, his past comes back and lands like a ton of bricks on his head in the form of the Winter Soldier.”

The Winter Soldier is the reincarnation of Cap's presumed-dead WWII pal Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who has been resurrected and turned into an amoral assassin by some shady government types. 

The plot of the new sequel — taken from writer Ed Brubaker's celebrated run on the comic book —  seems significantly darker than that of its more old-fashioned predecessor. 

“The first film was a Marvel superhero origin story masquerading as a WWII propaganda movie, this is a Marvel superhero sequel masquerading as a '70s political thriller,” Feige explained. “And all the stuff that's happening with NSA in the news is pretty amazing timing for us, because that's the kind of thing that Cap doesn't particularly like.”

Feige doesn't think audiences will resist the change in tone. “I'm betting that more people will have seen 'The Avengers' than saw 'Captain America,'” he guessed. “It can be a direct sequel to that film or 'The Avengers.' The audience has been with us for that [type of] tonal shift.”
Feige also confirmed that “Winter Soldier” takes place between the “Avengers” films, and after both “Thor 2” and “Iron Man 3.” 
“It needs to work for the people who have not seen 'The Avengers' or 'Cap 1,' and it needs to work for the people who have seen all of them,” Feige added. “That's important to me that the movies can play on multiple levels like that.” 
The sequel also tweaks the image of cap as an unquestioning patriot and soldier with old-fashioned values. 

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“I don't mind if it feels old-fashioned or out-of-place,” Feige revealed. “He is out-of-place and he is kind of old-fashioned in the modern era. Part of his conflict with Fury and some of the other members of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the fact that he's from a different place, he has a different set of values. At least he thinks he does, initially.”

“We're careful not to make him a goofball fish-out-of-water,” he went on. “We don't spend a lot of time with him trying to understand what an iPhone is. If you took a 27-year-old and introduced them to something they'd never seen before, they'd probably figure it out. They wouldn't be completely flummoxed.”

“We make a lot of superhero movies here at Marvel Studios,” Feige said, “and I believe the key is to make them all different, and to make them all unique and to make them all stand apart while connecting together. That's what the comics do.” 

To that end, Feige and Marvel are known for thinking outside of the box when it comes to selecting directors, bringing on such then-surprising names as Jon Favreau (“Iron Man”), Ken Branagh (“Thor”), TV vet Joss Whedon (“The Avengers”) and, for “Winter Soldier,” brothers Anthony and Mark Russo, best known for their work on TV comedies like “Arrested Development” and “Community.”

“It's worked out well for us when we have taken people who have done very, very good things. Very rarely is one of those good things a giant blockbuster superhero movie,” Feige explained, before listing off the pre-Marvel credentials of select directors. “'Elf' for Favreau. Good TV for Joss. Good Shakespearean drama 15 years ago for Ken Branagh. I don't watch a whole lot of TV, but the TV that I as watching that I found interesting, their name [the Russos] kept popping up.” 

After watching their 2002 Steven Soderbergh-produced George Clooney comedy “Welcome to Collinwood,” and hearing that they were hoping to get back into features, Feige said “Let's bring them in. I pitched them our idea for 'Cap 2,' and you've heard me describe it as sort of a '70s political thriller. That's what I pitched to them and they lost their minds.”

“We've always been rewarded for taking risks,” he added, mentioning the upcoming “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and saying, “[Robert] Downey Jr. was a risk at the time. We always just want to make a good movie that plays for people, whether they have a deep affinity and nostalgia for the characters or not.”

Despite the massive success of “The Avengers,” Feige said that Marvel is careful not to overshadow the stand-alone films, saying that they like to remind “the moviegoing audiences that these characters have separate adventures, but then team up as The Avengers every once in a while. Just like comics. So far, with 'Iron Man 3,' it's worked. People didn't throw tomatoes at the screen, going, 'Where's Nick Fury?! How come Thor doesn't help him take down Guy Pearce?!' People are accepting that there's a time when they should be together, and there's a time when they're not. The more moviegoers that see these movies, the more 'Inside Baseball' you can be. The continuity of the films is becoming known and accepted.”
Feige remains very hands-on in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He had a meeting with Vin Diesel booked for later the same day (“There are lots of actors who come in here all the time. Not all of them have 43 million Facebook followers.”), and had just been in a meeting with the “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” producers. 
As far as keeping secrets from the scrutinizing press and growing fan base, Feige and Marvel have “stopped trying to get ahead of it, figuring that fans are savvy enough to know that papparazzi set photos aren't representative of the final product.”

In fact, Feige said, obsessive outside observation can actually be a good thing, building free buzz around the project and ensuring that fans are still interested. “The only thing worse than a photographer in a tree,” he deadpanned, “is no photographer in a tree.”

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” opens April 4.