He is the master of the universe. And he's only 40.
Kevin Feige, president of production at Marvel Studios, oversees the most popular franchise in movies today -- the Marvel Cinematic Universe ("Iron Man," "Captain America," "Thor," "Hulk," "The Avengers"). The primary innovation among the eight films (and counting) is that they interconnect: The movies have different protagonists and settings, but share characters and intertwine story lines, just as the comics have for decades.
"We were always interested in doing it, but there wasn't an opportunity until we had our own studio," Feige says by phone from London. "So when we got the financing to make the movies ourselves, and we had access to every character that wasn't already tied up with a studio, which of course 'X-Men' and 'Spider-Man' were, but there were thousands of others that weren't, then we could do it.
"That was secondary to the goal of making a great 'Iron Man' movie, which was our first one out. That's why it wasn't until after the credits that we had the little Nick Fury piece; he says to Tony and to the audience, 'You're part of a bigger universe; you just don't know it yet."'
It's not as if an executive is going to boast about his studio's drive to manufacture the most mediocre product possible. Countless sequels do little more than harvest parts of previous episodes, yet continue to drip cash from their mottled udders. Not so with the eight Marvel films, which have consistently taken their source material -- and their audiences -- seriously.
The results have been spectacular, with "Avengers" and "Iron Man 3" soaring past the billion-dollar mark in worldwide grosses while maintaining high marks from critics and audiences. Anticipation builds from film to film, just as fans of the comics waited with bated breath to see how plots would develop over several issues or find out who would win in a fight, Thor or Iron Man.
Movies, though, present the high-stakes logistical issues of assembling and reassembling all-star casts over several entries, and incur escalating contracts -- Robert Downey Jr. was named Hollywood's highest-paid actor by Forbes this year. And if one link in the chain were a stinker, it would be that much harder to get audiences turned off by, say, "Incredible Hulk" to give "Captain America" a chance.
The whole thing was no small gamble for a fledgling studio making a big-budget movie about a lesser-known superhero, starring a talented performer (Downey) struggling to overcome personal issues and hits to his reputation.
Yet they went for it, tossing Samuel L. Jackson into the end of the first "Iron Man" as Fury, touting the birth of the Avengers Initiative.
"That was the start of our dipping our toe into the notion of, 'I wonder if this would excite people as much as it excites us,"' says Feige. "That continued with 'Incredible Hulk,' with Tony Stark showing up at the end of that film, and the response was very, very positive."
Feige clears up a few things -- Ang Lee's "Hulk" is definitively not in continuity; there are no plans to bring Marvel heroes at other studios (including the X-Men, Fantastic Four and Spider-Man) into the fold, although Daredevil is back in Marvel's hands; and Edgar Wright's long-awaited "Ant-Man" is now in preproduction.
And apart from the most earthbound "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" (due in April), the franchise is shifting into a cosmic phase with "Thor 2" and the upcoming "Guardians of the Galaxy."
"We loved the characters, we loved their group dynamic," he says of one of the company's more motley crews, which includes a rainbow coalition of aliens, a hyperintelligent tree and a genetically engineered raccoon. "So much of Marvel Comics are focused on outer space and the cosmic. 'Guardians' seemed like the perfect way to fully embrace that and do it in a way that had a human element -- Peter Quill (played by Chris Pratt), the lead of that story line, is from Earth, so he can be our eyes and ears into that world.
"They finished filming last week."
Thor's world definitely fits into that galactic groove, with its realm-hopping and pseudoscientific explanations of magic and ancient myth.
"Thor inhabits a unique part of the Marvel Universe, certainly apart from the other Avengers," says Feige, acknowledging the new film's epic scope. "But we're far more interested in the fact that it's about family rather than about kings and thrones. It's about the relationship between those brothers (Thor and Loki), Thor's maturing relationship with his father. Those are the things we hope make this otherwise fantastical superhero relatable.
"He's still somewhat hotheaded. He's still willing to get into a fight at any moment. But he does so now with the maturity of someone Who went through the events of the first 'Thor' movie and, in particular, the events of 'The Avengers.' You see that in his interactions with his father in the first movie; he's screaming, 'You're an old fool!' at him," Feige says, laughing. "In this one, it's much more reasoned."
Feige and the studio continue to roll the dice, choosing filmmakers for "Thor 2" and "Guardians" without typical blockbuster cred. "Guardians" is directed and rewritten by James Gunn, known for indies such as "Slither" and "Super," while "The Dark World" moves on from the first chapter's Kenneth Branagh to "Game of Thrones" director Alan Taylor. At this point, though, Marvel is playing with the house's money.
Feige says the most surprising aspect of this epic winning streak is that "mainstream audiences have really embraced this notion of interconnectivity, that characters are inhabiting the same universe that comic fans have known and loved for years. That's wholly new for film-going audiences. I thought it would be a longer evolution before people really accepted it the way they have.
"I love that we're turning millions of people who maybe have never read a comic before into comics fans, whether they know it or not."