Marvel Studios is on the verge of the longest run of A-letter grade Cinemascores. If Shang-Chi, Eternals, and Spider-Man: No Way Home each achieve at least an A-, the MCU will take the lead from Pixar with 23 theatrical releases in a row that garnered that audience rating. It’s no easy claim to release films that people enjoyed consistently. Beyond being tuned in with their audiences, whose tastes might change, this level of consistency requires a dedicated approach to improvement and innovation. Let’s take a closer look at how the once small-time production company continues to innovate.
Kevin Feige typifies Marvel Studios’ approach to improvement. In an interview with Vanity Fair in the lead-up to Avengers: Infinity War, he noted that a childhood hobby of his was being disappointed with sequel films he’d seen, then creating better versions in his head and with his action figures. He’d often think to himself:
I gotta fix it. I gotta come up with a better [version].
Feige’s path mirrors a journey many Marvel Studios’ employees would later go on. He was rejected five times from film school at the University of Southern California before getting in and interned for Lauren Shuler Donner. She eventually took him on as her personal assistant and he would go on to become an associate producer on 2000’s X-Men. His approach to gradual improvement would eventually turn into the MCU.
This improvement also bears itself in the first films of the MCU through their innovative use of visual development. In an interview with Kevin Smith earlier in 2021, Marvel Studios’ Director of Visual Development, Andy Park, notes that Marvel Studio’s leadership trio of Kevin Feige, Louis D’Esposito, and Victoria Alonso made the hiring of the in-house visual development team rather “unique” in its approach to a shared universe. In the film industry, freelancers are often changed between films, allowing a progression where the artists can work on characters “through the years” and even in advance of writers working on a project.
Although not all of the key art drawn by the visual development will make it into a film or show, Park emphasizes just how in tandem the teams work by stating that:
It was also our art that they plaster along the wall [of the writers room as a] source of inspiration.
It would also be accompanied by the comic book source material to offer writers a full picture for inspiration. This innovative setup is just one of how it helps writers, directors, production designers, and actors develop and improve upon projects as they go.
A more recent innovation process seems to have evolved from Kevin Feige’s experiences early in the industry. The Parliament is a group that is partly made up of six executive producers, who each produce individual Marvel Studios films while marshaling the cohesion of the shared universe. Stephen Broussard, Eric Carroll, Brad Winderbaum, Nate Moore, Trihn Tran, and Jonathan Schwartz have each been at Marvel Studios for over ten years often dating back to the first MCU films. They started their careers with roles like assistant as early as 2005.
Nate Moore was working managing the Marvel Studios Writers Program, having never produced a film before when Kevin Feige offered him the opportunity to co-produce Captain America: The Winter Soldier. He describes this experience as being similar to all the other producers at Marvel Studios in an interview with Vanity Fair’s Still Watching podcast:
That’s sort of been the experience of every producer who has ever made a Marvel Studios film and one point they were untested, hadn’t done a film and then Marvel said ‘here’s your giant blockbuster kid, make your movie.’
This encouragement for adaptation and improvement is such a facet of the company that when Harvard Business Review “analyzed 338 interviews with producers, directors, and writers and 140 reviews from leading critics” to assess the reasons behind Marvel Studios’ success, they concluded that one of their leading principles is “selecting for experienced inexperience” just as Feige went from interning to becoming an associate producer under Lauren Shuler Donner.
While each Marvel Studios project always had individual producers attached to them from beginning to end, The Parliament is an overarching collaborative group that allows the producers of each project to share notes on casting, script, costume, and visual effect iterations. It ensures a cohesive shared universe of script connections and overall character arcs, as well as the development of future stories. When talking about how Loki will impact Spider-Man: Far From Home, Head Writer Michael Waldron notes that:
Your producing teams are constantly communicating with those producing teams to make sure that you’re not screwing each other up.
Each of Marvel Studios’ recent Disney+ streaming shows Wandavision (Mary Livanos), The Falcon and The Winter Soldier (Zoie Nagelhout) and Loki (Kevin Wright) each had a producer working with the writers. They act as a creative partner to the head writer and the writer’s room in the most creative and impactful way possible. At the same time, while guiding them through other projects. Again, each of these up-and-coming producers was at one point an assistant who has been promoted to the point where they are executives producing a project for themselves. Malcolm Spellman, Head Writer of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier notes that:
Marvel wants you to create first and they want you to do it without worrying about […] if there is obvious threads to the greater MCU.
Then at some point, they might say that something written as innocuous can become something more meaningful in the wider MCU. Derek Kolstad, another writer on the show, notes that they “meet at the beginning of the day and the end of the day” to coordinate and deal with the overlapping complexity of the shared universe. That way, the creative talent doesn’t have to and can focus on their main jobs. This level of coordination accelerates the balance of iteration, improvement, and innovation at Marvel Studios.
Marvel Studios is in the relatively early stages of having a shared universe between various media. Just as we saw improvements in their films going from the origins to the classics we’re likely also going to see a similar journey. This time, it’ll be in combination across film and TV formats. With innovative processes in place within their set-up, it seems inevitable not only that more classics are on the way, but eventually later on down the line we’ll see both an evolution of these improving processes and perhaps even more media formats joining the MCU.