[This article was originally written as an assignment for my degree.]
The following post has Mild Spoilers for EVERY MARVEL MOVIE RELEASED.
On the evening of Tuesday 28th October 2014 at the El Capitan theatre in Los Angeles, Kevin Feige stood in front of industry critics, analysts and Marvel fans and announced the upcoming slate of Marvel films, dubbed ‘Phase Three’. These nine films had logos, release dates, some had directors, some had a little concept artwork, but no new footage was shown. But the event was labelled a huge PR success, with Iron Man/Tony Stark actor Robert Downey Jr., Captain America/Steve Rogers actor Chris Evans, and the then recently announced Black Panther/T’Challa actor Chadwick Boseman stealing the show with a posed standoff in promotion for Captain America: Civil War.
The legacy of this night is what has defined Marvel.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has been extraordinarily successful since its inception with the release of 2008’s Iron Man (Jon Favreau). Since the first film in this unifying series of films, the ‘Universe’ has made over $22.03 billion worldwide in unadjusted gross (Box Office Mojo, accurate as of 11th July 2019). This success is arguably down to its marketable source comic-book universe, the hugely popular characters, and the blockbuster marketing thrown at audiences.
Having started as an associate producer on 2000’s X-Men (Bryan Singer), Kevin Feige has been inextricably linked with comic-book films since then, with all of his credits being comic-book sourced films. In 2006 it was announced that he would become the Marvel Studios’ President of Production (Business Wire), overseeing the development of 2007’s Spider-Man 3 (Sam Raimi) and X-Men: The Last Stand (Brett Ratner) as well as developing feature films for Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk.
As Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk were developed under the independent (at the time, but with distribution deals with Paramount and Universal respectively) Marvel Studios, Kevin Feige controlled all aspects of production. His Executive Producer role meant that he oversaw the start of the MCU (with the post-credits Nick Fury tease at the end of Iron Man), through to its 22nd, Avengers: Endgame (2019, Joe and Anthony Russo) and 23rd movies, Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019, Jon Watts).
It cannot be ignored that the MCU is a high concept franchise. It also cannot be ignored that Marvel Studios and the MCU are also subsidiaries of Disney. With the high concept genre of the superhero film, and the fact that the MCU falls under the Disney umbrella, a set of assumptions need to be established.
The President of Columbia Pictures, Peter Guber defined the high concept film, “Rather than stressing the uniqueness of the idea, Guber states that high concept can be understood as a narrative which is straightforward, easily communicated, and easily comprehended.” (featured in Justin Wyatt’s book, ‘High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood’). The superhero film in its most basic narrative form, is the fight between good and evil. The MCU is no exception, with each of the 22 films having a well-defined hero and villain. These archetypes are basic, but as Justin Wyatt states there are economic considerations when making a high concept feature film; “High concept can be considered as one central development – and perhaps the central development – within post-classical cinema, a style of filmmaking moulded by economic and institutional forces.” (this from Justin Wyatt) The economic and institutional forces help to ‘mould’ the high concept film. At its core the high concept film should be a financially safe proposition.
The economic constraints are something that Janet Wasko picks up on in Understanding Disney, “Especially for popular culture production, economic factors set limitations and exert pressures on the commodities that are produced (and influence what is not produced)”. Wasko continues with a direct quote from then Disney CEO, Michael Eisner, “I have always believed that the creative process must be contained in what we call ‘the financial box’ – financial parameters that creative people can work in – but the box is tight, controlled and responsible. Finance has the key to the box.” Disney keeps a strong financial hold on its intellectual properties, with the ‘key’ of finance making the decisions when deciding on what films to make.
Disney acquired Marvel Studios in 2009, after the release of 2008s Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk.
Kristin Thompson makes the point on studios being acquired by conglomerates, which applies to Disney, “It came about largely because Hollywood studios were in the process of being bought up by large corporation and then by multinational conglomerates.” However, the seeds were planted for a franchise before this acquisition. What that ultimately meant was that Disney saw the beginning of the MCU, saw the potential of the high concept film within their economic model. When it comes to why these properties are being acquired, Thompson explains, “The studios also sought to bring some predictability to the business of making movies. Franchises offered an obvious method for increasing ancillaries. A continuing series brought with it automatic name recognition once its characters and story gained wide currency.”
Therefore, the MCU is a high concept franchise owned by a financially controlling conglomerate. If this is the case then a producer has a very limited toolset to work with to make a series of films that can be creatively unique yet a financially safe option.
Industry reporter for The New York Times, Brooks Barnes released a piece in 2011 entitled, “Marvel, With a Fan at the Helm, Steers Its Heroes to the Screen.” In this analysis of Kevin Feige’s role within Marvel Studios comes the following quote:
“Mr. Feige has accomplished this by maintaining a careful balance of conservatism and risk. In an industry that loves to fiddle, he actually sticks close to the original material, recognizing that there is a reason Marvel characters like Iron Man attracted fans in the first place. But Mr. Feige also makes unusual bets on untested actors and hires directors who would give many studios serious pause.”
Even in the early years of his role as Producer of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he was deemed as “accomplished”. The reasons that Barnes gives are that he can juggle the fine line between control and taking risks. He understands the need to stay true to the source material, and the need to allow filmmakers to develop under this vision.
The quote below comes from Scott Derrickson, director of Doctor Strange, in response to his viewing of Black Panther (2018, Ryan Coogler). The ‘voices’ that Derrickson refers to are indistinguishable from the signifiers of authorship within each of the films of the MCU.
For example, 2017s Thor Ragnarok was directed by New Zealand writer/director Taika Waititi; a director well known for quirky comedies with a unique ‘New Zealand/outsider’ sensibility. When applying his directorial voice that he had developed to the third film in the Thor series, Marvel ended up with an MCU film full of jokes and gags. The voice of Taika Waititi is totally contained within the Marvel film. The same can go for Black Panther, whose director Ryan Coogler had taken the themes of Black identity that he looked at in Fruitvale Station (2013) and Creed (2015), and applied them to Marvel’s first Black superhero headlining feature.
However, each of these examples is what happens when Marvel, Kevin Fiege and the director all work together. Tensions have arisen in the past. Ant-Man was originally developed to be an Edgar Wright directed installment in the MCU. However, his sensibilities didn’t gel with what Feige wanted for the MCU. The same is said for Patty Jenkins, she was fired (or walked away, depending on the source) from her directorial position on Thor: The Dark World for not bringing to the table what Marvel are looking for. The fine line between creative freedom and corporate control is what Kevin Feige is renowned for walking.
Going back to that night at the El Capitan theatre in October 2014, why was it so special?
This is the night where this combination of creative and corporate reared its head. But unlike other industry events where the film slate list is there purely for the benefit of the shareholders, this was an event aimed at both the higher ups in Disney and the fans that would pay the ticket price.
The directors, the stars and the final product of the movie, is under his guiding hand. This is what was represented on that night in 2014 at the El Capitan theatre.
As we the audiences have now completed the journey through to the end of Phase Three, after witnessing the release of Avengers: Endgame and its epilogue Spider-Man: Far From Home, we await the announcement of what’s to come next.
This brief 2 week period before Marvel’s 90 minute panel at this years SDCC is the first time us audience members don’t know what is coming next. Sure there are casting announcements and rumours, but nothing is set in stone. And speculation is more clouded than ever after the Disney acquisition of 20th Century Fox.
This is a time where we can reflect on the MCU.
The MCU is dead. Long Live the MCU.