EXCLUSIVE: As Captain America: Civil War becomes the latest in a remarkably consistent string of global juggernauts, Marvel Studios maestro Kevin Feige and the superhero mojo he has injected has positioned the company to continue a performance run that one day will be looked upon as nothing short of historic. Civil War has already grossed $291 million overseas in some territories, with more bowing this weekend as the film opens stateside (the film grossed $25 million Thursday night, just shy of The Avengers: Age Of Ultron). The film sets the stage for back-to-back sequels to The Avengers, which Civil War helmers Joseph and Anthony Russo begin shooting this fall. It means Feige will have held serve in the increasingly difficult intramural can-you-top-this competition going on between Disney’s film silo system members Pixar (most recently the Oscar-winning Inside Out), Lucasfilm (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and Disney’s family film division (The Jungle Book). Here, Feige discusses the balancing act that goes into administering the Marvel universe, the pseudo controversy on casting Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange, and bringing Spider-Man under Marvel quality control.
DEADLINE: It feels like the only real question with Captain America: Civil War is, how high? But there have been questions on Doctor Strange and the casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One, the mentor to the title character played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Fanboys noted the character was Tibetan in the comics, and The New York Times reported the suspicion of an ulterior motive to not offend China. Can you clear this up?
FEIGE: We make all of our decisions on all of our films, and certainly on Doctor Strange, for creative reasons and not political reasons. That’s just always been the case. I’ve always believed that it is the films themselves that will cross all borders and really get people to identify with these heroes, and that always comes down to creative and not political reasons. The casting of The Ancient One was a major topic of conversation in the development and the creative process of the story. We didn’t want to play into any of the stereotypes found in the comic books, some of which go back as far as 50 years or more. We felt the idea of gender swapping the role of The Ancient One was exciting. It opened up possibilities, it was a fresh way into this old and very typical storyline. Why not make the wisest bestower of knowledge in the universe to our heroes in the particular film a woman instead of a man? We made changes to some of the other key character in the comic for similar reasons. Specifically, casting Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo and there’s a character named Wong, who is a very big part of comics, and we cast this amazing Asian actor [Benedict Wong] and modernized that role and his talents people will begin to see as materials on the film begin to come out.
DEADLINE: As an Irishman myself, having the smartest person in the world be Irish seems OK.
FEIGE: The truth is, the conversation that’s taking place around this is super-important. It’s something we are incredibly mindful of. We cast Tilda out of a desire to subvert stereotypes, not feed into them. I don’t know if you saw [Doctor Strange director] Scott Derrickson’s tweet the other day. He said we’re listening and we’re learning, every day. That really is true. As long as we’re starting on this topic, it means so much to us that people know that. We also know that people expect actions and not words in a Q&A, and I’m hopeful that some of our upcoming announcements are going to show that we’ve been listening.
DEADLINE: It sounds like you deny any suggestion that Marvel or Disney didn’t want to offend China?
FEIGE: That story was completely erroneous.
DEADLINE: These are pretend stories, with superheroes. They’re not real. How sensitive do you feel that you have to be in terms of ethnicity or sticking to or hiring actors or directors of a certain color or gender?
FEIGE: Well, I think it’s incredibly important. I think when we adapt any of these stories we don’t go…which I know is not really what you meant… but we don’t go oh, look it’s just a cartoon. It’s the funny pages, we can do whatever we want. We, of course, treat them very seriously, like they’re sacred texts from which to pull stories and adapt and modernize. But we want people to watch our films and see themselves reflected in the heroes, in the villains, in the storylines. That means being as diverse as our world is. I’m a giant Star Trek fan. You know what IDIC means? It was Gene Roddenbery’s mantra: infinite diversity in infinite combinations. I think that’s just the facts of our world right now.
DEADLINE: Marvel has shown diversity by making Thor a female character in the comics. You mentioned Chiwetel Ejiofor, playing a character who was white in the comics; Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson, and Thor’s gatekeeper Heimdall, played by Idris Elba, were white in the comics; and Marvel cast an Hispanic actor, Maximiliano Hernandez, in the TV series Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Now, you’re mobilizing Captain Marvel as a female-driven hero tale, and several agents have told me that they’ve been told only a woman will be considered to direct this. Why lay down an edict like that? Was there a similar one when Ryan Coogler was hired for Black Panther?
FEIGE: That’s not true. We didn’t lay down any edict like that. When it came to Ryan Coogler, we loved both of his films and in particular, most recently, Creed. It coincided exactly with the start of our director search for Black Panther. Luckily for us, he was very interested and pursued it and we signed him up relatively quickly. There was not a particularly large search. We got very lucky. In terms of Captain Marvel, we don’t send out edicts. That being said, we are meeting with many, many immensely talented directors, the majority of whom are female. I do hope they will have announcements certainly by the summer, before the summer’s end, on a director for that.
DEADLINE: I didn’t mean to be insensitive with Coogler, whose first two films were inclusive and full of heart. But you think about what it might mean for a child of color, to feel a stake in a movie like that, with a black actor and director. It seems important. We haven’t really seen a superhero of color carry a movie since Wesley Snipes was doing the Blade movies.
FEIGE: Well, you’ve seen a lot but you mean in title roles.
DEADLINE: I’m talking about a freestanding film like Coogler is making. Are you thinking of the cultural impact that might have?
FEIGE: I think that would be nice. We always set out to just make a great movie. I know that’s what Ryan is setting out to do but even the introduction that the characters had in Civil War and the reactions to that character…my daughter, a little redhead, 7-year-old girl was running around all weekend wearing the Black Panther mask. I love that and I think we’ll see much more of that when that movie comes out I think even this Halloween. But certainly the Halloween following the release of Ryan’s film I think you’re going to see lots of kids, of many ethnicities, dressing up as that character because he’s unbelievably awesome. The fact that he will be an African American actor portraying an African hero up on that screen, and a target of wish fulfillment for the audience? I think it is great.
DEADLINE: Take us behind the scenes a little with your involvement in this refreshing new iteration of Spider-Man who feels like a glove fit in the Marvel Universe. I always heard that Sony rushed films to battle this ticking clock where the rights might revert if one wasn’t made every few years. What can you say about the dynamic of you and Marvel getting directly involved as a producer, and road testing Tom Holland in Civil War?
FEIGE: It came down to an initial lunch between myself and Amy Pascal and then many subsequent phone calls and meetings where I basically suggested that they should allow us to creatively produce the film for them. I don’t know how serious any of those ticking clocks ever were. On some characters, that was the case, with Spider-Man there were many years in between those films and I don’t think that was ever the case. They had all the time in the world to keep making those movies. It became a question of…we are not good at helping, just occasionally giving input or occasional feedback or comments in a screening or on a script. I had done that a little bit on the earlier Amazing Spider-Man films. It doesn’t really work because you become one voice among many. I said the only way, the best way that we could help is if you let us do it for you. It stays a Sony character and Sony pays for it and Sony makes the profits from the film and it is marketed and distributed by the entire Sony team. That deal was agreed to, over many discussions. Thankfully, it’s now been well over a year and step one in our two-step plan is unveiled this weekend. So far, the response has been a dream come true in introducing him. Instead of it being the third reboot of the Spider-Man character, it becomes the first version of the Spider-Man character that we reveal has been inside the MCU. To Amy’s credit and to Tom Rothman, who now has been at the helm at Sony as we’ve been actively putting it all together, their support has been spectacular in allowing us to bring him into this world.
The biggest challenge of course was finding a Spider-Man. Our angle on the character was to make him younger because in our favorite comics, he is young. He is not graduating, he is just starting high school. He is young. That’s what makes him interesting as a superhero, particularly in the MCU. It’s what makes him so different than all the other heroes. So we really wanted him to be an amazing counterpoint to the other Avengers, which of course is what he was and why he pops so much when he was introduced in the comics in the early ’60s.
DEADLINE: I read those comics in the ’60s and you captured what I remembered — this young, spunky kid who had a tragedy with his murdered Uncle Ben but was not defined and burdened by it. There was more of the wide-eyed wonder. He seems to be having a pretty damn good time. What about this Spider-Man most excited you?
FEIGE: Well, you nailed it. His presence in Civil War was meant to be the counterpoint. The other heroes have a lot of history together. They have a lot of angst, they have a lot of geopolitical issues that they’re dealing with, and it’s heavy. This kid basically feels like he hit the jackpot. The most famous man in the world, Tony Stark, asks him to go to Germany and participate with the Avengers and he loves every minute of it. That’s fun. That’s who Spider-Man is, and we can and will do much more of this in Spider-Man: Homecoming. You saw it in the comics; he constantly talks. In Civil War he goes up against Falcon and at one point Falcon says, “I don’t know if you’ve been in a fight before, but there’s usually not this much talking.” That’s Spider-Man to us. That’s what we love. Tom Holland, God bless him, is that in real life. This amazing young English actor who was brought over here, got into our audition process and suddenly found himself in a room, doing a scene with Robert Downey. I swear it, the exact dynamic that we wanted between Peter Parker and Tony Stark, we had between Tom Holland and Robert Downey Jr.
DEADLINE: There is a style signature in all these movies: big action and doomsday stakes, mixed with witty rapport and humor that dissipates tension. How do you make sure you’ve achieved that and how hands-on are you in establishing the tone?
FEIGE: It’s all about the filmmakers that we hire, the screenwriters that we hire. I think in the case of Civil War, you also had executive producer, Nate Moore, in the case of The Avengers, Jeremy Latcham, in the case of Doctor Strange, Stephen Broussard, we all have our own tastes and we all like to be entertained by going to movies. We’re all very nervous about becoming too serious and pompous as the cinematic universe continues to grow. I think that’s something we’re always on alert for as we work with our filmmakers. That said, Chris Markus & Stephen McFeely and Joe and Anthony Russo, understand that tone and had helped define it going back to Captain America: The Winter Soldier. We have an amazing partnership now with a creative cabal that understands where you need to have fun. The entire purpose of that airport action scene in the film was to deliver on the promise of the conceit of civil war, but also to have a tremendous amount of fun so that the movie could then take you to a surprising place later.
DEADLINE: Which Marvel movie made you feel this style really fell into place and felt right?
FEIGE: The first Iron Man, for sure. Our first self-produced Marvel Studios film. At the point we started prepping that film, I had been part of a lot of Marvel films over six or seven years, as part of a handful of people on the producing team. But never the one that had the final say. We learned a lot of good lessons from those other projects and we learned things that we thought could be done better on those projects. We put all of that into Iron Man. Thankfully, the audience responded to it. It boosted our confidence that maybe they do like the way we’re telling these stories.
DEADLINE: Is there a way for you to describe what Robert Downey Jr has meant to your run and the success of Marvel since Iron Man?
FEIGE: Whatever I say probably can’t do the truth justice. We’re built on his shoulders of that performance of Tony Stark, humanizing the hero outside of the costume, outside of the suit, outside of the superhero name. I love that people use Iron Man and Tony Stark interchangeably. We said, as we were developing Iron Man 1, and working on these films, that our characters need to be as interesting out of their costumes as they are inside their costumes, fighting and flying around. Robert embodied that and became this icon, as Tony Stark. In a way that, with every casting decision since then, at some point we go, you know, this person’s going to have to do scenes with Robert so we’ve got to make sure they’re great. We really did that with every role that we cast since then. One thing that brings me great, great joy is reading the reviews of Civil War and seeing the much deserved credit that Chris Evans is getting for his performance as Captain America. He gets better and better; I think both Chris and Robert give their best performance as these characters in Civil War. That’s saying a lot considering how many times they’ve done it.
DEADLINE: Back at the very beginning, Robert was overcoming personal stuff, and he had baggage and was considered maybe a long shot. He told me that he came in for an audition determined to leave Marvel no choice but to decide no one else could be Tony Stark. How did you see it from your vantage point? How did you and your team feel after he auditioned and left the room?
FEIGE: His name had come up on a list of many names. His was the one that Jon Favreau stepped at and said, this could be really amazing. I thought, wow, this could be like Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow, that level of an interesting choice. I remember saying, because I always caveat everything because I don’t believe in counting chicks before they hatch, so I said I’m not saying this will be that big but it could be that interesting. That’s all we were trying to do at that point and what we still do. Just make interesting casting choices, interesting story choices that can lead to interesting, unexpected films. There was debate about Robert; are we going to build the entire future of this studio on somebody who at that point had baggage? It had been many years since that specific baggage but he still had it. That is why we did an audition, to say, we know he’s great but let’s put it on film so nobody can say otherwise. He came to win. It was an amazing day.
DEADLINE: So what impression did he leave you with that day?
FEIGE: It was that the role was his destiny. And that he had a supreme confidence in the way he ad-libbed. It has become a tradition on all of the movies, but that was the first time that he went off book, went off the pages. And every time he said something that was not on the sides for the audition, it was a million times funnier and better than what had been in those pages. I had never heard that exactly, him saying he came to win, but everything he did, every aspect of his mannerisms that day certainly proved it.
DEADLINE: You keep trotting out these new superhero franchises and everyone wonders when you’ll hit the wall. On paper, Guardians Of The Galaxy had the heavyset guy from Parks & Rec; the star of Fast And Furious, as a tree; the blue-skinned actress from Avatar painted green, and Bradley Cooper as a talking squirrel. It almost seemed like a drunken bar bet you took to see if you could create a hit despite seemingly impossible pieces. Then you had Ant-Man, Edgar Wright stepped out as director and you cast Paul Rudd, known as a rom-com guy. Which of those two big bets made you most nervous?
FEIGE: Ant-Man, I think, but only because of the troubled production history. That probably made us more nervous because we’d had that huge change at the top just a few months before filming. Guardians Of The Galaxy was, as Ant-Man was, just fun, in terms of expanding this universe. We always say, how can we keep audiences surprise at what an MCU film can be? The comic books have a tremendous amount of depth and a tremendous amount of range in the kind of stories that they tell, and the characters we introduce. So wouldn’t it be fun if we’re not just Iron Man 1, Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3, Iron Man 4, Iron Man 5, Iron Man 6? I love that we’re not, and a lot of the reason for that is because we will try to bring other more unexpected heroes or storylines into the theaters.
In the case of Guardians, frankly, we just wanted to do an outer space film. We’re all film nerds here. We all grew up on space epics and we wanted to do something like that but in a way that was particularly Marvel. One that had a tone unique to any space epic before it or space opera, as James Gunn puts it, before it. The comic book run of Guardians Of The Galaxy that Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning had done in the years prior to us putting the movie together formulated that great theme. Drax and Gamora and Peter Quill and Rocket and Groot. It just seemed like an amazing silhouette, seeing those five characters walk towards you in an The Right Stuff style, in a spaceship hallway. Nicole Perlman, who was part of our writers program at the time, did some early drafts of Guardians, where we were having debates like, should we put the talking raccoon in? Everybody was like, of course we put the talking raccoon in. That’s the reason to make it. Put it in! Then the whole thing came to life and got a soul and got a heart when James Gunn took over.
DEADLINE: How does the nervousness of launching a new one of these with such high expectations manifest itself in you?
FEIGE: The majority of my hair is falling out. I’m a stress eater. No, the truth is, the position we’re in right now with Civil War, that’s more stressful to me, when the expectations are so huge. That makes me nervous. On Ultron last year, and The Avengers two years before that. When the expectations are so ginormous that the odds of hitting them are like, who knows, and it’s out of our hands… It is a comfort zone for all of us at Marvel Studios to be working on a project where people go, “What is that now? How is that going to work?” That’s exactly how everybody reacted to A, the idea of us becoming our own studio; B, the first Iron Man film, the first Cap film, the first Thor film, and the first Avengers film, and Guardians and Ant-Man. So we now find that a very comfortable place to be, when people are curious about a decision we’ve made or doubting a decision that we’ve made. That is a comfort zone for us. Because, and maybe this best answers your original question, that nervousness about those issues manifests itself in a creative focus.
DEADLINE: You’ve got a bunch of characters in this movie from Falcon and War Machine and Black Widow and Hawkeye, who have so far guest starred in movies with another characters title above the fold. Is there one destined to get a solo movie down the line?
FEIGE: We’ve announced the next nine movies, 10 counting Civil War, through the end of 2019. Where we go beyond that are ongoing discussions that we’ll focus on in the next few years because we have a lot to do before then. Of the characters that you’ve just mentioned I would say certainly the one creatively and emotionally that we are most committing to doing is Black Widow.
FEIGE: We think she’s an amazing character. We think Scarlett Johansson’s portrayal of her is amazing. She’s a lead Avenger and has amazing stories in her own right to tell that we think would be fun to turn into a stand-alone franchise.
DEADLINE: Mark Ruffalo brightens up the Avengers. What has to happen for us to get a stand-alone, Mark Ruffalo Hulk film?
FEIGE: Well, those are contractual things that I’m not entirely attuned to. Disney and Universal would need to come to an agreement to allow Marvel to do a stand-alone Hulk film for Disney. What’s so great, and as you just said, Ruffalo lights up any room he’s in, any Twitter feed he’s engaged in and any movie that he’s in. It’s just a great pleasure to have him in The Avengers films and as you know his next appearance will be in Thor: Ragnarok, which is a whole other type of fun Hulk adventure for him that we can’t wait to get started on.
DEADLINE: This Disney silo system that you’re a big part of and your cross-pollination of characters to break then in future movies, all these are being emulated around Hollywood in the Universal Monster Universe, in the DC ones, in Transformers. What innovation that doesn’t belong to Marvel or Disney most impresses you as a film fan?
FEIGE: What of the other cinematic universes that are underway impresses me? This might not obey the rules of your question, but Star Wars. Of course, Star Wars, because of everything it was when I was growing up, which largely informed my taste as a filmmaker and the kind of movies I wanted to watch, which became the kind of movies I wanted to make. The notion of the first movie was Episode IV. What does that mean? There must be a bigger story. This is all connected. That was seminal and certainly now what Kathy Kennedy is doing and what JJ Abrams did and what Rian Johnson is now doing, not that I have any privy to that. I saw some of what Gareth Edwards is doing through that Rogue One trailer, and it is astounding and most closely akin to what we have done, because they already have such a tremendous amount of mythology just from those six, now seven other films. That is supremely impressive. And yes, they both are silos within Disney which is just even more impressive.
DEADLINE: You can pay compliments to people as you pass them in the hallway.
FEIGE: We don’t see them much. We stick to ourselves. We have a little floor here and we just do our movies. Wouldn’t it be great if there was commissary that had superheroes in it and Storm Troopers and princesses? They should do that. That would be cool.
DEADLINE: Back when these movies took off, I recall some dealmakers grousing that their clients had to sign for modest salaries to play superheroes and commit to as many as nine options. These movies have grossed so much, showing up in them has proven to be like Viagra to performers careers. When did that stop becoming a hard sell?
FEIGE: I don’t know. I feel like every deal always has its issues and its sticking points even to this day, so I don’t know that any of it has become easier. I will say the number of options got blown out of proportion. There were only a handful early on that got to as many as nine, and even then they were only three or six primary star roles and then another three cameos. We’ve changed that structure for pragmatic reasons now, in terms of how those deals are put together. But it’s never easy. Finding the right person for the right part is never easy and it’s daunting to try to match that up. But yes, I do think over the years there has been much more incoming interesting in what we are doing, with people saying to us, so and so would love to become part of your universe. So that certainly has changed.
DEADLINE: There isn’t really anything on the resume of Civil War directors Joe and Anthony Russo that would have predicted what they accomplished with two Captain America sequels before they make two Avengers sequels. What made you feel they had it in them?
FEIGE: I thought they had done incredibly clever, difficult-to-pull-off, innovative work on television with Arrested Development and particularly Community. Whenever I see something and go, “That’s really cool. That’s really interesting,” and suddenly the same names start to pop up at the end of whatever I thought was cool and interesting you go, wouldn’t it be interesting to meet those people and see if they would ever be interested in our world. We do that a lot and sometimes people are interested and sometimes they’re not. But with the case of Joe and Anthony, they clearly were ready to hit that starting line and just go off to the races. They said as much in our meetings; they came up with some great scenes for Winter Soldier, which is what we were meeting on at the time, which ended up in the movie. They really embraced what we wanted to do with that particular movie, which was take Captain America out of his World War II homage of a film, out of the big group disaster film model of The Avengers, and put him into a ’70s political thriller idea. Boy, did they just inherently get that and understand it and then run with it and improve it in ways that even I hadn’t imagined and made it what it is today. They really are amazing filmmakers who have the boundless energy which is required for these productions, certainly for what we’re going into by doing two of them back to back. I have no doubt that they could do it.
DEADLINE: We look at those guys or James Gunn, Scott Derrickson or John Watts, who you hired off of the Sundance movie Cop Car, is there kind of a common thread with these filmmakers? Ang Lee did Hulk and there you had a master final-cut filmmaker who delivers his vision, but you seem to hire directors now who’ll be more collaborative. They aren’t obvious choices, but it has been one hit after another.
FEIGE: The commonality is we met with a lot of people and determined that these would have the best chance of doing something different, of taking whatever the kernel of the idea was that we knew we wanted to head towards and expand it and improve it. The requirement has never been for us somebody who has achieved a giant blockbuster before or commanded a crew of thousands for a $100 million-budget film. Because we’ve done all that and we have the best in the business support base for that. It gives us the confidence to say, let’s find somebody who can work with those artisans and technicians and us as producers, and help elevate the material to unexpected places. That’s really what it comes down to for us. You don’t have to have made a great film, but we have to believe that you are about to make a great film and wouldn’t it be nice if it was for us. Now, Ryan Coogler is an exception because he has made great films and some of the others did too, before working with us.
DEADLINE: You mention Phase Two, and having a slate set through 2019. The Broccoli family every few years faces the certainty that the actor playing James Bond is going to pass the torch to someone else. When is that going to start becoming an issue for you?
FEIGE: Not for a very long time, certainly not through the next nine, 10 movies that we’re working on, which is great. If we had to deal with that, movie to movie, we wouldn’t have been able to build the cinematic universe the way we have. The short, easy answer is I’m not thinking about that right now because I’m thinking about how to complete and surprise these upcoming incarnations. Past that? I don’t know. I greatly admire what the Broccolis have done with James Bond, how could you not? Fifty years and going strong, with a character that will outlive any particular actor, director, producer, studio executive. That will continue. If you look at how all of our characters have been revamped from decade to decade in the comics, with new artists and new writers and new incarnations, and I think it’s destined to happen in our cinematic universe as well. But, I don’t have to worry about that right now.
DEADLINE: Deadpool was just such a lightning bolt, an R-rated movie Marvel Comics character that shows there is room for racy superheroes. You are at family-friendly Disney. Any thought to getting into the R-rated superhero game?
FEIGE: No, we’ve not had any specific conversations about that. And that is only part of the takeaway from Deadpool. The thing that Deadpool shows is, when you present something unique to an audience, they will respond to it. When you present something as popular as a superhero character, in a different and unique and crazy way as they did in Deadpool, it demands attention and audiences went to it. They pulled it off. Tim Miller did a tremendous job. The other secret, and why it’s still a secret, I don’t know, but they just took what Deadpool is in the comics. He breaks the fourth wall. He talks into the camera. He doesn’t give a sh*t about any of the other heroes. He doesn’t take anything seriously. All of that is what made Deadpool so popular in the comics. Tim and his writers and Ryan Reynolds were able to get that and even magnify that up on the big screen. We’ve always said if there’s any “secret” it’s respect the source material, understand the source material and then, any adaptation you make from the source material should be done only to enhance whatever the original pure spirit of the source material was. Deadpool hit on all cylinders with that.