SXSW: Marvel Announces Comic Documentary Films, CIVIL WAR Up First

Marvel’s Tales To Astonish: Civl War
Credit: Marvel Comics

At SXSW Sunday, Marvel Comics announced that they’re taking a sharp look at some of their greatest hits.

At this week's “Marvel: The House of Ideas,” the New York-based company announced that it is launching a series of live-action short film documentaries of the publisher’s most pivotal moments. Dubbed Marvel’s Tales To Astonish, these short films will look at the creation, the impact, and the effect of its characters, series and stories in its 75 year history. The first subject of this innovative documentary series about comics is a look at the 2006 event series Civil War by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven.

“After we thought up the concept for Marvel’s Tales To Astonish, we were kicking around ideas for what to cover and Civil War jumped to the top of the heap,” says John Cerilli, Vice President of Content & Programming at Marvel. “It did because Civil War is sort of the typical Marvel story: good guys and bad guys who weren’t necessarily good guys and bad guys. Their point of contention boils down to a difference of philosophy and opinion, so there’s no real right or wrong. Civil War typifies want it means to be a Marvel character.”

This inaugural installment of Marvel’s Tales To Astonishis directed by Eric Drath, a prominent film documentarian that developed an episode of HBO’s 30 for 30 series last year and also directed 2008’s Assault In The Ring.

“[Eric Drath] is second to none as far as storytelling goes; I can’t wait for the world to see this thing,” Cerilli tells Newsarama. “We’re premiering the trailer here at SXSW, and it proves a very good flavor for fans to learn more about what we’re doing here.”

For this Civil War episode, Drath interviewed series writer Mark Millar, as well as the long-time face of Marvel Comics, Stan Lee. Avengers director Joss Whedon was interviewed, which is important given his current place in Marvel’s movie plans but also because Whedon contributed ideas at the writer’s room summit in which the finale of Civil War was decided upon, during his run writing Astonishing X-Men. In addition to current and past creators associated with Marvel, Drath reached out to the mainstream press and has on-air comments from the likes of television journalists like MSNBC’s Chris Hayes and Fox & Friends’ host Tucker Carlson.

“When I saw Drath’s first cut of the film, I was blown away,” Cerilli says. “When I spoke with Eric about my vision for this, I had certain beats I wanted to hit through the film and he just kind of went with it. I don’t want to reveal everyone he spoke to for this Marvel’s Tales To Astonishshort film, but it’s kind of fun the various people who pop up and start talking about Marvel.”

One of the key aspects of Civil War that attributed to its success in 2006 was that it wasn’t conflict between a clear-cut hero and a clear-cut villain, but rather showing two sides of an argument about privacy and government intrusion on personal lives – in this case, the secret identities of superheroes and their regulation. The comic series struck a nerve when it was released in 2006, becoming its highest selling series in the past fifteen years, and during the production of the Marvel’s Tales To Astonish documentary of Civil War this year the topic once again became contemporary.

“A sort of magical thing happened while Eric was making this film; I don’t know how magical it was for American citizens, but it became very topical again,” explains Cerilli. “Civil War is about privacy, right? Superheroes were fighting against a very simple concept: Captain America said that the superhero registration act was crap and said heroes didn’t need to tell the government who they are and what they do, while Iron Man held opposing beliefs; his thinking was that if gun owners need to be registered for safety, then people with superpowers need to be registered as well. So while he was filming this look at Civil War, the whole concept of privacy is blown apart with the NSA scandal. All of that stuff started filter out into the media, and Civil War started to look great as a topical story again.”

Cerilli tells Newsarama that the Civil War episode is effectively complete, with only the end credits sequence waiting to be completed. Cerilli expects Marvel’s Tales To Astonish to debut sometime in 2014, but the precise date and venue remain to be seen.

“We have several options for how to release Marvel’s Tales To Astonish, but we want to make sure we choose the right path to showcase it on,” says the Marvel VP of Content & Programming. “We could distribute it ourselves, or through a partner. Short form video is very important to Marvel, and much like everything else we do we want to find the right place for it to appear.”

Although the time and plate Marvel’s Tales To Astonish has yet to be decided, Cerilli said that the genesis of the project was around 18 months ago during the planning of the larger Marvel Original Video umbrella of titles including its shows. The series sprung up as a way to give a ‘behind the scenes’ style look at Marvel’s major moments, but also to show how they exist within the context of the comic book medium and the world at large.

“The truth of the matter is that all of these characters and all of these stories were created by really great artists; writers, editors, pencillers and others, and we know they are influenced by a lot of things,” Cerilli points out. “Look at something like the X-Men or someone like Peter Parker; they were revolutionary for a reason. What we want to do with Marvel’s Tales To Astonish is look at why they were so important.”

Going from why to what, it’s undoubtable that comic fans could supply a litany of future subjects for Marvel’s Tales to Astonish short film documentaries. Cerilli has no problem with that, and says the House of Ideas already has “about a dozen” strong candidates.

“I don’t want to reveal too much, but there are a couple that are of particularly great interest to me,” Cerilli reveals. “But all of them are cool concepts, and I think they will be hits with longtime Marvel fans as well as those who have only seen a Marvel movie here or there. I hope people who watch these will be blown away.”

The first prospective concepts for a future Marvel’s Tales To Astonish episode that Cerilli opened up to Newsarama about was one looking at Marvel’s first graphic novel, which dealt with the all-too-real subject of death – a topic of some contention by superhero fans, but this one is one of the few that have stuck.

“In comics, fans -- rightly in some cases -- believe that superheroes can’t never really die. But with The Death of Captain Marvel graphic novel from 1982, we were able to show death and show it with such a human disease as cancer,” Cerilli explains. “Marvel was one of the first comic publishers to say that these are stories that need to be told. These are stories which can be meaningful to so many people. That was groundbreaking in terms of comic book literature, and it certainly went beyond the conceptions for what superhero comic book stories were and are. The Death of Captain Marvel is one of those moments that we can dissect as easily as we’re dissecting Civil War. It’s all about what being a Marvel character means, and how these characters exist in the Marvel Universe; even if they’re an alien creature, who Captain Marvel was, he too could be affected by something as unfortunately common as cancer.”

Another subject that Cerilli says is ripe for exploration in as a documentary is the exploration of comic book art as high art, and looking at the appropriation by celebrated modern artist Roy Lichtenstein. The idea all started when legendary comics artist John Romita Sr. visited Cerilli at Marvel and happened to see a exhibition catalog from a recent Lichtenstein exhibit.

“Mr. Romita was flipping through it and pointing to some paintings and explaining, in some instances, the exact comics they came from,” Cerilli reveals. “That was an amazing conversation, and it always stuck with me. If a museums wants to claim they have a modern art collection, they can’t without having a Lichtenstein. But the fun part from our end is that he was taking stuff from the comics we were reading, and in some cases. publishing. Years earlier, MOMA had undertaken a ‘high and low art’ exhibit. The memories of that show mixed with my conversation with John Romita Sr. always stuck with me. What is the difference between high art and low art? Suddenly, after Lichtenstein blows up page 15, panel 4 of a comic it becomes high art. But why wasn’t the original form – the Marvel comic panel – considered high art? So exploring that idea of ‘what is art?’ and ‘what is high art?’ – I think it’s an intriguing story that will appeal to so many different audiences.”

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