Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige joins The Falcon & the Winter Soldier director Kari Skogland to look back on making the six-part series and discuss the work that goes into bringing a comic book series to the screen.
While WandaVision had the prestige of becoming Marvel Studios’ first series, bringing the box office Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) to the small screen for the first time when it launched on Disney+ in January, that wasn’t the original plan.
In fact, it was another show, The Falcon & the Winter Soldier, that was originally scheduled to bring all the thrills and action of the MCU to Disney+ at the head of what is becoming a very long list of titles due to air over the coming months and years.
The series centres on Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), aka Falcon, and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), or The Winter Soldier, as they team up in the wake of the events of feature film Avengers: Endgame to fight a new foe, as Sam faces up to a new future and Bucky must atone for the mistakes of his past.
Speaking during a session at the 2021 BANFF World Media Festival, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige and Kari Skogland, director of The Falcon & the Winter Soldier, discussed some of the key themes in the six-part series, the process of adapting the original comic books and why Marvel isn’t just about superhero stories.
Marvel Studios was adding the finishing touches to its last two Avengers films, Infinity War and Endgame, and Spider-Man: Far From Home – which concluded the 23-movie Infinity Saga – when thoughts first turned to creating series for Disney+.
Feige: It was a case of perfect timing, which I’ve been very lucky has happened a number of times for us at Marvel Studios over my now 20-plus years here. I had spent a lot of time wondering what was next for me personally, what was next for our stories and for our studio. Around that time, Bob Iger [former Walt Disney Company CEO and now executive chairman] brought me into his office and told us about the streaming service that Disney was doing. He had asked us, Marvel Studios, to make shows for it and that really came at the perfect time because it helped us answer a question, which was what’s next and where do we go from here? Can we keep exploring the further stories of characters we’ve already introduced and hadn’t had a chance to see as much of as we wanted? Or could we introduce new characters? Thanks to Disney+ we could do both. That’s really what set us on the path.
When she first pitched to be the director of The Falcon & the Winter Soldier, Kari Skogland didn’t know much about the overall storyline, but the fact it was about the first black Captain America was all she needed to sign on.
Skogland: Not only did I feel honoured to be part of the team telling that story, because it was long overdue, but it also was going to look at what it was to be a hero today, because the original comic was born of a very different time and the world was in a very different place. It was really interesting to dive into the discussion of the evolution of it, because it had gone from a soldier/warrior paradigm into being much more about a first responder and frontline worker. And even more this last year than ever, the whole idea of who and what a hero is to the world is very different. It ticked so many boxes of topics. I knew we were going to be talking about imperialism and racism, obviously, but within that wheelhouse, we were going to be able to explore some very interesting topics, all within a very easy-to-absorb method. I did a presentation and, thankfully, they responded to my thoughts.
Of the first three series made by Marvel Studios, The Falcon & the Winter Soldier was the first to be put into development, although WandaVision would eventually become the first to air, earlier this year.
Feige: The Falcon & the Winter Soldier was the first show, so Kari had to experience all of our growing pains as a studio entering TV for the first time – of which there were many. The real answer [to why we wanted to follow these characters] is Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan. We have these great actors. They’re great apart, great together, great in an ensemble. Every time they shared the screen, which they had done in a handful of our films, it was electric. We kept saying from the first time that they were together – they fought in Captain America: The Winter Soldier  and then they had a bit of banter in Captain America: Civil War  – how can we see more of that? Disney+ allowed us to do it, so it was the very first show we conceived and moved forward with.
In the final episode of The Falcon & the Winter Soldier, Wilson (Falcon) steps into the role of Captain America and delivers an impassioned speech about changing the world and tackling institutional racism.
Feige: We didn’t want it to be preachy. We didn’t want it to be cornball. Some people think anybody talking about anything important in a ‘comic book project’ is cornball, but we don’t. It really is a testament to Malcolm [Spellman, showrunner] and Mr Mackie that they landed on something very powerful that spoke not just to today, because everything that happened in 2020 [with the Black Lives Matters movement] was after we’d already written and shot the show. But the issues are not contemporary. The issues are 400 years old, and that’s what Sam Wilson is speaking to.
Skogland: What was important to us was that it was not going to be tied up in a nice, neat bow. What Malcolm and Anthony really worked on was that idea of opening doors and not closing them, unlike many movies – particularly superhero movies – where it’s all kind of done and we’re fixed and we got the villain and they’re dead or put in jail or whatever it is, so problem solved. What was brilliant about what Malcolm and Anthony did was it was not about ‘problem solved.’ It was about what are you going to do? That made the speech particularly unique.
Another key storyline was the introduction of Isaiah Bradley, a veteran who was unwillingly subjected to the Super Soldier programme – which had earlier turned Steve Rogers into Captain America – in the 1950s. But unlike Rogers, who became a poster boy for the US, Bradley was put in jail for 30 years and subjected to numerous tests.
Feige: Isaiah Bradley was in a comic series called Truth: Red, White & Black and it revealed in the Marvel universe there had already been a successful super soldier in the comics prior to Steve Rogers and in our show it was after. But he was a black man and he was not put on USO tours and not had posters, comics and T-shirts made of him. He was shunned and forgotten, and worse. It was always a very powerful storyline we wanted to do someday as we explored the legacy of Captain America. It wasn’t initially in this series; I thought it was too big a storyline to wedge into The Falcon & the Winter Soldier. Malcolm very much believed it was the soul of Sam’s journey in the story, and Malcolm was correct. He kept pushing for it and the only note from us was to do it justice; just make sure we’re not just cramming him in there.
Between the way Malcolm wrote it, the way Kari directed all of his beautiful scenes and that great actor Carl Lumbly, he’s so powerful and so amazing. Carl was one of the highlights for me.
When it comes to adapting source material for the screen, Feige believes authenticity is key.
Feige: Particularly when we’re translating source material, which is obviously what we do at Marvel Studios, it is about staying true, at the very least, to the spirit of the characters and of the storyline, if not the specific hairstyle or costume design, although I like to stick close to those as well. But it really is about the spirit of who these amazingly well-rounded characters from the comics are and believing and trusting in them.
One of the aspects of making The Falcon & the Winter Soldier that Skogland most enjoyed was the continuous evolution of the creative process behind the scenes.
Skogland: With Marvel, you never stop writing, ever. That is always a plus because if you’re with the right group of people, you are constantly pushing the envelope, making it better, trying stuff and being open to experimentation. I was saying to the actors, and I say it to the writers as well, ‘If it sucks, it won’t be in the movie. So let’s try.’ That is an important part of a process that is unique to Marvel, where Kevin, in particular, is fantastic at being very inclusive of people’s ideas and thoughts and then cherry-picking the ones that work and letting them percolate his own ideas. It makes for a very collaborative, very supportive environment, out of which come success after success. They hit the ball out of the park every time.
Feige: The Falcon & the Winter Soldier was our first series [in development] and after asking Kari to direct all six of these colossally gigantic episodes, it was only in hindsight, now we’re on our sixth and seventh shows, that I realise what a giant ask that was of her. She delivered above and beyond, not just these six giant episodes but working under extremely difficult circumstances, not just changing scripts but changing locations and shutting down for the pandemic. It really was, safe to say, the most difficult production we’d ever had at Marvel Studios.
When it comes to identifying new creative collaborators, Marvel looks for storytelling talent at any level.
Feige: We’ve always looked for the same thing and that is being able to pull off what you set out to achieve, whether that’s a short film, a low-budget film or whether that’s a great episode of television. The example we always go to is Joe and Anthony Russo [Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame], who now direct the biggest movies in the world. They really got on our radar from cool episodes of a sitcom. It isn’t about size or spectacle, it’s about achieving a vision. Jon Watts [Spider-Man: Homecoming] did a small film called Cop Car that got our attention. Cate Shortland, who directed the upcoming Black Widow, did three or four smaller but extremely well done features. That’s it. Then there are a number of meetings leading into it – which, frankly, is as much about will we all be able to get along for the next intensive two or three years and collaborate together and find something special.
While Marvel’s new series are a showcase for the way the studio tells stories, the company is still working out the technical details.
Feige: The Falcon & the Winter Soldier was extremely expensive from a TV point of view. It was not expensive from a feature point of view, and yet it’s two or three times longer than a feature. Are there efficiencies [we can find] other than just Kari working non-stop 1,000 hours a day and 100 pages a day? Maybe that’s just the answer! But it’s about figuring out our production process between those two things. Black Widow looks giant and amazing. The Falcon & the Winter Soldier looks giant and amazing. There’s a cost discrepancy between those that we can learn from someday.
These new series also allow Marvel to introduce new stories and characters to the MCU that will, in turn, affect the stories that play out on the big screen.
Feige: What we’ve always wanted to do is different types of stories each and every time with different genres and different styles. That’s why The Falcon & the Winter Soldier, WandaVision and Loki were initially going to be our first three and Falcon was the first out of the gate, in large part to show that what Marvel Studios is going to deliver is what you would expect to see on the big screen. Then WandaVision was going to say, ‘Left turn, here’s something very different’ and it ended up being first, which, of course, worked out very well anyway.
As the MCU enters Phase Four, the clues as to what will come next are always on screen.
Feige: We go out of our way to try to produce each show or film in a way that even if you haven’t seen any of the other ones, you will have a good time watching it. That’s very important. But the clues [about what might come next] are in the content. Clearly, Anthony Mackie as Captain America was not one and done in this series. There is a future for Captain America in the MCU. There are other characters and little phrases, like Joaqúin Torres [in The Falcon & the Winter Soldier] saying, ‘What do you want me to do with these the old shattered wings?’ and Sam goes, ‘Keep them.’ Well, that’s probably heading somewhere. The clues are there and it’s fun to watch people theorise about it.