For many, the proof that Marvel Studios reached true Hollywood juggernaut status came when "Guardians of the Galaxy" -- a film featuring unknown characters -- made nearly $775 million worldwide. Iron Man and Captain America seemed like obvious home runs compared to a pair of green aliens, a talking raccoon, a dancing rogue and Groot. But thanks to director James Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman, the space (rock) opera featured a fun tone, strong themes of friendship and lovable characters.
Marty Isenberg, the supervising producer of the animated "Guardians of the Galaxy" series, which debuts September 26 on Disney XD, intends to recreate those exact same elements while aiming for a younger audience.
Isenberg's credits include '90s superhero staples "X-Men," "Spider-Man" and "Batman: The Animated Series" as well as newer cartoons like "Ben 10" and "Kaijudo: Rise of the Duel Masters." He returned to the Marvel animated stable by writing episodes of "Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H." and "Ultimate Spider-Man" before signing on to oversee the Guardians' transition from the big screen to the small.
The new series features a familiar line-up consisting Star-Lord (Will Friedle), Gamora (Vanessa Marshall), Groot (Kevin Michael Richardson), Rocket (Trevor Devall) and Drax (David Sobolov) and focuses on new adventures as they travel the cosmos. Though this particular group of has appeared on the other Marvel shows, this is voice acting squad is all-new, save Sobolov who has always voiced the Destroyer.
CBR News spoke with Isenberg about starting this project before the film had even come out, matching the tone of the silver screen adventure and how the theme of feeling like an outcast yet finding a surrogate family appeals to both young and old demographics alike.
CBR News: You've done everything from '90s "X-Men" and "Spider-Man" up through, more recently, "Ben 10." What lead you into this role working on "Guardians of the Galaxy?"
Marty Isenberg: It was a gradual coming-out to Marvel. I have worked with Henry Gilroy a lot, most recently on the "Kaijudo" animated series for Hasbro. Henry was trying to get me over on "Hulk," which I wasn't able to do on Season One, but by Season Two he got me in. I ended up writing a bunch of episodes of "Hulk," I think about eight. Henry was also supervising "Ultimate Spider-Man" Season Three so I did about four episodes of that. Based on those, there was a real comfort level from the folks at Marvel. When the time came to develop "Guardians of the Galaxy," I got a call from Henry and he said, "Hey, do you want to develop 'Guardians of the Galaxy' with me?" and I said, "Absolutely."
We started on that and -- a struck of luck for both Henry and me -- Henry got offered a job on "Star Wars Rebels," leaving me on my own to do "Guardians." I think it worked out for everybody.
When he left, was it very different than previous experiences running a show like this?
I've developed shows that have gotten on the air and I've developed shows that haven't gotten on the air. I've been doing it for probably 20 of the 25 years that I've been writing TV animation professionally. I'd developed a number of series in the past or co-developed, like "G.I. Joe: Renegades" (co-developed with Henry), "Transformers Animated," "Godzilla: The Animated Series," "Transformers: Beast Machines" and "Action Man." It wasn't an unusual job for me.
How was it bringing the Guardians over to animation from the film?
In some ways it was a lot easier because, unlike the X-Men or Spider-Man or the Avengers, there's not the long, storied history of fandom for the Guardians that there is for those really iconic characters. So, for most of our audience, the first exposure to those characters was the live-action feature.
We weren't given any particular mandate to follow the live-action feature but having read the script and seen an early cut of it, I loved the tone and absolutely wanted to maintain that and a lot of the same interpretations of the characters, backstories and so on that differed from the comics. I figured that's the version that the audience is going to know and that's the version that's working really well, so why mess with it?
Like you said, this was a film based on characters most people had never heard of. Were you surprised at how popular the "Guardians of the Galaxy" film became?
There was a certain amount of anticipation for it within Marvel Animation. They knew the movie was coming out so they knew that they wanted to make sure the characters got introduced to the kids audience through the existing Marvel shows. There was a push to have them guest on "Ultimate Spider-Man," "Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H." and on "Avengers." Having attended a number of story summits for those shows, I was aware of the characters, so internally there was an excitement over the characters and how much fun they could be.
Actually getting to read the script [to the film] and seeing how the tone was going to work was like, "Oh, it's a galactic caper film. That's fun." I was totally on board with it and was fortunate enough to have access to that stuff so we could maintain that tone.
Henry and I wrote some shorts, which are coming out now on the air, iTunes and YouTube. Those were written mostly without the benefit of having read the script. We were going by what we had been told and what we knew about the characters from the comics, but ultimately once I had gotten to read the script, I had a sense of tone that was more in keeping with the feature.
It's funny you say you did the shorts before reading the script because they feel so in-line with the film's tone.
I think we got good information from the folks at Marvel and, as production goes on, the script is not ultimately the final word. We'll get an animatic and you can plus dialog on the animatic. Then you get rough animation and you can still -- as long as you're not dealing with lip flap -- plus more dialog at each step. I think we managed to work the tone in even if it hadn't been there as strongly initially.
As you mentioned, these characters have appeared on other Marvel cartoons, but the voice actors are different. What was that casting process like?
It was pretty much the same as on any other show. We received auditions, listened to the recordings and held call backs to bring the actors we wanted back and give them a little more specific direction just to see how well we'll work with them. Some of them, I think, got adjusted based on a better understanding of the characters and the tone from the feature and some were basically casting decisions. I think that, as much as possible, we wanted to start fresh and not be 100 percent beholden to what had come before, although there was at least one actor that we did bring back. I think David Sobolov is the only actor who's ever voiced Drax. It really just depended on the role and the actor.
Do you record the whole cast at once whenever possible?
We do full cast recordings. Sometimes, just through scheduling, we don't have everybody there but most recordings we have our five principals there. As we see the animatic and are writing new dialog we'll pick up lines for previous episodes. Then when the final animation comes in there are ADR recordings that are done individually which is the final step.
The Guardians don't have mountains of existing stories like some other characters. Are you drawing from existing "Guardians" comics, other Marvel space stories or coming up with brand new adventures?
It's a little of everything. We have the vast Marvel Comic cosmic universe to play with, so we make the most of that sandbox. We have what the feature's already set up, so we make the most of that sandbox. And we're inspired by the feature and the comics to come up with our own original stories and playing in that sandbox. There's no source that we use, we try to pick the best from everything.
Can you talk a bit about some of the kinds of episodes or stories we'll see early on in the show?
That's a good question. I'm not sure how much detail I'm allowed to get into. I think we are trying to -- particularly early on -- get stories that highlight each of the five individual Guardians just to reintroduce them, or in the case of some of our younger audience members introduce them. That was my goal early on, to make sure we have a Groot-centric story, a Rocket-centric story, a Gamora-centric story. We want to hit all those milestones and within that we also start to set up the bigger arc for the season which I'm pretty sure I can't talk about.
One of the major themes of "Guardians of the Galaxy" is the idea of finding or making a family or group of friends even when you feel like a lonely outsider. Does that carry over into the series?
Oh, tremendously. That really is the crux of the property and the series: the fact that they're, in one way or another, all alone in the universe, relying on one another as this surrogate family. Ultimately, that's where they find their strength. Even though they are fiercely individual and not the most cooperative bunch, at the end of the day, it's that unity that gives them their strength. It's a good message to send to kids and thematically it works very well for the story we're telling.
Were there elements of the film you had to temper for the younger audience?
Mostly it's trying to keep the stories as simple and relatable as possible. I don't know that there's anything that we looked at from the feature where we said, "We absolutely can't do that." We may have to tone down some of the more grim aspects of it, but I don't feel like we're constrained in any way. At least so far.
What other space-based Marvel characters from the film or the comics can viewers expect to see in "Guardians of the Galaxy?"
I believe we've announced that we have James Arnold Taylor playing Yondu and he's also playing Cosmo. That's a character who appeared in the feature but wasn't necessarily identified as such. We've dealt with him a little more.
I did my homework and my research reading that run. The first thing I said to Henry was, "We've got to use the dog." I love the talking dog.
The original future-set Guardians concept is pretty out there. Is there any possibility that those characters make appearances in the show?
So far we don't have any plans to use those characters, which is not to say that we won't ever use those characters. If we find a really compelling story to bring those characters in, whether we say they're from the future or just find another in-universe way to use them as characters. Obviously it gets a little confusing if Yondu's a Guardian so we might have to do a parallel dimension or something to make that one work.
Marvel's "Guardians of the Galaxy" animated series premieres September 26 on Disney XD.