With 10 years and 20 movies under its belt, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is perhaps one of the most ambitious projects to recently come out of Hollywood. Adapting the shared reality of comic books onto the big screen was not only a gamble, it was incredibly daunting.
Luckily, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige didn't have to execute his massive vision alone. By hiring some of the best (and most unexpected) directors working today, he achieved his shared universe and then some. The MCU's got heart, pathos, and, most important, creativity; each filmmaker brings their own unique style to what Infinity War co-director Joe Russo describes as a "mosaic."
To celebrate the MCU's first 10 years and the release of Avengers: Infinity War, Marvel Studios brought together nearly every director who made these films possible — all for a special roundtable included as a bonus feature in the newly released Infinity War digital edition. The group included the two Russo brothers (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War), Joss Whedon (Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron), Peyton Reed (Ant-Man, Ant-Man and the Wasp), Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Iron Man 2), Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok), Ryan Coogler (Black Panther), and a pre-booted James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2).
Those noticeably absent were Louis Leterrier (The Incredible Hulk), Kenneth Branagh (Thor), Joe Johnston (Captain America: The First Avenger), Shane Black (Iron Man 3), Alan Taylor (Thor: The Dark World), Scott Derrickson (Doctor Strange), and Jon Watts (Spider-Man: Homecoming).
We checked out the half-hour-long discussion among the Marvel moviemakers and found out some very interesting tidbits about the making of the MCU.
Here's what we learned from...
Joe & Anthony Russo
The Russo siblings currently hold the record for having directed the most Marvel movies, with three (soon to be four) under their respective belts. Having established themselves on TV with Arrested Development and Community, their film career was meteoric after the release of Winter Soldier, which was more of an ode to '70s-era political thrillers as much as it was a superhero movie. It helped land them the job of making Avengers Infinity War, which brings the MCU to its zenith.
According to Anthony, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is the heart of the film. "We needed to create a situation where you really believed that Thor was gonna kill Thanos. That was the story of the film, his journey to that," he said. "That extreme level of suffering that that character has gone through, beginning at the end of Thor: Ragnarok and then carrying into the beginning of Infinity War. This guy has just lost everything and it's that level of sadness that sort of imbues him with that underdog quality. He then becomes the heart of the movie that you start to root for."
Joe also confirmed that Hope van Dyne's Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) was going to be in Civil War very early on in the movie's development. Ultimately, we only got Scott Lang's Ant-Man (Paul Rudd). During Ant-Man and the Wasp, the two characters theorize on the outcome of the airport battle if Hope had been there.
Earth-shatteringly groundbreaking, highly entertaining, and thematically relevant, Black Panther is perhaps the most nuanced of all the Marvel projects. Coogler introduced the world to Wakanda, but he also achieved the impossible: He made a highly sympathetic bad guy (Michael B. Jordan's Erik Killmonger), who changes the mind of the central hero. While the characters and setting are fictional, the movie has a lot to say about pressing, real-world issues like race, discrimination, and persecution.
Wanting to create something iconic in its own right, Coogler was inspired by Shakespeare (i.e. Hamlet) as well as movies he grew up loving such as The Godfather, whose themes of family and legacy fit nicely into Black Panther. As a matter of fact, he got to screen the movie for Francis Ford Coppola and was incredibly nervous the entire time.
"After the movie was over, he was just talking like this [snaps fingers repeatedly], giving me notes faster than I could write. He just started naming all of these movies and all of these books that I needed to go [watch and] read." One of the titles Coppola called out was the 1954 MGM musical Brigadoon, which deals with a mystical village closed off from the rest of the world, much like Wakanda. As for reading recommendations, he mentioned was Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings, the world's longest epic poem, by the poet Ferdowsi.
Waititi wasn't at the table in person since he was filming Jojo Rabbit in Prague, but did show up via an iPad attached to a stick. His contribution to the MCU is Thor: Ragnarok, which could be considered a full superhero comedy. Used to making people laugh with What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Waititi brought his own brand of humor to the world of the Norse gods, emboldened, no doubt, by the work done by James Gunn in the two Guardians movies. As Joss Whedon put it, he went "full Taika."
Waititi's biggest influence was, surprisingly, John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China.
"The thing I love about that film is Jack Burton, all he wants, his only thing that he wants, is to get his truck back. Something so simple and all this crazy stuff is going on. And I don't know if you've seen this, someone cobbled together this YouTube video of all the questions that Jack Burton asks... it's five minutes long, but it's basically every question that the audience is asking: 'Who's that? What is this thing? Where are we? Where are we going? Where's my truck? I want my truck back!'... That was one of the main focuses on that film. Thor is always on the backfoot, asking the questions that we're asking."
When asked by Jon Favreau how he became involved with Ragnarok, Waititi joked: "I assumed that they just scraped the bottom of the barrel, then they lifted up the barrel, looked at all of the things that were underneath it, and said, 'Oh, this guy. He's desperate!' That's how I assumed it happened."
Gunn was the first filmmaker to, as they say, "risk it for the biscuit" when it came to adding his own mark on the MCU. Bringing a little-known property to the big screen was a huge gamble for Marvel, but it basically turned the Guardians of the Galaxy into a household name overnight.
While it brought the biggest amount of comedy and fun these films had ever seen, Gunn was a little worried that his script (co-written with Nicole Perlman) was too funny. Whedon (hot off his success with Avengers) read the screenplay at the time of its development and told the director to "make it more James Gunn." That night, Gunn went home and wrote the famous 12% of a plan scene, below:
He's the man that started it all. Favreau kicked off a brand-new breed of superhero movie and revived the acting career of Robert Downey Jr. The first Iron Man set us on the road to 20 movies and billions of dollars at the box office. In 2008, however, Favreau was considered more of an actor than a director, although he'd helmed three movies until that point: Made, Elf, and Zathura.
You might think that it was his experience on the Jumanji-adjacent Zathura that landed him the Marvel job, but it was actually his Christmas comedy Elf with Will Ferrell. That, paired with amazing leaps in CGI (courtesy of Michael Bay), gave Favreau the confidence he needed to change the course of movie culture forever, although he didn't know that 10 years ago.
"Elf made money and I was sort of on a list of directors that were hireable," he said. "They approached me about it and there was not really a script or anything... They had some story ideas. I kinda didn't know what I was gonna do with it, but I thought it was a cool concept. At the time, Transformers was being made, so I was real confident that hard surfaces would look good in CG."
Downey's fast-talking, smart-assed performance as Tony Stark was a change of pace for comic book movies. You had these brooding identity pieces in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy and the first two installments of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight films, but Iron Man proved that a hero can be both serious and lighthearted at the same time.
"I don't even think they knew it was gonna be funny," said Favreau. "I remember when we first screened it, Kevin Feige was like, 'Whoa, this is pretty funny!' "
And finally, we come to Whedon, the director who proved an epic comic book crossover could translate into movie form. The first Avengers movie (released in May 2012) was a culmination of all the origin stories up to that point and found Earth's Mightiest Heroes fighting against a Chitauri invasion sent by none other than Thanos himself. And what do Earth's Mightiest Heroes do after saving the world?
That's right, they eat some shawarma.
The movie's second post-credits sequence finds Captain America (Chris Evans), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) munching on the Middle Eastern specialty; the scene stemmed from a joke Tony makes after redirecting a nuclear bomb into the Chitauri wormhole and saving New York from utter destruction. However, the short gag was filmed long after the movie had wrapped, while Whedon and the cast were doing press for it.
"I made a joke about, we should see them all eating shwarma for 30 seconds, and then, two months later, [Kevin's] like, 'I think we can do it,' " Whedon revealed, stating that it came so late in the game, the sequence was not a part of the European print. "It was while we were doing press after the premiere at the hotel. There was a shawarma place like three blocks away."
Since Chris Evans had a beard at the time, he was fitted with a fake giant jaw that he had to hide with his hand.
Whedon took up the post of director on the second Avengers movie, Age of Ultron, which nearly included Wakanda as one of the main settings. Instead, we got a throwaway reference by Bruce Banner and the inclusion of Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), which helped tease the stage for Civil War and Black Panther. Nevertheless, before Wakanda was entirely ruled out from Ultron, Whedon joked that they began calling it "Wa-kinda" because it was still up in the air.