Kevin Feige on Marvel's “Cinematic Universe”

The future of the superhero film is looking downright Marvel-ous these days.

With “Thor” hammering its way into theaters this week, “Captain America” due this summer and filming of “The Avengers” (the teaming of Marvel Comics’ marquee characters Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, Cap and more) underway, Marvel Studios’ shared “cinematic universe” is set to explode across multiplexes everywhere in the same way that Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and company’s pantheon of heroes rewrote conventional comic book rules on the drugstore spinner racks in the 1960s. And no one’s anticipating audience reaction to the historic big-screen mixing and mingling of superhero icons more than Kevin Feige, Marvel’s president of production, who gave PopcornBiz an exclusive, candid peek at the company’s ever-expanding universe.

“Whatever Marvel Film has gone for, it's succeeded. Whenever it's operated in some fear or failure it is not done as well,” says Feige, though admitting that the growing interconnectedness of Marvel’s theatrical properties does provoke a little nail-biting if one of the films flops. “We've been lucky enough that, going back to 'X-Men I,' we've constantly been rewarded for giving in to the risks, rewarded for giving in to the idea of 'Okay, this might be a stretch, but if it works we think that it could be something special.' As opposed to giving in to the fear of ‘Let’s be careful.’ The good news is that right now we're able to make the movies envisioning the best end result, really, and that frees us up to make those choices, whether it’s casts or directors or writers or storylines or visuals, just really going with our gut for what we think the broader audience will respond to.”

The executive says that Marvel also takes pains to develop each film as its own property, standing on conceptual merits beyond the shared universe. “Maybe I've tricked myself, but I really do look at these movies as stand-alone movies,” he says. “This 'Thor' film is the first film in what I hope is a franchise of 'Thor' films. 'Captain America' is being constructed and has been produced in a way that it's introducing a 'Captain America' franchise. And 'Avengers', as people will start to see, is not the ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe Part Six.' It's 'The Avengers Part One’ – it's starting a new franchise, a team-based franchise. It just so happens that they interrelate.”

“If you're really into it and you really want to study them, you will see that they are all interconnected in a way that flows right into, through and past 'Avengers,'” says Feige. “I think if one doesn't do as well as the other, because they are essentially stand-alone movies, they'll still be okay. But I certainly feel a little bit of what the New Line people must've felt back in the day, going, 'All right, we've got three "Lord of the Rings" movies – What if this first one doesn't work?'”

Feige says the company also wants to be careful not to overuse its existing franchises as launching pads for other properties with less public awareness. “The whole idea of the cinematic universe is another tool for storytelling that you have to use wisely,” he says. “I would start to be turned off to the whole idea if it ever started to feel like a gimmick. Like Tony Stark saying 'Oh, Pepper, I've hurt my leg – let me go see this doctor. Oh hello, Dr. Strange.' I don't think that there will be a lot of cause of that kind of thing. But there are opportunities, like Hawkeye in 'Thor' and Black Widow in 'Iron Man,' if it serves the story anyway, to have a nod in there. I do see 'The Avengers' franchise as something in which other Avenger characters might make their first appearance in an 'Avengers' movie. Then maybe if audiences respond to them they could spinout into their own movies.”

With the support of Disney, which purchased Marvel in 2009 (and Paramount, which is distributing “Thor” and “Cap”), the Marvel characters on film are more unified than ever before. But Feige says that, due to preexisting studios deals (Spider-Man is at Sony Pictures Entertainment; the X-Men and Fantastic Four are at 20th Century Fox), audiences can’t expect a total unification of the Marvel Universe on-screen any time soon.

“I think you have live with the state of the world for the most part, and the state of the world is pretty good,” he says. “We have great relations, particularly with Sony, and I couldn't be more excited for the new Spidey movie. And the good news is that Spider-Man, The X-Men and Wolverine were never really a part of the Avengers. The core characters – and the characters that we wholly control – are The Avengers, and there is so much to play with there that I don't think we'll find ourselves in a position of going, 'We have to get Spider-Man in here! We have to get The X-Men in here!' Would we like to have them all back? Yes, of course. But as long as they're being well-served where they are now, the studios can continue to make movies for a long, long time.”

With any number of Marvel characters in various stages of development (“Ant-Man” is close to a go with director Edgar Wright), which slightly off-kilter comic book hero does Feige personally hope the company can make work? “The next one is Dr. Strange,” he reveals. “I'd like to tap into two things: tap more into the world of magic – which 'Thor' isn’t, really, but Strange entirely is, and I like that a lot; and then also continue to explore this sort of cosmic side of our universe, which Thor is a big part of, but not the only part. So those two things, in addition to the solid foundation of what's happening on Earth, I think, could be great.”

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