Interview | Kevin Feige on the Future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe
It took years of wheeling and dealing, but this weekend we’re finally getting a new Spider-Man movie, set inside the Marvel Universe. Spider-Man has, essentially, come home – as the cheeky subtitle for Spider-Man: Homecoming likes to remind us – and only one question remains.
Or, to stretch that out into multiple questions: What comes next for Peter Parker, and will we ever see how this version of the character came to become a superhero in the first place? What is his place inside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and how is that whole universe going to change as time goes by?
Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige likes to downplay the big picture questions, and place the focus on what’s currently happening at the studio (or at least, immediately on the horizon), but Marvel has a game plan and he’s the only one who knows it. And while he’s too seasoned an executive to simply spoil what’s to come, getting inside his head and picking up on the subtle teases has become a popular pastime for film writers and fans alike.
I got Kevin Feige on the phone last week to talk about Marvel’s future – which may take a very unexpected turn after the upcoming Untitled Avengers comes out on May 3, 2019 – and the decisions that shaped Spider-Man: Homecoming into a film that could only have been produced at Marvel Studios. (And yes, I once again asked him to put Cap-Wolf in a movie. Someday I’ll convince him, folks. I am nothing if not determined.)
Crave: Congratulations on this film. I know you worked really hard to make the fantasy of a Marvel Cinematic Universe Spider-Man movie into a reality.
Kevin Feige: Yes, thank you.
Spider-Man debuted fully formed, fighting with the Avengers, and this film knocks him back down to square one and makes him work his way back up again. Was that the story arc that had to be told out of dramatic necessity, or is that the sort of Spider-Man story you always wanted to tell at the MCU?
We always wanted to tell this story. We wanted to take our cues from what Stan Lee and Steve Ditko did when they created Spider-Man, when they brought him into a universe full of these other heroes that were very, very different than him. They lived in almost literal ivory towers in cities, they came from alien planets, they were frozen-in-ice super soldiers, they were spies. They were not kids that were just going to school and living with their aunt, and that’s what we wanted to do. Even in Civil War, yes, he’s incredibly powerful and can fight alongside them, but he’s just geeking out there, right? He can’t believe that he’s meeting Captain America. He can’t believe. And he gets knocked down. He doesn’t make it through that battle. He’s told to step away because he’s in over his head a little bit.
And the idea was always… We always loved the idea of doing a movie set at the ground level of the cinematic universe. What would it be like if all these movies that we’ve gone to see over the last ten years, weren’t movies, but were events that you read about, saw on the news or saw out your window? What the heck would that be like, to live in that world?
That was a cool idea for a movie that we’ve been intrigued with for a long time. What if you were a musician in a garage band or a high school band, and one day the biggest rock star in the world comes to your house, takes you to Europe for a giant concert where you hold your own? It’s amazing! And then he drops you off at school a couple days later and you have to go back to a normal life. How hard would THAT be? What would THAT be like? These are the kinds of things that inspired us to do this type of film, to do a genre of a Spidey film like the one you watched.
Do you find it strange that Spider-Man is, especially from a conventional storytelling perspective, the first MCU superhero with a secret identity? Or is that just the world we live in now?
Well, it was very intentional on our part to not want to do that, because when we made Iron Man, all the superheroes that most people were familiar with had secret identities. I thought it would be great to blow that trope out of the water at the end of the movie by having him declare “I am Iron Man” at the end. Wow. And Favreau said, “What do we do in the next one?” I said, “We’ll figure it out.”
To force yourself not to use that trope, I think, led to a lot of the unique aspects of the MCU that we have today. And of course Thor and Cap and Widow and Hawkeye and Doctor Strange and the Guardians, yeah, it’s not about secret identities because they were heroes that had that covered and we wanted to do other things.
But that being said, by the time we got lucky enough to include Spider-Man into it, it suddenly became fresh again! It suddenly became a unique thing for our universe to have a character with a secret identity, with a lot of good reasons to have a secret identity. But even with that one of the key ideas that we had going in was, have somebody learn his secret identity early in the film, so that we could have a dynamic on screen that we haven’t seen before, and that’s what led to Ned.
How did you manage to get through this whole movie without really explicitly talking about Uncle Ben, or even saying “With great power there must come great responsibility?”
Well, that story’s been told, as you well know. That story, that’s hallowed ground that has been covered a number of times, and we wanted to explore this very different aspect of Peter, and let people bring in their assumptions. Let people bring in, fill in those blanks for them, based on what they know about the character.
We’ve never gotten anymore specific than saying he got bit by a spider, because that’s all you really need to know to know the story of this. We’re doing a different story. We’re doing a Peter Parker who has this temptation of being with these rock stars, of being at another level, and is he going to choose to pursue that life or is he going to choose to maintain his ground level, going to school, and being a real person aspect?
And that’s what the movie is about, and that instantly sets up a dynamic that you’ve never seen before with Spider-Man. For us, the only reason we wanted to do the movie is because we felt there was lots of new ground to explore.
Is that material something you might want to cover in sequels? Would we finally this version of his origin in future installments?
Maybe. I mean, I think it’s there for us. It’s one of the dynamics that we’ve talked about that could lead to more unique Spider-Man stories, and I like in movies where you didn’t know anything about Indiana Jones until his third movie. I like that. I like that you peel back the onion slowly, as opposed to all at once.
So don’t hold our breaths. Got it. Amy Pascal said that Spider-Man could appear in their own superhero movies, but what about those characters appearing in an MCU movie? Is there a strict divide there?
Our focus right now, and it’s much more clear than it sounds: Spider-Man is in the MCU, that’s it. We have a very specific vision for Spider-Man that takes us from Civil War, that you’ve seen, through to Homecoming 2, with the Avengers movies in between. That’s five movies incorporating Spider-Man and some of his universe of characters into the MCU for the first time. So that is what we’re doing.
So the deal with Sony Pictures… is it finite? Would it have to be renegotiated at some point in the future?
Right now it takes us through the five films that I’ve mentioned, and again, what’s so amazing working at Marvel Studios, and it’s such a testament to these characters and how many there are and how much people love them… if anybody else announced a five-picture agreement and plan, people would say “You’re crazy! How are you going to make five movies?” When WE do it they go, “Well, wait a minute, what about TEN movies? What about fifteen movies? What about twenty movies?!” It’s amazing.
Well, it does raise the question… the Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn’t seem to be flagging, you do seem to have a very long future ahead of you… in your mind, where do you think the Marvel Cinematic Universe would be ten years from now? Or twenty years from now? Assuming it’s still going and doesn’t need a reboot or something.
I think what’s amazing, if [we] were having this conversation ten years ago when we were in production of Iron Man 1, and you asked me where the universe would be in ten years I would have probably publicly thought, “Well, I hope we could make an Avengers movie, and maybe a second Avengers movie!” Privately I would have been thinking, “How about we just finish Iron Man 1 and not blow it?” So being able to predict is pretty hard, and it’s pretty astounding where we’ve come in the past ten years.
I would certainly hope that we continue to make unique stories and unique characters and bring in stories that people would have never, ever predicted or thought possible to be turned into movies, and continue to do that over the next ten years. But for now my focus, very much, is just through 2019 and bringing the current incarnation of the cinematic universe to a head in Untitled Avengers, and then kicking off a very new, unique, different and changed cinematic universe AFTER the events of Untitled Avengers, starting with Homecoming 2… which we wouldn’t call Homecoming 2, but that’s what we’re just short-handing it now.
How changed do you think it could possibly get? In the comics, for example, there are alternate realities, the entire world has been completely reshaped by things like The Infinity Gauntlet or the Cosmic Cube. Do you think something that dramatic could happen in the MCU, or do you think that would be too off-putting for people?
Our goal is to not do anything that’s off-putting to people. [Laughs.] We want to avoiiiiid that! And luckily […] right now, our tastes seem fairly aligned, thankfully, with the moviegoing public. That being said, we’re doing some fun, exciting, never been done before things. So I can’t say much more that but Untitled Avengers is very much a conclusion to a 22 movie saga, and the first of the new story will start in the next Spider-Man film after that.
When you think about superheroes who last a long time and then have a legacy – I think in the comics about characters like the Young Avengers, and how there’s more than one Hawkeye, for example – is that something you think we could see one day in the MCU? Could the mantle of Iron Man eventually pass to another character as opposed to just recasting Tony Stark in 20 years?
I think the comics always are a guide marker for us, in terms of what’s possible, and sometimes we take our cues very directly and sometimes they just influence a direction. The 50, 60, 70+ years of most of our characters give you a lot of different road maps to a lot of different futures. Which one we pick or how do it, beyond 2019, remains to be seen. It certainly remains to be revealed. [Laughs.]
The high school experience is something that we haven’t seen before in the MCU. We also haven’t really seen the blue collar experience of the MCU, outside of the Netflix series. What other corners of the MCU do you want to explore in the future that maybe we haven’t seen yet?
All of them! You’ve named some of them but I think all of them. […] You know, I used to talk a lot about, fifteen years ago or so, was continuing to change and expand what people’s expectations of a Marvel movie are. Of what a Marvel, MCU movie can be, and even what a comic book movie can be, because I think comics are very unique and have incredibly different types of characters and incredibly different types of stories that all happen to be graphic, that all happen to involve some extraordinary MacGuffin or some extraordinary trope. But really they’re all different. They’re all unique.
And people who don’t know that or aren’t steeped in that, I think, judge a book by its cover and go “Oh, all comic books or the same and they go ‘BAM’ and ‘POW’ and ‘SMASH.’” It’s been my goal to showcase the different types of films that can be made from them in all different types of genres, the way nobody presumes that just because a [movie] is based on a novel doesn’t mean it’s going to be similar to another movie based on a novel. Because everyone inherently understands that all novels are different.
We think all comics are different and want to continue to explore different types of things, mainly because we want to make different kinds of movies and we always want to play with different genres, which is what in large part Homecoming was about.
One genre you haven’t touched yet is the horror genre. There are a lot of eery supernatural characters in the Marvel universe. There are also a lot of supervillains who even make a great horror villain. Has that idea been broached? Is that something you might want to explore in the future?
Sure, I mean whether that’s a new character or a new storyline of an existing character, playing with as many different genres as possible. I think most recently you look at Get Out, which is such a great movie, is that a science fiction movie? Sort of. Is it a horror movie? Sort of. Is that a social commentary about the state of the world? Sort of. It’s all those things and it’s awesome. That’d be awesome, to do something like that.
Marvel Studios doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There’s a whole world of cinema out there. You just mentioned Get Out. What other movies are you looking at right now that you feel are raising the bar and maybe giving you guys some ideas over at the MCU?
All movies! That’s all we do is watch movies, every week, because we love movies. And they don’t have to be just a movie based on a comic book to inspire us, it could be any type of movie, which is what has always been the case. So we watch almost everything as it comes out, because a) that’s what we love to do, and b) yeah! And by the way it can be great movies that inspire us and it can be movies that miss the mark that inspire you. That’s what great about the movies, William!
Every time I interview you I ask two questions. One of them has been resolved. Squirrel Girl is coming to TV and that’s great.
But I have to ask: Cap-Wolf. Any chance?
Did you say “Cap-Wolf?”
Oh my god, that’s awesome. There is now! Now there’s a chance! You’ve put him back on the radar. “Cap-Wolf…”
Good. That’ll be in my biography someday.
The Top 10 Spider-Man Comics to Read Before Spider-Man: Homecoming!
Top Photo: Karwai Tang/WireImage & Sony Pictures
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.