The first thing Kevin Feige will tell you if you ask him about the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s formula for success is that there isn’t one.
“I don’t really know,” he told me at a recent Spider-Man: Homecoming junket. “If we had it on a piece of paper like the Soup Nazi [from Seinfeld] had his soup recipes on a piece of paper, it would sort of make it easier.”
Which is fair, I guess, but also deeply unsatisfying. Because over the past decade, the MCU hasn’t just done well it’s done so well that it’s shifted the entire industry’s approach to franchises. No longer is it enough for a studio to churn out a series of sequels. Everyone wants a “shared universe” like the MCU.
How it all began
But according to Feige, Marvel never set out to do all that. “I will say we never said, ‘We’re going to make a cinematic universe,'” he said. “We said, ‘We want to make a great Iron Man movie. We want to make a great Thor movie. We want to make a great Cap movie.'”
Part of that, naturally, meant looking back at the comics, where characters would regularly pop in and out of each others’ titles. “Any time that happened, I used to think it was the greatest thing ever. The greatest!” said Feige. “We just wanted to replicate that and have that as a unique aspect to the Marvel Studios films, which the other films up to that point, where each studio had only individual character rights, couldn’t do.”
Before the studio could link up its movies, though, it had to prove it could, well, make movies.
“I was hoping Iron Man would make enough money that we could make another movie. We were a new studio. If it didn’t work, that would’ve been it,” recalled Feige. “But it was during production on that movie, which is what led to the Sam Jackson cameo at the end credits of that movie, that it occurred to us, ‘Oh.'”
1. Dream big
After that, it didn’t take long for Marvel to roll out its big plans. In May 2008, just days after the release of Iron Man, Marvel Studios announced four more films to be released over the next few years: Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger, all leading up to The Avengers.
It was an insanely ambitious plan at the time. Marvel didn’t invent sequels or spinoffs, but an interconnected franchise, at that scale, on that schedule that was new. Feige expected a big response … and, as he recalls it, got crickets in return.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is ambitious, this is great,’ and nobody talking about it,” said Feige. “I was like, ‘I don’t think people really like, I think this is pretty cool what we’re doing! That we’re actually putting them all together!'”
In part, Feige acknowledged, the muted response could be chalked up to reasonable skepticism. “I think people didn’t really believe it for a long time, which is understandable. Had Thor not worked, things would’ve been different. If Captain America didn’t work, things would’ve been different.”
2. Commit to your characters
There was also the fact that Marvel Studios, at the time, had what most mainstream fans saw as “bottom-of-the-barrel stuff” (Feige’s words, not mine). Sony had the rights to Spider-Man, while 20th Century Fox had the X-Men and the Fantastic Four. Marvel Studios, meanwhile, was left with the likes of Thor and Iron Man Silver Age characters who had their fair share of fans from the comics, sure, but weren’t exactly household names among mainstream audiences.
So Marvel made them household names. Feige may not have a secret formula he’s willing to share, but as a longtime fan of the MCU, Spider-Man: Homecoming director Jon Watts shared with me his own thoughts on what makes the MCU tick. His theory is that Marvel understands what people like about the comics: the characters.
“I feel like I know Tony Stark so well after watching the Iron Man movies, and I feel like I know Captain America so well, and I feel like I know the Guardians of the Galaxy extremely well,” he said. “They really just spend the time, the way you would in a comic, getting to know these characters, and the movies are character-first. Which is amazing, for a blockbuster to really be so character-driven like that.”
3. Put the film before the franchise
To that end, Marvel tries not to prioritize the needs of the franchise above the needs of a particular film. “To this day, if there’s a formula, it’s that the individual movie, more than anything else, is more important than the connectivity,” Feige told me.
Arguably, Marvel’s been better at managing that balance at some points than others. I’ve written elsewhere about the tension between filmmaking and franchise-building, and the MCU is a prime example of the advantages and disadvantages of the “cinematic universe” model.
Iron Man 2 and Avengers: Age of Ultron sagged under the need to set up future films, while the Guardians of the Galaxy movies are fun in part because they feel so disconnected from the rest of the MCU. On the other hand, there are films like Captain America: Civil War, which work so well precisely because they can draw upon years and years of meticulous character development.
The MCU’s latest, Spider-Man: Homecoming, has it both ways. It’s chock full of references to the other films like an educational video starring Captain America or a boring history class lecture about the Sokovia accords but they’re mostly background material for a story that largely stands alone. It’s not about “wedging in” unnecessary references, as Feige stressed.
“You take space that needs to be filled anyway with something, and sometimes make it connective stuff, which is fun.”
4. Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate
And harder than it sounds.
Feige and his team work hard with individual directors to maintain a precise continuity, and some filmmakers chafe under that program. Ant-Man famously lost director Edgar Wright because, as he recently put it to Variety, “I wanted to make a Marvel movie but I dont think they really wanted to make an Edgar Wright movie.”
But in the best of circumstances, a director is able to come in and not just execute Marvel’s vision, but make it “a trillion times better.” “Sometimes that’s improving an idea we have, sometimes that’s doing the exact opposite of an idea we had, but it’s great, so we go with the new idea,” said Feige. “For the best of our filmmaker relationships, that’s the way it’s always worked.”
In the case of Spider-Man: Homecoming, Feige credited Watts a relatively unknown director who’d only directed a couple of indies before he won the Spidey gig with establishing the youthful tone of the movie. Watts, in turn, praised Marvel for giving him the support and the freedom he needed to succeed.
“I feel like they’ve built this really strong support system that someone can walk into with a specific take and really run,” Watts said.
5. Jump out of the plane
So, yes, for all of Feige’s demurrals that there is no magic soup recipe to explain Marvel’s success, it’s clear they’ve hit upon some combination of wild ambition, intense collaboration, and focused storytelling that works and has worked reliably now for a decade.
Still, filmmaking is never a risk-free endeavor, as Feige pointed out.
“Our formula always is, creatively, with the creative team at Marvel Studios, with the creative partners and collaborators that we hire to work on the movies you basically go, hold hands and jump out of the plane and hope you can build a parachute before you hit the ground.”
So far, Marvel’s 15 for 15 on parachutes, with no plans to stop jumping out that plane. Maybe they’ll face-plant eventually. Maybe they’ll hit upon some other reason to stop jumping. As of right now, though, no one’s flying higher than they are.