Marvel Rising: Secret Warriors, debuting on Disney Channel and Disney XD on Sunday, represents an expansion of Marvel Entertainment’s superheroes into a market often underserved by action-oriented animation: young girls. Proof: One story that has made the rounds in Hollywood involves a network executive canceling a well-received superhero cartoon because it played too well to girls and was, therefore, outside the target demographic. But as the voice cast and producers of Marvel Rising told Rotten Tomatoes, the will finally exists to acknowledge that young female audiences like superheroes.
“It’s not anything surprising,” explained Sana Amanat, Marvel’s vice president for content & character development and co-creator of Ms. Marvel. “They like awesome characters who kick butt.”
In the case of the Secret Warriors telefilm, those characters include Ms. Marvel (a.k.a. Kamala Khan), the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (a.k.a. Doreen Green), and America Chavez, among others. The three characters came to prominence in the pages of Marvel Comics over the last 10 years. During that time, Amanat worked at Marvel as an editor of comic books like Hawkeye and Ms. Marvel, and as she recalls it, the increased focus on female characters is something the company has been building toward for a long while.
“We had much bigger audiences coming into Marvel, so we were able to tell more stories,” she told Rotten Tomatoes.
While the company has a longstanding tradition of powerful and prominent women in their team books — Storm and Captain Marvel have both led the X-Men and the Avengers, respectively — the more recent uptick in solo titles was a result of that larger audience becoming more vocal. One of the early successes in recognizing the audience was Captain Marvel herself, who was known as Ms. Marvel until a 2012 rebranding of the character that eventually led to the upcoming feature film. The change with the character followed Disney’s purchase of Marvel Entertainment, which Amanat said also contributed to the growing focus on female characters.
“As Marvel’s global brand has expanded, we were able to do what we do with Captain Marvel and then create Kamala Khan and do a Squirrel Girl book,” she said, noting that the increased emphasis was never a directive or initiative from on high. “There is this community out there that wants it, and we want to be able to tell stories for them,” she added.
And as with the comics, the animation community also became vocal — especially after that story about the superhero show cancellation trickled down to fans. At the same time, action-oriented shows with prominent female characters began to emerge. With the market potential recognized by a broader corporate group, both Amanat and Cort Lane, Marvel senior vice president for animation & family entertainment, went to work developing Marvel Rising as an umbrella concept to house characters like Ms. Marvel and Squirrel Girl in animation. Lane’s team also went to the source to discover what girls wanted from a superhero cartoon.
Key elements included action and comedy — a mixture familiar to anyone who has watched Avatar: The Last Airbender — but Lane said the research revealed the audience was also interested in “how characters interact with each other.” In the case of Secret Warriors, Lane pointed to Squirrel Girl’s disastrous first meeting with Dante, a fire-powered Inhuman, versus the way Ms. Marvel viewed their initial interaction.
“She sees through his fear and anger and sees there’s a good guy in there,” Lane told Rotten Tomatoes. “It opens the door for him to be the best version of himself. That’s the kind of character stories girls want to see.”
The research also led to an interesting and very specific note on inclusion: The girls surveyed wanted two boys in the group.
Explained Lane, “Just one is weird. Two is enough.”
Taking the point to heart led to adding Dante — based on the Marvel Comics character Inferno — and Patriot, another protégé of Captain America with ties to early Marvel history. Voice actor Kamil McFadden told Rotten Tomatoes he was thrilled to learn about the extensive past of Marvel characters called Patriot.
“I loved learning about the different variations,” he said. “I definitely felt it was necessary to do due diligence [in learning about the character], because I’m the first person to breathe life into this character, and I want to make sure I do it right.”
For Tyler Posey, who plays Dante, voicing a supporting character was one of the key appeals.
“My character is more of a vulnerable, angsty teen while [Kamala and Squirrel Girl] are more powerful emotionally and physically,” he said.
Both the strengths and the bond of Kamala and Squirrel Girl are key components of the Secret Warriors story and the earlier Marvel Rising project, Initiation. Both were written by television and comic book writer Mairghread Scott, whose work includes runs on titles like Batgirl and Transformers. Her pitch for the film centered on Ms. Marvel as the anchor before expanding to introduce characters like America and Dante.
In anchoring the film as Kamala, voice actor Kathreen Khavari said she was “blessed” to play a character she relates to in a number of ways: “I love representing her. She’s so full of life. She’s excited and excitable, and it really lends itself well to animation.”
But unlike the 23-minute Initiation, the 80-minute Secret Warriors also delves deeper into some of the characters’ flaws as well. That was an element Milana Vayntrub definitely appreciated in the script.
“No one is perfect,” she said. “Creating characters with flaws is more relatable.”
Marvel Rising is a return to the character for Vayntrub after playing Squirrel Girl in New Warriors, a live-action comedy pilot that may yet become a full TV show somewhere in the Disney/Marvel universe.
“I was most attracted to her positivity and her outlook on the world,” she said of Doreen. “She believes in friendship and doing the right thing and will find a way to make that happen by any means necessary.”
Of course, her zeal can lead to some missteps and possibly major disagreements with Ms. Marvel. But as Lane noted, “These are the kind [of stories] Marvel is known for. It’s very personal, the mistakes are personal. Even the world-saving stakes are tied to personal stories for the characters.”
Unlike the more external problems, which can often be resolved in superhero stories by a battle of powers, the more personal mistakes can often only be dealt with by empathy and compassion, which Lane said was a critical aspect in stories for this market. “[Even if] Kamala and Doreen have a fight, they still love each other. Kamala finds empathy for Dante. It turns out to be so essential. All the characters find empathy is more important than what they think they should be doing. Empathy drives Doreen’s plea and it drives Patriot’s choice [at one point in the movie].”
To Amanat, emphasizing the characters’ ability to grow — while also showing them as competent and strong — will continue to bring viewers back for potential future Marvel Rising projects.
“We believe there is this entire audience that we’ve been able to tap into,” she said, “but we want to continue to talk to.”
And as for those future projects? In trying to maintain the usual Marvel veil of secrecy, Lane said, “There are things to announce soon. Very soon.”
Marvel Rising: Secret Warriors premieres Sunday, September 30 at 10 p.m. on Disney Channel and Disney XD.