Malcolm Spellman on writing The Falcon and the Winter Soldier: "There is nothing like Marvel out there"
The prolific screenwriter talks Marvel's explosive new series, diversity in Hollywood and those "intimidating" fan theories.
Warning: spoilers for episode one of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
"I've been working for 20 years and there is nothing like Marvel out there. When you walk through the doors, you are walking by artefacts from the MCU: Iron Man's suit, Thor's hammer, Captain America's shield. The heroes are painted on the walls, the comic books are on shelves everywhere you go. You're entering the Marvel Universe." It sounds like a dream come true for any fan and Malcolm Spellman is no exception.
The creator and head writer of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is speaking as the hotly anticipated miniseries launches on Disney Plus. Picking up after the events of Avengers: Endgame, the show shines a light on two characters from the Marvel movies who have previously been relegated to playing second fiddle. But as any comic book reader will know, this odd couple have a wealth of compelling material of their own to dive into, meaning there's plenty to draw from as they begin charting their own course across the MCU.
"Bucky had been positioned really nicely to investigate, because you can see that he'd always been tortured about who he was and what he’d done and how he'd been manipulated," Spellman explains. "We also keyed in on the fact that this guy is over 100 years old, which means he's out of place in that way."
Meanwhile, audiences will remember that Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) was personally chosen by Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) to take on the title of Captain America in the final moments of Endgame. But as the Disney Plus series gets underway, we see that he has instead held onto his Falcon alter-ego, with Spellman citing two key reasons for his uncertainty over inheriting the mantle.
"There is the fact that Steve Rogers was a man he revered and Steve's absence just puts a lot of pressure on you," he says. "And then you see in the first episode, once you go home with him and see where he comes from, who his family is, that he ain't sure that it's even appropriate for him to carry that mantle. Because you would be dishonest to tell a story about a Black man holding that shield without his identity making him very, very ambivalent about whether or not it's a good thing to do."
It's an important story to be told as the MCU seeks to diversify its ranks with an ambitious Phase Four plan. Spellman worked closely alongside Mackie to ensure that Falcon's journey in this series feels completely authentic and the duo quickly developed a strong rapport that became an integral part of the writing process.
"There were some big scenes, especially near the end of the series, where we went over every line of his dialogue – and not with him telling me what to do and not with me pushing back – but with us just having a discussion of what felt honest and real for him bringing it to life," Spellman recalls. "It's the best experience I've ever had working with an actor and I've had a lot of great ones."
Those who have seen the first episode (which became available to stream yesterday), will already know that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier isn't pulling any punches, with a gut-wrenching final scene that sees Sam dealt a terrible injustice. After being encouraged to hand over Cap's shield by the government, supposedly for use in a Smithsonian exhibit, he is left reeling by the news that they have gifted it to a "new Captain America" by the name of John Walker (Wyatt Russell). It's a troubling scene for any Marvel fan, but will hit particularly hard for those who have missed out on opportunities in their own lives as a result of discrimination.
Spellman continues: "The writer's room was mostly Black... and we felt very equipped to bring those kinds of betrayals to life without burdening the project or having it drag into something morose, while not hiding from the kind of realities that are gonna happen with the first African American superhero."
Certain corners of pop culture fandom have been known to pipe up against social issues being explored in fantasy stories, particularly those relating to race, gender and sexuality. From Star Wars to Batwoman, numerous prominent franchises have been hit with vitriolic criticism in the past for attempting to explore such themes, but Spellman believes it's more about the execution than the concept itself.
"Even the fans who don't like certain themes appearing in their movies or series are going to respond well if it feels honest and organic to what's going on," he says. "I think what fans don't want is people showing up with an agenda or standing up on a pulpit and that's not good storytelling anyway. I don't have to tell you that Black Panther crushed internationally and domestically and that movie is a statement in itself. So again, I think what fans are really saying when they say that, is they don't want creatives showing up with an agenda."
Of course, it takes a village to create a project of this scale and Spellman is quick to praise the contributions from his writing team as well as his executive producers Nate Moore and Zoie Nagelhout. The duo were always on hand with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Marvel's vast library of characters, ensuring that the project stays true to the source material that fans around the world hold so dear.
"They have been raised at Marvel and they are tapped in with everything in the books and the MCU," he says of his collaborators. "So because you're working side by side with them, anything I don't know as a fan, I have someone literally sitting right next to me who can name almost any page in any book from any series. So, even when fans see movies or series diverge from the books, they should know that before that divergence begins, there's reference to the books and reverence for them at the same time."
While some creatives have parted ways with Marvel during their expedition to the top by citing "creative differences" with the studio, including Edgar Wright (on Ant-Man) and Scott Derrickson (on Doctor Strange 2), Spellman only has praise for his experience working alongside producer Kevin Feige and his executives.
"You can't function in this giant organism without them [because] you don't know what other series they're making. And once you embrace them as partners, they don't tell you 'no' or limit you," he says. "It's a very collaborative place. They don't control you or tell you what to do, they work with you side by side. And they're very good about letting you have a voice and push back, it's unique."
Needless to say, Spellman has to keep quiet on the specific storylines they settled on as any MCU project is a maximum security affair, but he was able to offer some hints about how fans might feel after watching the sixth and final episode.
"I believe they will feel like Sam and Bucky are truly future-forward heroes," he teases. "They are truly heroes whose roots are born from struggles and problems and triumphs of these times right now. So, in maybe more precise words, I feel like fans are going to walk away saying this was an extremely relevant superhero series. Sharon Carter, Baron Zemo, Bucky Barnes, Sam Wilson and John Walker… who they are in the beginning of the series, they are completely different people by the end. They are almost reborn as new characters moving forward."
The screenwriter is likely choosing his words carefully following the whirlwind of wild speculation that swept up Marvel's WandaVision, stoked partly by comments from a mischievous Paul Bettany, who teased a cameo appearance that ultimately turned out to be a prank. While some fans took it on the chin and enjoyed the series finale for what it was, there was a palpable sense that it might have fallen flat for other viewers who had bought into the exciting ideas circulating social media. Spellman admits that the fan reaction can be "intimidating", but has faith that the inevitable theories won't prove detrimental to The Falcon and the Winter Soldier overall.
He says: "My belief is even if the fan theories don't connect or overwhelm this project, the spirit of the project is born from fandom. And hopefully the fans will feel that energy, regardless of whether it goes in the direction that they expected or not, they at least will know that every molecule of this thing is born from the same love for this universe that they have."
- Read more: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier's heroes and villains will be "reborn" by the final episode
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is the second instalment in Marvel's Phase Four line-up, which looks to be defined by its diverse spectrum of characters and behind-the-camera talent. Shang-Chi, Black Panther II and Ms Marvel will bring further cultural representation; Thor: Love and Thunder, Captain Marvel 2 and She-Hulk focus on female heroes; Eternals is set to feature the franchise's first gay couple and deaf superhero. It's an exciting new direction that some might argue is overdue, but it's certainly better late than never.
"I think the world is showing that it's ready for heroic icons that don't look like the ones that we've seen," says Spellman. "You're always gonna have your Steve Rogers, you're always gonna have your Tony Starks. But now you’ve got T’Challa, now you’ve got Falcon, now you’ve got the Ms Marvel [series] that's coming… widening the palate is just making the Marvel Universe look like the universe."
It's been a long and difficult journey getting to this point as Spellman can testify having spent 20 years as a writer orbiting Hollywood. While Marvel's trailblazing line-up and one of the most diverse awards seasons of all-time are promising indicators of the path we're on, he warns against getting complacent now as the necessary change is "just beginning".
"We have to push hard to make it stick because there have been these moments where Hollywood flirts with diversity and then moves on and gets distracted," he explains. "But it is a different world in 2021 than it was even six, seven years ago. And the numbers are still bad, but there seems to be a real movement happening. And we all gotta push to make that right because, again, I think there's a ton of evidence that shows that you lose money if you're not keeping up with the times and you're not accepting the way the world is going."
Spellman knows how hard it is to make a name for yourself as a young person of colour, saying that a screenwriting career is something he always wished for but "never thought was possible" growing up.
"I came from a working class environment, a Black neighbourhood where there weren't really avenues to Hollywood or writing that I saw personally, so it never felt like a real thing," he says.
He and his wife, fellow writer and producer Nichelle Tramble Spellman, struggled through what was an "awful climate" to build a name for themselves and now hope to make that journey easier for the next generation. Together, they founded The 51, a production company that reaches out to young creatives, giving them the chance to develop their skills and make the necessary contacts to kick-start a career.
"Particularly, what we're trying to do is create avenues for people that maybe don't have pathways to Hollywood, meaning more than just being diverse," Spellman explains. "If you come from an environment where you’re probably not going to go to college, and you're probably not gonna meet the kind of folks who can lead you into Hollywood, we are working hard to extend ourselves and build those pathways.
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"Our belief is [that] in the barber shops in the hood are hundreds of geniuses who could impact pop culture in a really, really amazing way and they don't even know. The same way [as] for us working in the movie business never seemed like it could be real, they’ve got the same blinders on and they don't even know they could be creating stuff that the entire planet loves."
The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is exclusively streaming on Disney Plus. You can sign up to Disney Plus for £7.99 a month or £79.90 a year now.