Characters adored by children of all ages for decades on end. Multiple storylines that have wound a fiendish web through the entire history of a famous publishing firm. Obscure references that most people would find impenetrable, but learned fans have memorised in vivid detail. The expectations of countless superfans. And lots and lots of money, both spent and earned. Yes, it’s fair to say that Marvel Studios president of production Kevin Fiege has more than his fair share of intimidating plates on heavy rotation.
Fiege, who joined the cinematic arm of Marvel comics in 2000, has worked as either executive producer, associate producer or bona-fide producer on 24 Marvel-related films and animated TV shows. But the stakes of his career were raised dramatically around five years ago when Marvel Studios decided, after years of working in cahoots with other Hollywood outfits such as Columbia and 20th Century Fox, to cut loose and do things their way.
The move was inevitable: rights acquisitions by other firms had gobbled up A-list characters such as Spider-Man and the X-Men, leaving parent company Marvel Entertainment with a filing cabinet of also-rans. And because of copyright and other intellectual property constraints, one of the traditional pleasures that Marvel fans have tended to enjoy, namely characters guest-starring in each other’s titles – otherwise known as ‘crossovers’ – were nowhere to be found. If Fox owned the X-Men characters and Columbia owned Spider-Man, they couldn’t appear in each other’s movies unless the studios decided to work together. And that didn’t happen, because those studios were too busy trying to beat each other at the box office to worry about what the geek community was missing out on.
(In one particularly annoying case, a journalist character in Fox’s Daredevil film, who worked at the Daily Bugle in the comics, had the name of his paper anonymised because the Bugle was tied up in Columbia’s Spider-Man rights.)
Helpfully, though, the power of the geek dollar is something that Marvel Studios has always had at the forefront of its business strategy and, as the person responsible for setting its films in motion, Fiege benefitted hugely from the company’s sale to Disney in 2009: pretty much the equivalent of a football team winning promotion from the Championship to the Premier League, with all the attendant financial windfalls.
Starting with its first solo venture Iron Man in 2008, and running through the films it has made under Disney, Marvel Studios has so far spent around $860m on production and scooped some $2.3bn in ticket receipts. A capital-R Result. And its careful process of re-acquiring rights to characters that had been purchased by other studios (Black Widow and The Hulk, to name but two) has laid the groundwork for its most ambitious film to date: The Avengers (re-titled in the UK to the naff Avengers Assemble to avoid confusion with a moribund TV show, now mostly remembered for Diana Rigg’s leather catsuit).
A kind of costume party for the Friday-night brain, The Avengers is the outcome of Fiege’s long-term plan to pull the gang together for a big-scale destruct-a-thon in the streets of a major US city. The film intertwines three franchises (Iron Man, currently gearing up for his third film, plus Thor and Captain America – each awaiting their second celluloid sorties); resurrects a fourth (Hulk puts in an appearance after two films that underperformed, one of which was actually quite strong and inventive), and sets up a fifth (The Avengers itself).
All of which implies that Fiege has had to be as much of a screenwriter as a producer – taking a bird’s-eye view of the various plotlines that have emerged from the sagas and ensuring that they all dovetail seamlessly. It has never been done before. And, as such, it has spawned its own particular clutch of complications. In a flurry of what could have been inordinately negative publicity, it emerged last week that the Avengers cast was heading back to the studio to shoot extra material mere hours after the film’s media premiere – possibly to plug a plot hole. Let slip by Iron Man star Robert Downey Jr, much to Fiege’s irritation, it was left to the production honcho to tell the press: “Do you always trust everything Robert Downey Jr tells you?” But the truth of the extra shoot was later confirmed – casting a momentary shadow of doubt over what has so far been a cast-iron hype drive for a film that opens in the UK as soon as the end of April.
As ever with the entertainment world, our popcorn-powered joy is the producer’s headache. But, barring the odd Downey-shaped hitch, Fiege is fighting Marvel’s cinematic cause with his own brand of managerial superheroism.