Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige is on one heck of a run. Each of the company’s 14 films over the past eight years has opened in first place at the domestic box office, and they’ve brought in more than $10 billion globally. That success is a boon for Disney CEO Bob Iger, who led the $4 billion acquisition of the comic-book empire Marvel Entertainment in 2009.
But it’s Feige who is credited with Marvel’s signature style — a blend of humor, optimism, and spectacle that has attracted legions of fans around the world. And he’s had great success in elevating lesser-known characters, like Iron Man, Captain America, and Doctor Strange, into big-screen brands.
Feige spoke with Variety about Marvel’s plans to promote diversity, upcoming projects, and what it is that makes him anxious.
How much freedom do you give actors to put their own imprint on characters?
They have a lot of freedom to take what has made the characters as popular [as they’ve been] for as long as they’ve appeared in the comics, and evolve it and grow it. Think about what you saw Benedict [Cumberbatch] do in “Doctor Strange” — he embodied that character and made it his own. That’s similar to what Robert Downey Jr. did by molding and shaping and turning [Iron Man] into something even more contemporary and relatable.
Would you recast your biggest superheroes with other actors if, say, Robert Downey Jr. or Chris Evans decide they want to move on?
Luckily we don’t have to make that decision anytime soon. There are a lot of movies that everyone is signed on for, and we get to enjoy them for a long time. Robert Downey Jr. is Iron Man, and right now I can’t envision anyone else. Chris Evans has embodied Captain America as well as any actor has ever embodied an iconic pop-culture figure like that. I go back to Chris Reeve as Superman as the gold standard, and I think Evans is right there. I couldn’t imagine anybody else.
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But you also look to history: We have a new Spider-Man right now who was in our “Civil War” film and is in “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” and the audience has embraced it. And you can look to Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, and Batman as characters that last longer than any one actor playing them. There’s a precedent for it in other franchises that suggests it’s possible. But right now I don’t want to think about it and don’t need to think about it.
“Spider-Man: Homecoming” is backed by Sony but produced by Marvel. How will that change this version of “Spider-Man”?
It takes place inside the cinematic universe that we have built across 14 films. In the previous films, Spider-Man was the only superhero who existed in that world. In the comic books, Spider-Man always existed in a world where the Avengers existed, and Iron Man existed, and the Hulk would run through the streets, and Captain America had been thawed out of the ice. In the film, he’s a young kid who has to be home at curfew so his Aunt May doesn’t get worried, and go to school, and do his homework. That’s in contrast to Tony Stark’s life or Stephen Strange’s.
Fox controls the film rights to “The X-Men” and “The Fantastic Four.” Could you partner with them on a movie as you did with Sony?
It’s an impossibility at this juncture. We certainly have enough films to keep us busy for a number of lifetimes.
There are more comic-book movies being made, with DC trying to develop its own cinematic universe. Are you worried about the competition?
What other people are adapting from the comics medium, I watch with as much interest as I do any other movies. Because I’m a fan, and I want to see what other people are doing in the world.
I’ve always believed in expanding the definition of what a Marvel Studios movie could be. We try to keep audiences coming back in greater numbers by doing the unexpected and not simply following a pattern or a mold or a formula.
There’s a lot of discussion of inclusion in the business. Do you believe Marvel has a role to play in creating opportunities for people of color, women, and other groups?
Absolutely. The comics have always been progressive. They’ve showcased all sorts of different cultures and ethnicities. And we want to stay true to that. When you look at “Black Panther” — when you look at “Captain Marvel,” which will be Brie Larson in the title role — it is a very important thing for us to have diversity both in front of the camera and behind the camera.
Is finding a female director for “Captain Marvel” a priority?
It is. Having a female director at the helm to tell the story of a woman who is also our most powerful hero by far is very important to us.
What makes her so powerful?
If you had the collector cards of the Marvel characters and you could see the power levels, she would be off the charts compared to anyone that we’ve previously introduced in a film.
Why was Brie Larson the right fit?
With Captain Marvel, who has powers that approach a level that we haven’t seen before in our films, you need to counter- balance that by finding somebody who is also very human and very relatable and can get into a groove with the audience, where they’re willing to see her fly through the sun and punch a moon away from a spacecraft. At the same time, we need her to land and have relatable flaws.
Brie is a person you’re going to want to go on this journey with, just like Benedict or Robert or Chris Pratt.
You’ve had a string of hits Do you ever greenlight a film about a character that may be interesting but isn’t well-known, and get seized by anxiety that the audience won’t show up?
I feel anxiety about every scene and every character in every movie we’ve ever made. That’s why when you sit down for your first test screening, you’re nauseated. It would be hubris to think people are going to love everything you put in front of them.