In 2018, in the lead-up to the release of Avengers: Infinity War, Rotten Tomatoes sat down for an extended interview with Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige, in which he gave us a complete oral history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first three phases. This week, as Marvel gets ready to release its first film into theaters in more than two years – the last being the Phase Three-capping Spider-Man: Far From Home – Feige again sat down with us for an exclusive extended chat, this time to reflect on the end of the Infinity Saga, the studio’s move into streaming limited series, and to preview some of the most anticipated titles coming up in a jam-packed Phase Four, from Chloé Zhao’s Eternals to Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.
At lot had changed since we last spoke. For starters, the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on Marvel Studios’ release calendar (Black Widow was delayed more than a year) and its shooting schedule; production shutdowns meant that Falcon and the Winter Soldier, once slated to be the studio’s first Disney+ series, ultimately had to follow WandaVision. Speaking of series: Disney launched its streaming service, Disney+, in November 2019, and with it came those two Marvel Studios series, plus Loki, currently airing, along with a dual same-day streaming/theatrical release of movies like Black Widow that will test the superhero giant’s box office might.
(Photo by ©Marvel Studios)
Then there was the corporate stand-off, in mid-2019, between Sony and Disney over deal terms related to their partnership on the Tom Holland Spider-Man movies, an impasse that threatened to pull Holland’s Peter Parker from the MCU together. We asked Feige about that period, one which he describes as “an emotional few months,” as well as other major moments for the studio over the last several years, including the recent acknowledgment that Loki Laufeyson is bisexual – and thus the first openly LGBTQ+ Marvel MCU character we’ve seen on screen – as well as the tragic death of Chadwick Boseman and what that means for the future of Black Panther.
Plus, Feige gives us rare insights into what we can expect from Phase Four’s big newcomers, including Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Eternals. But, in this first part of our interview, he takes us up to Black Widow, beginning with a look back at a moment from Phase Three that still brings him chills – and one which gave millions of fans a sense of hope as the world was mired in lockdown.
“Relatively early on in the pandemic, that clip from inside with audiences at Avengers: Endgame’s first theatrical run, went viral – with the people cheering for the ‘on your left’ moment and when the portals opened up. It was wonderful because it reminded me of Endgame and the year before – I think I was in one of those theaters where somebody had recorded that – so that feeling was very special. But coming in the midst of this pandemic, when we had spent so much time in our homes, not surrounded by other people, it was a wonderful reminder of community and of a shared experience. We’ve all shared the pandemic experience apart, but that clip did take on, I think, new meaning, even for me personally, during the lockdown last year – not just a memory of the year before and the wonderful achievement that the Russo brothers and our entire cast and everybody at Marvel Studios pulled off with Endgame, but a promise of the future and of being in a theater again and having a shared experience like that someday in the future. I think it gave us hope.”
— Chip Skylark (@mizzymicole) August 29, 2020
“I’ve sat in theater a number of times with [Black Widow] – some pre-pandemic and some post, tomorrow being the first time that I’ll be in a full theater watching the final version of the film with an audience. [Editor’s Note: Feige attended a fan screening in late June the day after this interview was conducted.] But every time we make a film, it is with the expectation of delivering on a promise of an experience, to be experienced together in a theater. And seeing where people laugh or seeing where people get very quiet and still, or where people cheer if we should be so lucky, in moments in the movie… We spend years and years trying to work up to those moments, and being in a theater and seeing it and seeing it happen, there’s nothing better. Every decision we make is from the point of view of sitting in a crowded theater experiencing the story.”
(Photo by Marvel Studios/Disney+)
“What you see now in Phase Four is still the combination of work of five or six years, in some cases. In the case of Shang-Chi, 10 or 15 years in the past – we have been working towards a Shang-Chi movie for many, many years; towards the Black Widow movie, as everybody knows, for many, many years. So those were always set as films. When Bob Iger told us about Disney+ and about his desire for us to produce shows for Disney+, it gave us a new avenue, frankly, to do something we hadn’t been considering before, which was really doing a deep dive on characters who deserve a deep dive but hadn’t had the chance yet. It took us four or five films to tell even a tiny story of Wanda Maximoff and The Vision.
Same thing with Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes. It’s a testament to those characters, and particularly to those actors, that the audience fell in love with them in what really amounted to a relatively short amount of screen time and a handful of films. But we knew they were being underutilized, both the characters and the actors, and we really wanted to have a showcase to show off how amazing those characters are and how amazing those actors are – and certainly Tom Hiddleston as Loki, as well. And also to do it in a new medium and do it in a way that couldn’t be done in a feature film.”
(Photo by Marvel Studios/Disney+)
“We were all fans of [Kathryn Hahn] at Marvel Studios. And she had come in for a general meeting coincidentally right around the time we were trying to cast Agnes-slash-Agatha. It was one of those, ‘Why didn’t we think of this before?’ Louis D’Esposito [co-president of Marvel Studios] actually sat down and had a general [meeting] with her. And it very quickly went from that: She’s great. What could she do for us someday? Anyway, who’s going to play Agatha? We really have to cast this part. Wait a second… It was honestly almost exactly like that.
One of the great things in building the MCU is seeing audiences respond to characters that they were not expecting or that they were not asking for. I wouldn’t say there was a huge contingency of people banging down the door for Agatha Harkness to appear in the MCU, but she’s a great character portrayed by a great actress. And by the first few episodes people are asking, ‘Where is she going to show up again? What else is she going to do?’ I think the same thing’s happening right now with John Walker from The Falcon and Winter Soldier series and certainly with Mobius M. Mobius as portrayed by Owen Wilson in the Loki series. So, that is something that is so important to the MCU: including new characters. The comics are filled with many lifetimes of spectacular characters and when you find the best actors to portray them it can quickly go from an audience never hearing of a character to them upset with us that we haven’t already announced their own standalone movie. And that makes us all very happy.”
Rotten Tomatoes: When will we see Agatha next? Someday. Someday soon. You will see Kathryn Hahn in Knives Out 2 next, then maybe an assortment of other things. But within the MCU, it can’t come soon enough. Let’s put it that way.
(Photo by © Marvel Studios)
“Of primary importance [with the creation of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier] was allowing Anthony Mackie to show the full range of what Anthony Mackie can do. Such an amazing, amazing actor, and same thing with Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes. But when old man Steve Rogers handed the shield to Sam Wilson at the end of Endgame, you could see a complexity in Anthony’s performance there. Old man Cap says, ‘How’s it feel?’ And Sam says, ‘Like it belongs to somebody else.’ And old man Steve says, ‘It doesn’t. It’s yours.’
It wouldn’t be that simple. It wouldn’t be that simple for anyone to step into those shoes that Steve Rogers had worn, but particularly for Sam Wilson, wearing the red, white, and blue in America would be complex. That is what we were interested in exploring. That’s what Anthony was interested in exploring – our fellow producers, Zoie Nagelhout and Nate Moore. And thankfully when Malcolm Spellman, our head writer, came on, is really when all of that it turned into the series that you saw.
It is a series that he had written with his writing staff before the pandemic. We’d started shooting that before lockdown. So [that was] in 2019. Some people have asked, ‘Were you surprised that it become even more relevant after 2020? What we’d gone through?’ And what Malcolm says is, ‘Well it was relevant in 2019 as well, it’s been relevant for 100s of years,’ which is exactly correct. Figuring out a way to both wear the red, white, and blue with pride, and acknowledge the past at the same time, seemed like an interesting needle to thread and one that we needed filmmaker like Kari Skogland and writer like Malcolm Spellman and his team to pull off. That thread will certainly continue into the future [in Captain America 4]. Yes, with our new Captain America.”
(Photo by © Marvel Studios)
“I think everything we do, I hope, are building blocks towards the bigger MCU while actually just being entertaining pieces of art in and of themselves. The Loki series explores an organization from the comics that we’ve been obsessed with for years at Marvel Studios called the Time Variance Authority. And honestly, 15, 20 years ago [we were] going, ‘This is a great idea. I wonder if we could ever do something with this…’
Honestly, [we were] thinking it was a pipe dream that would never come to fruition. (But Avengers was a pipe dream 20 years ago.) And now that we have this series, our producer Kevin Wright and our director Kate Herron and our head writer Michael Waldron and executive producer Stephen Broussard have taken the TVA conceit that we’ve loved so much and turned it into an entirely different way of looking at the MCU and looking at the timeline of the MCU.
And yes, the potential of alternate realities that we’ve heard whispers of from the Ancient One and from other characters in a few of our movies [is there], but [we’re] actually being able to explore it and try to understand it in, again, a rather subversive way – in a very bureaucratic organization that may or may not be telling the truth about the way things work. The title character also being someone who you shouldn’t necessarily take at face value, and is perhaps the most famous trickster that there is.”
(Photo by Marvel Studios)
“Tom [Hiddleston] is as great an actor as they come. He’s as charismatic a person as there is, but he also honestly loves that he’s been given this chance, from the moment we hired him with Ken Branagh on the first Thor film to the response that episode three [of Loki] got the other week when it debuted on Disney+. Tom is just as enthusiastic from that first call to each episode of Loki coming out. And that is so important. I think all of us at Marvel Studios try to maintain that enthusiasm and acknowledgement and humility of how lucky we are to be in this position. Tom can take that with his immense amount of talent and really rally a crew behind him as well, which is what he did on that show.
One of the other things that’s personally so exciting about continuing a franchise for this long is getting to evolve your relationship with the cast. Tom started as an actor that Ken Branagh knew who – as people may know – famously auditioned not for Loki, but for Thor, and then felt very thankful to get this job as Loki. I now find myself thankful that he said yes and that he is an executive producer on this Loki series and is helping us make the series what it is. Relationships evolving over the years is one of the other great pleasures of working with spectacular talents like that. And that’s true on films like Black Widow, which Scarlett Johansson was a producer on with us as well, and all of the Disney+ series.”
(Photo by Chuck Zlotnick. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.)
“Representation is important across the board, and the comics charts the path in almost all ways for what we do in the MCU. And in the comics there are many LGBTQ characters and we want to showcase that on the screen as well. We want to bring those characters to life on the screen. As Stan Lee used to say, ‘Marvel represents the world outside your window.’ And outside of our window there are all different types of people in all different types of places with all different types of preferences and we want that reflected in the MCU and in our fictional world as it is in our real world. So it is of utmost importance that when people go in and see one of our films, or log on to Disney+ and watch one of our series, that it represents the true world outside their window when it comes to the types of people portraying the heroes and the characters in our world.”
(Photo by Marvel Studios)
“Scarlett Johansson is just the perfect representation of an amazing actor lending their talents to our stories for a decade. That is an amazing privilege to have and one that we don’t ever take for granted. She was nominated for two Academy Awards in one year, a few years ago! She is spectacular and could do whatever she wants. That she chooses to continue to work and to bring Natasha Romanoff to life is a testament, I think, to the character of Natasha and how rich she is in the comics and how much more there was to explore – and a testament to Scarlett, who likes bringing these complex characters to life. It really is a perfect representation of when you find a perfect actor willing to dedicate their talents to an amazing character from publishing that you can go 10 years on and be on the verge of their first standalone movie – and thankfully our first movie in a theater in almost two years. I just can’t wait for people to see in a theater, or on Disney+ if they want. But to get out there and see what Scarlett and the entire team has done.”
(Photo by ©Marvel Studios)
“Yelena is a character that’s been the comics for many years now and a character that we’d wanted to bring to the screen for quite a while. Soon after we cast [Florence], I think she was nominated for Little Women, which was amazing. And again, like Scarlett, being able to traverse these worlds of classic literature like Little Women and moving over to what we consider also classic literature of the Marvel comics – and do both with equal import and with equal pouring of their heart and soul into it, which everybody, all of our filmmakers and writers and the entire team at Marvel Studios do. Florence did that tremendously well.
The very first question that often comes out of people seeing Black Widow for the first time is when will Florence Pugh show up again in the MCU? And my answer to that is always “not soon enough,” because she’s amazing. It’s another testament to Scarlett – who knew exactly the movie that we were making, who was a part of the development of the movie – [that she chose to] make that film an ensemble and to surround herself with new characters portrayed by new actors entering the MCU and allowing them all to shine, knowing that lifting them up lifts up the whole movie, which is what a smart producer does – which Scarlett is. So every compliment that Florence or David [Harbour] or Rachel [Weisz] or O-T [Fagbenle] get on a movie, I also turn back to Scarlett for being so smart to allow the film to be a showcase for multiple characters, which is what the best of our films can do.”
(Check back next week for the second half of our interview, where Feige previews Shang-Chi, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Eternals, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and more.)