We Talk With Brian Michael Bendis On Jessica Jones, Powers, Marvel Films, And Video Games
From his work with long-running series like Ultimate Spider-Man and Daredevil to his work on T.V. series like Jessica Jones and Powers, Brian Michael Bendis is a man who has a lot of irons in the fire. In addition, Bendis is a part of the creative vision behind the wildly successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, which started in 2008 with Iron Man.
With Jessica Jones proving to be yet another bona fide hit for Marvel on Netflix and Powers season 2 hitting PlayStation Network in 2016, we caught up with the enigmatic writer to get his thoughts on Jessica Jones’ success, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the narrative-driven approach many video games take today.
It’s been a pretty big month for you with Jessica Jones. How’s the wave coming at you?
Honestly, and I don’t want to jinx it, but it’s the best wave ever. It was material that means a great deal to me. It isn’t just something I wrote; it’s part of me. I kind of went on record that a bad version of the show would have just been my personal nightmare that I’d never recover from. But even if it’s a good show, it’s about touchy subjects and, you know, social [media] being what it is, I wasn’t sure what the reaction was going to be. I saw it months before and I was like, “Oh good, I’m not embarrassed! I’m really happy!” and that’s not my usual state.
When it came out it’s sort of funny… they debut it at like midnight on a Friday. I work at night, and at like two in the morning, my social [media] blew up like it was Wednesday afternoon and comics came out and it was just insane!
I was a huge fan of Daredevil when that hit and it seems like you followed a lot of the same tone for Jessica Jones, which is a different tone from what we see in MCU on the big screen.
When I was writing Jessica [Jones’ comic], I was writing [the comic] Daredevil at the same time and had a similar thought in that these could all be in the same level of Marvel Universe, but we really went out of our way to make a different noir-ish template and they did the same thing. It’s so gorgeous and so exciting. I was like, “Well we don’t want to follow that!” The showbiz whore in me was like, “You don’t follow the best show that Marvel ever put out,” but we were lucky that people connected with it so well.
So now we’re getting this wave of people who don’t know comics and are just hearing that there’s this show that they’ve got to see and we’re getting a response from them that way, and now they’re reading the comics!
And it’s interesting because Daredevil had the name recognition in mainstream unfortunately because of the Ben Affleck thing.
Daredevil had the beautiful experience of being the show that the movie was supposed to be! For people whom all they knew was the Ben Affleck thing and not sure what they felt about it – to reinvent their concept of Daredevil – and for die-hard fans of Daredevil, that is our concept of it already. For fans, you got what you were supposed to get, and for people who are just watching stuff, they were like, “Oh wow! What a different take!” I think I’ve equated it to what it must have felt like to watch the first Tim Burton Batman if all you knew was the T.V. show. Not to be mean to the movie, but you know what I mean.
On the next page, we talk with Brian Michael Bendis on the topics of why he’s so effective at relaunching beloved series, as well as what Powers enables him to do that Marvel series don't.
One of the things you’re very much known for among comic fans is being able to take these established series and relaunch or reinvent them in a new and exciting way. Why do you think that you’ve become the go-to guy for that?
I’m not sure I have the total answer for that. That’s one of those things where if I think about it too much I’ll f--- it up, you know? I do know that I never veer away from, “I’m an Iron Man fan, so I’m going to make an Iron Man book that I haven’t bought yet, or an Iron Man book that I’d like to buy that no one’s making.” That goes to my creator-run work as well. We made Powers because I wanted to read it and no one was making it, so I made it so I could read it.
Also, raised Jewish, I am just filled with Jewish guilt and I get very guilty over how much people spend on comics. So I get really neurotic about it and I write and go, “Alright, at $3.99 I’ve got to make sure that the guy dies in the thing and she kisses and this and that.” You want to put on a show for the money people spend.
What does Powers enable you to do that an Iron Man or a Guardians doesn’t?
Well, I’m pretty sure Marvel’s not that interested in me murdering Tony Stark, doing the autopsy, and solving the crime of who murdered him. I know superheroes die all the time, but in Powers we get the very exciting viewpoint of on-the-street homicide cops – which is my other lifelong love: crime fiction. These are these homicide cops that solve superhero murders and from the murders they peel the onions back on a genre from a unique perspective. And that’s exciting! It’s exciting to do, it’s exciting to craft, it’s exciting to read. And as we go, we build this mythology around the series that became large enough for someone to go, “That should be a T.V. show.” It’s pretty exciting for me and most of the time that I’ve been doing Powers, having the Marvel Universe and Powers, working both sides of my brain has been very good for me mentally.
What have you learned from doing Powers season one that you’re carrying into season two?
Everything, really. From getting to know the actors and how they relate to each other and seeing the energy they put in to us making significant hires behind the scenes to make the show pop visually in the same way that Mike [Oeming] makes the comic pop. Not in a cartoon way that Mike does it, but with color schemes and the in-your-face storytelling designs. The showrunner and I share this unified vision going into season two for what we needed to do and we hired an amazing cinematographer and an amazing stunt coordinator and Joss Whedon’s costume designer and all these people who come in and really create something that is as different in a television universe as Powers is in the comic book universe.
When Marvel decides it wants to make a new movie based on a series you’ve written, you’re consulted and are involved. How has consulting with them helped you in your approach to Powers?
I was a part of the Marvel Creative Committee, so I was consulting in the movies in things that I don’t have any connection with, like Thor, for example. I’ve never written a Thor run even though I’ve written the character and love it. I’ve never gone deep down into Thor like I have with other characters. All of those experiences have been very immersive for me, just watching other creators process their decision making processing notes and other elements that come into it. Watching Joss Whedon put Avengers together from the very first outline to the final draft was really fascinating. It was one of those – and you don’t want to say this out loud – “I would do this for free!” Wouldn’t you as a writer want to just watch Joss Whedon steer the biggest ship in the world from the beginning to the end? It was fascinating!
On the next page, we pull back the curtain and see how Brian Michael Bendis and Kevin Feige pretty much willed the Avengers films into existence. We also get Bendis’ take on why we haven’t seen a good Fantastic Four movie yet.
When the MCU was being created, what did the odds look like? Were there any naysayers who thought this plan was impossible?
I remember I was in Long Beach at a convention and at midnight I got a call from Kevin Feige saying, “Samuel L. Jackson said he’d show up for an hour and do a Nick Fury line at the end of the movie.” I said, “That sounds amazing!” I had actually invented Ultimate Nick Fury with Mike Allred even though Samuel L. Jackson is definitely the Brian Hitch and Mark Miller Nick Fury, but we had introduced the character. So Kevin Feige said, “We have nothing for him to say. Can you write a bunch of stuff up?” I went, “Like what?” And he just told me to go for it.
I wrote like four pages of dialogue and I kept writing, “Welcome to the Avengers” thinking there was no way there’s going to be an Avengers move. I’m literally just fanboying dialogue like, “I would like there to be an Avengers movie.” So I wrote silly lines and serious lines, but a lot of it had, “Welcome to the Avengers” and then when they showed us the movie and he was like, “Welcome to the Avengers,” I just loved that Kevin was like, “Let’s just will it into existence! Let’s just see if we can get there.” If we couldn’t get there, at least people would be talking about what could have happened all those years.
So what you’re basically saying is that Samuel L. Jackson is a real-life Nick Fury in that he is responsible for the Avengers coming together.
Him or Kevin! But it was fascinating to be there for that moment, but I remember a few years later when it was up and running and they weren’t missing and they still haven’t missed, I was like, “Oh my God, I was there for the beginning of that thing!” You never know that you’re there for the beginning of the thing until later, kind of like how Paul McCartney says he never knew he was there at the beginning of the Beatles, but then three years later you look back and you’re like, “S---, that was the beginning of The Beatles!” It felt like I was at the beginning of some amazing cinematic thing that will define popular cinema for this whole generation. My kids and my students don’t know a world without Marvel movies. I never knew a world with Marvel movies. I was happy with the Captain America movie with Ned Beatty and the Dolph Lundgren Punisher. That’s what I had!
Speaking of Punisher, I really loved Thomas Jane in that role.
He was great! And I will say – I don’t want to talk too much out of school since I haven’t seen a lick of screen yet – but people who I know who know stuff say that the Punisher in Daredevil season two is unbelievable. He’s a great actor, by the way. He’s a really great actor. He’s like a young De Niro in like every great possible way. And I heard it’s like young De Niro is wearing the Punisher outfit. I can’t wait. I can’t wait!
It seems like it’s been trickier to put out a good Fantastic Four film. What do you think it is about the formula, characters, or comics that make it’s kind of harder to translate to the silver screen?
Here’s the thing: You can do everything right and it all comes out like s---, and you can do everything wrong and it can be the greatest movie of all time. You’ve heard stories like this where, “The actors weren’t speaking! One of them wasn’t even on set!” and then it all comes together great. Remember all those stories we heard about what a disaster Titanic was before it came out? Then it came out and it was like, “Woo! No problem!”
I’m always wary to bury filmmakers who may have had the best intentions and tried really, really hard, but I will say that it does seem to me that the movies that strike that perfect balance between religious slavery to the source material’s intent and making the most out of the medium. Iron Man is the perfect example. You look at the Iron Man movies and there are little bits of the comics, but you don’t point to it and go, “Oh, they’re doing that graphic novel!” Yet, undeniably, it’s Iron Man.
I was in a meeting once in my earliest days with Marvel and they asked me to be a part of a Spider-Man show, a CGI show. Someone at MTV – and this was after the Sam Raimi movie opened to like a billion gazillion dollars – called a meeting and ask, “Why does it have to be a spider?” And I went, “Ha ha, that’s funny!” and he wasn’t joking. And it was after the movie opened, after the character has been around for 50 years and he was like, “Aren’t spiders icky? People don’t like them!” Like, even if that thought occurred to you, wouldn’t you look at the culture and go, “I’ll keep my mouth shut”? It’s literally like someone walking to Robert Kirkman and going, “Aren’t zombies gross?” Maybe shut up. Maybe be quiet. But those people exist in the world and part of your job is to walk the other way.
Sometimes you have to make a movie with them… I’ve seen that, but what’s truly amazing on the flipside is that most of the people who work in the studios right now are like us. They’re saying , “Why don’t they make a kickass this movie or that movie?” And now we’re getting all of these kickass movies because the people in charge and the filmmakers at that level all want that. We’ll get a good Fantastic Four movie one day. We will. We have The Incredibles. We’ll always have that!
We talk about the tonal differences between Jessica Jones, Powers, and other superhero movies.
You’ve talked about how you don’t really want to stick religiously to the graphic novels with movies.
You never want to do beat-for-beat, but you also never want to do a story where Spider-Man gets his powers by getting hit by lightning or something. It’s Shakespeare. You should adapt it to reflect the medium that it’s being adapted to and the audience it’s being adapted for, but don’t think you’re smarter than Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. You’re not! Also, here’s the other thing, these things aren’t broken, so thinking you need to fix or thinking you can fix them is hubris.
Jessica Jones and Powers are quite different from the standard superhero movies and TV shows.
I just love that while you’re watching Jessica Jones make sweet, sweet love to Luke Cage, there’s a talking raccoon with a ray gun who has a best friend that’s a tree and I love that. I really do. I just think that there’s an audience for truly beautiful, traditionally told, great Marvel stories, and then there’s an audience like myself that are more mature in their world view and what they want out of their free time binging that would like some of this to grow up with them without losing any of the spectacle or purpose that it’s supposed to have. It’s amazing that this is something that has found its audience on the level that it has.
Comics are always a little ahead of the pop culture curve. Even Transformers… Transformers was the #1 book in comics five years before the movie came out. There’s always this curve ahead. And also, because comics are relatively cheaper to produce, it’s easier to take a chance on something crazy like Jessica Jones and let it go to its natural conclusion. It’s many different things.
It’s really fascinating to me that of all of the romantic, friendly, all-ages stuff I’ve written that the darkest s--- I’ve written is what ends up on T.V. It’s really funny, but also with that darkness comes the most human stuff, the most relatable stuff. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a reaction that said, “I relate to more than Jessica,” but my Tumblr was filled with people relating to her for whatever reason. Some of those reasons were really dark, and some of them were, you know, “I have that jacket.” And that’s amazing.
On the final page, we get into a discussion about the new focus on narrative in the video game industry.
Would you ever want to jump back into games?
I love writing games! Particularly with games – when you write a Marvel game, Disney Infinity is a great example and so is Ultimate Spider-Man – a lot of times, this is the player’s first experience with these characters, and now they’re in. We’ve ruined them for life. Everyone [at PlayStation Experience] was ruined at a very early age. Like, we read a comic or played a game and it was like, “That’s it, I’ll never be a ‘normal’ person” and to be that for kids is in its own way just as exciting as it is to be that next level maturity thing with Jessica and Powers for people who are die-hards.
With games, you feel that a lot. Also, the games are a nice gateway to, “Oh you want to read more about Iron Fist? Oh, well we’ve got your Iron Fist right here!” Or they’ll see Nova in Ultimate Spider-Man and Disney Infinity and kids will come over to my house who don’t know what I do, but they know I know something and you can see they just need more of it. And it’s exciting to be a part of it.
If I do another game – I was just talking to the Naughty Dog guys – I definitely think there’s room for what we’re talking about in more elevated comic book work in games. It’s happening in a lot of games already, but the games I’ve written I’ve been pretty much told what they can do and I found a creative way to write into it. I’m glad I did it, but the next one I’d like to find some way to make it work in a really special game situation. If we did a Powers game on PlayStation or something, I would like to really dive in as hard as those guys dive into it at Naughty Dog.
As a writer, you’ve got to be interested in the narrative renaissance that the game industry is going through right now.
It’s f---ing exciting! I was telling those guys that I know how hard that fight is to make that happen. It doesn’t just happen. It’s a bunch of really intense, creative people clawing tooth and nail trying to find art where no one’s asking for it and almost like demand their attention with your honest writing in an immersive situation. That’s really special.
I saw that Telltale is working on a Marvel property, and if it does end up happening, I think it would be awesome to see you involved with that.
Hypothetically, if it does come together, it would be cool to see you involved if that does come to fruition. That’s what I’m saying. [Laughs]
Yeah! It would be cool! [Laughs] No, I’m with you on this totally. In some ways, it feels like we’re at the beginning of some overall cultural precipice as – even Powers being on PlayStation. It’s a TV show where there weren’t TV shows before. That’s happening in a lot of places. A friend of mine has a show on Amazon and he was going over there and I made a joke about how I had a package missing from 2008. It was a joke, but at the same time, Amazon makes really good TV shows. All of these places are making TV shows where you wouldn’t find TV shows are really good. Now it’s like there’s almost too many good things, and there’s too many good comics, and too many good games. That’s exciting, and then it’s kind of hit this thing where a new format has to break out because we’re at the top of the volcano and something cool’s going to explode off the top. It just feels like the old models are completely collapsing or evolving quick and the audience is evolving to where they’re making their own networks basically. What’s the next thing that happens for that? I’m excited!
It’s genuinely exciting for people who write or create. It’s exciting. 15 years ago when Sony first bought Powers as a feature, they were like, “Eh, it’s a little dark.” “Well, why’d you buy it? It was dark from the first page!” And then it went from that to, “Oh this is exactly what we need.” All the flavors are being represented and with that comes more diversity and it’s really cool.
This feature was originally published on December 9.