David Maisel might not be a name Marvel fans think of when they talk about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the entertainment executive recently stressed to The New Yorker that the “MCU wouldn’t exist” without him. Maisel is Marvel Studios’ former president and the initial architect of the MCU, which Kevin Feige has since taken the reigns of as the company’s current president. Feige’s name has become synonymous with Marvel’s success, which Maisel said has all but overshadowed his contributions. Or as Maisel put it, “It’s like a Thanos snap.”
“Most people right now think Kevin started the studio,” Maisel said. “They don’t know me at all.”
“David’s been sort of written out of the history of the studio, which I really think is weird,” Marvel Entertainment’s former chief counsel John Turitzin added to The New Yorker. “It was his brainchild.”
As Maisel remembers, it was summer 2003 and he was an agent at Endeavor who longed to run a studio. “That’s when I thought, ‘Hey, if I can get a movie I can believe in, and every movie after that one is a sequel or a quasi-sequel—the same characters show up—then it can go on forever,’” he said. “Because it’s not thirty new movies. It’s one movie and twenty-nine sequels. What we call a universe.”
That idea was the basis for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Maisel flew to Florida to meet with Isaac “Ike” Perlmutter, Marvel Entertainment’s then-CEO, who liked the universe pitch enough to make Maisel the president of Marvel Studios. He eventually raised $525 million in financing through Merrill Lynch to begin constructing the MCU, which kicked off in 2008 with “Iron Man.”
“It was like a free loan,” Maisel said. “You go to a casino and get to keep the winnings. You don’t have to worry if you lose. The board had really no choice but to approve me making the new Marvel Studios.”
Using a focus group of children and asking them which Marvel toy they wanted to play with most, Maisel and Marvel Studios quickly discovered there was a lot of love for none other than Iron Man. Jon Favreau, best known at that time as the director of “Elf,” was brought in to direct an “Iron Man” movie. According to Maisel, he was the key figure in getting Marvel’s board to sign off on casting Robert Downey Jr. in the lead role.
Downey Jr.’s charisma is widely credited with making “Iron Man” a critical and box office hit in 2008, thus opening the door for Maisel’s dream of a Marvel Cinematic Universe. But Marvel’s board was nervous about casting Downey Jr. given his bad boy reputation, which included being arrested in April 1996 for possession of heroin, cocaine and an unloaded gun. Downey Jr. was on the outs of Hollywood at the time, and Marvel was deciding between him or Timothy Olyphant to cast as Iron Man.
“My board thought I was crazy to put the future of the company in the hands of an addict,” Maisel said bluntly. “I helped them understand how great he was for the role. We all had confidence that he was clean and would stay clean.”
Maisel would later arrange the $4 billion sale of Marvel to Disney. He resigned as president after the deal went through, leaving space for Kevin Feige to become the new president and the face of the MCU. Maisel had an executive producer credit on all the pre-Disney MCU movies, including “Iron Man,” “The Incredible Hulk,” “Iron Man 2,” “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger.”
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