The creator of this season of the docuseries Icons Unearthed: Marvel shared with The Direct what he understands to be some of the key secrets to the MCU’s success.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been alive and well since 2008’s Iron Man. Despite some mixed reception over the last year or two, the serialized storytelling is still going strong today—with no plans of stopping anytime soon.
Many studios have tried to replicate the cinematic universe template, and nearly all have failed. The only franchises that have come anywhere close have been Star Wars and the DCU—though the latter’s messy last few years have led to a big reboot of its continuity.
Brian Volk-Weiss, the producer for Vice’s docuseries Icons Unearthed: Marvel, exclusively talked with The Direct’s Russ Milheim about the upcoming new season of his informative show.
So why even choose Marvel as the subject for its fourth season in the first place?
Volk-Weiss posed his own question in return: “what is more iconic than Marvel:”
“… The whole premise of what we’re trying to do is take these things that everybody knows what they are, even if they haven’t seen the movie, and really tell people what they’re looking at. It never ceases to amaze me… So we’re trying to unearth the stories behind these things that are huge, but most people don’t know the origins or whatnot. And to me, in 2023, what is more iconic than Marvel?”
With a topic as large and expansive as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where does one even begin to tackle the subject?
The producer noted how at first, they try to identify “the spinal column of [their] show.” In this case, that important thread ended up being the situation in which 2012’s Avengers was being made.
As Volk-Weiss puts it, Marvel Studios “were making Avengers in a soundstage in New Mexico” before two of their leading stars even had their solo films debut—something the producer emphasizes held an unprecedented amount of risk: “When they were making ‘Avengers’ in a soundstage in New Mexico, Captain America and Thor had not come out, and it just blew my mind the amount of risk and just confidence that it took to basically make this gigantic movie with this huge cast, where both of those movies had an eight out of 10 chance of bombing. That’s the statistic of a Hollywood film: 80% fail.”
Putting it bluntly, the heart of this season is the “staggering tolerance for… [Marvel’s] unprecedented risk:” “So you have five leads, and two of the leads, nobody knew how they were gonna do. But they committed a $220 million dollar budget to make a movie where 2 out of 5 of their leads were unproven. And that became sort of the subtext of the whole season, which is this just staggering tolerance for what I believe to be an unprecedented risk.”
Sounding impressed himself, the producer noted that Marvel Studios doesn’t just take financial risks but also creative ones: “And Marvel does that, not just financially, but they also do it creatively. Nobody would have made ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ as the seventh movie… In a time where I believe capitalism is becoming more and more risk-averse, they just kind of said, ‘Screw it. Let’s try anyway.’
Volk-Weiss shared that when it comes to Marvel Studios’ biggest misstep, it might be 2021’s Eternals. Though, in many ways, he doesn’t even consider that a bad move:
“… The easy answer would be ‘Eternals’, but I don’t really view it as a misstep, because they took a risk. And again, not only is the risk, unprecedented, the results are unprecedented. If ‘Eternals’ has lost money, which nobody knows for sure if it did, but I’m pretty sure it did, and you have to remember ‘Eternals’ is also came out during the tail end of COVID…”
He continued, explaining how Marvel Studios “realized they had to flip the script” and “keep changing things:” “… they basically realized they had to flip the script, and start over, and keep changing things, because people were getting bored. And they weren’t getting bored, because the movies weren’t good or the movies weren’t doing well. It’s just that I think Marvel was like, ‘Alright, we can’t rely on Iron Man, and Captain America, and Black Widow forever. Let’s flip the script. Let’s do something new.’”
Volk-Weiss reiterated how he has “such an appreciation” for the “high wire act that [Marvel Studios is] walking on:” “I just think I have such an appreciation for like the high wire act that [Marvel Studios is] walking on, that the fact that they’re taking the risks that they’re taking and prevailing… [Marvel Studios has] found a way to do storytelling in a way that feels new to audiences, 2008 through 2023 and counting.”
But does the producer think that superhero fatigue might start really affecting Marvel Studios? The filmmaker pointed out Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania’s underwhelming debut as a sign that it might.
However, he also offered two bits of advice: “they should watch Andor” and maybe use those green screens a little less: “I do [think superhero fatigue could be a problem]. I mean, obviously, [‘Quantumania’] didn’t do [well]… here would be my one piece of advice going forward: they should watch ‘Andor’ and make their movies look like that. I think part of the problem that ‘Ant-Man’ might be having in some of these recent films, and I kind of felt that way with ‘Thor: Love and Thunder’, but you just know they’re standing there in front of a green screen, you know?”
When it comes to just how long these movies might be around, Volk-Weiss assumes it’ll be “as long as our civilization exists:” “I mean, as long as our civilization exists. I mean, they’ll just evolve… At some point, Kevin Feige is gonna retire. Hopefully, they replace him with the right person, and it’ll evolve, it’ll change. They’ll take another risk. That’s what you gotta do, and they will do it. They have the resources to survive failure. They’ll pull it off.”
He pointed towards old classic Disney movies when it comes to proof that failure won’t stop Marvel Studios: “Everybody forgets… there are three massive classic Disney movies that… since the day we were born, we’re conditioned to view as classics, massive successes. Those three movies almost bankrupted Disney. And it was ‘Dumbo’ that saved Disney. So I know that because I make TV shows for Disney+ and I’m a big Disney lunatic, but that’s what a lot of people don’t understand.”
Icons Unearthed: Marvel airs every Tuesday at 9 p.m. EST on Vice.