When Marvel Studios announced that the third film in its Thor franchise was being turned over to Taika Waititi, a Kiwi director of small, idiosyncratic films, there was plenty of head scratching among Marvel fans. Waititi had plenty of Sundance cred, thanks to the vampire mockumentary What We Do In the Shadows; the quirky comedy Eagle vs. Shark; and Boy, a poignant coming-of-age tale, but the $200 million, men-in-capes genre was nowhere on his resume.
In the eyes of Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige, this was actually a selling point. As Feige saw it, Boy, which won rave reviews and became one of New Zealand’s top-grossing films, was proof that Waititi could give Thor: Ragnarok the kind of emotional resonance he was looking for. “Boy is hilariously audacious in its comedy, but it’s also deeply moving and deeply emotional,” Feige says. “And that’s a hard balance to have, and that’s what we wanted to strive for with Ragnarok. We wanted to continue the themes we’d seen in the previous Thor films, but do it in a very different way.”
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In Hollywood, where studios typically seek the biggest names to steer their biggest tentpoles, Marvel’s nonintuitive approach to filmmaking is its own kind of audacity. It’s also an instinct that’s been paying off mightily for the company. Starting with Iron Man in 2008, which combined a director whose biggest credit was the Will Ferrell comedy Elf (Jon Favreau) with a star whose career had been overshadowed by TMZ headlines (Robert Downey, Jr.), Marvel’s surprising creative choices have translated to box office gold. That film, followed by 17 other titles including Thor, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Avengers, and most recently Black Panther–which blew away box office predictions over President’s Day weekend, grossing nearly $400 million worldwide in its first four days of release–have generated more than $13.5 billion at the global box office, making the company one of the biggest success stories in modern Hollywood. Marvel has also been a pioneer in the way it thinks about its body of films, all of which share interconnected characters and plot lines in a so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe, a concept that has been attempted unsuccessfully by many of Marvel’s peers.
Feige says there’s no secret formula to why Marvel so consistently strikes a chord with audiences, and that it’s really about peeling away the stereotype of what a super hero movie is, and instead simply asking the question of what makes a good film. As well as going back to the original source material: comic books.
“People think (a super hero movie) means, Oh, yes, you run into a phone booth, you put on a cape, and you stop a bank robbery,” Feige says. “When in fact, if you were to read comics, you’d realize there are as diverse characters and storytelling in comic form as there is in any prose narrative. Yet people don’t attribute the same prejudice to films based on novels because people inherently understand, Oh, well, that’s what a novel is. All novels are different. Well, all comics are different. The storylines are different. What the characters go through is different. I think we’re doing that, showcasing on a much bigger canvas all the differences in the genre.
“So we do say, We want to make a space movie. We want to do a high school movie. We want to do a heist movie. We want to do a thriller. That his how we think about all our different films. What kind of films do we want to make?”
This distinct approach to every film is enhanced by hiring directors like Favreau and Waititi—as well as James Gunn (who helmed the two Guardians films) and Ryan Coogler (Black Panther)—who bring their own stylistic approach while stile working within the Marvel framework. As Feige says, “It’s about finding these filmmakers who can guide” a film. “Taika has said in interviews, and I think it’s a good description of what it’s like, which is, we put him at the helm of a very large ship which is steering into rough waters. And he thinks it’d be cool to head right for that iceberg. And it would! But we sort of whisper, ‘Maybe just a little to the left, so we don’t hit.’ Which I thought was funny.”
Black Panther is yet another major zag for the company. It’s the first super hero movie to star a black lead (Chadwick Boseman), and tackles issues of isolationism, African identity and geo politics, while “dealing with royalty in a very different way than we’ve seen before,” Feige says. It has been wildly embraced by critics and fans not just for its cool effects but for creating a story about strong, important black characters that doesn’t rely on the tropes (poverty, slavery) that Hollywood typically relies on when making films about the black experience.
But if the film has anyone thinking that Marvel is suddenly going serious or political–in contrast to the comedy streak it’s been on recently with films like the two Guardians movies and Thor: Ragnorak—Feige says it’s best not to try to figure the company out. “Just when people think they have a narrative on us,” he laughs, “we’re gonna do something else.”