'Infinity War' caps a decade of success for Marvel Studios

LOS ANGELES — Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige talks about his job like a fan who's just lucky to be there.

To hear his genuine enthusiasm about the movies, the actors, the audience and the stories almost belies the fact that he is essentially the architect of and driving force behind Hollywood's most valuable brand that has in just over 10 years netted over $14.8 billion in worldwide grosses (according to comScore) and become the envy of every studio executive in town.

He's a mogul with a fanboy's verve who has helped to change the very fabric of the entertainment industry.

Ten years ago, many moviegoers didn't know who Iron Man was, and those who did thought of him as a minor comic book character. On Thursday, Marvel Studios' 19th film, "Avengers: Infinity War," an epic mashup of characters once considered to be part of the "superhero B-list," from Iron Man to Star Lord, opens in theaters worldwide. It is cruising for a record-breaking debut that could surpass "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" as the biggest opening ever.

The scope of the Marvel effect is somewhat difficult to pin down, especially with a force as formidable as The Walt Disney Co. behind it. (Disney acquired Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion in 2009.)

It's revitalized careers (Robert Downey Jr.), minted movie stars (Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans and Chris Pratt, to name a few), and become an outpost for Oscar-winners too (like Robert Redford, Gwyneth Paltrow, Anthony Hopkins, Natalie Portman, Jeff Bridges, Michael Douglas and Cate Blanchett).

And beyond that, every few months the studio seems to be breaking new ground, whether it's as small as a change in tone, like "Thor: Ragnarok," or as big as producing a downright cultural phenomenon, such as "Black Panther," now the third highest-grossing domestic film of all time.

"We dream big at Marvel Studios. We have very lofty aspirations at Marvel Studios. For those dreams to be surpassed is saying something," Feige, 44, said of "Black Panther's" success.

And it shows no sign of slowing down, or running out of story. They have 70 years of comic book source material to draw on, after all.

"There are still things that are key elements to a lot of our characters in their comic incarnations that we haven't even done yet for characters who have had three or four movies," Feige said. "It is an amazing wealth of creative material to pull from."

Feige is amused when reporters try to predict Marvel's next move, or make big conclusions based on what's just happened. Under Feige, Marvel is not looking in the rear-view mirror.

When "Thor: Ragnarok" came out, he remembers reading articles declaring that, "Marvel is committing to a surrealist, silly tone" and just laughed.

"I thought, 'We have 'Black Panther' coming out in three months! They don't even know what's coming,'" Feige said. "We're always thinking ahead. Just when people think they can pin us down, we go somewhere else and that's going to happen again after 'Infinity War' in the build-up to the next Avengers film. And we had meetings earlier today about 2024 and 2025."

Misunderstanding Feige's vision is almost a tradition at this point, going back to Comic-Con in 2006 where he revealed his plans for the first few films —Iron Man, Ant-Man and The Incredible Hulk — and all anyone wrote about is how Marvel Studios didn't have the rights to Spider-Man (Sony does), the X-Men or the Fantastic Four (those reside at 20th Century Fox).

Now, few would argue that Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Black Panther, the Guardians of the Galaxy and even Doctor Strange and Ant-Man aren't veritable A-listers on their own, and even more powerful together, making up what is perhaps Marvel's greatest innovation — the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This idea of an interconnected, ever-expanding "universe" of characters and films is something that many have since tried to copy to varying degrees of success. It seems audiences don't begrudge Marvel for creating the concept, but are somewhat more skeptical of those trying to capitalize on it.

"(Marvel's) approach doesn't seem nearly as cynical as when you see another studio trying to do it with, say, Ghostbusters or DC," said Wall Street Journal reporter Ben Fritz, who delves into Marvel's history in the book "The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies." ''People are like, 'Oh I know what you're doing, you're trying to copy Marvel.' But Marvel did it first and Marvel has still done it best."

"Sequel fatigue" doesn't even seem to apply to Marvel films anymore.

"I think you can look at Marvel as a grand narrative experiment," said 'Infinity War' co-director Joe Russo. "Never before in films have we seen this many franchises combined over this many years into one giant mosaic. Two-hour, two-dimensional storytelling has dominated American culture for 100 years and now we're consuming content with such extreme speed that we need new forms of storytelling. I think what Marvel is doing is a new form of storytelling."

"Infinity War" co-screenwriter Stephen McFeely, who also co-wrote the three Captain America films, said Feige should get the film academy's Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for his impact on the industry.

"He's clearly changed the way Hollywood works, or at least the top box office end of it," McFeely said. "It's in part because Kevin has a really good mind for story — he's ambitious — but he's not so ambitious that he's not going to do the right thing for the movie in front of his face."

While navel-gazing isn't Feige's favorite activity, the 10-year anniversary of "Iron Man" hitting theaters has provided an excuse to reflect a bit. He still remembers the early days, when they had everything to prove and felt grateful for the chance to produce films on their own. While the grand plans and concurrent filmmaking have gotten more complex over the years and "the days have gotten longer," Feige said the fundamental processes for how they make films goes back to the beginning.

"It was in the cutting rooms of 'Iron Man 1' that in a lot of ways the Marvel Studios process was born — of just keep trying things and keep turning things over and don't rest on your laurels and just because something is working doesn't mean it can't work better," Feige said.

Audiences won't have to wait too long for another Avengers, either. The fourth Avengers film, also directed by Joe and Anthony Russo and written by McFeely and Christopher Markus is just around the corner, set for a May 2019 release. It's a continuation of the story that begins in "Infinity War," where a still-fractured Avengers face Thanos (Josh Brolin). Little is being revealed beyond that. The film premiered Monday night in Los Angeles and is said to be full of surprises.

"We make movies we believe in. We make movies that we think will be entertaining to ourselves and think about ourselves as the first audience members for any movie we make. Any idea that comes up in a room: Would we be entertained by this? Would we be moved by this? Would we be surprised by this?" Feige said.

"It goes back to the movies I loved growing up. I always loved sequels. I never found myself being cynical or dismissive of sequels. If they were bad, I was disappointed. But I always loved the promise of seeing the further storylines or further adventures of characters I'd grown to love. That's all we're doing."