Bringing Out The Big Guns
Till the second instalment of Avengers (Age of Ultron) and a semi-Avengers movie in the form of Captain America: Civil War became worldwide blockbusters, only a handful of people knew where Kevin Feige wanted to go with the converging storylines. Kevin Feige and his shrewdness in dealing with different characters also faced an uphill task of bringing out the third instalment of Avengers in the form of a never seen spectacle. The idea was to close the ‘Phase One’ of Avengers, which would round up major beloved characters, and make way for a new crop of Superheroes.
The characters he had were great, but to properly lay a segue to the next set, it became essential to introduce them before the Avengers went into the Infinity War. And thus, came a focused effort to bring out characters in Doctor Strange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), Guardians of Galaxy Vol 2 (introducing a new character called Mantis), SpiderMan – Homecoming (an agreed upon standalone movie by Sony and Marvel, starring Tom Holland), Thor : Ragnarok (completing the trilogy for the Norse god) and of course Black Panther (starring Chadwick Boseman).
The story arch of the Infinity Stones, their existence in-universe and the ambition of Thanos in procuring them at all costs was a concept which had been introduced in all the films leading up to ‘Doctor Strange’. It came as no surprise that this film also dealt with safeguarding an Infinity Stone, specifically ‘The Time Stone’. It also introduced a fresh set of ideas which would define the war with Thanos in time to come. In exploring the powers and knowledge of Doctor Strange, the audience was introduced to the interdimensional existence and the wizard’s intricate control of it. With swivelling cities, fluid buildings, upside down roads and pathways, and some spectacularly imagined freely unwinding fight sequences, Doctor Strange became successful in bringing the essence of comic books to screen.
With the introduction of the Time Stone (post introduction of the Reality Stone in Thor: The Dark World, Space Stone as Tesseract in the first Avengers movie, Power Stone as Orb in Guardians Of Galaxy, Mind Stone as Vision’s Life formulation in second Avengers movie), Kevin Feige had made sure that the viewers had enough material to chew upon, before they saw them in action in Infinity War. However, the creative team made sure that there remained one stone, the Soul Stone, which was not yet introduced. They kept the power of the Soul Stone for the big game and went ahead with bringing the solo outings for Guardians Of Galaxy Vol 2.
Although Guardians Of Galaxy Vol 2 didn’t add much to the already established Avengers arc, it did serve as a vehicle to introduce Mantis and a rejuvenated Groot. The movie struggled to touch the figures achieved by its predecessor, raking in about 700 Million Dollars worldwide. In a tiny post-credit scene, ‘Guardians…’ also introduced Grand Master (played by Jeff Goldblum) who would eventually play an important role in Thor Ragnarok. Kevin Feige again played his cards close to the chest, with Spiderman – Homecoming starring Tom Holland.
In a manner of poetic derivative, within Spiderman – Homecoming, essentially a SpiderMan/Peter Parker story, Kevin Feige cleverly seasoned ample amounts of Tony Stark/Iron Man in it, as Peter’s guardian angel. Almost as a nod for Marvel’s guardianship of Sony’s Spiderman franchise. The movie was a runaway hit, opening to major numbers across the Chinese box office. Although liked by the critics as a solid Spiderman movie, it somewhere fell short of an out-and-above satisfying tale of the web-slinger (a craving which would later be fulfilled ironically by Sony’s Into The SpiderVerse).
Kevin Feige, however, had achieved his goal of selling Tom Holland as the coolest new SpiderMan for the foreseeable future. It also established the mentor-ward relationship between Tony Stark and Peter Parker. Once that was achieved, Kevin Feige turned to an exciting Indie talent, Ryan Coogler, who had previously made the highly acclaimed Fruitvale Station and ‘Creed’ movies. Ryan Coogler’s task was cut out for him. He needed to re-imagine a lesser known Marvel superhero into something who had modern-day relevance. And thus, came out the torch bearer for contemporary and appropriative Pan-Africanism – Black Panther.
In doing so, Kevin Feige went beyond the plain thought of establishing MCU, which was his main agenda for almost a decade then. He trusted Ryan Coogler to truly explore the intricacies of African communities, traditional culture vs progressive exposition, global influences and socio-political scenarios. In a rarity of sorts, Ryan Coogler could bring his own individualistic flair of gritty political drama, power schematics, progressive feminism, old world-new world clashes, cross border and immigration commentaries, all wrapped in a gorgeously visualized and imagined- the world of Wakanda.
Never before since the times of ‘The Dark Knight had such layered storytelling been backed up with such generous studio budgets. All the efforts paid off stupendously when Black Panther became the second movie after Iron Man 3 in MCU to rake in 1.345 Billion Dollars. It also went to make history, by getting nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award, the first superhero movie to ever achieve the feat. Kevin Feige had now proven that he could pull off great commercially successful stories, and on the other hand, produce award-worthy stories. Thus, this knack of delivering success after success made Kevin Feige the most powerful media executive in the world. But, he was hardly done.
He faced incredible success in the same year when Thor: Ragnarok hit the screens. Till Ragnarok happened, Thor was panned by the critics as being one of the uninspiring superheroes in the MCU stable. Kevin Feige pulled another indie card to revive Thor. This time he turned to Taika Waititi, who was coming to MCU after delivering an indie gem of a movie called What We Do In The Shadows. Incidentally, he was considered for the director’s job, after he shot a short film featuring Thor called Team Thor. Kevin Feige had found the wackiness and madness that Taika Waititi could bring to the table, as the much-needed elixir to revive not just Thor, but also another major superhero with dwindling popularity – The Hulk.
Taika Waititi brought these two characters together, along with strong supporting characters of Cate Blanchett’s Hella, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie and Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster, making it the most vibrant and retro-pop superhero film of MCU. It played to the strengths of Chris Hemsworth, his sense of humour and timing in comedy, in making Thor a truly empathetic and fun superhero. Slowly, Thor inched towards forming the trinity of MCU, as was always intended from 2008. He was now on equal footing with Captain America and Iron Man in terms of character relevance and story arches.
The stage was then set to bring all these superheroes to fight the biggest supervillain in the universe, Thanos. Kevin Feige had already passed the mantle of bringing Avengers: Infinity War to the reliable Russo brothers. However, there was a little change in plans, when Russo brothers came up with the first draft of Infinity War, the story was incredibly huge, it had to be told within the runtime of three hours. And of course, Russo Brothers were looking to accommodate all the superheroes in one mega movie. Here is where Kevin Feige saw the opportunity for a two-part movie event. The first part would be called ‘Avengers: Infinity War and the next one, due to release a year later in April 2019, would be called Avengers: End Game’.
Hence, the Russo brothers were given the task of adapting the story into two parts without losing the essence of a single movie. It was indeed a unique challenge in itself to maintain the same kind of urgency, stakes and pathos of a single movie and spread it across into two parts. So, the Russo brothers came up with an idea that would ensure Avengers: Infinity War a mammoth two billion dollar success.
The Mantra Of Making A Mega Movie With More Than 30 Superheroes
The study of what made Avengers: Infinity War’ the biggest success story in comic book movie history is in itself highly intriguing and inspiring. The Russo brothers were trusted to deliver the goods when it came to the big game and deliver they did. The challenge for them was to use all the superheroes at their disposal in fighting Thanos, but with enough story arches and stakes of their own. The first thing that they did, of course, was to immediately establish the threat Thanos posed, as he destroys the Asgardian ship, with the help of the Power Stone. Kills Loki while procuring the Space Stone, and with the help of the Black Order (or as told in the movie, ‘Children of Thanos’) leaves Thor to die in the wreck.
Right from this scene, the viewers are thrown off guard, as they see one of their favourite characters in MCU, struggling for life. Right away, the sense of impending doom is established, as Hulk/Bruce Banner is hurled across the galaxies to fall on Earth right in the sanctum sanctorum of Doctor Strange and Wong. The Russo brothers then waste no time in introducing the other superheroes through the action set pieces placed in New York City, where the Black Order comes searching for the Mind Stone. Cleverly, the Russo Brothers divide the villains into two groups. The Black Order who scout Earth for the Mind and Time Stone (which Doctor Strange guards), and Thanos who is on his own mission to find the Reality and Soul Stone.
Now because there are two sets of supervillains, the Avengers are grouped and split into two teams. One team led by Iron Man, Doctor Strange and SpiderMan. Another by Captain America, Black Panther, Vision, Wanda and Black Widow. In a parallel track, the Russo Brothers realised the potential of Thor and give him a separate mission of his own, where he needs to forge a weapon powerful enough to kill Thanos. The weapon in question, called the Stormbreaker, becomes the goal for Thor, and half of the Guardians of Galaxy ie. Racoon and Groot.
Observe a pattern here? Well, it’s simple. When you have too many characters, neatly group them into teams with a common objective. That was the mantra for Infinity War.
Marvel Cinematic Universe and Kevin Feige, until Infinity War, had been criticized for playing it safe with their supervillains. They did not have the uncontrollable menace nor the layered nuances of a DCEU villain. Kevin Feige, for all the foreshadowing that had been given for Thanos over a decade, ensured that he checked off that box as well in Infinity War. In Thanos (brilliantly motion captured by Josh Brolin), the Russo Brothers and Kevin Feige found the inherent pathos of an intergalactic warrior with a strong sense of philosophical idealism.
Thanos, who was coming right after Black Panther’s KillMonger (still hailed as one of the best MCU villains), brought to the table a deeply conflicted soul, who made absolute sense in what he was doing. His ambition, for the most part, did not seem to come from some maddening and misplaced ideals. In sticking with a simple objective of ‘wiping out half of all beings in the whole universe, so that there would be enough resources for those who lived’ Thanos’s vision was justified with the contemporary times. And that made him even more, scarier.
And so, the ‘team-up common objective’ setup that the Russo brothers created helped, as Team Iron Man-Doctor Strange-Spiderman met with half of the ‘Guardians of Galaxy’ and took the fight to Titan, where they took on the full might of Thanos. On the other hand, the rest of the Avengers fought out ‘The Black Order’ on the plains of Wakanda. The simultaneous fight sequences kept everyone on the edge of their seats, as one after the other, the stakes rose up to the sky. On Titan, in one moment, the Avengers almost defeat Thanos. But, suddenly, because of Star Lord’s momentary lapse of judgement, Thanos once again regains control of the situation.
In Wakanda, things seem to go haywire one after the other. The Avengers are overpowered, and Vision (who holds the Mind Stone) is gravely injured. In a brilliant moment of screenplay, the Russo Brothers jump to the track of Thor, who literally brings a star to life again, to forge his weapon, The Stormbreaker, teleports to Earth, right in the middle of Wakandan war. In a moment of absolute viewer frenzy, Thor immediately flips the battle to his control, as he single-handedly starts slashing off the demonic creatures with his new Thanos killing weapon. This is immediately followed by a stunning sequence of collective gasp when Thanos pierces a sword into IronMan, and in exchange for his life, Doctor Strange gives up the Time Stone to Thanos. That leaves Thanos with only the Mind Stone to be collected.
In one of the now iconic climaxes, Thor attacks Thanos with the weapon, right after he has collected the Mind Stone from Vision. And then the SNAP happens. This was the moment, that the Russo Bros were building the screenplay up to. And this is where Kevin Feige went against the comic book lovers when he decided to play out Infinity War as a tragic ending. As it were, as soon as the SNAP happens, half the beings in the whole of the universe start disintegrating into ash. At this moment, Infinity War became one of the greatest movies ever made, as it took the challenge of making Thanos win. They went the absolute distance. In a series of shots, showing the aftermath of the SNAP, viewers were left sobbing and gasping as their favourite superheroes started disintegrating one after the other. Avengers, from being a mega collective, thinned down to just a handful of them. Fan favourites like SpiderMan, Black Panther, Doctor Strange, Wanda, Falcon, Mantis and many more just turned to ash. And the movie ended with a small post-credit scene, where Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury also turns to ash, but not before leaving a distress message to Captain Marvel.
So, the Russo Brothers pulled out an unbelievable feat of the incredibly gripping screenplay and visually spectacular set pieces. And in the process, leaving a large lump in the throat for every comic book fan. They treated this film as just one half of the story, without being in a rush to give out all of their ideas. Kevin Feige had already set in motion a couple of films, which would resolve the burning question left unanswered in Infinity War. What happens after Thanos’s Snap? And more importantly, how will the Avengers fight him and win, after losing half of them? These questions will be answered in Avengers: End Game, due to release in April this year.
We need to look out for Kevin Feige’s strategy in going beyond Avengers: End Game. Given his shrewdness, he must have already thought it out by now and would be aiming higher than ever, so that the whole world would hail Kevin Feige as the ‘Emperor of Entertainment’.