Today, we think of Marvel as the monolithic studio that each year reliably releases two or three blockbusters based on its costume-clad comic-book superheroes. It has built movies like “Captain Marvel” and “Black Panther” into money-minting franchises, and when its latest offering, “Avengers: Endgame,” is released April 26, it will conclude a narrative spanning some 22 films that started with “Iron Man” in 2008.
But Marvel’s prosperous future was hardly a certainty a decade or so ago. In the mid-2000s it was a smaller, inexperienced company that controlled the film rights for only a few of its lesser-known characters — other studios had already brought “X-Men,” “Spider-Man” and “Fantastic Four” to theaters — at a time when no one in Hollywood was yet contemplating the idea of an interconnected universe of superhero movies.
That changed with the help of people like Kevin Feige, who had been an associate producer on “X-Men” before Marvel hired him in 2000; and Robert Downey Jr., the veteran actor who was almost no one’s idea of a mass-market magnet when he emerged as a candidate to play Tony Stark, the eccentric billionaire hero of “Iron Man.”
In interviews, Feige, now president of Marvel Studios, and Downey — a star of three “Iron Man”s, four “Avengers” and a “Spider-Man” — spoke about the origins of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the choices they made, and what it’s all meant as “Endgame” approaches. Here are edited excerpts from those conversations.
KEVIN FEIGE: In 2006, when we were making our first appearance as our own studio at Comic-Con, the articles written around that were basically: “Marvel’s going to try to make movies themselves now. Too bad they’ve got to scrape the bottom of the barrel.” And I remember feeling, wow, I don’t think it’s the bottom of the barrel.
Initially, there were 10 characters on an official list. And Iron Man was not one of them. Iron Man became one of them when the rights reverted back to Marvel from [New Line Cinema]; it instantly went to the top of the list. We were very excited that we could do something different with that film. We had that and “The Incredible Hulk” in the same year. And internally, at Marvel corporate, “Hulk” — by far, the better-known property — seemed like the slam dunk and “Iron Man” seemed like the risk.
Marvel started hiring cast and crew for “Iron Man” in 2006 — first, director Jon Favreau and then its star, Robert Downey Jr., both of whom were coming off recent flops.
ROBERT DOWNEY JR.: Jon and I had this connection. He’d had a movie that I very much enjoyed, and I’d had one that he very much enjoyed, bomb at the same time. His was “Zathura,” and mine was “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” And “Zathura” put him in a position to be considered viable and capable of doing an effects-driven movie. And “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” if not the best movie I’ve ever done, it’s the one I made the fewest mistakes in as an actor.
FEIGE: I was so impressed with “Elf” [directed by Favreau], which could simply have been a silly comedy but had so much heart and depth to it. It has actually great action sequences in it. If you remember, when Santa’s sleigh doesn’t have enough magic power and the world has to sing — it’s barely lifting out of Central Park and then it rockets over Fifth Avenue, I found myself cheering in a theater at this Will Ferrell comedy.
I have a distinct memory of being in this bullpen area of our production office, kicking around ideas with Jon, and Robert’s name came up. We both stopped and looked at each other, like: “Oh, that would be awesome. But nah, you can’t do that. Anyway, who else?” And we kept coming back to that.
DOWNEY: I took a meeting at Marvel. And then I was very pushy, to be honest, which is not really in my nature. But I just had a sneaking suspicion that I had nothing to lose. I decided to take it more seriously than I’d ever taken anything. I felt confident, and then I was told that the meeting went well, but I wouldn’t put too much on it, it’s probably not going to go your way. I refused to let go of it.
FEIGE: I remember saying to a room full of marketing executives: “If we do our job right, the name Tony Stark will be as famous as the name Iron Man. Because unlike a lot of hero movies, this character is as interesting and as engaging outside of his costume, as he is inside of his costume.” [Downey had] not done something like this before, which meant, I felt, a screen test would help convince anybody that needed to be convinced. He, to his credit, was absolutely willing to audition for it.
DOWNEY: I’m married to a producer, and I think it’s odd if somebody thinks they’re above any part of any process that’s required for any project. I’ve never said, “I don’t do that anymore.” [Pause] Nowadays I might.
Filming for “Iron Man” took place in 2007, at soundstages on the former site of the Hughes Aircraft Co. in Los Angeles.
DOWNEY: We were at an assembly hangar where they made the Spruce Goose. We haven’t started shooting yet, and we decide to take out a bunch of pellet pistols and put on protective eyewear, and me and Favreau and a couple other folks literally had a psychotic shootout. And I just thought that was the dumbest, unnecessary, insurance-risk thing I’ve ever done — and that’s really saying something. It was our comic-book D-Day. We knew it was upon us and we were about to start something that could wind up being culturally significant.
During production of “Iron Man,” Feige had a flash of inspiration.
FEIGE: I got a call from Carter Cohn, who represents Sam Jackson, and he goes, “Sam’s a big fan — do you guys have anything for him?” And in the Ultimate line of Marvel Comics, they had been drawing Nick Fury exactly as Sam Jackson. I went: “Oh. What if he did a cameo for us as Nick Fury?” We put it at the end of the credits so that really only hard-core fans were there. We didn’t interrupt the movie, where people go: “Why is Sam Jackson wearing an eye patch? What’s going on?” And then, a couple months after “Iron Man,” “The Incredible Hulk” came out, and Robert Downey walks into the end of that movie. We could see that, in a best-case scenario, we could start building the universe.
Moviegoers got one of their first looks at “Iron Man” in summer 2007, when Favreau, Downey and the cast introduced footage from the film at Comic-Con International in San Diego.
DOWNEY: My missus always says the one thing she’ll never forget is watching me watch the footage at Comic-Con. Because she said I was literally trembling with excitement and satisfaction. And then I went to go shoot “Tropic Thunder.” I was showing Ben Stiller some of the footage from Comic-Con. He just looked at me in the most matter-of-fact way and said: “That movie’s going to be a hit. OK, let’s get back to set and rehearse this scene.” I was like, Oh. He doesn’t just say that sort of stuff. So that was really cool.
“Iron Man” was released May 2, 2008. In its opening weekend, it grossed more than $98 million, and future Marvel movies were no longer a possibility but a certainty.
DOWNEY: We were at Giorgio Baldi, which is a famous Italian joint. We had a little private room there on Friday night as the numbers came in from Paramount. And I felt like we were at a horse race and we were all betting on ourselves, and we kept betting higher. I was like, “We’re going to break 85 [million]!”
FEIGE: That Monday after the opening weekend, we announced dates for “Iron Man 2,” “Thor,” “Captain America” and “Avengers.” I remember being very excited that the movie worked well enough that we could do this. We’re gonna do the plan! This is going to be a big deal. And the press did not treat it like a big deal. It was a footnote to an article about the success of the “Iron Man” opening weekend. And I went, Oh, I guess people don’t get it yet. [Laughs]
DOWNEY: The real daunting thing was, oh, that’s right, we have to go do this again. We get a year break, and I stayed very busy that year, and then we had to do it again. The word “franchise” is a verb, if you ask me. You are iterating something that needs to be re-created in some way and expanded upon every time.
FEIGE: I started to use phrases like “Phase 1 of the MCU,” because I didn’t want to merely think of an “Iron Man” trilogy or a “Thor” trilogy. Which is really the way most people had been conditioned to think about franchises. It all came from the comics — individual characters would occasionally come together for a mega-event limited series, in which everything would change, and then they would go back into their own comics, with the new powers or the new costumes or the psychological changes from that big adventure. That’s what we could do with one phase, and then an “Avengers” movie, a second phase, another “Avengers” movie, and then a third one to close it out.
DOWNEY: The first “Avengers” tour was just mind-bogglingly cool and strange, considering that the film was about to be released but was already being treated like it was a phenomenon. The sheer fact that the world was going, oh, you actually got a lot of actors and actresses to get along for long enough.
As this latest phase of Marvel movies nears its conclusion, Feige and Downey tried to summarize the experience.
FEIGE: This has been my life for the better part of a decade. I’ve gotten married in that decade. I’ve had two kids in that decade. And I’ve produced 23 movies in that decade. I almost don’t want to stop and think about it, for fear of getting blubbery and embarrassing myself.
DOWNEY: If someone had walked into Giorgio Baldi that night and said, hey guys, I’m 10 Years From The Future Guy, let me tell what you started here. You would just go, “No, what if this goes wrong?” You’d be tripping on the what-if’s. It’s a faith-based activity.