Captain America, Thor and Iron Man may be the names you see in the titles, but the real hero of the Marvel Cinematic Universe -- including the upcoming "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" -- is Marvel Studios President of Production Kevin Feige.
I was among a group of journalists who sat down with Feige on the set of the super-sequel last year, where he discussed how it fits into Marvel's big picture, and how it differs from 2011's "Captain America: The First Avenger" and 2012's "The Avengers."
Chris Evans plays the hero in all three films, with Marvel vets Sanuel L. Jackson (as Nicky Fury) and Scarlett Johansson (as Black Widow) being joined by newcomers Robert Redford (as a top S.H.I.E.L.D. exec) and Anthony Mackie (as Falcon) joining them in "Winter Soldier."
"First Avenger" took place mostly in WWII, when the titular super soldier (Chris Evans) was frozen, only to be thawed in the 21st Century where he fights alongside Iron Man, Hulk, Thor and the other Avengers.
"Winter Soldier" finds Cap still adjusting to the modern day, while working under the increasingly morally ambiguous government agency S.H.I.E.L.D.
"This sort of is a third entry," Feige said of the film. "'Avengers' played a little bit with his feelings of what it was like to be in the modern day, but they didn't have a whole lot of time. So, it did feel like this was absolutely the right time to deal with how he can come to terms with a past that is long gone and is seemingly never coming back, dealing with the shades of grey of the modern era and being part of an organization like S.H.I.E.L.D. Just perhaps as he's finding niche for himself, his past comes back and lands like a ton of bricks on his head in the form of the Winter Soldier."
The Winter Soldier is the reincarnation of Cap's presumed-dead WWII pal Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who has been resurrected and turned into an amoral assassin by some shady government types.
The plot of the new sequel -- taken from writer Ed Brubaker's celebrated run on the comic book -- seems significantly darker than that of its more old-fashioned predecessor.
"The first film was a Marvel superhero origin story masquerading as a WWII propaganda movie, this is a Marvel superhero sequel masquerading as a '70s political thriller," Feige explained. "And all the stuff that's happening with NSA in the news is pretty amazing timing for us, because that's the kind of thing that Cap doesn't particularly like."
The sequel also tweaks the image of cap as an unquestioning patriot and soldier with old-fashioned values.
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"I don't mind if it feels old-fashioned or out-of-place," Feige revealed. "He is out-of-place and he is kind of old-fashioned in the modern era. Part of his conflict with Fury and some of the other members of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the fact that he's from a different place, he has a different set of values. At least he thinks he does, initially."
"We make a lot of superhero movies here at Marvel Studios," Feige said, "and I believe the key is to make them all different, and to make them all unique and to make them all stand apart while connecting together. That's what the comics do."
To that end, Feige and Marvel are known for thinking outside of the box when it comes to selecting directors, bringing on such then-surprising names as Jon Favreau ("Iron Man"), Ken Branagh ("Thor"), TV vet Joss Whedon ("The Avengers") and, for "Winter Soldier," brothers Anthony and Mark Russo, best known for their work on TV comedies like "Arrested Development" and "Community."
"It's worked out well for us when we have taken people who have done very, very good things. Very rarely is one of those good things a giant blockbuster superhero movie," Feige explained, before listing off the pre-Marvel credentials of select directors. "'Elf' for Favreau. Good TV for Joss. Good Shakespearean drama 15 years ago for Ken Branagh. I don't watch a whole lot of TV, but the TV that I as watching that I found interesting, their name [the Russos] kept popping up."
"We've always been rewarded for taking risks," he added, mentioning the upcoming "Guardians of the Galaxy," and saying, "[Robert] Downey Jr. was a risk at the time. We always just want to make a good movie that plays for people, whether they have a deep affinity and nostalgia for the characters or not."
As far as keeping secrets from the scrutinizing press and growing fan base, Feige and Marvel have "stopped trying to get ahead of it, figuring that fans are savvy enough to know that papparazzi set photos aren't representative of the final product."
In fact, Feige said, obsessive outside observation can actually be a good thing, building free buzz around the project and ensuring that fans are still interested. "The only thing worse than a photographer in a tree," he deadpanned, "is no photographer in a tree."