More than just another superhero movie for Marvel Studios President and producer Kevin Feige, "The Avengers" represents the end result of over five years of ambitious planning, build up and creation of a Marvel movie universe, all leading up to the May 4 release of the film.
"It's been [planned since] 2006, 2007 and that's just sort of actively planning, we've been dreaming about it for years and years before that. I mean, the truth is part of me had a few moments watching the movie last night with an audience -- there were a few moments of a feeling of accomplishment and a feeling of achievement, but just before I could pat myself on the back too much I have 'Iron Man 3' starting in two weeks, I have my 'Thor 2' director starting -- it's a massive operation that we want to continue and we want to thrive, so there's never been at Marvel Studios a sense of resting on laurels," Feige told CBR News in a one-on-one interview.
"'Iron Man 3' being the next one up is a very different film than the others," Feige continued. "I am a big fan of continuing to redefine what a Marvel movie is, what a comic book movie is; I think we did that with 'Iron Man,' we did that with 'Thor,' we did that with 'Cap' and Joss [Whedon] has helped us doing it now on 'Avengers.' Shane Black is helping us do it on 'Iron Man 3.'"
Though "The Avengers" might be the cinematic result of several years of strategic planning, when it comes to superhero films Feige believes "Avengers" stands out from both the other Marvel films and the competition, namely DC Entertainment.
"I haven't seen 'Dark Knight Rises.' [Christopher] Nolan's tone is very specific and is pretty awesome and we're very different. I think that while we have, particularly in 'Avengers,' very serious moments and [it] is as dark and serious as the moments in any of our films, there's a sense of humor that goes along with it that Joss is an expert at and that we believe very strongly that Jon Favreau really helped define in the 'Iron Man' films, that allows, we believe, the audience to get in even deeper into the story," Feige said.
This Marvel humor, he told CBR News, was the secret to Marvel Studios' success.
"There's a lot of crazy stuff going on in our movies and we want people to believe in them and we want people to relate to them. When they're laughing, when they're cheering, you can suddenly hit them with something else -- you open up through humor and that tone, that fine line between the epic, the bombastic, the moving and the humor is to me that favorite part of stringing all these movies together," Feige said. "One of my favorite compliments coming out of many of our films is, 'I didn't think it would be so funny!'"
Naturally, talking about the film's humor brought Feige to discuss "The Avengers" writer/director Joss Whedon.
"He's the best! He is, as he said earlier today, the guy who'd make a joke at a funeral. It is entertaining to see his inappropriately timed humor, which makes it even funnier, but never breaking the reality of the moment," Feige said. "When you have a character like Tony Stark or an actor like Robert [Downey Jr.], that's also his stock and trade too."
Though Whedon wrote the screenplay, Marvel already knew they wanted "The Avengers" to involve the Cosmic Cube and the after-credits scene in "Thor" set up Loki and the Cube for the Marvel movie universe. While Marvel Studios knew the big plot points they wanted "The Avengers" to hit, they did not see Whedon's role as just penciling in the details.
"I would say he's more than just filling in, it's not like we had enough defined that we just needed someone to come in and color by numbers. If that's all we wanted, we'd hire very different filmmakers and wouldn't have as good of films," Feige said.
Many comic book fans are familiar with the Marvel Method of scripting, largely originated by Stan Lee, in which a writer delivers a looser outline of a comic book's plot to an artist rather than a detailed full script. Feige said Marvel Studios' approach to plotting the stories of their films is essentially done in this manner, despite operating in a completely different medium.
"There are similarities, it never even occurred to me before, [to use] the Marvel Method the way Stan [Lee] used to do it -- I don't think it's that much but there is a suggested road map that we provide and that we encourage them to follow in many ways, but we are open to and expect them to deviate from for the betterment of the individual films and Joss, I think, provided the best version of that," Feige said.
"We told him what characters we wanted, we told him how we wanted S.H.I.E.L.D. to be sort of the umbrella organization that tied it all together, we wanted the Helicarrier and we wanted Loki to be the bad guy and sort of that final, final battle in New York," Feige explained. "All of the specifics, all of the dialogue, all of the humor and the emotional states of the characters and the interconnected way the characters relate to each other is from the books, from the other movies and from Joss."
Another specific element Marvel Studios wanted was to involve Agent Coulson, a character created for the movie universe. Coulson first appeared in "Iron Man" and proved so popular among fans the studio ended up bringing actor Clark Gregg onboard for almost every Marvel movie.
"We realized that during production of 'Iron Man' he was so great and we ended up writing more and more scenes for him in that movie. We wanted him to, of course, come back in 'Iron Man 2' and for him to come back in 'Thor,' as you saw," Feige said.
For "The Avengers," Feige and Marvel Studios wanted to do even more with the character, something their director agreed with wholeheartedly.
"The good news was Joss not only liked that idea, he loved the idea. He loves Clark and the character of Coulson and brought him to his pinnacle in this movie," Feige said.
While Feige anticipated fans being excited for more Coulson, he was taken aback by the intense debate over what alien race Marvel would feature in the movie.
"Truthfully, they are Loki's army and what is most important about them is that they are Loki's army," Feige told CBR News. "The notion of Skrulls and Kree and the amount of speculation -- the great thing about the fans just want to know everything they don't know. They wanted to fill in the blank, and that blank wasn't particularly important of who the aliens were; we revealed Loki a long time ago, he was the main bad guy."
However, for die-hard Marvel Comics fans Feige recommended sticking around for a special after-credits scene that would reward some of their speculation.
"There's a reveal at the end -- the notion that Loki has made an arrangement with somebody, that somebody has provided these extremely deadly and creepy and cool aliens to fight alongside him and then to reveal who that somebody was, that's all Joss and that was sort of the big payoff," Feige said.
Loki's plotting, reprised by actor Tom Hiddleston, drives the vast majority of the movie and the producer told CBR News Marvel wanted Loki to be the main baddie for a number reasons.
"One is he had been set up so well in the 'Thor' movie; that movie is both an origin for Thor and Loki. We love Hiddleston but frankly we knew we wanted to do that before we even cast Hiddleston, so there was a lot of pressure to cast Loki because we knew he would be carrying two movies," Feige said. "We love Loki, we love villains that have a deep connection to one of the heroes and you sort of understand where he's coming from; whether you've seen 'Thor' or not, there's moments in this movie where he clearly has lost something, he clearly has been tossed away, he believed he had a throne, he was the rightful heir and now he's just going to take Earth.
"It was Loki in the 'Avengers' #1 comic who caused them all to come together, so we like the legacy of that all. Why reinvent the wheel when we don't have to?" Feige continued. "The order of the movies was very intentional, it allowed us to set up a villain in a deep and meaningful way to really blow it out in 'Avengers,' just like they did in 'Avengers' #1."
"The Avengers" also introduces actor Mark Ruffalo as the new Bruce Banner, the third actor to play the character following Edward Norton and Eric Bana.
"There had been discussion as to where to take that character and where to take the part and Joss had some ideas; he came to us and said, 'I'd like to think about another actor,' and we said, 'Well, much of what we like about 'The Avengers' is we're taking all the actors we had before and putting them together again, so we said it depends on who you're thinking of -- if you're thinking of A, B or C maybe not, if you're thinking of Mark Ruffalo we'd be open to a conversation,'" Feige recalled. "And he goes, 'Holy shit!' and takes a list out of his pocket, and at the top of his list was Mark Ruffalo! We had said that because Mark had come very, very close to playing Banner in 'The Incredible Hulk,' which Joss had no idea, we never talked about it before.
"It was one of those moments when you're so deeply on the same page without even realizing it," Feige added.
Though Marvel Studios has officially announced some of its next movies -- mainly sequels to the Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America franchises -- there has been off and on movement on an Ant-Man movie, tentatively to be helmed by director Edgar Wright, and a Runaways film, as well as talk about a possible Inhumans or Guardians Of the Galaxy film.
"The movies we've already announced are the ones we're working on most heavily and are the ones that are frankly taking up most of our imagination right now; how to bring Tony Stark back in a way that is unexpected and surprises people, how to evolve the Thor franchise and the Captain America franchise in new and unexpected ways to elevate them beyond what they started as," Feige said. "Doing something completely unexpected, outside the box, we're going to do that on these other Cap movies and Thor movies and Iron Man movies."
However, the producer added with a smile when asked about the possibility of an Ant-Man, Runaways, Inhumans or Guardians film, "Two of those four are much closer than people realize, and we'll be talking about them in the coming months!"
"The Avengers" arrives in theaters May 4.