Of SUPER BOWLS & SUPERHEROES: Marvel & ESPN Team on Documentary

Marvel + ESPN's '1 of 1: Genesis': Seahawks' Russell Wilson Clip
Marvel + ESPN's '1 of 1: Genesis': Seahawks' Russell Wilson Clip
Credit: Marvel / ESPN

The reality of sports and the fantasy of comics may seem miles apart at first glance. But Eric Drath thinks they live right next door to each other.

Drath is a documentary filmmaker who’s done numerous sports films, most notably Assault in the Ring, which won an Emmy Award in 2009 for Outstanding Sports Documentary. Now, he’s taking the short journey form sports to comics in 1 of 1: Genesis, a joint production of Marvel Comics and ESPN.

Drath talks to top-flight athletes such as Dwight Howard, Russell Wilson, Cal Ripken, Albert Pujols, Carmelo Anthony, and Alex Morgan in the film, along with scientific experts such as David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene. He connects the dots to comics with Marvel luminaries Axel Alonso, Joe Quesada, and Bill Rosemann.

The 2-hour documentary, which explores how elite athletes approach the level of superheroes, is currently available on YouTube and Google Play, and will air on ESPN in the summer.

[editor's note: Jim McLauchlin appears in 1 of 1: Genesis for all of about 17 seconds talking about, of all things, aspirations and 39-yard field goals.]

Newsarama: Eric, you’ve done lots of sports stuff. How do you get from sports to sports-meets-comics?

Eric Drath: I think it’s actually a natural progression in that elite athletes, as evidenced in the documentary, are pretty close to Marvel superheroes. It was a pretty short jump to connect the dots there.

Nrama: It’s a little tough to nail down what this is in “high concept.” If you want to hit people with the 1-2 sentence blurb of what this is all about, what do you tell them?

Drath: I tell people that this is the story of where great athletes get their quote-unquote “superpowers.” Is it the body? Is it the mind? Is it practice? Is it overcoming adversity? Just where do elite athletes come from? And I think you’ll see, like many of the great superheroes you know, there’s a quest involved. It doesn’t just happen overnight.

Nrama: I’m sure you went into this knowing some things, but were surprised by some more. What did you learn in the journey of putting together this documentary?

Drath: The biggest takeaway for me was this concept of “Rage to Master,” as Ellen Winner coined the term. She’s head of the Psychology department at Boston College, and what she found in her studies with prodigy children, primarily musicians and artists, was that when people find their special talent, they are often driven to obsessively practice it. This starts at a very young age, and also happens with gifted athletes, almost in the exact same way. They’re already the best basketball player in the school and in their neighborhood, but they still compulsively practice at it until they feel they really master it.

Nrama: I think Bill Rosemann of Marvel pointed out that there’s a real parallel to many superhero—or supervillain—stories, and the drive and obsession behind them.

Drath: Right. Certainly, that’s Captain America, that’s Hawkeye, and that’s others who are driven to master a craft and constantly hone a skill that’s already the best in the universe. I’m fascinated by how athletes find their abilities and “powers” as well, which will be seen more in-depth in the short films that will follow.

Nrama: You talked to a lot of experts, athletes, and Marvel honchos in this. Was there anyone in this who really surprised you as the rock star of the documentary with what they had to say?

Drath: I would say [Seattle Seahawks quarterback] Russell Wilson. His intensity was just palpable. It’s a wave you can feel coming off him. He even says in the film, “Just talking to you about this, I’m starting to feel that rage again.” He’s just electrifying in person, and I think that translates in the film.

Nrama: You got to talk to a lot of great athletes. Was there anyone you really geeked over?

Drath: I work with a lot of athletes on a regular basis, so I don’t know if there was a geek-out moment. But I was pleased to see, with the variety of people we got, that everyone did bring something special to the table. I think there was at least a small pinch-me moment working with each individual on this. When you do this, you’re sitting so close to greatness, so close to human beings with powers that go beyond the average man. It’s like you’re sitting next to a superhero.

Nrama: You mentioned some short films that will follow…

Drath: Yes. We’re working on a series of short films that will come out that explore the “origin moments” of some of these great athletes, plus some who aren’t in this feature. It’s kind of where they discover their athletic powers.

Nrama: You’ve now dipped one toe in the comic book pool. Do you want to put a whole foot in? Is there a story you want to tell in the comics business about a creator, a character, anything like that?

Drath: I don’t know. I certainly have a new appreciation and interest for the comics world, having really immersed myself in the Marvel characters. I wasn’t very much of a comic book kid; I was more a sports kid. So my education on this may have come later, but I really threw myself in, and I’m enjoying it. I’m kind of excited just to keep that journey going, to learn more, and see what I might find and where things will lead me.

I think so many of the storylines you see in comics are universal, and they play out in our universe. They’re done in such a creative way, and they can be very educational, but never in a “boring educational” way. It’s always exciting. There are great lessons on how power is dealt with in comics—is it used for good, or is it used for evil? Stuff like that is completely translatable to what’s happening in our world every day, and I find that fascinating. Maybe after I read and explore a little more, I’ll find something compelling there.

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