Kevin Feige: Marvel Studios’ Man With The Plan

May 3, 2018
With Avengers: Infinity War continuing its reign at the box office, we take an in-depth look at the career of Marvel Studios' Kevin Feige, the man who made it all possible.

“The answer is my whole life,” Kevin Feige replied at a press conference for 2012’s The Avengers when he was asked how long he’d been trying to make the superhero team-up blockbuster. “I’ve been a nerd my whole life, and I’ve wanted to see this movie made for my whole life.” Kevin Feige might now be known as the man who turned Marvel Studios into an unstoppable cinematic force, but that’s his secret: he’s still a nerd, a geek, a fan-boy, or whatever term people who obsessively haunt comic book stores ascribe to themselves. “Kevin is just a huge nerd,” The Avengers director, Joss Whedon, told The New York Times in 2011. “Possibly more than I am.” Thanks to Feige, Marvel – which had existed for decades prior as a comic book publishing house – is now an honest-to-god, financially viable movie studio, pumping out its own superhero flicks at an alarming rate, and exhibiting a staggering choke-hold on popular entertainment, with its rippling, muscled arms encompassing film, TV, animation, and video games.

In his current role as producer and president of Marvel Studios, Feige oversees all creative aspects of the company’s feature film activities, and now occupies a vital place in Marvel’s pioneering pantheon. He might be a far more reserved and low key figure, but Feige is just as important to the company’s modern era as writer/editor, Stan Lee, and illustrator/writer, Jack Kirby, were to its rebirth in the early sixties. Just as Lee and Kirby created or co-created characters like Captain America, The Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, Ant-Man, and Nick Fury, so Feige has recreated them for the big screen, and in the process, he’s successfully reconfigured them for an even greater audience. He might lack the iconic Stan Lee’s bravado and savvy knack for self-promotion, but Kevin Feige is the man who sent Marvel Studios supernova in the new millennium, make no mistake. He picks what properties to produce, he oversees the production of Marvel’s films, and he makes sure that they lock together narratively. “Kevin is really the filter,” Captain America: The Winter Soldier co-director, Joe Russo, told FilmInk. “I call him an auteur producer. He’s an anomaly in the business. He might be the first of his kind where his vision is really the umbrella that holds all these things together. He’s very good about joining things up, and making sure that the continuity stands from movie to movie.”

Born in 1973 in Boston, Massachusetts, Feige was obsessed with movies from an early age. He loved all of the films that male movie nerds of his age tend to connect with: Back To The Future, Robocop, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, and, most importantly Star Wars. As a teenager growing up in New Jersey – where his family relocated to – Feige knew that he wanted to work in Hollywood, and a family connection to the industry gave him the glimmer of hope that it was possible: his grandfather, Robert Short, was a producer on pioneering fifties TV soap operas such as Guiding Light and As The World Turns. His grandpa might have been the initial beacon, but Feige literally followed his big screen heroes to Hollywood. George Lucas, Ron Howard, and Robert Zemeckis had all attended The University Of Southern California School Of Cinematic Arts, and after graduating from high school, that was the only college that Feige circled when weighing up his tertiary education options. He applied and was rejected five times. “My friends and family politely suggested that I look for another major,” Feige said at the 2014 commencement address at his old school. “They said that USC had other great subjects to study. I told them that I had no idea what they were talking about. Rejection is a common occurrence. Learning that early and often will help you build up the tolerance and resistance to keep going and keep trying.” True to his word, Feige gave it one last try, and finally won a place at the prestigious school.

While at USC in the nineties, Feige got an internship with producer, Lauren Shuler Donner (then best known for films like St. Elmo’s Fire, Pretty In Pink, and Mr. Mom), who then hired him as an assistant after graduation. Feige helped Donner with projects like 1997’s Volcano (“It was my first movie, and we were blowing things up,” he told Bloomberg) and 1998’s You’ve Got Mail, on which he was assigned to teach leading lady, Meg Ryan, how to use email. When she started working on the X-Men movies in 2000, Donner made Feige an associate producer. Based on Marvel’s team of outcast mutant superheroes, the high quality films would help to change the face of comic book movies forever. “As a walking encyclopedia of Marvel, Kevin was indispensable in those early days,” Donner told The New York Times in 2011. “Kevin Feige is very smart,” she told Latino Review in 2014. “I gave Kevin his first job. I think he has done it right with Marvel. He’s done a terrific job. It’s good to tell the fans, ‘This movie’s going to lead to that, and that will lead to that.’ It gives the fans confidence.”

Feige became like Donner’s comic book oracle on the hugely popular X-Men films, helping director, Bryan Singer, in getting the best out of his characters, and encouraging the filmmakers to go back to the comic books when they got stuck on plot points. Feige’s enthusiasm for and knowledge of the world of Marvel Comics didn’t go unnoticed. Singularly impressed, Avi Arad – the head of Marvel’s nascent film division – hired Feige to be his second-in-command. With Arad in charge, Marvel were starting to take hold of their properties, working with Hollywood’s movie studios on the titles that they had purchased from the comic book giant. “Cinema is the way to do it, and then that will support all the other businesses,” Avi Arad told FilmInk in 2004. “So when we started [the film division], the idea was that we were going to really take advantage of it. Now, we put the team together, and we’re passionate about the materials that we have, and we work with them. Today our movies get developed, and get started, right here, right now, and we go from there. At Marvel Studios, we develop our stories in conjunction with the writers, and we’re involved in every phase of it. When we’re involved with a movie, the studio can relax. They know that we care about the product, and that it’s not just about finishing the movie. We’re doing something that we’re proud of, and we always do the best that we can. You can’t have blockbusters every time, but we sure try.”

Arad and Feige operated as producers on projects that were great (Bryan Singer’s X-Men films, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man), good (Blade), middling (Daredevil), and poor (Elektra, The Punisher), all the while trying to convince the people making them how to do it properly. Kevin Feige was always something of an in-the-know comic book insider. “Kevin Feige helps us with the details of which characters are doing things,” producer, Ralph Winter – who worked on Laura Shuler Donner’s initial X-Men films – told FilmInk on the set of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. “He knows what’s happening in Spider-Man, and he knows what’s happening in Iron Man, so there’s no conflict, and we’re not duplicating something, or doing something that would go against the brand that they’re trying to maintain on all these characters. So when we need a new mutant, we call up Kevin. We say, ‘Please send us some research! We need somebody that can do this, this and this, so who would you suggest?’ Then we get a package or an email, and we can look at what we think might be cool.”

Feige and Arad were key to the development of the films based on their properties, but Marvel Studios was still working at the behest of Hollywood’s major players, all of whom thought they were the super powers in the equation. Marvel was a prisoner to the release dates ordered by the various Hollywood studios, with the company’s share price dipping and spiking in accordance to when the films came out. Sick of being bounced around on waves created by bigger ships, the bosses at Marvel decided to create their own studio. In 2005, Marvel put up as collateral the film rights to the characters that it still controlled, such as Captain America and Nick Fury, and got $525 million in financing from Merrill Lynch, the wealth management division of The Bank Of America. Avi Arad, who had doubts about the strategy, resigned the following year.

“I have helped to build Marvel into a very special company, and on the heels of the tremendous success of X-Men: The Last Stand, I felt like it was the right time for me to move away from the day to day corporate responsibilities in order to focus on what I love best – creating and producing,” Arad said in an official statement. “I am leaving behind a great team to run the studio, and I expect to remain actively involved in the development and production of many Marvel films in the years to come.” While Avi Arad has indeed remained tied to the company ever since as an independent producer, Feige was named Marvel Studio’s President Of Production in 2007. He was 33-years-old, and he was in charge of Hollywood’s first major independent movie studio since Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen launched DreamWorks in 1994.

That’s when Kevin Feige became Marvel’s man-with-the-plan. Along with a committee of in-house producers (which included Victoria Alonso; Marvel Studios co-president, Louis D’Esposito; comic book writer, Brian Michael Bendis; Dan Buckley, president of publishing; and Joe Quesada, Marvel’s chief creative officer), Feige determined which characters would be brought to the screen under the company’s new cinematic shingle. Though Paramount would initially distribute its movies, Marvel would be making them. With the rights to a number of their biggest superhero titles (Spider-Man, The X-Men, Fantastic Four) already owned by other studios, Marvel rolled the dice on one of their lesser known characters to launch their incursion into the heady world of self-funded filmmaking.

The gamble paid off, with 2008’s Iron Man – starring a resurgent Robert Downey Jr. as the eponymous hi-tech-armoured superhero – rating as a box office triumph, as well as a surprise critical darling. “When we made Iron Man, it was this tiny movie starring Robert Downey Jr., who at the time wasn’t a big movie star,” Jeremy Latcham – who has served as producer on Marvel’s Iron Man, Iron Man 2, The Avengers, Avengers: Age Of Ultron, and Guardians Of The Galaxy – told FilmInk in 2014. “He was, ‘Robert Downey Jr., you know, that guy…’ People would say to us, ‘I can’t believe that you cast him.’ And we said, ‘At the end of the day, our only strategy is to make a good film.’ And audiences showed up.”

Right from that first film under Marvel’s own banner, however, Kevin Feige was already putting his incredible plans into position, as Robert Downey Jr. revealed at a press conference for 2012’s The Avengers. “Back in 2007, when I was cast in Iron Man, Kevin Feige said, ‘You know, this is all going to lead to a place where we’re going to have all of this franchising come together, and we’re going to do something unprecedented in entertainment. We’re going to make an Avengers movie.’ I would then get nervous about it and excited about it and doubtful of it all at the same time.” It was on the set of Iron Man that Feige started to believe that this plan could actually fall into place, as he explained at the 2012 Avengers press conference. “That’s when I thought that it could happen, and that’s when it started: towards the end of production on Iron Man, when Samuel L. Jackson [as Marvel character, Nick Fury] was gracious enough to spend three hours on a Saturday to break into Tony Stark’s house, wearing an eye patch, to tell him and the world, ‘You’re part of a bigger universe, you just don’t know it yet.’ When Iron Man actually succeeded, we had the opportunity to do it. The only challenge was to try to make all the movies live on their own, even if we weren’t leading towards an Avengers movie. If they’re all just interconnected puzzle pieces, that’s not as much fun. They need to be movies, from beginning to end. That’s the biggest challenge.”

With Iron Man a smash hit, Kevin Feige and his team at Marvel were given license to go wide, and a number of films were put into development based on long established characters from the publishing house. 2008’s The Incredible Hulk (which Marvel rebooted after Universal – who were disappointed with Ang Lee’s muddled 2003 take on the character – allowed them access to the character in a complex rights deal) came hot on the heels of Iron Man, and even featured a cameo from Robert Downey Jr. Then came 2010’s Iron Man 2, which was followed by 2011’s Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. Big, bold, and inventive, all of the films rocked the box office, found favour with critics, and sent fans into an internet-stoked frenzy. They all worked beautifully as stand-alone titles, but it was the connections between the movies that got fans truly excited.

“When Marvel Studios regained all the rights to all these characters, we had the ingredients for The Avengers,” Feige told FilmInk in 2012 of the eventual superhero team-up movie that brought all of the studio’s recently filmed characters together. 2012’s The Avengers was a hit of mammoth proportions, and it announced – beyond any shadow of a doubt – that Marvel Studios was a Hollywood powerhouse. “We had to have confidence in the direction in which we were heading,” Feige told FilmInk in 2012. “It was about midway through Iron Man that we introduced the organisation of S.H.I.E.L.D to help the story. I thought that it would be fun to put a teaser with Nick Fury at the end to let fans know that this was possible. Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, the first Hulk – all of those had taken place in their own separate universes.” But not anymore – when Samuel L. Jackson appeared at the end of Iron Man, Kevin Feige’s plan was now official and in the public domain.

All of the films leading up to The Avengers were hits, though none of them were sure things. Avoiding big name directors like Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, or Ridley Scott, Feige and his team at Marvel instead gambled on lesser known talents that they could work in tandem with. “We like to hire filmmakers who haven’t done big films like this before, but that we feel have the potential to bring something new to the party,” Feige told FilmInk in 2014 on the Captain America: Winter Soldier set. “We also look at filmmakers who’ve done something interesting in other mediums or genres.” For the biggest film in Marvel Studios’ relatively short history, Feige turned to an unusual figure in the form of Joss Whedon, who had created the cult TV series, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly. The writer/director/producer was no stranger to the world of comic books – he’d written for them; he’d tried unsuccessfully to mount a Wonder Woman film; and Marvel had actually talked with him about directing Iron Man – but he was certainly no director of big screen blockbusters, having only previously helmed his Firefly movie spin-off, Serenity. “One of the only big fears that I had with The Avengers was that the whole thing would collapse under its own weight,” Feige said in 2012. “We’d spend so much time with costumes and superpowers and special effects that these characters and these actors wouldn’t get the chance to shine. My biggest interest in The Avengers is the interaction between these people. Looking at Joss Whedon’s body of work, and the scripts that he’s written and his TV shows, the characters never, ever get lost. In fact, those are the moments that shine. That was, to me, why he was, by far, the best choice to mount this. We’re confident in our ability to handle a production of this size. We want a helmsman to come in and steer it in unexpected ways, and to guide that tone, which is what Joss has done so well.”

The decision was another Kevin Feige masterstroke. Though Marvel had been bought out by Disney, the company maintained its autonomy. Disney had doubted Marvel’s strategy of building up to The Avengers rather than making the team-up movie first, but after all of its films had been such massive hits, the parent company left their prized acquisition to its own devices. Under Feige, Marvel’s creative focus is self-determined and singular in nature, with the company solely producing superhero movies based on the stable of characters that it has built up after decades of comic book publication. They are yet to venture outside of this established formula, and it’s currently working wonders for them. After The Avengers redefined what a superhero blockbuster could be, Marvel kept pushing forward. Iron Man 3 was the highest grossing film of 2013, while that same year’s Thor: The Dark World was also a big success. In 2014, Marvel took its biggest shot-in-the-dark to date with the off-world action adventure of Guardians Of The Galaxy, which was based on one of the company’s lesser known titles. Furthermore, it was directed by James Gunn, whose previous behind-the-camera work had been on the low budget indies, Slither and Super. “Part of protecting the Marvel brand is not letting it get stale, and not letting it become a cookie-cutter, predictable thing,” Feige told FilmInk in 2014. “For Guardians Of The Galaxy, we wanted to do a quirky sci-fi movie, so we needed to hire somebody who could help us do that, and we got James Gunn.” Feige’s instincts were right, and Guardians Of The Galaxy was a monster hit.

For the highly anticipated 2014 sequel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Feige went to another unlikely directorial option with brothers, Joe and Anthony Russo, who had previously helmed the comedy, You, Me & Dupree, and worked on the TV series, Arrested Development and Community. “They took a sitcom that didn’t have to be good, and they made it incredibly clever,” Feige told FilmInk. “It doesn’t have anything to do with a superhero movie, but they took material that could be standard and they elevated it. When we got them in a room, because I was a fan, we started pitching them the storyline and the seventies thriller influence, and they got it. They started building on it. I’m so glad that we got them.”

Again, Feige’s instincts were right, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (which impressively saw Feige reintegrate the Sony-owned Spider-Man into The Marvel Cinematic Universe) rolled right over the box office like all of Marvel’s previous releases. Their work was so impressive, in fact, that Feige of course handed Joe and Anthony Russo the plum assignment of directing the jewel in Marvel Studios’ crown: their current game-changing smash hit, Avengers: Infinity War. Even coming after the surprise smash that was this year’s much-loved Black Panther, the film is truly epic, and represents the end-point of all that Feige has so ingeniously cinematically stitched together. “We’ve always had a plan since Nick Fury broke into Tony Stark’s house and told him that he’s part of a bigger universe,” Feige said at a special event at Hollywood’s El Capitan Theatre in 2014. “Avengers: Infinity War is the beginning of the culmination of everything that has come before.”

Marvel Studios, however, continues to march one. Along with the officially announced Ant-Man And The Wasp set to release in July, and then Captain Marvel and the next Avengers film set for 2019, Feige also allegedly has a map of potential Marvel movies on his office wall that extends through to 2025. Emulated, creatively scrutinised, and holding the keys to the fastest, shiniest, and most envied cinematic car on the Hollywood freeway, Kevin Feige (who lives a quiet off-screen life with his wife, Caitlin, and two daughters) has proved – in this world of tentpole movies, superheroes, and mega-budgets – that the geeks can indeed inherit the earth. “That I get to live in an age where that socially dysfunctional and slightly abnormal personality trait of being a shy comic nerd can lead to a successful career is nothing short of miraculous,” Feige said at his USC 2014 commencement address, while probably planning out even more Marvel movies in his head at the same time…

Avengers: Infinity War is in cinemas now.

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