Following a hit flagship voyage with “WandaVision,” Marvel Studios will let fans take a weeklong breather before releasing its next Disney Plus original series “The Falcon and the Winter Solider” on March 18.
Ahead of the debut, Marvel’s chief creative officer Kevin Feige connected with Variety to discuss our reigning cover star Anthony Mackie, who is stepping up to leading man status in a way his Marvel character Sam Wilson (the titular Falcon) has never done before.
Feige teased the meaningful examination of what it will mean for a modern Black man to take up the shield of Captain America (which Mackie was handed in “Avengers: Endgame”), the expanding diversity of Marvel’s stories and the creatives behind them, and the most memorable moments of working with Mackie over six films and, now, an original series.
What is your earliest memory of Anthony?
The first experience was him being the unanimous first choice to play the character. We just offered him the role, in my memory, he did not audition. That’s only happened a handful of times at Marvel. Mr. Mackie was one of those times. I thought he would be great as this character. As we often do, when we’re casting, you cast for the immediate role at hand — which was Sam Wilson in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” but if it all goes well, that can grow and evolve into numerous things. You want an actor who can do it all, which of course, Anthony can.
What’s interesting about a hero like Falcon is that he is not an alien, or a royal, but someone representing the Black American experience.
Sam Wilson as played by Mackie is different than a Thor or a Panther, in that he’s not a king from another planet or another country, one hundred percent. That’s always what he was from the minute Captain America said, “On your left!” running around the Mall in Washington D.C.
He’s a man, and he’s an African American man. He’s got experience in the military, he’s got experience doing grief counseling with soldiers with PTSD. That’s how Steve Rogers initially developed this friendship with him. What’s so great about the move to Disney Plus long form is that we get to see much more of these characters. Mackie has this amazing presence, whether he’s on screen for six seconds or six hours. In “Endgame,” it was closer to six seconds. All along we’ve been asking, “Where did he grow up? Who is his family?” We want to know more about this guy being thrown into this situation and handling it spectacularly well considering he’s just a man. That’s what the show is about. This man, this Black man in particular, in the Marvel version of the world outside our window.
What has Anthony contributed to the growth of this character over time?
He’s good with a zinger, an action moment, and is also incredibly poignant. What I think is great, and not dissimilar to the best of our actors, is when they start becoming as inspirational offscreen as they are on screen. I think Mackie, in his press and on set making this series, has become a leader that we look to for guidance in many ways.
I don’t think there’s been much said, anecdotally, about the decision to hand Sam Wilson the Captain America shield in “Endgame.” When did you decide, and what was that day on set like?
The day we decided, we were in the conference room — the one that feels like we spend half of our lives in in Atlanta — cracking the story. The shield had gone to a few people in the comic books in the past, but four years ago, it did seem like some of the great potential of those storylines and the journey Sam and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) had gone on over the course of the films, it seemed right that he would hand it to Sam.
When we shot it — everything about those scenes were surprisingly poignant and emotional on the day. We’d done Tony Stark’s funeral, or his “wedding,” which was our code name for it. It was actually Mackie and Sebastian that came up with the blocking for the scene by the bench at the end of “Endgame.” They walk up to Steve Rogers together. As it was scripted, only Sam noticed this older gentleman sitting on a bench. They came up with this notion that they start to walk together, and then Sam steps forward. Even the notion of him holding the shield and saying, “it feels like it belongs to somebody else.”
It really was a wonderful convergence as we were creating the end of the Infinity Saga, Bob Iger told us what Disney Plus would become. What had been a classic passing of the torch from one hero to another at the end of “Endgame” suddenly opened up our potential to tell a whole story about that. What does it really mean for somebody to step into those shoes? And not just somebody, but a Black man in the present day. That’s what Mackie and our head writer Malcom Spellman and all of us didn’t want to shy away from.
With the loss of Chadwick Boseman, it feels like Anthony is the most prominent man of color In the Marvel universe right now.
The repercussions of losing Chad are vast. Being honest in our storytelling is something that Chad and Ryan Coogler, of course, always want us to lead the charge on, and that’s continuing with Mackie and this show.
Increasingly in the films, and certainly with Marvel’s Disney Plus slate, it feels like the MCU is opening up to D&I in ways it hasn’t before. Is this by design, or the progress of the storytelling?
I think it’s a combination. We’re lucky that we have the comics to guide us. They have been relatively progressive over the decades for their time. The character lineup allows us — we’re not creating full-cloth any of our characters, they’ve been in the comics for years — and we’re finally able to tell those stories. Looking at the remarkably positive experiences we’ve had making sure that the room where it happens is not a room full of people that all look the same. When that’s not the case, when there are people from various backgrounds and genders, stories are better. Being at a company for 20 years and having released 23 movies, it is always been “How do you keep things fresh and surprising on a story level?”
When your’e doing a story about a female lawyer who is giant and green [“She -Hulk], or a Muslim teenager with superpowers in Jersey City [“Ms. Marvel”], or working with filmmakers and writers of color as we are — it’s so prevalent and so much a part of who we are and what we do now, that it doesn’t seem abnormal. It’s no longer a headline. A woman is directing something! Wow! I hope this will become the norm to the extent that this is no longer a rarity.
What has been your experience in pivoting to series, and do you think Marvel Studios can keep up with what the market thinks is a series release pace?
It’s been about three years now, and we were lucky, with the shows that we have shooting now. We have much of the same crews working across the Disney Plus series as we did on the films. We’ve all been together a very long time, and there’s a shorthand about expectations. With TV, there are just more pages to shoot. The schedule is actually about the same, for a big movie or a big show. You just do much more.
What will we learn about Sam Wilson/The Falcon in this project?
For us it was, let’s learn much more about Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes [Sebastian Stan]. We’ve seen quite a bit of Bucky’s back story over the years, the horrors he went through. Sam Wilson, where did he come from and what is his backstory? What does that mean, especially in a post-blip world, and what is he going to do with that shield? I think there are a lot of expectations and presumptions about — you get handed an icon, you become that icon. Is that easy? Spoiler alert, it is not.
It’s widely said you are among the most vigilant in Hollywood about preserving theatrical releases, as opposed to letting Marvel films go to Disney Plus.
It’s impossible [not to be, when you] go to opening night to 23 movies, in packed movie houses, and seeing the moviegoers’ reaction. That’s what drives us creatively as we make all of these, certainly culminating in “Avengers: Endgame” and “Far From Home.” There’s nothing better than that, and we don’t want to lose it. I’m hoping we don’t have to. If there is nowhere else to put those movies, that’s another conversation, but I’m encouraged by the theaters holding on. Also, what’s happening overseas in countries where [the pandemic] is more under control. Guess what? It’s human nature to want to get together an have an experience. That’s continuing in very big ways in countries where they are able.
Is there on indelible Anthony Mackie workplace moment that will stay with you?
There are numerous ones, and they’re all about the duality of Mackie — a gigantically boisterous personality who is also so thoughtful and articulate in quiet moments. We were on a location I will not reveal, and there was a lake. There Mackie was with a fishing rod, fishing about two feet away from a “No Fishing” sign. That image just stuck with me.