The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been forged by beloved comic book characters, dazzlingly charismatic stars, and a cavalcade of visionary filmmakers, like Iron Man‘s Jon Favreau, The Avengers‘ Joss Whedon, and Iron Man 3‘s Shane Black. Still, there’s even more to the success of the ever-expanding MCU. And when we sat down with Black this week in New York, he was generous with his thoughts on what behind-the-scenes magic makes Marvel movies stand out from the pack of superhero flicks flying into theaters.
Ahead of revealing our full interview that digs into the origins and secrets of Black’s blisteringly funny thriller The Nice Guys, we offer these MCU-related highlights. Below, the candid writer/director shares his thoughts on why Marvel thrives, the downside of fanboys, the Doctor Strange casting controversy, and how Whedon taught him to stop worrying and learn to love “the machine.”
In talking about the importance of imbruing mythic figures–be they private eyes or superheroes–with relatable flaws, Black segued from The Nice Guys to the MCU, saying, “The reason (Marvel is) scoring so big at the box office is they have these mythic caped heroes come striding out of the fog, lit from below and backlit. And then they stub their toe! They remember to do that part. Even with the latest one Captain America: Civil War, The Winter Soldier is brutalized and tortured. But then there’s this scene where he’s in the back of a car (chuckles) and he’s just nudging his buddy, ’cause Cap’s kissing a girl. They know to do that…they know to go straight to that kind of a choice. Those decisions are made routinely there.”
Commending the passion to the source material the studio has, Black declared, “I am really a fan of the Marvel sensibility, mostly because the guys running the show–the studio itself–they’re comic book guys. They grew up with this shit. It’s very important (to them). When I was leaving to go home (on Iron Man 3), Kevin Feige was staying ’til midnight working to get the details right from these comic books. I just think that’s why they’re good. Everyone else is a suit trying to make a superhero movie, and these guys are comic book guys.”
Still, this level of studio involvement took some adjusting, Black recounted a bit of advice he got from a fellow MCU helmer:
“Joss Whedon came to me early on, because I really wanted to just keep writing and do things with Drew Pearce and not include the machine with every step of the way. And the machine was always there looking over your shoulder. And finally, Joss was like, ‘Look, just trust the machine. I mean, you can’t keep control of every moving part, and there’s so many people here willing to help you. I know you’re concentrating on the script, but just let go and let the machine take on part of the work.’ And he was absolutely right. There is something there that you can learn from. I opened my ears from the second I heard him say that, and just paid attention to Louis D’Esposito (Marvel Studios co-president) and Kevin Feige (Marvel Studios co-president) and Victoria Alonso (executive producer) and Stephen Broussard (executive producer). I just watched and listened and I learned an incredible amount. Now, I’m a better movie maker.”
Iron Man 3 made $1.2 billion worldwide and was met with waves of praise, especially for how Black and Pearce re-imagined The Mandarin. But not everyone liked the origin change. “Now some of the fans–I still get death threats,” he admitted. “You should see some of the stuff online, like ‘I want to put my fist through your face and watch the blood splatter.'”
For all these reasons, Black feels for the makers of Marvel’s next release Doctor Strange. Asked about The Ancient One casting that stirred up outcry and controversy, Black said, “This is something I just read about. I don’t really have a thought on it except to say that Tilda Swinton is a really good actress. Everyone knows why they did it. It’s a financial decision. So, they’re not trying to be PC because it’s one of these movements they’re following. They’re trying–I would imagine–not to piss off China, which is a huge market. So, if you say they’re smart businessmen, you’re right. If you say maybe they’re caving, maybe that’s right. It’s a decision they had to make based on the fact that China is opening a new movie theater every day.
“It’s a huge market. Don’t blame Marvel for that. I mean, go look at the Transformers’ movies, where there are lines about like, ‘Let’s stop them! But first we must consult the Central Committee!’ There’s stuff written in the script that just kisses ass cheeks! …Look, Iron Man 3 did it. We had stuff that I didn’t even film for the Chinese version, where it just cuts to their Robert De Niro in essence–a really wonderful actor–and he’s like, ‘Is Mr. Stark on his way? Ah, good yeah. We must prepare! I’ll do my best.’ He hangs up and then just starts drinking this milk in front of the camera! Geely milk! But here’s the thing: I know a lot of Chinese people and I had a Chinese girlfriend. Even they know it’s bullshit. In China they’re going: ‘Guys, come on. This isn’t fooling anyone. This isn’t even supposed to be in the movie. You’re just jerking us off here.’ But they still saw it in China.”
The Nice Guys is in theaters May 20, 2016.