As long as media were arriving on the lot to see the movie anyway, Marvel Studio president Kevin Feige figured they might as well get a behind-the-scenes Marvel sneak peek. “We haven’t done this, come upstairs and walk around,” he told me, “and it felt like it was time to do it. We have some cool stuff on the walls.”
Indeed, much like the Lucasfilm headquarters in San Francisco or Steven Spielberg’s Amblin on the Universal lot, the hallways are studded with sacred icons and objects from the Marvel Comics Universe, from iterations of “Iron Man” suits and Captain America’s shield to Thor’s mighty hammer. Work cubicles are lined with comics and action figures, and Marvel’s meeting and screening rooms are named after the 14 MCU titles that have amassed $10.9 billion worldwide since “Iron Man” opened on May 2, 2008.
Here’s what I learned from my Magical Marvel Tour.
1. Marvel will keep breaking box office records.
When Disney opens “Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2” on May 5th, “The Fate of the Furious” will swiftly lose its perch at the top of the 2017 blockbuster heap. Watching this popcorn movie at Disney, the screening room audience was having a high time, laughing and enjoying a classic Disney E-ride. And I was not disappointed, even when the inevitable third-act pixel overload set in. Marvel always delivers its trademark mixture of fun, spectacle and heart.
2. The characters rule.
The audience knew these characters from the 2014 space-opera “Guardians,” which was based on a lesser-known Marvel comic and exploded at the box office, grossing an unexpected global total of $771 million. The Guardians family are all damaged but impressive, likable but not perfect. Chris Pratt is needy hunk Peter Quill, AKA Star-Lord, who looks for his father in all the wrong places, from 80’s star David Hasselhoff to new character Kurt Russell’s godlike Ego. Zoe Saldana is his romantic interest Gamora, a tough green warrior with an equally bad-ass sister (Doctor Who companion Karen Gillan), Dave Bautista is massive but tender-hearted Drax the Destroyer, Michael Rooker is blue snaggle-toothed buccaneer Yondu. And then there are the animated characters: Bradley Cooper voices impulsively trigger-happy CG creature Rocket Raccoon, and the adorable baby of the family is wide-eyed tree-sprig Groot, voiced by Vin Diesel (“I am Groot!”).
The characters drive the action, and no matter how crazy things get, they are true to the themselves.
3. Stick with the comics.
That’s the mantra at Marvel, which keeps a full comics library on-hand for everyone to use. Marvel maintains a full-time concept art group of five artists — rare in Hollywood — to create key frames and designs for the characters and look of the movie, based on notes from filmmakers and producers, for later full execution. “We are respectful to the source material and to the fans,” said “Ant-Man” director Reed. “We are always referring back to the comic.”
That’s right, folks, woman superhero Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) looks just like the comics.
4. Pick out-of-the-box directors.
“Guardians” director James Gunn had directed just two indie features when Feige saw something in his comic sensibility and cinematic skill set that he could use; he hired “Bring It On” director Peyton Reed to direct “Ant-Man” and its sequel, “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” who was on hand to show advance Wasp and new Ant-Man suit designs, and eventually convinced “Creed” director Ryan Coogler to shoot “Black Panther” (both open in 2018).
Marvel screened some rough footage from “Black Panther” which is about to wrap in Atlanta, just as Anthony and Joe Russo’s “The Avengers: Infinity Wars” team is set to show up, with “Ant-Man and the Wasp” coming next. Another indie-plucked director, “Cop Car”‘s Jon Watts, is currently in the final stretch scoring July release “Spider-Man: Homecoming” on a giant Fox music stage. Feige is producing for the first time in partnership with Sony. Young Tom Holland as Peter Parker was introduced in “Captain America: Civil War,” as well as Chadwick Boseman as superhero Black Panther.
“When they’re done they come back here,” said Feige. “It’s like a never-ending summer camp with unbelievably talented people. Our core team has been together a decade or more.”
We saw footage (shot by Rachel Morrison, the first woman cinematographer in the Marvel universe) of well-muscled Boseman as T’Challa, wading toward a cliffside ritual to accept the mantle of King of the Wakanda, a technologically advanced African nation, as well as Angela Bassett as his regal mother Ramonda and kick-ass warriors Danai Gurira and Lupita Nyong’o, all acting on rough half-sets that will later be enhanced by computer effects.
For “Thor: Ragnarok,” Feige picked New Zealand actor-director Taika David Waititi (2016 indie sleeper “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”), who hosted an entertaining show-and-tell in the darkened VFX review room, where Marvel’s physical production chief Victoria Alonso and her team sit on sofas and arm chairs as they check out and refine character development.
Waititi revealed that he is playing Thor ally Korg in this gladiator movie, in which Thor battles the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). Waititi showed footage of himself playing Korg in a form-fitting motion-capture suit — they are now designed with sophisticated patterns as well as dots — with a tennis-ball stuck a few inches above his head as an eyeline, and a mini-camera rig shooting his face as well as two mounted cameras to capture his every move in stereo. Waititi worried about not losing expression, as “he is made of stone,” said the actor-director, who loves stitching mo-cap takes together into a “perfect performance. We had to figure out the best way to catch facial references and keep him relatable.”
Also coming up in “Ragnorak” is Cate Blanchett in an elaborate antler headdress as Hela. The movie opens in November.