The MCU's Biggest Secrets to Success Explained by Icons Unearthed: Marvel Producer (Exclusive)

By Russ Milheim Posted:
Marvel Avengers

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.

The Success of Marvel Studios

Avengers: Endgame key art, Marvel Studios logo

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.

The Avengers, Black Widow, Thor, Captain America, Hawkeye, Iron Man, Hulk
Marvel Studios

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.’

Eternals, Eternals logo, Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Lauren Ridloff

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."

Kang, Paul Rudd, Wasp, Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania

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.”

Clark Gregg, Agent Phil Coulson, The Avengers
Marvel Studios

As for who Volk-Weiss and his team were able to talk with, some bigger names include Avengers star Clark Gregg and Ant-Man’s T.I.:

“Yeah, we interviewed talent, from like T.I., who was in ‘Ant-Man’, Clark Gregg, Lou Ferrigno. And then, you know, we also did the comic book people, like Todd McFarlane, J. Michael Straczynski, people like Roger Corman… [they] are all great and we got some amazing information.”

But those recognizable faces aren’t the only ones the producer thought would be important to talk to. Some of the lore unknown people tend to give “information that should blow the minds of a Marvel fan:”

“... We also interviewed people like Charlie Wen, who was the creative designer on a staggering amount of the first, I think, 15 Marvel films, people like Susan Wexler, who was the art director for at least four or five of the films… [they] really gave us information that should blow the minds of a Marvel fan… So we always try, and find people that were there that have never done an interview, and that’s how you find out what really happened.”

But who did the team at Icons Unearthed: Marvel want to talk with, but never got the chance to?

One timely possibility was Ant-Man director Peyton Reed, who Volk-Weiss claimed was close to getting booked:

“I love Peyton Reed. Love him. And I think we were close to getting him except for he was doing press for ‘Ant-Man’, but I wanted him so badly. Like so, so, so badly. So, that would be a good example.”

Red Guardian, Black Widow, Taskmaster, Yelena Belova, Rick Mason

The team also wanted some of the cast and crew from 2021’s Black Widow, but they “couldn’t get pretty much anyone who was in that movie:"

“I love 'Black Widow' and the fact that we couldn’t get pretty much anyone who was in that movie is… I mean, it’s always gut-wrenching. And it’s not just Scarlett Johansson or Florence Pugh, but like David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, Olga Kurylenko. We just weren’t able to get any of them.”

So just how far down the MCU timeline will this upcoming season of Vice’s Docuseries get? Volk-Weiss shared that the eight episodes would go all the way up to the very first Ant-Man film:

“... it ends with [the first] ‘Ant-Man’… If it does well, then we’ll make more. Every other season we’ve done is six episodes. So we were lucky, we got eight for this.”

Black Adam, Aquaman, Joker, Batman, Shazam, DC logo

With all this talk about Marvel Studios, it's hard not to wonder, what are the odds that Icons Unearthed could focus on Warner Bros. and its DC Comics efforts down the line? Sadly, it doesn’t look very likely:

“ I don’t really like to make anything that is, what I like to call, punching down. We really just try to make positive things, and don’t get me wrong, we’ll put the dark stuff in our story. But, unless we were covering [the first] ‘Wonder Woman’, and maybe ‘Aquaman’, every single thing we would talk about would be, to a certain extent, punching down, though. I do give an honorable mention to the first ‘Superman’ film. That was pretty good. But every other movie they did was a D, or an F. And woo, ‘Batman v. Superman’ did $650 million.”

Icons Unearthed: Marvel airs every Tuesday at 9 p.m. EST on Vice.

Getting Marvel Studios Back on Track

As successful as Marvel Studios has been, it’s clearly going through some growing pains of its own.

Several projects have faced delays, and the company has told audiences that they can expect a slower output on their Disney+ content—which had been going a mile a minute throughout both 2021 and 2022.

Despite the rough edges of Phase 4 and potentially troublesome production issues of Phase 5, Marvel is still going strong. Those involved just have some work to do on cleaning and tidying up the MCU’s explosive expansion over the last couple of years.

As Marvel Studios works at cleaning up its own act, Warner Bros. is gearing up to launch its second attempt at a cohesive cinematic universe for DC Comics properties. Despite all of their failings in the past, is it possible for them to reach the heights of the MCU this late in the game?

James Gunn certainly hopes so.

Marvel Studios’ current film, Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania, is now playing in theaters worldwide. As for the new DCU, its first proper film will be Superman: Legacy, which is scheduled for July 11, 2025.

- About The Author: Russ Milheim
Russ Milheim is the Industry Relations Coordinator at The Direct. On top of utilizing his expertise on the many corners of today’s entertainment to cover the latest news and theories, he establishes and maintains communication and relations between the outlet and the many studio and talent representatives.