Inside the Spider-Verse: ‘Nothing is guaranteed. We work very hard to do new things’

Marvel Studios’ president, Kevin Feige, on Spider-Man: Far from Home and the MCU

When Spider-Man: Far from Home swings into cinemas this month it will be the superhero's second film appearance of 2019, having reappeared in Avengers: Endgame as part of the undoing of Thanos's snap, a reinstatement we're now calling the Blip.

It's the third Marvel feature of 2019, a sequence that began with Captain Marvel, in March, and the 23rd Marvel feature of the decade. The Infinity Saga – the Marvel Cinematic Universe films stretching from Iron Man, in 2008, to Endgame – have scored more than $21.4 billion at the box office. The $2.75 billion Endgame, which is about $40 million shy of becoming the biggest-grossing film of all time,will be reissued in theatres with extra footage this weekend, in the hope that it might overtake Avatar's record-holding $2.79 billion.

That’s not a bad return for Disney, which purchased Marvel Entertainment in 2009 for $4 billion. Marvel’s billionaire chairman, Ike Perlmutter, is reclusive but remains involved in the business.

I don't think you'll be Googling me if we had not cast Robert Downey jnr in that first Iron Man film. It was incredibly formative

Kevin Feige, Marvel’s president, is the best-known contributor to the company’s six-person creative committee, a panel that, taking cues from Stan Lee’s original comic-book creations, is tasked with ensuring interconnectivity between Marvel projects.

Official trailer for Spider-Man: Far From Home with Tom Holland in the lead role. Video: Sony Pictures Entertainment

It was Feige’s idea to cast Robert Downey jnr as Iron Man/Tony Stark, a battle he has characterised as the toughest of his career, and a call that would determine the tone of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU.

“It can’t be overstated,” says Feige. “I don’t think we would be here. I don’t think you would be talking to me right now. I don’t think you’ll be Googling me if we had not cast Robert Downey jnr in that first Iron Man film. It was incredibly formative, not just from him and from his performance but also from Jon Favreau. Jon Favreau’s style of film-making contained the way that we would make films, and we’ve carried through his production process on all the other films. Iron Man was an incredibly important film for us. And I’ll say it for the rest of my life: if there was no RDJ, there would be no MCU.”

Game-changer: Robert Downey jnr as Iron Man in 2010

As long-standing film fans and industry analysts can tell you, superhero films weren’t always such a safe bet. For most of this millennium the genre was a graveyard of dreams, a place where even the best-loved Marvel heroes – Daredevil, Electra, Punisher and Hulk – struggled to justify top billing. Failure, as X-Men: Dark Phoenix and the most recent Fantastic Four reboot have demonstrated, is still an option. (The former is on course to lose more than $100 million.)

So where did it all go right for the MCU? “I don’t think there’s a secret; I don’t think there’s a formula,” says Feige. “And we certainly don’t take it for granted. We don’t think of the films as guaranteed successes. Nothing is guaranteed. We work very hard to do new things and to make something unique and to surprise the audience. Keeping things fresh and unpredictable requires a lot of effort.

“I do think that our perception has changed. The very first film I worked on, the first Marvel film, 19 years ago, was the first X-Men film. That film stayed true to the comics, and by bringing forward the great characters from those comics and putting them directly on to the screen, that appealed to an audience, and it appealed to an audience that had never read the comics before. So that’s all we tried to do. We take the storylines and the characters directly from the comics and we put them on a much bigger canvas in movie theatres.”

It's better to have people interested in everything you are doing. It's better to have photographers hiding in the bushes of your film sets than having no one care at all

Feige, the architect of the Infinity Saga, may not be a household name in the way that the Spider-Man: Far from Home stars Samuel L Jackson or Zendaya are, yet everything that he says seems to launch a thousand articles.

In the days leading up to our encounter he has been making headlines for his defence of how Avengers: Endgame handled Marvel’s first openly gay character. And for explaining that the MCU has approached Keanu Reeves for almost every film to date, for being cagey about the forthcoming Black Widow prequel, a film that may or may not be shooting with Scarlett Johansson or Florence Pugh in the central role (or as enemies), which is probably directed by Cate Shortland, and which could be released on May 1st, 2020.

“I’ll say something in passing and people will turn it into a headline,” says Feige. “And suddenly it’s a much bigger story than I ever intended. I learned a long time ago that all of that is good. It’s better to have people interested in everything you are doing. It’s better to have photographers hiding in the bushes of your film sets than having no one care at all.”

The rights to X-Men have now passed to Disney and Marvel Studios, as a consequence of Disney’s purchase of 20th Century Fox, but Spider-Man remains an outlier in the universe.

In 2015, Sony Pictures (which owns the character) signed a deal with Marvel that would allow for three Marvel films featuring the webslinger and three stand-alone (live-action) adventures. Appearances for Spidey in Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame have fulfilled the MCU part of the contract. Meanwhile, Spider-Man has proved a lucrative Sony property, spawning such spin-off hits as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Venom. Feige, understandably, seems keen for Spider-Man to remain on call for the Avengers.

“I think Spider-Man is pretty damned cool,” says the producer. “There’s a reason he has been the symbol of the company for so long. And that’s the reason that we wanted to work with Sony, so that we could get him into the universe and make movies like Far from Home together. It’s a testament to Sony and to Amy Pascal” – Sony Pictures’ former chairwoman, who has also produced the three most recent Spider-Man films at Pascal Pictures – “that we are able to work so well together. When you have the benefit of working with someone like Amy, who I’ve known since my early career, when I was still making coffee on movies, it feels seamless. It feels like a Marvel Studios production.”

Kevin Feige of Marvel: ‘I think Spider-Man is pretty damned cool.’ Photograph: Steven St John/NYT

Feige was born in Boston and raised in New Jersey. His grandfather was a producer on the soap operas Guiding Light and As the World Turns, but it was George Lucas’s most famous creation that inspired Feige to take an interest in film.

“I can’t remember life before Star Wars,” he says. “Those movies were the most influential for me in terms of storytelling and delving into mythology and the hero’s journey. And because there were toys and action figures, that allowed me to continue the story on my own at home. You can make up your own story. That was why I wanted to go to film school.”

Hoping to follow in the footsteps of George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis and Ron Howard, he applied to the University of Southern California’s school of cinematic arts five times before he was accepted. At USC he spotted an advertisement for an internship. He became an assistant to the film producer Lauren Shuler Donner for the disaster flick Volcano and the romcom You’ve Got Mail. On the first X-Men film Donner made Feige an associate producer, because of his extensive knowledge of the Marvel Universe.

I answered phones, I made coffee, I got lunches, I washed cars. You just climb the ladder one rung at a time. That's how we do things in Marvel Studios

“You have to be determined,” says Feige. “I got that internship at the Donners’ company. I answered phones, I made coffee, I got lunches, I washed cars. I was a receptionist one summer, and I was a production assistant. And that’s a good way to do it. You just climb the ladder one rung at a time. That’s how we do things in Marvel Studios. You look at the names on the credits. You look at our executive producers and producers. Almost all of them started as assistants or production assistants or even receptionists. That’s the way we grow at Marvel Studios.”

Another means of growth requires a detailed knowledge of contemporary cinema. Feige’s matching up of character-driven, indie-sector directors and $200 million budgets shouldn’t work as well as it does.

“I watch almost every movie that comes out every weekend, and I think I learn things from all of them,” says Feige. “I learn things from the movies that are big successes and I learn things from movies that are not successes. That’s the thing about being guided by storytelling. We are interested in film-makers that have done something interesting, something we admire. And then we have a lot of meetings with them, to make sure that we’re on the same page but, more importantly, to make sure they can improve upon what we were thinking. We want a captain at the wheel that can take the ship in unexpected directions.

Spider-Man: Numan Acar, Tom Holland and Jacky Gyllenhaal in Far From Home

“Before Spider-Man: Homecoming and Far from Home, Jon Watts had a movie called Cop Car that was really tiny but really well done. We were really impressed by Taika Waititi, by What We Do in the Shadows and, more specifically, by Boy. With the Russo brothers it was what they’d done on Arrested Development and Community. Ryan Coogler had done Creed, which was probably my favourite movie that year. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who did Captain Marvel, had done a number of small character-driven movies; they were young but very experienced.”

Spider-Man: Far from Home brings the curtain down on MCU’s phase three. The future is shrouded in secrecy. The Rider director, Chloé Zhao, has been hired to direct an adaptation of The Eternals, scripted by the cousins Matthew and Ryan Firpo, and featuring Angelina Jolie in the central role. Jolie will be joined by Kumail Nanjiani and the Game of Thrones actor Richard Madden in a project expected to shoot towards the end of this year with a November 2020 release date.

The Short Term 12 film-maker Destin Daniel Cretton has been hired to direct Shang-Chi, which is expected to take one of Marvel’s three 2021 release dates, with the other slots going to Doctor Strange 2 and Black Panther 2.

Getting an opportunity to tell these stories with more hours, in a way that's going to be 100% tied in with the MCU, that will take place after Endgame, is something we haven't done before

Disney’s purchase of 20th Century Fox, as part of a $71 billion deal to buy the bulk of Rupert Murdoch’s film and television assets, means the X-Men and Fantastic Four will, ultimately, be integrated into the MCU. Disney+, the company’s new streaming service, which will launch in November, will provide a platform for the MCU’s incoming long-form products, including Loki, the much-touted TV spin-off.

These projects arrive with collateral damage; in the past year Netflix has been forced to cancel its Marvel content, including Iron Fist, Daredevil, Luke Cage and Jessica Jones.

“I think whenever something goes away that people are following, it’s sad,” Feige says. “But for us at Marvel Studios, getting the opportunity for the first time to do long-form narrative for Disney+ is really exciting. We’re entering our second decade, and now we have an entirely new muscle and a new canvas to play with. It’s been such a pleasure to work on the [television series] Falcon & Winter Soldier, and Loki, and WandaVision.

“Getting an opportunity to tell these stories with more hours, in a way that’s going to be 100 per cent tied in with the MCU, that will take place after Endgame, is something we haven’t done before. For the first time people will be able to track characters from television to movies. So it’s an entirely new form of storytelling for us.”

The sandbox may be expanding all the time, in terms of platforms and intellectual property, but going forward without Iron Man and Captain America must be a little daunting, surely.

“I think we’ve always worked without a safety net,” says Feige. “Everything is a risk. I remember sitting around on the Monday after Iron Man opened, saying: ‘How are we ever going to top that? How are we ever going to hit bigger than this movie?’ So we always think daunting. But it’s very exciting knowing that we’re heading with characters people have already come to love and also introducing characters they’ve never heard of. I know they’ll be excited to meet them.”

Spider-Man: Far from Home opens on Tuesday, July 2nd

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic