In 2015, Marvel Studios was on the precipice of something huge. That year, the company released Avengers: Age Of Ultron, the follow-up to 2012’s widely praised Avengers, and introduced a new hero on the big screen with Ant-Man. The studio was 12 movies deep into the ambitious, interconnected Marvel Cinematic Universe, and showed no signs of slowing down. But there was trouble brewing behind the scenes: Kevin Feige, the architect and creative lead of the MCU, was butting heads with the notoriously cheap Ike Perlmutter, who was the head of Marvel at the time.
Bob Iger, the CEO of Disney, which owns Marvel, told CNBC in 2023 that Perlmutter was trying to get Feige fired. Perlmutter says he was just concerned about what he saw as out-of-control spending on Marvel movies; he claims he wasn’t trying to get rid of Feige. Whatever his intentions, Perlmutter did succeed in changing the future of the MCU—just not in the way he hoped.
Building a mega-franchise
When Disney acquired Marvel in 2009, Marvel Studios had already had one big hit with Iron Man in 2008. In his memoir The Ride Of A Lifetime, Iger wrote that he was intrigued by the studio’s creative strategy: “The Marvel Studios talent, led by Kevin Feige, described their long-term vision for what would become the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU. There was a lot of work ahead of them, but the plan Kevin laid out, including a plan for intertwining characters across multiple films well into the next decade, seemed brilliant to me.” It was ambitious, but it was costly—something Iger understood as necessary but which didn’t sit well with Perlmutter.
Perlmutter bought Marvel in 1997, rescuing it from bankruptcy and leading the company back to profitability. His extreme cost-cutting, however, rubbed a lot of longtime Marvel employees the wrong way. And he seemed to have a particular grudge against creatives, an odd position for someone who purposefully entered the creative-driven comic book publishing business. “I learned one thing about creative people my whole life: You cannot give them an open credit card ... They’re doing this for 30 years, why would they change?” He told The Wall Street Journal in 2023.
So why would Perlmutter buy a business he seemed to actively despise? The answer, of course, was money—in particular, Perlmutter was focused on return on investment. And he got a pretty good return with Marvel, which Disney purchased from him for about $4 billion. Perlmutter could’ve walked away, but in his book, Iger speculated that he wanted to stay on because he’d “taken control of Marvel when it was in trouble and had turned it around” and “the notion that some other CEO would just come in and buy it up didn’t sit easily with him, even though he knew he’d make a fortune off of it.” So, Iger relented. “I promised Ike the job that he would continue to run Marvel after [the company was acquired by Disney]. Not forever, necessarily. But after that,” he told CNBC. But Perlmutter’s management style didn’t mesh well with Iger’s, and it all came to a head in 2015.
The creatives vs. the suits
In his memoir, Iger is careful in his language when detailing what happened. “I was detecting a growing tension between the Marvel team in New York and Kevin [Feige]’s team in L.A. The New York office was overseeing the film studio’s budget—and therefore experiencing the anxiety over costs and risks—but they were also removed from Hollywood culture and perhaps less sensitive to the challenges of the creative process.” he wrote. “Kevin is one of the most talented film executives in the business, but my sense was that the strained relationship with New York was threatening his continued success. I knew I had to intervene, and so in May 2015, I made the decision to split Marvel’s movie-making unit off from the rest of Marvel and bring it under Alan Horn and the Walt Disney Studios.”
It’s all very removed and diplomatic—the way Iger frames it, it was simply a pragmatic business decision. And yet, at the time, The Hollywood Reporter quoted a source as saying that the reorganization came after “several years of frustration” led Feige to confront Iger about Perlmutter. In the years since, a prevailing narrative has emerged: Perlmutter wanted to spend less on Marvel movies, and Feige opposed that. Both sought an ally in Iger, but Iger sided with Feige. In a telling quote from his interview with The Wall Street Journal, Perlmutter seems to admit that his focus on lowering spending was really just a flimsy excuse for his war on creatives: “There was no way to force the issue because the creative people at the Walt Disney Company are very powerful,” he said.
It’s hard to imagine what the MCU would look like without Feige, but a Puck News report from 2022 says that was nearly a reality: according to Matthew Belloni, Feige “... talked pretty seriously with Warners a few years ago when he was angling to escape the oversight of Marvel’s then-madman CEO Ike Perlmutter.” But Iger and, by extension, Disney, saw the logic in investing in the people who make their content, trusting that spending more money on the people who create films and TV shows would pay off in profits. And it did: to date, the MCU has grossed over $29 billion at the international box office, making it the most profitable franchise in film history.
The point of this isn’t that Disney is a great company that unequivocally supports creatives over finances; that’s simply not true. A company, however much it tries to curate its brand ethos and culture, cannot have values; a company, no matter how much the government wants you to believe it is so, is not a person. And what we understand as a company’s values are really just whatever the person in charge champions during their reign.
It’s tempting to look at the whole Feige vs. Perlmutter incident as a rare moment when a corporate behemoth considered what was best for its employees and prioritized that over its bottom line. And on a micro scale, that’s a relatively accurate narrative. On a macro scale, though, it was just one round in a never-ending fight.
At one crucial moment, Bob Iger valued creative freedom over bottom-line penny-pinching. That was a good thing. He’s also in charge right now, as writers strike to shut down production on Marvel TV shows like Daredevil: Born Again that want to keep filming through the WGA strike. That lack of solidarity with writers is not a good thing. Iger finally firing Perlmutter, a billionaire who encouraged employees to dig paper clips out of the trash to save money, is a good thing. The 7,000 other layoffs that Iger is currently overseeing at Disney are not.
Feige has been reticent to speak publicly about the Marvel Studios’ split with Perlmutter, choosing to allow the work, and the franchise, to speak for itself. And even though the MCU isn’t as consistently dependable as it once was, there’s something gratifying to be found in its ambition—an ambition that, without financial support for creatives, would be left unrealized.