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Brian Volk-Weiss Breaks Down the History of Marvel Films in Icons Unearthed: The MCU

Brian Volk-Weiss sits down to discuss the history of the MCU in the latest season of Icons Unearthed, and what makes its evolution so unique.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is perhaps the most successful gamble in modern entertainment. A broad adaptation of the characters from Marvel Comics, filtered through a series of separate but interconnected films, could have easily stumbled out of the gate. Instead, the franchise has become one of the single most successful film series of all time, with life-long Marvel fan Kevin Feige becoming one of Hollywood’s most successful producers.

But the path to the MCU’s success wasn’t written in stone, and the latest season of Icons Unearthed delves into the process that turned a frequently “doomed” publisher into a titan of mass media. During an interview with CBR ahead of Icons Unearthed: Marvel’s Mar. 7 debut on VICE TV, Brian Volk-Weiss spoke about his personal history with Marvel, his belief about what the DC Extended Universe was missing, and why Blade deserves to be heralded as one of the most important films of modern cinema.

CBR: Congrats on the new season! One of the things I find striking, especially in the first episode, is the reminder of how many times this company came close to being shuttered forever.

Brian Volk-Weiss: It’s funny you say that. I’m glad you’re one of the first people I’ve heard from the outside, who’s seen it and can tell me what they think. That’s really what we were going for. Because, I mean, on a scale of one to ten on risk, I thought what Marvel took on was like a seven or an eight. It was an 11. And the moment for me when I realized that was when I read they were shooting Avengers when Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor came out. Like, that’s all you got to know. For me, the control experiment for the whole Marvel thing was James Bond. What I mean by that is, imagine they’re making Casino Royale simultaneously with Dr. NoFrom Russia With LoveThunderball, and Goldfinger… I, for one, have no idea how many of the people who did it back then slept at night for five years.

Do you think that decision was the riskiest gamble Marvel has ever taken?

I mean, I could be wrong. I am not a film historian. But I’ve done a lot of research and know a little bit about pop culture and movie history. I believe this is the biggest risk in the history of filmed entertainment. Nothing comes close.

Even when compared to other “risky” stuff you and the show have covered, like Star Wars and Fast & the Furious?

Oh, it’s much bigger because those movies were risky as movies. To put it in Star Wars terms, imagine if the first Star Wars movie was Luke Skywalker. The second was Princess Leia. The third was Han Solo. And then the fourth was A New Hope. What if the Princess Leia movie bombed? Imagine if Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger bombed, then two of the leads of the Avengers would have been bad news. That’s the kind of stuff that doesn’t make sense. After all that, think about how much money we’re talking about here.

Each one of those movies costs about $150 million to make. Avengers cost about $200 million. So they literally had half a billion bucks or more invested, and everything had to go right. Not only did everything have to go, but these also were not easy movies. Thor is a very, very strange character. Captain America is a very difficult story to tell. So it’s not like they were taking these simple stories and simple characters and hoping for the best. I mean, they’re hiring a Shakespearean director to do this. All this wild stuff had to line up, the casting had to line up, everything had to be perfect — and they pulled it off.

So many studios have tried and failed to replicate that level of success. Do you think it’s possible another studio could get it right?

I think that it can absolutely be replicated. I gotta be careful how I say this because I don’t want to be disrespectful to anybody. But if you hire somebody to run a universe, being a fan of that universe makes a big difference. What Kevin Feige was able to bring to the table is that when he’s reading scripts [and]watching rough cuts, he’s able to say, “Oh, wait a minute. No. That’s not working. But if you ever read Avengers #198, or whatever, there’s a scene on page 6 through page 11. We should take that scene and do that instead of what the writer wrote.” He had this encyclopedic knowledge of about 70 years of Marvel. He was able to use it to make the best Iron Man possible.

DC is the best example. I mean, they hired somebody who I would argue is not a fan of the DC Universe, and I feel like you can see it in the movies. It’s very obvious James Gunn — who, in my opinion, directed probably the best two superhero films in Guardians of the Galaxy and The Suicide Squad — like, I guarantee you right here and right now you’re gonna start seeing Superman and Batman breaking the $2 billion mark. So DC was happy. You know, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice did, I think, $800 million. [Warner Bros. and DC] should have been depressed. There’s no reason Batman and Superman shouldn’t have broken a billion at the box office. The reason is [that] they hired somebody to make it that I don’t think was a fan of the characters.

The only film they made that, to me, felt like it was made by people that cared and understood the character was Wonder Woman. I give an honorable mention because, holy shit, did they just say, “Fuck it,” and jump off a cliff was Aquaman. I actually saw Aquaman twice in the theaters. I thought because it was so big and so fast, I was like, I need to see this again. I don’t think I could comprehend it.

Let’s talk about Eternals for a second. Eternals, I think, failed. I think it lost money. I believe it’s the only Marvel movie that lost money. But my point is it still felt like it was made by people who cared. I do think you can replicate that success. It needs fans making it. Another perfect example of an almost 60-year-old IP that’s still going stronger than ever is James Bond. Why? Because it is made by people that worship James Bond.

I also want to thank you for agreeing with me about Blade — I recently wrote about the film to commemorate its 25th anniversary, and I genuinely believe it’s quietly one of the most impactful films in modern cinema because it set the stage for the superhero surge and the embrace of the comics mythology. Do you think Blade should be considered a more important film in the modern cinematic pantheon?

100% yes. I would argue Blade was the first, but Blade 2, too. Because you always get it right once, [but] it’s very hard to get it right twice, and I would argue Blade 2 is better than Blade. I believe two movies made it safe and cool for the heads of studios to talk to the board about $100-$200 million greenlights for superhero films. One of them does get all the credit it deserves, and that’s 1989’s Batman.

But the other is Blade, and you’re absolutely right. Blade does not get any credit for figuring out how to make a weird movie about a guy or a girl in tights look modern and cool. Even the armor on Blade’s chest. Just using the wardrobe of his costume, they figured out how to take something from a comic book with an unlimited budget. In comics, it doesn’t matter if there’s wind,rain, good lighting, or bad lighting. Comic books can always make it look good. Blade was the one who made little changes here and there that made it look like the comic book but also didn’t make Wesley Snipes look like a jackass running around killing vampires.

I also love how the first episode of the series touches upon the sheer bizarreness of something like Howard the Duck. I never knew before watching this that it almost starred Robin Williams.

That’s what we tried to do. We try to find stories that work on two levels. One, they work for people like me who worship this stuff. Then they work for people like my wife, who now and then, I’ll beg to sit next to me when I watch something like this. For example, I just showed my wife the movie about the Pez dispensers. My wife couldn’t care less about Pez dispensers, but she loved the movie as much as I did. That’s what we tried to do. So to your point about Robin Williams, if there’s a huge Marvel fan and their spouse is not a huge Marvel fan, I believe that story will be interesting to both people. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we don’t. But the way we try to do it is we find, for lack of a better term, human stories.

Going back to the Pez dispenser movie, yes, it’s about Pez. It’s about the Pez community, but it’s also a love story between a husband and a wife, [and] it’s also a crime caper. That’s what we always try to do. We always try to find the stories where it doesn’t matter what you’re into. Here’s another example: I am not a sports fan at all. I don’t watch any sports [and] I don’t have any teams, but I love sports movies. I love sports documentaries. The reason is, from my point of view, they’re human stories. That’s what we try to do. This season, which is eight episodes — every other season of Icons Unearthed is six episodes — this season is really for us. It was like every single person that worked on the show had literally grown up with Marvel in one fashion or another. So we just found these human stories that are important and interesting to anybody, but we also try not to get into the weeds with the arcane knowledge about Marvel.

Can you point to any moment in the MCU that you’d consider your favorite?

One of my favorite moments in any Marvel film is from Guardians of the Galaxy. They’re all sitting there at the table at the prison, trying to figure out the escape. The audience can see, in the background, Groot climbing up the tower and starting the attack, [but] they haven’t even figured out planning. But my other favorite moment, which I think is more to your point, is the last scene where the big final battle takes place in Thor: Ragnarok, where the lightning comes down. I mean, without a doubt, I do believe it is my favorite moment in all of Marvel.

It is in the middle of that big battle. Tessa Thompson is walking out of the spaceship. All these creatures charge her, and she just looks bored. She just looks so nonchalant. She’s got 300 creatures charging at her razor-sharp teeth, razor-sharp fingernails, [and] all that shit. And she just looks like a bored badass. Then she takes them all out. I remember the first time I saw it in the theaters. I saw that one three times in the theaters. I cried. I literally cried. Because for me, that moment and that scene really were like the Marvel I grew up with. I used to always go to summer camp with a black blanket. Very deliberately all year, I’d tell my mom, make sure you get the black blanket because I wanted to be able to read shit under the blanket after lights-out. So the Marvel that I would read when my mom would send me comic books while I was at camp for a month, that fully encapsulated and captured that moment with Tessa Thompson, walking down the bridge, just not giving a shit.

The series covers the Marvel films that almost were — which unreleased Marvel adaptation would you most want to see the completed version of?

Easy. Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four. I’ve seen a rough cut. I mean, it looked like a rough cut, but that movie is bonkers. It’s sweet. If you think about it, they just tried to do too much. They didn’t have the budget, and basically had like 2% of the money they needed to do what they did. They just said, “I don’t care. We’re going to do whatever’s in the scripts.” Depending on your point of view, they probably shouldn’t have.

The series opens with the description of the Marvel heroes as “modern mythology,” which is an idea I agree with but not in the way I think everyone tends to say it. I don’t think it’s modern mythology in the sense that we’re drawn to bigger-than-life gods. I think it’s the morals, lessons, and themes of the stories that resonate with what mythology was. Why do you think superheroes, particularly Marvel heroes, are given that distinction by people when other franchises that do similar things aren’t?

If I’m being honest with you, most reporters, especially when Iron Man came out, didn’t get it. They didn’t know what it was. They only knew that it was good. I would argue many of those reporters back in 2008 may have not even liked Iron Man, but they couldn’t argue with the box office performance. I’m probably in the minority on this, but everybody always talks about that book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. I’m not gonna sit here and say, “Oh, ignore that. Who cares about that book?” But there really are only a few specific types of stories to tell. They’ve all been told. They were all told 500 years ago.

So what I really think writers, directors, producers, anybody these days, the only thing they can do to make something new is refine, refine, refine. What I see when I watch Marvel because I’ve been reading Marvel since I was like eight, is a refinement of a hero. But it’s also a refinement of humor. It’s a refinement of action. That’s the other thing I feel Marvel doesn’t get any credit for. They have completely redefined storytelling. So for me, it’s not about modern mythology. I would argue it’s about modern storytelling. They found a new way to tell a story. I’ll never forget this. I was a manager about 15 years ago. I was talking to an agent about something, and she said to me, “Brian, you’re a nerd. Right?” By the way, this is when nerds were not a good thing to be. I’m like, “Yeah, I’m a nerd.” And she’s like, “Let me ask you something. What do you know about Nick Fury?” I told her who Nick Fury was, and she goes, “Is he a big deal?” And I’m like, “Yeah, it’s a huge deal. Why?” And again, I was talking to this very old-school agent at ICM. You cannot find someone less of a stereotypical Marvel fan. And she’s like, “Oh, my God, I got an 11-movie offer from Marvel for Sam Jackson.” And I’m sitting here scratching my head about it.” Then I’m like, “Sign that paperwork today.” That’s an example from my own career. That’s a real conversation I had with a real person, not something I read about. But like, that’s what I mean when I say modern storytelling. You have a company sending out 11-picture deals. Who does that? Now, everybody does that.

Icons Unearthed: Marvel’s first episode premieres Mar. 7 on VICE TV.