×

How Kevin Feige Super-Charged Marvel Studios Into Hollywood’s Biggest Hit Machine

Growing up in suburban New Jersey, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige was obsessive about watching movies.

“I used to keep a journal, and I’d write down every movie that I saw and where I saw it and how many times I saw it,” says Feige. “I’d record what the sound system was like. It was all very nerdy.”

Feige, a child of the 1980s, didn’t just love the Eddie Murphy comedies and Arnold Schwarzenegger action flicks that dominated multiplexes at the time. He had a particular fondness for long-running franchises such as “Indiana Jones,” “Star Wars” and “Star Trek.”

“I was never cynical about sequels,” says Feige. “I was always excited to see how characters I loved would grow and change. I’d be disappointed sometimes. Every time a movie disappointed me I’d sit and think about what I’d have done differently. I wouldn’t write a screenplay, but I’d tease it out in my head. In many ways it’s not that dissimilar from what I do now.”

Indeed, the sequel game has been very lucrative for Marvel and its corporate parent, the Walt Disney Co., which this year celebrates the 10th anniversary of its $4.24 billion acquisition of the comic-book company.

Just prior to sitting down for a rare, lengthy interview with Variety, Feige spent most of the morning going over final visual-effects work on “Avengers: Endgame,” due in theaters April 26. The expected blockbuster represents the culmination of the 23-film Infinity Saga that began with 2008’s “Iron Man.” These pictures introduced moviegoers to a sprawling collection of costumed heroes ranging from Ant-Man to Black Panther while popularizing the concept of a cinematic universe — and along with it the idea that a set of characters from one movie franchise could face off or team up with the protagonists of another.

“Kevin is a maverick,” says Joe Russo, who, along with his brother Anthony, has directed four films in the saga, including “Avengers: Endgame.” “This whole notion of building these stories and having them intertwine was so disruptive. It’s a grand experiment that could have failed at nearly every step. If one or two of these movies don’t work, the whole thing is over.”

Instead the films have collectively raked in more than $18.5 billion at the worldwide box office. Each entry in the series debuted in first place in North America, and not one has lost money.

“We had huge expectations for Marvel when we acquired it, but the MCU Kevin and his team have built goes beyond anything we could have imagined,” says Bob Iger, CEO of the Walt Disney Co. “They have redefined superheroes for a new era, greatly expanding their relevance across gender, generation and geography — setting new standards for compelling storytelling. This kind of creative success is never an accident; it’s the result of talent, vision, passion and courage — and at Marvel Studios, that all begins with Kevin.”

With the possible exception of animation giant Pixar (which is also owned by Disney), no studio has been more consistent commercially. Feige might not have a spidey sense or adamantium claws, but he has an almost superhuman ability to conjure runaway hits.

“He approaches all of this from a fan’s point of view, not as a businessman or producer,” says Chris Hemsworth, who plays Thor in the Marvel movies. “He is truly making stories that he knows he himself would enjoy.”

But having reached the pinnacle of his profession at age 45, Feige is poised to start all over again. “Endgame” will usher out several popular team members (Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man and Chris Evans’ Captain America are among those expected to exit stage left), while future Marvel projects such as “The Eternals” and “Shang-Chi” will introduce a new group of heroes and villains whose various adventures will eventually overlap. As with everything in the world of Marvel, details of these projects are being treated as state secrets. They could tell you, but then they’d probably have to sic the Hulk on you.

“I was never cynical about sequels. I was always excited to see how characters I loved would grow and change.”
Kevin Feige

“Some of these films will feature characters that you already know,” says the maddeningly tight-lipped Feige. “Some supporting characters will assume leading roles, while some new characters will be introduced. The reward for all of these films working is that we get to try to do it again and do it differently and learn from our mistakes and try something we haven’t tried before.”

One element that will be different is that the coming storyline won’t unspool exclusively on the big screen. This year, Disney is launching its own challenger to Netflix, a streaming service dubbed Disney Plus. Feige and his team are overseeing several limited series for the platform featuring Marvel characters such as Loki and the Scarlet Witch. They will be played by Tom Hiddleston and Elisabeth Olsen, who portrayed the same characters in several big-screen “Avengers” sequels and spinoffs.

“These episodes will intersect with the movies in a very big way,” explains Feige. “It’s a totally new form of storytelling that we get to play with and explore.”

As the cast of “Avengers: Endgame” assembles for one final globe-spanning promotional push, the reality that this might be the supergroup’s last hurrah has begun to set in for a group of actors who have been making these movies for roughly a decade.

“I’m just starting to process it,” says Scarlett Johansson, best known for playing Black Widow in the films. “Every couple of years, like clockwork, I’d know it was Marvel time. I knew we’d be getting the band back together. It was almost like being part of a family.”

Kevin Feige Marvel Studios Schedule
CREDIT: Variety

But for Feige, that’s part of the appeal of “Endgame.” At a time when film franchises keep churning out sequel after sequel as the quality of the movies wanes and the box office returns diminish, he sees something radical in writing a “Fade Out” on this part of the Avengers’ journey. Feige wants to leave audiences wanting more instead of being forced to roll final credits after fans have grown tired of Tony Stark’s antics.

“We always wanted there to be a definitive ending,” he says. “There’s an amazing line that Downey says in the film: ‘Part of the journey is the end.’ That’s what ‘Endgame’ is.”

Marvel will release three films in 2019.  Along with “Endgame,” they include the $1 billion-grossing “Captain Marvel,” the company’s first movie to be centered on a female protagonist, and “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” which it co-produces with Sony Pictures. That’s a fairly standard workload for Marvel, and it requires a dizzying level of organization and discipline, as well as an ability to delegate.

“Kevin trusts who he hires to execute his vision; he doesn’t come to set to micromanage,” says Brie Larson, the star of “Captain Marvel.” “He seems to understand that his presence there changes the atmosphere. But you also know he’s working tirelessly behind the scenes, thinking up new concepts and ideas to make the best movie possible.”

Kevin Feige Marvel Studios Variety Cover Story
CREDIT: Joe Toreno for Variety

At any one time, Feige and his team are bouncing between multiple films, some that are shooting on location, others that are working out kinks in the editing suite, all while hammering out the scripts for roughly a half dozen spinoffs in various stages of development.

“I call him Yoda because he has a sense of all-knowingness,” notes Johansson.

The intricate nature of the Infinity Saga, with each new sequel or spinoff representing a brick in a multi-film narrative arc, required the Marvel team to think several steps ahead at all times. While the Russo brothers were on post-production on the 2016 hit “Captain America: Civil War,” they established a “war room” off the editing suite where writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely busily plotted out the next two “Avengers” movies.

“We’d sit around for hours breaking story,” says Anthony Russo. “When you’re working in these compressed time frames, you have to be disciplined and efficient so that your scripts are in the best shape when you start rolling cameras on the next one.”

Given how successful the Marvel movies have been financially, it’s easy to forget the precarious position the comic-book company was in when it decided in 2005 to start making its own movies rather than simply license its characters to other studios. With 20th Century Fox and Sony controlling the rights to such blue-chip Marvel heroes as Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, the company was left to determine if there was an appetite for movies about lesser-known characters such as Iron Man and Captain America. To finance these projects, the studio, which was still two years removed from its multi-billion-dollar sale to Disney, secured a $525 million loan from Merrill Lynch, using the rights to properties such as Black Panther and Doctor Strange as collateral. Jon Favreau, the director of “Iron Man” and “Iron Man 2,” reveals that working on that first film was a stressful experience.

“We were on very shaky ground,” recalls Favreau. “That first film could not have felt smaller or more handmade. I was constantly being reminded that if we screwed up and we couldn’t pay back the loan, the bank was going to take all of the catalog.”

Thanos’ Infinity Gauntlet grabs visitors to Feige’s office.
Joe Toreno for Variety

That didn’t come to pass. “Iron Man,” the story of a dissolute industrialist who rediscovers his moral compass after being taken hostage by terrorists, scored with audiences and critics, grossing $585 million globally and rejuvenating Downey’s moribund career. Marvel was lucky in one important respect: There had been comic-book films before “Iron Man.” Movies like Richard Donner’s “Superman” and Tim Burton’s “Batman” showed Hollywood that these costumed vigilantes delivered the kind of big spectacles that could transcend cultural barriers and play to an audience that was growing ever more global.

And yet there was a certain wariness in the industry about going full geek. Moviegoers would pay to watch Spider-Man save New York City from the Green Goblin, but delve too deeply into Infinity Gauntlets and Cosmic Cubes and you risked alienating much of the non-comics-buying general public. But as Marvel has grown more ambitious in building out its interweaving narratives, it has found that viewers have been able to follow along even as it adds more and more layers of detail and nods to the source material. At the end of “Iron Man,” Marvel made the then-revolutionary decision to include a short scene or tag on the film. In it, Samuel L. Jackson’s secretive government agent Nick Fury tells Iron Man’s alter ego Tony Stark that he’s not the only hero blessed with extraordinary abilities.

“Sam is telling him, ‘You think you’re the only one, but you’re not,’” remembers Feige. “‘You’re part of a bigger universe.’ In many ways we were saying the same thing to the audience. I thought it would only resonate with a small group of comic fans, but it caught on with the mainstream.”

Since Marvel began burrowing into its back catalog, the entertainment landscape as a whole has been overtaken by nerd culture. Fantasy series and graphic novels such as “Game of Thrones” and “The Walking Dead” have become ratings juggernauts, and cape-wearing heroes and spell-casting protagonists ranging from Shazam to Harry Potter have dominated the box office. The comic-book fringe, it would seem, has fully co-opted popular culture. The dorks won.

The Mark 1Iron Man suit stands guard in a hallway at Marvel HQ in Burbank.
Joe Toreno for Variety

In this climate, an ability to speak fanboy has been integral to Feige’s success. After graduating from the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts in 1995, he took a job as an assistant for Lauren Shuler Donner, the producer of “You’ve Got Mail” and “Dave,” eventually becoming a production executive. When Shuler Donner was tapped in 1999 to make “X-Men,” the first major studio movie derived from the Marvel canon, she quickly found Feige’s insights to be invaluable. That he grew up reading comic books, unlike many people on set or at the studio, played a vital role in establishing the authenticity of the team of mutants, confirming that everything from the spandex they wore to their character arcs was spot-on.

“He helped us make sure that we took the right path,” says Shuler Donner, “so that we remained true to the comic while having the freedom to transform the story into a different medium.”

Few at Disney are as deeply versed in comic-book lore as Feige. The studio’s decision to make “Guardians of the Galaxy,” for instance, raised eyebrows. This was a series, after all, about a super team of interstellar warriors that included a bounty-hunting raccoon and a talking tree. And yet the final product was an irreverent adventure that gave a much-needed noogie to a genre that threatened to grow self-serious.

On paper, Marvel Studios’ next phase is equally mystifying. While there’s a “Black Widow” stand-alone movie and sequels to popular films such as “Doctor Strange” and “Black Panther” on tap, many of the characters that will play integral roles are obscure. The Eternals, from a comic-book series about a race of proto-humans blessed with long lives, is likely to draw a blank for most people, but it will be one of Marvel’s next big projects.

Alan Horn, the chairman of Walt Disney Studios, says he trusts Feige to continue finding stories that resonate with a global audience.

“He’s earned the right to bring us things about which we might be 100% unfamiliar,” says Horn. “How many people out of 100 were familiar with Doctor Strange or the Guardians of the Galaxy before we made the movies? Maybe five.”

A vintage Captain America helmet keeps the company of the Marvel library.
Joe Toreno for Variety

As he sets out to find the next big thing in comic-book fare, Feige will have more toys at his disposal. Disney’s recent $71.3 billion purchase of much of 21st Century Fox’s film and television business gives the company access to Marvel characters such as the X-Men, Wolverine and Deadpool, which were previously licensed to Fox. That means that in the near future the iconic heroes housed at Fox could align themselves with Doctor Strange, Captain Marvel and other Disney-controlled members of the Avengers.

“The specifics of what it means remains to be seen, but overall it’s wonderful and it feels like these characters have come home,” says Feige. “It will be nice to have what every other [intellectual property] holder that I can think of has, which is access to all their IP. Imagine if Donald Duck was at another studio. Imagine if Goofy or Moana were someplace else and you didn’t have access to them even though they are yours.”

Feige may be vague about what the Disney-Fox future holds, but Marvel plans to continue to feature film heroes from a diverse range of backgrounds. Joining “Captain Marvel” as the studio’s first female-centered movie — and “Black Panther,” hailed as one of the first big-budget comic-book films to feature a cast almost wholly composed of people of color — “Shang-Chi” will be the first Asian-led superhero picture.

“The future of these movies will be an inclusive one,” promises Joe Russo. “Diversity, both in front of and behind the camera, will be its gold standard.”

Though some cinephiles have decried the age of comic-book movies, lamenting that they blot out other genres and discourage studios from backing mid-budget dramas, comedies and other types of films, it’s easy to ignore or downplay the creative risks that Marvel does take and the visionary filmmakers it has employed. “Captain America: Winter Soldier,” for instance, played like a paranoid thriller; “Thor: Ragnarok” is a trippy space opera; “Ant-Man” is a heist pic; and “Black Panther” is a geopolitical action film. Some of the characters may remain the same, but nearly every movie has a distinctive tone.

At the same time, Feige and his crew have routinely raided the world of indie film and television to find unlikely directors for their movies. Before they piloted “Captain Marvel,” Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck were best known for directing gritty dramas such as “Half Nelson” and “Mississippi Grind.” “Guardians of the Galaxy” director James Gunn had primarily made low-budget horror films such as “Slither.” Going forward, Marvel has reportedly tapped Chloé Zhao, director of the art-house favorite “The Rider,” to oversee “The Eternals,” and hired Cate Shortland, the Australian director of the much-admired and little-seen “Berlin Syndrome,” to run point on “Black Widow.”

The “Guardians of the Galaxy’ character sprouts in a corner of Feige’s office.
Joe Toreno for Variety

“It’s the ‘Moneyball’ approach,” says Favreau, who thinks that the strategy of finding art-house stars dates back to Marvel’s days as an underfunded independent studio. “They have a track record of finding undervalued talent and helping them break out and go on to have wonderful careers.”

As for Feige, his reputation for building hit film franchises would have him in demand at any media company looking to bolster its box office returns. But he says he’s not interested in running another studio or taking on some higher-level corporate job. Despite his familiarity with the inner workings of an editing bay, he’s also not interested in directing any future Marvel movies.

“I have too much fun working at this level and having an impact on multiple movies at a time to work on only one thing,” he says.

Feige’s fandom isn’t an act — and isn’t limited to superheroes. He listens to film scores while driving, boasts an office filled with Ewok plush toys and Jabba the Hut figurines, and has an encyclopedic knowledge of everything from the history of iconic horror movie villain Jason Voorhees to songwriting duo the Sherman Brothers. On vacation, Feige likes to take his extended family to Orlando’s Disney World; at home, he’ll regularly visit nearby Disneyland with his 10-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son. When Disney announced it was buying Marvel, Feige met with Iger and stressed his love of all things Magic Kingdom by flashing his Disney Vacation Club Card. Sartorially, the Marvel boss always looks like he could be manning a booth at Comic-Con. His standard outfit consists of a T-shirt, jeans and a baseball cap.

“I used to have a lot of hair that was unwieldy, and I wore a hat all the time. My junior high school vice principal always told me to stop wearing a hat or I’d go bald,” says Feige, doffing his cap to reveal a few lonely strands of red hair. “Sure enough I’m the only one in my family who went bald. My father’s got a glorious head of hair, my 95-year-old grandfather has his hair. Maybe my old vice principal was right about something.”

Marc Malkin contributed to this report.

More Film

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content