Marvel Studios Creative Exec Jonathan Schwartz On Shang-Chi, Secret Invasion, And Planning The MCU

Before becoming a full-fledged producer on Marvel Studios' "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings," Jonathan Schwartz worked as Kevin Feige's assistant before quickly rising up the ranks to creative executive in time for "The Avengers" in 2012. He went on to co-produce the first "Guardians of the Galaxy," executive produce "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" and "Captain Marvel," and as we discussed in an interview earlier today, he's currently overseeing several projects at the studio, working as part of a brain trust alongside Feige and several other top Marvel execs. 

Read on to get a sense of how big decisions are made behind closed doors at Marvel, how Schwartz and "Shang-Chi" co-writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton lured Hong Kong legend Tony Leung to play the movie's villain, and more.

(This edited has been edited for clarity and brevity.)

You started out as Kevin Feige's assistant, but you're now a full-on producer for "Shang-Chi." I know you used to be listed as a "creative executive" at Marvel, so are you still working in a sort of broad oversight capacity, or have you now transitioned into being laser-focused on one movie at a time?

It's a really interesting question, and the answer is a little of both. There are a few people in my role at Marvel Studios, and generally we are overseeing one or a couple of projects the way that I oversaw "Shang-Chi" from beginning to end. At the same time, we're chiming in on scripts and seeing cuts of movies. It's a large creative group, and we all have input on the broad spectrum of projects on the slate.

Obviously Kevin has an incredible understanding of how to tell stories with these comic book characters, but he is still human, after all. So with that in mind: what is the worst note Kevin Feige has ever given? Is there a time you can think of where you or any of the other Marvel folks had to really talk him out of an idea?

Nothing comes to mind, honestly. All of us have probably given bad notes at one time or another. I'm sure that I have. But the reality of the process is that those notes tend to be given in the context of conversation with the filmmakers, writers, and people involved in the process. So if there's an idea that I, or Kevin, or anyone else throws out that ends up not working because it's not right, or "we can't do this, because of this and this," those ideas tend to get funneled out and the best ideas rise to the top, inevitably. That's part of the beauty and spirit of the collaboration: all of us have the freedom to have bad ideas, because we know that we're our own best partners and we're going to watch each others' backs. Inevitably, we're going to be putting those ideas up in front of an audience who are going to say, We love that, that idea rocks! or Boo! And when they boo, those ideas either get fixed, or they're not in the finished product.

This is going to be a long question, so please bear with me: I'd love for you to paint me a picture of what it's like to be in the room at Marvel when big decisions are made that span multiple films. Let's use this as a hypothetical example — and I promise I'm not trying to get a scoop or anything, this is purely to illustrate a point. Let's say you wanted to introduce the "Fantastic Four" a few years down the line, and the way to incorporate them into the MCU would be through some kind of multiverse event. When an idea like that one occurs, do you immediately look at the projects you have lined up before that — in this fictional example, it'd be things involving the multiverse like "Loki," "Spider-Man: No Way Home," and "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" — and talk about ways to lay the groundwork for that end result to happen?

It's a complicated question, and the answer is, yes, sometimes — and sometimes not. Sometimes we have an end goal in sight that can be very specific or sort of abstract, and we talk about, "How do we lead to that in the right way? How do we tell that story? What projects make sense for this character or whatever to appear in?" And sometimes, things have organically happened along the way where we say, "Oh, wouldn't it be cool if we were driving at this?" It's a little of each. A little finding as we go, and a little having a destination and driving toward it.

Can you think of an example of an MCU project where that type of groundwork was laid in advance? The obvious answers would be "Avengers: Infinity War" and "Endgame," because the entire MCU was leading to those movies. But aside from those, were there any smaller decisions that you laid the groundwork for?

Thanos is kind of the big one, and the various appearances of Thanos throughout Phases One through Three that led to "Infinity War" and "Endgame." Captain Marvel's another one: seeding the beeper at the end of "Infinity War" and then going back in time for Captain Marvel's movie, and then having her come again for "Endgame." That was a cool one. Those are the two off the top of my head.

There were rumors a while back that Shang-Chi could have appeared in a post-credits scene of "The Avengers" that was made specifically for China. Can you shed some light on that? Is that a real thing?


OK. It was in some guy's book who worked with Marvel at some point, so I remember some people running with that.

I am not aware of that at all.

If memory serves, Shang-Chi is one of the first movies that was mentioned way back in the mid-2000s as part of Marvel's slate before Marvel Studios even existed. From your perspective, what was it like to watch this film's trajectory take place over all of those years?

I'll be honest: I haven't really been tracking it as a development property outside of Marvel Studios. I can say that when we decided to make it as a studio, it was more or less a straight line from, we're making "Shang-Chi" to "Shang-Chi" is coming out in theaters. Which is basically how it happens. We get a release date, we get a character, we do the comic research, and from then on, we are putting the movie together all the way through. So we had a little bit of a detour, it took a little longer than usual, but the journey is pretty straightforward.

I was reading the recent profile of Tony Leung in GQ, and it was talking about how when you and Destin were speaking, Tony was the dream choice for Wenwu, but Destin wasn't sure that Tony would be interested. Can you tell me more about that process, how you guys went to him, and what those conversations were like?

Yeah, I think we just got him on the phone with Destin, they had a video conference, and whatever Destin said in that call about what he wanted to do with this character got Tony creatively invested in doing the movie. It seemed like he wanted to do something like this. It seemed like he was excited about the vision of a character that Destin was putting forward which is textured and nuanced, and I'm not sure if you've seen the movie, but Tony was able to capture all of that so beautifully and brought so much texture to it. I think that's what Tony was looking for in his Hollywood debut, and Destin gave him that comfort and that vision in the way that Tony deserves.

I've also read that Destin himself had conversations with you early on about this project, and then he sort of had a meeting, and then another meeting, and eventually he was pitching. It seemed like a gradual type of process. From your perspective, were you looking at Destin early on and saying, Oh man, I hope this is the guy and slowly guiding him because that's an approach that you tailored to him and what he was going through in his life at the time, or is that just a general approach that you take when you're producing a movie and looking for a filmmaker to lead the ship?

It's a little of each. Sometimes you lead the filmmaker process, sometimes the filmmaker leads you a little bit. I was very excited about Destin early on when he put his hand up and said he was interested at all in "Shang-Chi." I've been a great fan of his for a long time, so for him to want to be a part of that process was exciting from the get-go. Maybe I was just trying to play it cool a little bit and not let him know how excited I was. [laughs]

I'm curious what your day-to-day looks like at Marvel. Take me a month into the future. I think the next credit on IMDb for you is "Guardians Vol. 3," so are you actively having conversations with James Gunn about that right now? What do you think your day-to-day at Marvel is going to look like a month from now?

I'm actually not producing "Guardians 3." My colleague Sarah Smith is going to be producing that one. I'm bummed not to be back for it, but I know the movie's going to be great and I'm looking forward to checking it out as a fan. I am in London at the moment working on "Secret Invasion," which I think is going to be very cool and I'm very excited about. It's a very different flavor for Marvel Studios. Then, I'm in the early days of development that I can't say anything about yet, in typical Marvel fashion. But like on "Shang-Chi," that has involved deep dives into comic books, putting together lists of exciting writers and filmmakers, coming up with foundations of the ideas that will make that movie eventually feel new and fresh and cool and hopefully get us excited enough about it to then talk to other people and get them excited about it.

I mentioned in the beginning you used to be Kevin's assistant, and you proved yourself a valuable asset to Marvel relatively quickly jumping up the ranks there. What is it like to work alongside Kevin these days? In the wake of this massive event that was "Avengers: Endgame," as we head into a new era of Marvel introducing all these new characters that audiences are not super familiar with? Does it feel like those early days?

It's evolved quite a bit. We've evolved quite a bit. But I'll tell you, it's as exciting as it's ever been. There's such a broad spectrum of characters available to us and stories to tell, and now we have Disney+, where we're able to tell stories that we may not have been able to tell or wanted to tell in a movie format, that make perfect sense in a TV or streaming format. It opens us up to bigger creative risks and cooler creative concepts. "WandaVision," "Loki," "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier," "What If...?" — all so different, all so cool, all such great templates for the future and where the universe can go. And the other side of that is continuing to push the boundary in film, and make these movies feel distinct and cool and different for the audience, and figuring out what the next wave of Marvel movies is going to feel like. It's an exciting challenge.

"We Should Just Do That!"

What is your favorite creative decision that you made that found its way into "Shang-Chi"? Was there a moment you were fighting for or really passionate about that made it into the movie?

It's hard to pick one. I think my favorite creative decision is probably the change from Wenwu's finger rings to the kung fu, hung gar-inflected iron rings around his wrists. It came from a day when we were in the writers' room – me and Destin and Dave Callaham – and we kind of hit a wall when it came to the writing and needed a refresher, and we put on a kung fu movie called "The 36th Chamber of Shaolin," which starts with a big kung fu training montage that includes the iron rings. Destin pointed at the iron rings and said, "We should just do that!" and he was totally right. It's the coolest thing. It took me all the way back to watching "Kung Fu Hustle," where those rings are very prominent and very cool. That's an amazing idea. It's so martial arts, it's so genre-driven, it really snapped the movie into focus in a big way. I'm going to put that up as my fave.

You mentioned working on "Secret Invasion." I know you're probably not able to talk about that very much at all, but I'm wondering if you can give me a vague approach of the tone. What do you think that show is going to feel like in comparison to some of the other Disney+ stuff?

I literally don't think I'm allowed to say anything about it, other than that it exists.

Fair enough. My last question for you: is there an aspect of the making of "Shang-Chi" that you are proud of or interested in or found particularly challenging but have not had a chance to talk about much and want people to know about?

All of it, from top to bottom, was a process that was exciting, different, and cool. I'm forever grateful to Destin and to our amazing crew, who I was lucky enough to be able to work with. [Cinematographer] Bill Pope, [production designer] Sue Chan, [first assistant director] Jeff Okabayashi, too many people to name. At or near the top of that list is the great Brad Allan of the Jackie Chan stunt team, who was our second unit director and supervising stunt coordinator. He did such amazing work putting the fights together. He really was the soul of martial arts when it comes to "Shang-Chi," and an incredibly knowledgeable resource when it comes to that stuff. The team he put together was really amazing and incredible. So it's a great tribute to Brad, with people responding to the movie the way that they have, because he brought so much life and spirit to it.

"Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" opens in theaters on September 3, 2021.