Some of the newest and most popular female characters in the Marvel Universe are coming together in an ambitious multi-platform franchise that debuts with six animated shorts, Marvel Rising: Initiation on Monday, August 13 on Disney XD. Featuring a handful of the House of Ideas' latest and greatest breakout characters — including Ms. Marvel, Squirrel Girl, Quake and Spider-Gwen (who will be going by the new name Ghost-Spider) — Marvel Rising is a swing for the fences to acquire something rarer than a CGC 9.8 copy of Amazing Fantasy #15: preteen female fans.
The idea behind the shorts, according to Marvel SVP of Animation Cort Lane, is to pique audiences' interest and steer them toward a full-length animated movie, Marvel Rising: Secret Warriors, that will see its debut on the Disney Channel later this year. "The shorts really serve as a prequel to the movie," Lane told SYFY WIRE during a recent conversation. "From there we'll see a bigger, more epic adventure that brings them together."
From there, the plan is to expand the ongoing stories into comics and other platforms. The main storyline of the episodes, written by Mairghread Scott, focuses on Gwen Stacy and her alter-ego Ghost-Spider. Like any self-respecting member of the Spider-based hero community, Gwen has run afoul of the law, through no fault of her own. As she tries to clear her name, she crosses path with the other heroes.
To voice Gwen, the PTBs called on the newest member of the Marvel TV family, Dove Cameron. Unlike the deranged assassin Ruby she played on Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Cameron this time is firmly on the hero side of the equation. The star of Disney's hit property The Descendants is a lifelong fan of the Gwen Stacy character, so tackling the role was one she needed little convincing.
Joining her in the voice cast are Milana Vayntrub (Squirrel Girl), Kathreen Khavari (returning to voice Ms. Marvel as she did in Avengers Assemble), Kamile McFadden (Patriot) and Chloe Bennet as the voice of Quake. Other notable voice stars include Steven Weber as Captain Gwen Stacy, Dee Bradley Baker (Tippy Toe) and Disney Channel star Skai Jackson (Gloria Grant).
Another familiar voice will be joining the franchise a bit further down the road: Ming-Na Wen. Already familiar to Disney animation fans as the voice of Mulan, Wen will be joining her Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pal Bennet in the Secret Warriors film in the fall. Wen will voice Hala the Accuser, the primary big bad in that story. "She's so forceful a presence [as Hala]," said Sana Amanat, co-creator of Ms. Marvel and a co-executive producer on Marvel Rising. "But she's also very excited to get to do work in this environment with a different audience."
Deciding which heroes would be part of this project was based not just on popularity, but also on input from actual fans. Lane and his production team asked kids for their input on what kind of show they wanted to see. Some of what they heard included heroes with different power sets than they normally see, different character designs and stories that revolve around friends, somewhat of a rarity in western animation.
"We have such a broad entertainment library, we had choices. We had to cull it down to the ones that resonated the most, the ones girls were really excited about," said Amanat. "We wanted our cast of heroes to be representative … and most happen to be female, but they interact with these great male characters, like Patriot. Young fans want to see kids being kids, young acting like regular people."
It's no coincidence that Ms. Marvel and Squirrel Girl's friendship is the fulcrum of the series (and of the just-released spin-off comic, Marvel Rising: Ms. Marvel & Squirrel Girl #1). Not only are they incredibly popular, they are characters that offer different powers and different body types than are normally seen in animated series. Kamala's shape-shifting power set, which can radically affect her physical appearance, are one of the many reasons she's been such a breakout star for Marvel since her debut in 2014. She's a natural fit for Marvel Rising's mission, as is her Bestie Doreen.
"They're so special to the Marvel universe, Amanat said. "They're like fans, they're just trying to do their best. All they want to do is save the world. Kamala and Doreen have these strange powers. They're very awkward. But they both have this sense of sweetness inside that makes a great relationship. They're the viewers' surrogates, and it was already there and we wanted to expand on that. When we were breaking out story, we were cracking up at all the things they were doing."
It's those great character moments, like when the excitable duo prematurely celebrate their first team-up in one of the episodes, that encapsulate what Rising is all about. "The friendship and the love, and the conflict that comes from that, is what you can build the action around," Lane said. "And that's somewhat the difference between what boys want from what girls want from what they watch."
Both Lane and Amanat emphasized that while Marvel Rising is meant to be a magnet to lure new young fans, they're hoping to hook girls AND boys. "We genuinely believe our stories in general are universal stories that all fans will gravitate towards. Boys don't just like boy heroes, girls don't just like girl heroes," she said. "Parents want more gender neutral content, and that's what this series is about. These are characters that we believe are great characters, period. We try to make the content itself, while exciting for girls, because of their sensibilities, that our male fans are going to be excited about."
Some of these characters, like Ms. Marvel and Spider-Gwen, have already proven their popularity crosses gender lines. Amanat shared a story about a friend's four year-old son who was getting picked on in the playground. When the boy's mom asked him how he handled it he told her that he imagined himself as Ms. Marvel and told the kids to stop. He didn't imagine himself as Spider-Man or Captain America, because he doesn't see the difference between Cap and Kamala.
Getting the fan-favorite Bennet to tackle the same role she's played on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was a nice coup for the new series. "Chloe is so charismatic, and the connection of her character with SHIELD allows for some great stories to tell," Lane said. And while she's voicing the same character, this is very different iteration of Daisy Johnson. At Comic-Con, Bennet pointed out this is a much younger version that is closer to the wide-eyed, more idealistic Daisy from Season 1 than the battle-weary soldier we've seen in recent seasons of Marvel's flagship TV series.
"Daisy was the lynchpin for this because she's been around Marvel so long," said Amanat. "Cort joked with her that she's a pro, been doing it so long, she can teach the other actors what it's like to be part of Marvel, and even how to do Marvel press."
While the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. fanbase is noted for its passion and dedication to that show, Amanat noted that Bennet enjoyed the different reaction she received at the Marvel Rising panel at Comic-Con from a crowd that's not quite the same as she's used to interacting with. "She told Cort in San Diego that she was touched by the whole thing. And part of it is that these are very aspirational characters." Of course, there's another reason Bennet is jazzed to be part of Marvel Rising.
"She's really excited to finally be getting her own action figure!"
Marvel Rising: Initiation debuts on August 13 at 7:30PM on Disney XD.