Marvel’s Cinematic Universe has become a template for the entire entertainment industry, with nearly every studio trying to duplicate Marvel’s ability to weave film after film into one serialized, interconnected, long-form narrative. For most other companies, imitating Marvel has been nearly impossible, in large part due to the development and creative process that Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige architects out of the company’s offices on the Disney lot in Burbank, California.
Having originally sprung to life in a small office in West Los Angeles, Marvel Studios now takes up the entire second floor of the sprawling Frank G. Wells building on Disney’s backlot, plus the screening rooms and post-production facilities sprouting up all around the studio to accommodate Marvel’s massive slate. On April 18th, the studio invited a group of journalists into its headquarters for a look behind the scenes at how Marvel movies are designed and brought to life — and we learned a few secrets about upcoming Marvel projects along the way.
A Museum of Marvel
Inside Marvel’s offices, the first thing that stands out is just how Marvel-ized the entire environment is. Movie posters and props are common for production companies, but a recent renovation took Marvel’s offices to a different level. In the lobby, three Iron Man suits stand proudly for visitors to look over while waiting, and nearly every wall in the facility features a giant mural portraying the studio’s cinematic characters in action. A general meeting area just off the lobby contains a ping-pong table, plus models of a Helicarrier and Disneyland’s Main Street. A coffee table nestled between the room’s couches is adorned with a tiny Baby Groot, standing silently under a bell jar.
Elsewhere in the facility, there’s a huge wall of shelves containing seemingly every Marvel comic currently in print, and props and costumes await around every turn. It all underscores one major point. This is a studio driven by visuals, both the ones it’s created, and the ones it’s drawing upon.
According to producer Jeremy Latchem, the company’s creative process largely starts in its visual-development department. That’s where artists like team head Ryan Meinerding start determining what the cinematic versions of the studio’s characters will actually look like. They go back to the comics inspiring a given storyline, and start sketching.
Those images are refined and iterated upon, and along the way, they become “key frames” — iconic visual shots that often make it into the movies themselves, sometimes hardly changed at all. Unfortunately, no photography was allowed beyond the lobby, but the wall of Meinerding’s office was covered with particularly striking imagery from Spider-Man: Homecoming. One had a detailed look at Spider-Man’s web-shooters, while others showed off early versions of scenes from the two trailers. And while this is considered developmental artwork, the imagery itself was impeccably detailed, nearly photo-real.
Next door, in the office of artist Andy Park, Ant-Man director Peyton Reed explained that this early stage of development is also when directors can begin collaborating, using the ways the various films overlap and intersect to begin setting up new costume changes or gadgets. Park’s office also held a treasure trove of concept drawings from three upcoming films: Ant-Man and the Wasp, Thor: Ragnarok, and Captain Marvel.
The Thor: Ragnarok drawings revealed early looks at Cate Blanchett’s Hela, while the Ant-Man imagery included updated looks for various costumes. (One drawing showed off a scene that may or may not make it into the film, where Ant-Man’s size-shifting technology is implemented into things other than the Ant-Man costume, and is actually tested on a dog.) But three detailed looks at Captain Marvel’s costume stood out from everything else.
The film still doesn’t have a director, which was stressed in the room. The designs will likely evolve. But the current iteration looked like a riff on Carol Danvers’ current suit in the comics, with additional texture and details taking it out of the comic-book realm and transforming it into a real-world, practical uniform, along the lines of what Captain America now wears in Marvel films. The near-photographic quality of the drawing, which showed Brie Larson in the costume, was an instant reminder both of how Marvel has failed by not releasing a film centered on a powerful woman, and how much it has to gain when Captain Marvel finally hits theaters.
During the tour, the Marvel team showed off dailies and an early sizzle reel for Black Panther. Director Ryan Coogler finishes shooting this week in Atlanta, and the reel emphasized that the character will play an increasingly vital role in the Marvel universe moving forward. Black Panther will take place shortly after the events of Captain America: Civil War, and will see T'Challa struggling with his transition to rulership after his father died in Civil War.
True to the source material, the film will focus heavily on the country of Wakanda, and its unique combination of technological advancement — powered by the country’s natural reserves of the metal vibranium — and low-tech tradition. Coogler seems to be taking Wakandan culture particularly seriously as well. Marvel hasn’t had the best history of diverse representation in its films and comics, but the dailies screened for Black Panther featured both a brief action clip of Lupita Nyong'o taking down several soldiers, and spirited, colorful dance celebrations as characters make their way to Warrior Falls to celebrate T’Challa becoming their new king. Another set of dailies showed Andy Serkis as Klaw, arriving at a casino before mayhem breaks loose.
These were brief glimpses and carefully curated highlights, but it seems very clear even at this point that Black Panther is going to stand out from the rest of the studio’s work — and that Coogler as a filmmaker is bringing his sensibilities to Marvel’s massive sets and blue-screened stages.
Outside of shooting the films, nearly every element of the filmmaking process happens within Marvel’s offices or on the Disney lot — and in one of its visual-effects screening rooms, Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi screened an in-progress scene from his film.
He revealed that during the movie, Thor will encounter a character named Korg, made of rocks. Marvel comics fans will know Korg is from a species called the Kronan, and he features prominently in the Planet Hulk storyline Ragnarok is pulling from. The twist here, however, was that Waititi himself ended up playing the character, with the director showing footage of himself in a full motion-capture suit during production. (Waititi mentioned that Mark Ruffalo, who knows the mo-cap process well from his work playing The Hulk, calls that costume “the emasculation suit.”)
Waititi explained that Korg’s design changed to make him more expressive and emotive: eyes and additional facial details were added. Seeing a rough version of the CG character in action, it’s easy to understand why: Korg is hilarious, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Waititi’s work as an actor or director. When Thor is imprisoned on the planet of Sakaar, he meets Korg and asks how he ended up there. “I tried to start a revolution, but I didn’t print enough pamphlets,” Korg deadpans.
Accompanying Korg is a sidekick named Miek, who looks like a quivering pink torso, housed in an exoskeleton that has knives for hands. Miek is totally silent, turning the duo into a Penn and Teller-style comic-relief pairing— or are they more like Rocket and Groot? After the presentation, though, everyone was cautioned that Korg might be hilarious now, but we won’t understand our true feelings about the character until we see everything he does in the film.
Phase Three and Beyond
As a brief snapshot of a studio prepping its next couple of years of entertainment, the look was revealing, and another reminder of why Marvel has managed to maintain such a cohesive narrative arc through its army of characters, spinoffs, and other properties. It’s a type of creative integration that studios like Warner Bros., which controls DC, aren’t even trying yet.
But a lot of things weren’t discussed, either. Aside from a sketch of Thanos in Ryan Meinerding’s office, no mention was made of the upcoming Avengers films from Joe and Anthony Russo, and Marvel’s next phase of films still remains largely undefined. (Director James Gunn did reveal yesterday that he would be directing Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, however.) But seeing Marvel’s interconnected, collaborative process in action, the question obviously isn’t whether the studio’s artists and producers are working on the movies to come in 2019 and beyond. It’s simply when they’ll be ready to share them.