The 20-episode unscripted reality series Marvel’s Hero Project (available to stream at Disney+) is an up-close and personal look at the lives of 20 kids from across the country, who are doing incredibly amazing and remarkable things to help their communities. Each episode spotlights one specific inspiring kid and their family, surprising the young heroes with a comic that illustrates why they’re each a hero, in their own right.
During this interview with Collider, executive producers Sana Amanat (VP, Content & Character Development at Marvel), John Hirsch and Maura Mandt (for MaggieVision Productions) talked about being a part of such an inspiring project, how the series came about, the process of putting together the comic books and turning each kid into a superhero, finding the kids to shine a spotlight on, and what Marvel and the Marvel Universe means to them.
Collider: This show is so inspiring. How does it feel to get to do a TV series, where you not only inspire people with these incredible stories, but you also spotlight these individuals who are doing such amazing things and who are real life heroes, in their own right?
MAURA MANDT: It was amazing. It was an incredible way to spend a year, learning about not only these kids and their families, but it inspired us. They’re all so different, but what they share is a really complete, unbridled faith in their ability to make the world a better place. And they also, at such a young age, have a responsibility. It’s up to them, and it’s up to their generation. We’re talking about young kids, and it’s energizing to around them. We had the opportunity, not only while doing the project and doing the individual stories, but in recent weeks, as we’ve brought groups of them to New York to see their pieces, to see them interact with each other, and that’s been a whole other level of seeing what the possibilities are, quite frankly, for the future.
How did you come to be a part of this series, and what was it about this series that you felt really was something special?
MANDT: I have a production company, called Maggie Vision, and I have known Dan Silver, who’s the head of Disney+, for many, many years. At the time, he was at Marvel, and he was running Marvel’s original programming. So, Dan reached out to me with an idea that his son had. The inspiration came from his son Jude, which was, if kids could be superheroes, what would their powers be? From there, it began a discussion with Marvel, with Sarah Amos and Liza Wyles, and John [Hirsch], who I don’t do anything without, about what the show could be. When it came to figuring out how we could really put the Marvel imprint on this show, [Sana Amanat] was one of the first people that we asked for, and she became invaluable to us, as they built the comics and integrated the Marvel DNA into the show.
SANA AMANAT: I was really happy that they had asked me because obviously I love everything that the whole team has put together. John and Maura, and their entire production team, really put their heart and soul into this series and have really connected with these kids. They found some really special kids. And on a personal level, for me, so much of what gets me excited about the work that we do at Marvel is how it connects to people individually and how it inspires them to want to do good. We’re constantly trying to reflect the world outside with the work that we do, and I feel like these kids are reflecting back the ideals of what we’re all striving for, here at Marvel. And so, I truly believe in trying to bring in the next generation and trying to empower them. A lot of the work that I do on the creative side is just about bringing in those audiences and creating those kinds of characters. So, to do it in a real way, and celebrate these kids who are actually doing t impactful things, is really fulfilling. I’m really honored to be a part of it, and I truly believe that these kids are just getting started. It’s great that Marvel Maggie Vision has decided to celebrate them and, hopefully, get them started for the even greater things that they’re about to do. It’s been a thrill, truly.
What’s it like to get to put together these comics – doing the layout for the artwork, figuring out what the story will be, and representing each of these real-life heroes. How long of a time frame do you have to get all of that together, and what’s it like to get to see these kids as superheroes on the comic book?
AMANAT: It’s great. The challenging thing, always, is how to take the elements of what makes these kids tick and what makes them who they are, and transform that into the attributes of what makes a superhero. A lot of times, it was like super easy, and a lot of times it was challenging ‘cause you have to really think outside of the box, but it was super fun. You’re taking these kids’ real lives and you’re making them into the heroes that they’re supposed to be. It’s fun trying to give them an outfit and trying to visualize their power sets. I love making comics and I love the creative process, and it was nice to think about it from a different framework. We had to get a lot done in a short amount of time, but we learned a lot. I really hope the kids love how they see themselves, and how we see them, too.
JOHN HIRSCH: Part of the challenge for us, in making sure that the comic books were as great as we wanted them to be for the kids is that they are real people. Marvel has so much experience creating these fantastical characters out of nowhere, or the world outside your window, but these are real kids. The challenge for us was that, because they were doing such heroic things already, we didn’t want to overshadow that, in any way, by giving them something that was a meaningless power or a meaningless story, compared to what their actual stories were. So, all of us put in a lot of hard work to make sure that all of the powers that are in these comic books for these kids are something that would totally resonate with them, but also be an extension of what they’re already doing. That was super rewarding. When the kids saw their comic books, they totally got it, and that was really, really cool.
MANDT: These are real kids, so it was also a challenge to make sure that the visuals reflected in accuracy what they look like. There are certain artists that are good at doing real-life depictions, but the detail that Marvel took, every step of the way, was to make sure that every single detail was right. And when the parents saw that, some of their reactions were the most rewarding for us, whether it be that the hair color was right, the skin tone was right, or the eyes were right. That was really important to us. When the reveals happen and they took out their comic book, we wanted to make sure they immediately saw themselves. That was something that, on Marvel’s end, took a lot of time and a lot of effort, and we appreciate that it did. We were probably a thorn in their side, at times, because it was just very important that these comics really did reflect, exactly. One of our kids has a service dog, and it was the Marvel team’s idea to put that service dog on the cover because that’s her sidekick. There were a lot of details like that, throughout this process. There wasn’t a pilot for this show, so there was a lot of work, getting this to the way that it is, and that was a lot of Marvel’s time and effort.
What was it like to find the kids for these episodes and select who you wanted to shine a spotlight on?
MANDT: At times, it was heartbreaking because there are so many.
HIRSCH: It was a really lengthy process that we took a lot of time and care in doing. There was a first batch of research, where we had tons of kids, and then we would have calls and Skypes. We really got to know all of these kids and their families, before we shot a single frame. There are tons of kids who are doing great things. These 20 kids are doing really extraordinary things. What we wanted to make sure we could do was show the breadth of kids, from any walk of life, anywhere in the country, and any different backgrounds. They’re all doing amazing things. That was still important to us, going in, to find all of these kids and be able to do that. But it was a very, very lengthy process.
MANDT: We definitely had kids that we had to make hard decisions about. The other challenge was that none of these kids knew what they were doing, and none of the families knew what the story was all about. So, keeping that process a secret from them, as we asked them to trust us and let us into their lives, without them knowing it was going to culminate in a Marvel comic book and this series, was a challenge.
If you do more episodes, do you feel like it will be more of a challenge, now that kids will know about Marvel’s Hero Project?
MANDT: I’ve thought a lot about that, and maybe, but John and I will stay pretty much in the background. We’re not on the episodes, for very good reasons. And a lot of the kids that we’re talking to have had stories done in their local communities. So, I think it’s going to be a little bit more difficult, but we just have to figure out how we maintain some level of surprise because those reveals are really special and important. We don’t know if there’s going to be a Season 2. We hope so, but we don’t know there. But if there was going to be future seasons, I think we’d engage the parents a little bit more and open up to the parents a little bit more about what the ultimate goal is.
HIRSCH: In general, I don’t think people would expect something like this to happen, period. It’s just a very weird, out of body experience. Certainly, in talking with all of the families about they’ve just been blown away, which is great and totally a testament to the Marvel team and the comic book team, in putting this together. It would be a great problem to have, let’s put it that way.
MANDT: We really got to see the power of the Marvel brand. It was just not just a comic book, but it was the brand. The number of times that we heard from not only our hero kid, but the parents saying, “Oh, my god, I’ve loved Marvel, my whole life,” it was the brand that blew them away, for recognizing them. I think no matter what, when that happens, you’re going to have that reaction. And as Marvel gets only more and more gigantic, it’s only going to be more and more of a reaction. It would be a good problem to have.
For each of you, what does Marvel and the Marvel Universe mean to you? Was there a comic book or a superhero that you were most drawn to, as a kid, that made the most impact on you?
AMANAT: I’ve been at Marvel now for over 10 years, and it means so many things. I’ve thought a lot about this, over the years, but I think what makes me the most excited is just how our characters and the aspirational quality of what Marvel is all about, connects with so many people, around the world, and continues to do so. We’ve seen such a growth, in the last 10 years, and one of my favorite things is going to a convention or going to a kid’s party and seeing folks run around in their Spider-Man costumes, Iron Man costumes and Captain Marvel costumes, and they just have so much love and excitement in their eyes. That connection to those characters and what they’re all about, and this belief that they can be just as powerful, just as strong and just as inspiring, is so timeless. We try to push that, in every single work piece of work that we do, and we also try to remind people that anyone can be a hero, in their own right. There’s a different character for every single Marvel fan, or just every fan of great stories. So, for me, it encompasses all of these really positive attributes. At the same time, when I think about this particular project and seeing these kids become their own heroes, I feel like it’s such a beautiful alignment. We’re just reminding these kids that they don’t need to put on a Spider-Man mask or an Iron Man mask, necessarily, to be the heroes that they already are. They’ve already been doing it, and they already have it, within themselves. It’s just a reminder, for anyone watching it, why this is a Marvel show. We’re reminding everyone, whether it’s adults or kids, and just people of all ages, that they have this great power within themselves. It could be considered super heroic, but they have to really embrace it and find it, understand how unique it is, find it within themselves, and hopefully champion it within other folk. That’s really what it is. It’s beyond just great stories. It’s about this relentlessness of the human spirit that’s so wonderful, in the stories that we tell, and really beautifully has come together in the series, as well.
HIRSCH: Growing up, I was a huge Captain America fan. Obviously, my parents had a huge role in my upbringing, but one of the great things about Marvel is the moral center in the characters that that totally resonated with me because that’s how a person should act. Even to this day, I still think about it. Now, I have a son, who’s 12 and turning 13 and he’s super into Marvel. This is almost a gateway into seeing kids who are heroes and who they can learn so much from, and it’s super rewarding. My son has gotten to watch a few of the episodes, and he’s blown away and totally admires these kids that are his heroes now, too.
MANDT: For me, there’s something about the breadth of the Marvel characters, where each one of them has something else that they represent. In all of us, we all have different personalities and things. I always grew up being someone that was taught to protect the weak, and I was taught change the world by changing your corner. And so, Spider-Man is the character that represents that for me, but you don’t have to be just one way. Marvel embraces diversity and it embraces all opportunities. It’s a unique brand, in the importance that it puts on diversity, not only in the characters that Marvel puts out front, but in the people behind the scenes at Marvel. So, for me, there’s not one character that I dressed up as, but there are a lot of different traits and individual traits that live in all of these characters and in this universe. It’s the universe that has attracted me to Marvel and to this project. The universe that we’re dealing with is our real universe and the real world that we’re in, and to get to tell stories about good things that are going on in the real world today is something that we need right now.
Marvel’s Hero Project is available to stream at Disney+.