PLAYBACK is a Variety / iHeartRadio podcast bringing you conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films. New episodes air every Thursday.
It would be fair to call Kevin Feige one of the key figures, if not the key figure, in the modern Hollywood landscape. As president of Marvel Studios and producer of the many superhero blockbusters that emanate from the hit factory (often multiple times per year), he has carved out a historic business model that the rest of the industry continues to chase with varying results.
Listen to this week’s episode of “Playback” below. New episodes air every Thursday.
As 2018 draws to a close, it seems no one but Feige makes sense for our landmark 100th episode of “Playback.” After all, Marvel Studios has been celebrating its own anniversary: It’s been 10 years since “Iron Man” and “The Incredible Hulk” launched the company’s cinematic universe. Meanwhile, “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Black Panther” have become Marvel’s biggest worldwide and Stateside successes, respectively, with the latter stirring serious Oscar buzz. In July, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” marked the 20th film under the Marvel banner and, of course, we lost one of the company’s architects, Stan Lee, just last month.
“It’s surreal,” Feige says when asked about Marvel’s stunning run. “In one way it’s incredibly satisfying. In the other way it’s nearly unbelievable from where we started. There were days when I wasn’t sure we would be able to get ‘Iron Man’ in theaters. There were days when I thought ‘Avengers’ was a pipe dream. And there were days after ‘Avengers’ where I thought, ‘Well, where do we go?'”
After that 2012 superhero team-up, which brought Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and the Hulk together on screen for the first time, it turns out there were plenty of directions to take the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Feige and company successfully tackled the cosmic space, tapped exciting indie filmmaking talents like Ryan Coogler, Taika Waititi and James Gunn to deliver singular experiences at the multiplex and set the company up for another 10 years.
“I think in a million years nobody would actively plan to build a studio the way Marvel Studios was built, but in hindsight, it was remarkably effective,” Feige says. “We got to work at almost every studio in town except Warner Bros. and Disney, so we got to see the inner workings at the upper levels and got to learn amazing lessons from the inside, ways that we thought were good examples of how to make a movie, perhaps ways that were not as good. So when we ended up taking advantage of the pre-2008 market crash and got financing from Merrill Lynch — which Avi Arad and David Maisel put together and got a half a billion dollars for 10 characters — I was very excited, because at that point I was very, very ready to have the creative authority.”
As with all Marvel releases, Feige and company had high expectations for “Black Panther.” But no one expected it to make the impact it did, racking up $700 million in box office receipts on these shores alone. Now the film finds itself in the midst of awards season, where it has accumulated critics notices and even scored an ensemble nomination from SAG-AFTRA — no small feat given how consistently ignored superhero films tend to be this time of year. But then, few have reached the level of critical and popular acclaim that Coogler’s film has.
“With what Ryan was doing, what he had to say, and vouching for crew members that we had not worked with before but that he believed in — he came in and blew us away with initial sort of presentations to get the job,” Feige says. “For them to have stepped up and knocked it out of the park the way they did is incredible. It comes down to a filmmaker who has such a deft hand at being able to balance something that is going to have entertainment value with being true to his soul and being true to the questions he had growing up.”
The film was also a way for Marvel’s ever-expanding on-screen mythos to tackle subgenre within the superhero aesthetic. For Feige, these characters provide a means to produce a spectrum of movie narratives.
“The notion of a James Bond-type film with a suave hero, that was one of the early inspirations that [Marvel executive] Nate Moore discussed with Ryan,” Feige says. “I don’t think most people watch that film and think ‘James Bond,’ but you can see where part of that inspiration came from. Doing it with an African hero in a country that had never been colonized is only even more exciting and makes it more unique and special.”
The next Marvel era will be particularly interesting to observe given the arrival of Fox-owned Marvel properties like the X-Men and Fantastic Four as part of Disney’s acquisition of Fox’s film assets. Working with them will also bring Feige full-circle to where he started at producer Lauren Shuler Donner’s company and the 2000 hit that arguably kicked off the modern cinema superhero craze, “X-Men.” Feige says he hasn’t been given the official green light to start developing stories within the MCU for these characters yet, but he expects to start digging in soon.
“We’ve been told it’s looking very, very good and could happen in the first six months of next year,” Feige says. “The notion of the characters coming back is great. It’s nice when a company that created all these characters can have access to all those characters. It’s unusual not to. But in terms of actually thinking about it and actually planning things, we haven’t started that yet.”
And when that day comes, it will be part and parcel of Feige’s mission statement from day one. For years the dream was to replicate, for a global audience, the experience that comic book fans have been enjoying for decades: the shared universe. It wasn’t his idea, of course. It was Lee and Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby in the Marvel bullpen who first brought these characters together on the page. It was a relatively small group of people working on a lot of characters, and that’s what Feige says Marvel Studios is today.
On that note, he reflects on Lee and the legacy he helped leave behind.
“I was there not for every one but for almost every cameo he’s ever shot going back to ‘X-Men,'” Feige says. “He was very special. I’ve never heard one story of somebody meeting Stan and not being overwhelmed with excitement. He never disappointed. In some ways I never thought this day would come. Kirk Douglas just turned 102. I thought Stan was going to be there. And in the same way it doesn’t seem like he’s gone. His influence will never go away.”
For more, including discussion of Feige’s early days working with Donner on films like “Volcano” (funnily enough, alongside DC honcho Geoff Johns, who assisted Donner’s husband Richard, director of 1978’s “Superman”), listen to the latest episode of “Playback” — again, our 100th edition! — via the streaming link below.