Novelist Richard Russo once mused that Cary Grant never won an Oscar because he never seemed to sweat. “He made everything look so effortless,” Russo wrote. “Why reward someone for having fun, for being charming?”
The same logic applies to Marvel, the comic-book juggernaut that scored its 14th consecutive number one opening this weekend with “Doctor Strange.” The company has been successful for so long, that box office profits are almost preordained. It can be easy to take them for granted. Despite routinely earning good reviews, these films aren’t generating awards heat in the way that populist, Spielbergian fare like “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” or “Raiders of the Lost Ark” once did.
That’s a shame. Under Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige, the home of Iron Man and the Avengers has been a dazzling model of critical and commercial consistency. Every film the studio has released has been certified “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes, and all of its in-house productions have made money. Like Grant, Marvel may make it look effortless, but that kind of achievement is very rare and that kind of track record is hard won.
“Marvel finds the humor in every story, they find the action and creativity, they find the humanity,” said Greg Foster, CEO of Imax Entertainment. “That’s not an easy thing to achieve.”
There’s a reason that Marvel is the model that everyone else in Hollywood is rushing to ape. The studio has pioneered the creation of a cinematic universe, an interlocking and ever-expanding series of costumed characters that team up, do battle, and find their alliances tested over the course of standalones, sequels, and spinoffs. In the process they’ve skillfully managed to pack their films with top-shelf actors, providing juicy roles for the likes of Robert Downey Jr., Benedict Cumberbatch, Chris Pratt, and Paul Rudd.
That’s not going to stop other studios from trying to shoulder in on this golden era. Universal is offering up an ambitious monster movie universe, featuring the likes of the Invisible Man. For its part, Lucasfilm, which like Marvel is owned by Disney, is trying to further extend a galaxy far, far away by delving into the backstory of Han Solo and looking at the early days of the Rebellion. The first “Star Wars” spinoff, “Rogue One,” hits theaters in December.
There are risks associated with all this imitation. Sony attempted to launch a cinematic universe centered around Spider-Man that would have featured various wall-crawler villains in their own adventures. Those ambitions were sidelined, however, after 2014’s “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” sputtered at the box office, derailed in part by a corporate mandate to stuff it with too many fanboy easter eggs and super-powered baddies. That forced Sony to bring Marvel onboard its upcoming reboot, “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” as it looks for ways to rekindle the spirit of fun that turned comic-book readers on to the saga of Peter Parker and his web-spinning alter-ego.
The DC Comics films have also failed to replicate Marvel’s artistic accomplishments with their own series of Justice League adventures. The results have been mixed. “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Suicide Squad” put up impressive grosses, but critics excoriated the films as violent, dreary affairs. The bad reviews led the DC team to promise that future adventures will be lighter in tone and offer more humor.
Part of the problem may lie in the command structure. At Marvel, there is an established hierarchy. Feige sets the creative tone for the films, and weighs in heavily throughout their production. His guru-status is akin to the role John Lasseter plays at Pixar — Feige isn’t a corporate suit, he’s also Marvel’s chief quality control officer.
In contrast, DC’s filmmaking approach appears to be more diffuse and the company has struggled to define who is at the top of the decision-making pyramid. Is it Geoff Johns, the in-house comic-book guru; Warner’s executive VP Jon Berg; or Zack Snyder, the director of “Batman v Superman”? The answer has shifted at various points, and the lack of clarity may be partly responsible for reports of production headaches on “Suicide Squad.”
Even as Feige has called the shots, he’s also had the courage to explore different approaches to the superhero genres. Costumed vigilantism may be a constant, but tonally, the Marvel movies have encompassed a wide variety of storytelling approaches. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a throwback to the paranoid thrillers of the 1970s, “Guardians of the Galaxy” has the pop culture insouciance of the Indiana Jones films, and “Doctor Strange” has the same wry approach to the occult that made TV’s “Buffy the Vampire” series such fun.
“Each of these worlds, each of these characters feels completely different and unique,” said Dave Hollis, distribution chief at Disney. “That diversity is what keeps these films fresh and interesting.”
Feige remains little known outside of the fanboy set. He’s not a director or a screenwriter, but a case could be made that he is the most influential filmmaker of his generation. By proving that movie narratives can collide and bleed over into one another, with storylines that are teased out across multiple chapters, he has redefined the boundaries of what is possible with film franchises. That puts him up in the top ranks of popular entertainers, alongside Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, and James Cameron, but people outside of Comic-Con’s Hall-H would be hard pressed to put a face to a name.
It sounds like Feige would prefer to stay anonymous. In a 2014 address at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, he said he likes to spend most of his time behind the scenes.
“It’s true that once a year I travel to Comic-Con … but there I can quickly lower the lights, I can show them the clips, introduce a few stars,” said Feige. “And the spotlight is quickly off me.”