To quote "Swingers," Marvel director emeritus Jon Favreau's first screenplay: Kevin Feige is the guy behind the guy behind the guy. As the president of Marvel Studios, Feige has ruled over Marvel's box-office supremacy, from "Iron Man" through "Marvel's The Avengers." In addition to that, Feige previously served as an executive producer on the original "Spider-Man" series of films and last year's franchise reboot, and was a producer on the first two "X-Men" features. In other words, it's hard to imagine modern comic book movies existing without him.
Which isn't to say Feige has it easy. After the global success of "Marvel's The Avengers," he's ready to start Phase Two for the studio with "Iron Man 3." That film will lead into another series of Marvel movies, composed of both sequels ("Thor: The Dark World," "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" and "Marvel's The Avengers 2") and new, hoped-for franchises ("Ant-Man," the space adventure "Guardians of the Galaxy"). All that has to happen while stars in the Marvel universe grow in fame and company figurehead Robert Downey Jr. weighs his future as Tony Stark.
"[An injury on the set of 'Iron Man 3'] got me thinking about how big the message from your cosmic sponsor needs to be before you pick it up," Downey told GQ in a recent interview. "How many genre movies can I do? How many follow-ups to a successful follow-up are actually fun?"
Well, in this case at least, "Iron Man 3" qualifies. The latest Tony Stark adventure is the best yet, thanks to Downey's always-reliable swagger as the billionaire inventor and fresh blood in the form of director Shane Black, the cult favorite behind Downey's underrated "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang."
Feige spoke to HuffPost Entertainment about Downey's future Marvel involvement, why Black was such a great choice to replace Favreau as "Iron Man" director, how Robert Redford wound up in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" and more.
These massive, three-part franchises rarely have a director switch -- Christopher Nolan did all the Batman films; Peter Jackson made three "Lord of the Rings" features and is now doing the same thing with "The Hobbit." Replacing Jon presented you with a unique opportunity in this blockbuster age: How did you decide on Shane?
Shane has been sort of in the shadows of "Iron Man" for a long time. "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" was one of the many films of Robert's that Jon Favreau and I really looked at and studied in the days when we were deciding that we had no choice but to cast Robert as Tony Stark. That movie is awesome, frankly, and Robert is awesome in it. Robert would go to Shane, occasionally, as a bit of a security blanket during the early days of production on "Iron Man 1." While Shane never came to set and never actually put pen to paper, he was a voice in Robert's ear and Favreau's ear on a couple of the scenes and character motivations throughout that process. When we knew that we needed to find a new filmmaker for "Iron Man 3," we met with a handful of people where we thought, "Let's see what they have to say." Shane was one of them, and Robert clearly had an affinity for Shane. To Shane's credit, he came in and probably met two or three or four times with us as we talked about what we had in mind for the movie and he talked about what he wanted to bring to it. It ended up being a perfect match.
What did you have in mind for this film?
This is the first part three that I've produced that is a Marvel Studios proper part three. For every "Toy Story 3," which is to say every great part three, there are many, many, many less-than-great part threes. Threequels as some people call them. I was hyper-focused on not falling into the trap of the threequel, which is to say getting comfortable having it be more of the same and sticking with a formula that works. We wanted to mix it up; I wanted this film to be as unique and surprising as the first "Iron Man" film. In a way, there had already been another voice: Jon's voice, obviously, in "Iron Man 1" and "Iron Man 2," which helped set the tone for all of the Marvel cinematic universe films, but Joss Whedon on "The Avengers," he brought his own unique voice to it. Because "The Avengers" came between "Iron Man 2" and "Iron Man 3," it allowed us the liberty to take "Iron Man 3" to another level; to dig deep into Tony's story line. To worry less about universe building and surprise you by focusing on Tony's journey.
Did you have final say on things in "Iron Man 3" -- since you've got the Marvel brand and future films to consider -- or does the proverbial buck stop with Shane?
It's all Marvel sandbox, right? We just play in it. Certainly Marvel is the 800-pound gorilla in that case, but one of the reasons the movie has turned out so well -- and all of the movies that we work on -- is because we want the filmmakers to have a voice. So, sometimes there's friction, but we want that. We don't want to hire a filmmaker, frankly, that does everything we tell them to do. We want someone who can bring a unique vision to it, and this movie, more than anything, is a Shane Black film through and through.
In the recent GQ profile on Robert, it sounded like he was nearing the end of his Tony Stark career. To me, this character isn't like James Bond, where audiences would accept a new actor in the role; Stark feels more like a modern-day Indiana Jones. You can't separate the role from the actor. Have you given thought to where the character goes if Robert steps away?
Well, look, I don't think Robert will be playing this character for another 30 years, and I certainly hope the character stays in movies for the next 30 years -- just like James Bond. I would say before George Lazenby and Roger Moore, Sean Connery was James Bond. It will take a while to fill any shoes, whether it's filmmaker shoes or writer shoes or certainly actor shoes. I think Tony Stark is an interesting enough and rich enough character that he can persevere. That being said, I hope that doesn't happen any time soon. It certainly is our plan to continue to have Robert Downey in the persona of Tony Stark for many, many years to come.
I love what "Iron Man 3" does with The Mandarin; it's a very unique take on the character. What went into the decision to portray him in that way?
It was one of the early ideas in development that we became very excited about. We knew what we wanted to do with Tony in the film, but with the villains, there is certainly reinterpretation that is required; Iron Man's rogue's gallery is not a deep bench, let's put it that way. It felt like a very Shane Black thing to do. It is very much The Mandarin as symbol and fear-monger, which is what he was in the comics. This is a very modern, if not post-modern, interpretation of that.
Sir Ben Kingsley plays The Mandarin; he's an Oscar winner. Gwyneth Paltrow is an Oscar winner. Robert and Don Cheadle are Oscar nominees. You just signed Robert Redford to star in the "Captain America" sequel. At this point, do you feel like you can get anyone to star in these films?
No, I don't feel that way. But I feel very, very lucky that we've developed a reputation as a safe haven for people who want to play. Again, getting back to the notion of playing in the sandbox -- it is a safe sandbox to play in. I think people are saying, "Oh, maybe I can go into these waters that I haven't before and not drown." We have a very strong, guiding hand. What Sir Ben has done with this character -- I went to Sir Ben's cottage in the middle of England and pitched him on what the character was and, boy, he embraced it right away. That's fun. Mr. Redford has already shot his first day for us on "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." We're very lucky that caliber of actor is so trusting of us.
Was the Redford casting a situation where you just thought, "We've got this role, let's call up Redford"?
You talk with agents every day and they keep you abreast of who's doing what, who's available and who's interested in what. We got an incoming call about Robert Redford, which is not a call you get every day and it's a call you don't want to screw up. It was very exciting.
As you mentioned, "Iron Man 3" works so well, in part, because it keeps things focused on Tony. Marvel has found a way to make these films as accessible as possible for all-audiences. As you get into this Phase Two, however, with more of the Marvel space adventures like "Guardians of the Galaxy," do you worry about alienating the audience at all?
I think we'd make movies very differently if we were only interested in the hardcore comic book fan. The truth of the matter is, it's very important to us that every movie stands alone; that every movie can provide an amazing two hours-plus of entertainment, with a beginning, middle and end. We try to have them work on both layers: For people who are following along and connecting the dots, it'll work, and for people who have never seen any of the other movies, it'll still work. I'd like to think as we make more movies and they become more successful, there are less and less people that have never seen any of the other ones. That allows us [some leeway]; we've established our own continuity within the movies. But it's really all about what's best for the movie, one at a time. Then, also, an overarching plan that can bob and weave. But it's always making sure that we're paying the closest attention to the single movie at hand.