March 9, 2021

With Fan at the Helm, Marvel Safely Steers Its Heroes to the Screen

Then there is Kevin Feige’s approach.

Preening at the Polo Lounge? Mr. Feige, president of Marvel Studios, would rather go unnoticed in a darkened movie theater or in the aisles of a comic book shop. He lives in lumpy zip-up sweatshirts and his office is little more than a laptop. A favorite vacation spot is Walt Disney World, where he sweats in line like everybody else.

But make no mistake. Over the last few years, Mr. Feige, 38, has become one of the most powerful people in movies.

Though Warner Brothers and its DC Comics unit have strained to turn their lesser-known superheroes like Green Lantern into film stars, Mr. Feige has been on a tear. His two “Iron Man” movies sold over $1.2 billion in tickets worldwide; a third arrives in 2013.

“Thor,” the potentially ridiculous tale of a pseudoviking with a magic hammer who can travel by rainbow, took in $445 million since opening in May. And over the weekend “Captain America: The First Avenger” sold a stout $65.8 million in tickets; a sequel is already in the works.

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.

“I’m not sure there is a formula or a secret,” said Mr. Feige, who also helped produce the hugely popular “Spider-Man” and “X-Men” movie franchises. “I do know that problems tend to happen when people try and re-invent the wheel. If you actually open the comics, there is a lot of depth there.”

Consider “Thor,” which cost about $150 million to make, on par with other Marvel movies. Given the unusual subject matter, some screenwriters suggested remaking the character along the medieval lines of “The Lord of the Rings.” Falling back on something that has worked before is one of Hollywood’s favorite insurance policies, but Mr. Feige insisted on sticking to the comic’s DNA.

“Thor is just not a chicken-bone-in-the-beard kind of guy,” he said, taking a swig from a Starbucks iced coffee.

As a comics enthusiast himself, Mr. Feige (pronounced FIGH-gee) also acts as a pied piper, pulling just the right story and marketing levers to keep fans in the studio’s corner — an important skill at a time when one critical blog entry can create an online brush fire.

“Kevin actually understands what we want,” said Jonah Weiland, executive producer of, a news and commentary site. “Other studios that make superhero movies often ignore the essence of the character,” he said, “or they make odd choices,” as when the Man of Steel suddenly had a son in “Superman Returns.”

Joss Whedon, the creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” who is directing “The Avengers,” Marvel’s next movie, puts it this way: “Kevin is just a huge nerd. Possibly more than I am.”

But ask Mr. Feige about his track record, and his pale blue eyes start to dart and he squirms a bit in that sweatshirt. Maybe it is because he rarely agrees to lengthy interviews. Perhaps it is because he knows that his fortunes could swiftly reverse. Instead, he immediately credits success to his boss, Isaac Perlmutter, Marvel’s chief executive.

Even so, executives at the Walt Disney Company, which bought Marvel in 2009 for $4 billion, cite Mr. Feige as an essential component of the acquisition, something of a comics counterpart to John Lasseter, the Pixar chief. The films on Mr. Feige’s Marvel résumé have sold about $4.8 billion at the global box office.

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