Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige has said it a thousand times in interviews over the past ten years. So many answers to so many questions include the phrase “in the comics,” or something to that effect. Simply put, Marvel Studios cares about the source material and it shows on the big screen.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the most faithful live-action adaptation of comic book superheroes ever produced. While other studios hesitate to put their characters in bold, colorful costumes for fear of drawing unintentional laughs, Marvel sees the designs of these characters as one of the primary reasons their stories have been told continuously for several decades.
To be clear, I’m referring to the portion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that is actually handled by Marvel Studios. What Netflix and Marvel Television do with their casually-dressed heroes is their business.
The process of keeping as much of that “comic book look” as possible begins with Marvel Studios’ Visual Development team. They are an in-house group of artists who provide a key link between two-dimensional comic pages and the three-dimensional space in which costumed actors will perform in front of cameras.
At a recent event for the in-home release of Ant-Man and the Wasp, I sat down Ryan Meinerding and Andy Park, the Head and Director of Visual Development at Marvel Studios, respectively. Marvel’s track record for faithful adaptations can’t be an accident, so I asked Meinerding and Park why the source material is such a priority at the studio. Not surprisingly, it turns out the folks at Marvel Studios have a lot in common with the audience they serve.
“I think most people at the studio are fans, including us,” says Meinerding. “When we are starting on a new film with a new set of characters, we’re looking at the source material and saying, ‘What version of this character is gonna work for the story they want to tell?’
“We’re gonna go research as far back as we can and we’ll just start pitching ideas,” he continues. “Sometimes the ideas come from the directors or producers, who are really focused on being true to the source material. Other times, we’ll be the ones sort of saying, ‘Hey, maybe if we did this, we could actually spin this just subtly,’ and then it’ll work for the story that they want to tell. It kind of just boils down to sort of, at every level, the fans at Marvel Studios want to be true to the source material as long as it works for the story that’s being told.”
“Me and Ryan, we grew up with Marvel Comics,” adds Park. “That was my main thing that I grew up with. I’m a fan of Marvel Comics. Kevin Feige, he’s a Marvel Comics fan, so he knows the source material. And so many of our directors, [Ant-Man franchise director] Peyton Reed, he was a Marvel Comics fan as well. I think because you have people who love and respect this source material, as much as possible, we don’t want to deviate.”
Some deviation, however, is necessary, as it’s not always possible to keep every element of the comics in the silver screen adaptation. “Depending on the story,” Park notes, “that’s when things will get adjusted and won’t be one-to-one source material, but it’s always true to the spirit of what Jack Kirby, and Stan Lee, and [Steve] Ditko, and so many amazing artists throughout the decades have created.”
There’s a famous story about Marvel boss Kevin Feige back when he was an associate producer on the first X-Men. Feige, in his first producing gig, insisted that Hugh Jackman’s hair needed to be bigger if fans were really going to buy into the actor as Wolverine. In all their years on the Vis Dev team, I wondered if Meinerding and Park have had similar moments as they were designing MCU characters.
“There are a couple,” says Meinerding. “For me, it was Cap’s ears. On [The Avengers], we had the notion was not necessary. It wasn’t gonna work. It was gonna make him look a little goofy. On [Captain America: The Winter Soldier], I focused all of my energy on trying to create the concept art that’s gonna allow me to have the helmet get tight enough to his head that his ears are gonna be able to be exposed and make it work.
“I don’t know if anyone actually registered that, that was looking at my concept art, how passionate I was. It sounds like a really silly, stupid thing to say like, ‘Cap’s ears have to be exposed!’ But that was a thing I was pushing as hard as I possibly could.”
The next priority for Meinerding was taking care of Spider-Man when he came home (via an agreement with Sony) to Marvel Studios. “With Spidey, it was the John Romita Sr. eyes. It was sort of like I was going for the John Romita Sr. eyes to justify having emotive eyes. So having that black border be thick enough to change shape and also be expressive. I only did one head design and that was it.”
Park wasn’t quite as successful in his bid to keep a trademark element from the comics. “Mine’s more like a failure” Park says with a laugh. “I did a lot of concept designs for Scarlet Witch and you know she’s got that iconic, weird headdress that has no real purpose. I knew we couldn’t really do that because what purpose does it have? But I did do one concept where I was like, ‘Maybe just a headband,’ as a nod, but sometimes you do these things knowing you’re just doing it for yourself for fun.”
What starts out being “just for fun” could eventually end up in the MCU. With Scarlet Witch reportedly getting her own limited series on the Disney streaming service, perhaps that headband will make it on screen after all.
There may be some concessions, but by and large, what Marvel Studios has given us are remarkable representations of who these characters are (and what they wear) in the source material. That’s what happens when films are made for fans, by fans.
Ant-Man and the Wasp is now available digitally and on 4K UHD Blu-ray.