Marvel’s Miracle Man at a Crossroads, Part 2: Feige’s Star System

Kevin Feige
Photo by Jeff Gritchen
Matthew Belloni
December 12, 2021

Quick, name the most important moment in the rise of Marvel Studios. You’d probably say the May 2008 release of Iron Man, which proved Marvel could produce its own films and take lesser-known characters to box-office heights. Or maybe Disney’s $4.24 billion purchase of the company 18 months later, supercharging Marvel content, theme park rides, and my kid’s awesome Hulk PJs. Or perhaps when Samuel L. Jackson signed an unprecedented deal to play Nick Fury in nine pictures, signaling the interlocking narrative strategy that would lead to the dominance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

But if you ask people inside Marvel, many will cite a much quieter 2015 event. That’s when Marvel president Kevin Feige engineered a daring escape from under chairman Ike Perlmutter. Perlmutter was a cheap, impulsive, rude, and short-sighted Trump crony who would annoy the crap out of everyone (including Disney’s then-C.E.O., Bob Iger) with angry early-morning phone calls from New York or Florida. By 2015, Feige all but threatened to walk if Iger didn’t move Marvel’s films (and later television) under Alan Horn’s studio unit. Iger did, and the result wasn’t just better, more diverse creative output, including Black Panther and Captain Marvel, two films Perlmutter had actively blocked. Feige was also free to refashion the Marvel culture in his own image: Low-key but hyper-competitive; creative-driven yet centralized around his own personal vision for Marvel; fan-first while taking more risks—well, “risks” under the limitations of the Marvel banner. No producer or executive in the modern era has known his audience better than Feige. 

Marvel has been so successful for so long, and Spider-Man: No Way Home is about to set a pandemic-era box office benchmark, so I was curious how Feige is using his power. If we’ve reached Peak Marvel, as I posited on Thursday, what does that leverage look like in practice?

I checked in with some top talent reps to survey what it’s like dealing with Marvel these days. I expected tons of gripes—Marvel in the Permutter days was notoriously difficult on deals—but got only a few. (Agents, for starters, would very much like Feige to call them and not their clients directly.) Either Marvel has beaten the town into submission, or with great power has come a certain responsibility. Don’t get me wrong—at Marvel, Feige is the only true star, the deals are below market and the I.P. is what’s valued above all else. But much like the “HBO tax” that existed for years in TV, where talent would take less money just to be associated with the HBO brand halo, the “Marvel tax” seems to be thriving. And most creatives are fine with that.              

It’s a testament to Feige, his track record, and the culture he’s built. Marvel is really the only place an actor is guaranteed to reach a global audience, which can be monitored many ways. And even on tough, problematic shoots, like the back-to-back Avengers films, or Captain Marvel, or the recent Eternals, reps for filmmakers I spoke with admitted their clients “love that Kevin Feige,” as one noted. Even off the record, they say he’s decisive, supportive, collaborative, willing to place big bets on untested talents—remember, before Marvel, the Russos were directing episodes of NBC’s Community—and totally in charge of the finished product. Unlike at most studios, filmmakers accept that Feige is the actual auteur here. They may not love it, but they know exactly what they are signing up for. 

Feige stays mostly out of dealmaking, but his reputation also helps Marvel on that front. With exceptions, there’s just not much wiggle room with Marvel’s business affairs, run by head of legal Dave Galluzzi and Disney E.V.P. Bernie Brandis; they simply inform the reps, “This is how we do things.” For films, Marvel typically pays smaller fees up front in exchange for box office bonuses, but no percentage-based backend. That’s why you see decent-sized stars making as little as $1 million up front for hefty roles. The model is interesting, of course, because Disney’s definition of success is shifting away from theatrical and toward streaming subscribers. Just ask Scarlett Johansson. Yet I’m told new deals are evolving to provide for alternative comp structures when movies go day-and-date or even to D+ or Hulu exclusively.

Like on most studio sequels, there are bigger upfront paydays (in the $6 million to $8 million range) for filmmakers and star talent that return. Benedict Cumberbatch, for example, is getting $7.5 million plus box office bonuses for May’s Doctor Strange 2, according to a well-placed source, a big bump from the first stand-alone. The cast of Shang-Chi is negotiating right now for raises on the sequel, and director Destin Daniel Cretton is already locked into an 8-figure overall deal that covers a film and a Disney+ series. In the old days, WME probably would have considered separate film and TV deals for him.   

The bonuses are good, but the current players aren’t earning the massive windfalls like the original Avengers. Everyone knows that Robert Downey, Jr., thanks to his first Iron Man deal, made hundreds of millions of dollars off the MCU movies. And Johansson’s arrangement for Black Widow—a $20 million fee plus bonuses up to $50 million—is considered high for the next phase of stand-alone pics. Marvel, now far bigger than any individual star, uses its leverage. And Hollywood doesn’t seem to mind.

For the Disney+ projects, Marvel has basically flipped the usual hierarchy, elevating directors as essentially the showrunners of projects, commoditizing the writing process, with Feige—or one of his lieutenants—as the ultimate showrunner. Marvel’s D+ series operate more like films; they are built like one-off events, even if they plan to go multiple seasons, and, like the MCU, they are part of a system. Feige simply identifies talent he likes, regardless of their stature, and plugs them into that system. 

Why do writers with choices want to be involved? Because these are built-in hits that will actually get made and watched. The trade-off is these are assignments, not original creations. Greg Berlanti has probably made $500 million creating shows based on WarnerMedia’s D.C. properties. Alex Kurtzman is said to be making about $150 million to oversee the Star Trek franchise for ViacomCBS. But at Marvel, Feige, his No. 2 Louis D’Esposito, as well as executives like Victoria Alonzo, Nate Moore, Trin Trahn, Stephen Broussard, and Brad Winderbaum, essentially act as producers, overseeing individual projects but also the larger Marvel machine

That doesn’t mean Marvel minimizes its talent. Jac Shaeffer impressed Feige as head writer on Marvel’s first D+ show, WandaVision, so he signed the writer-director to a rich three-year deal with both Marvel and Disney’s 20th TV. But only after she shopped her deal wide, I’m told. HBO, by contrast, likely would have locked in Shaeffer well before potentially losing an Emmy nominee to a rival. 

All this is why Feige was so pissed about the Johansson lawsuit. In refusing to negotiate a deal with C.A.A. when Black Widow went to Disney+, Disney C.E.O. Bob Chapek publicly destroyed the goodwill that Feige had worked to create with talent. Not everyone makes ScarJo money, but they were fine with that because they got to work with Feige, and he had their backs in success. Chapek blew that up, and Feige’s displeasure is one of the reasons that Disney settled. It’s a testament to Feige that he is still close with Johansson. He made a rare non-Marvel event appearance at her Cinematheque honor last month, where he said they are developing a new project together.

Where will Marvel deals go from here? It depends entirely on the level of production and the success of the product. The output isn’t showing any signs of slowing, and Chapek will likely demand even more for streaming. As I mentioned Thursday, Marvel is now always on, and it will need talent to fill those pipes. As long as they understand the rules of the game.    

“It’s definitely a machine,” one manager told me of how he advises clients considering Marvel. “It’s grueling, and Kevin is the star. It’s not good for some people but it’s great for others, and that’s how it is.”