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Mark Millar and Netflix’s Gamble on ‘The Godfather II’ of Superhero Shows

The writer behind ‘Kick-Ass’ and some of Marvel’s most beloved story lines answers some questions about his rise in the industry and his new show, ‘Jupiter’s Legacy’

Scott Laven/Getty Images/Netflix

The comic book showman is a dying breed. In the 1960s, Stan Lee’s bombast and hyperbolic salesmanship established America’s vision of the real-world ringleader of superheroes. Even if Lee often exaggerated his role in creating one of the most successful pulp universes in existence, he was always the medium’s best marketer.

Through the years, even as comic book readership has shrunk from its Silver Age and early-’90s heyday, others have carried on that spirit, including Todd McFarlane and Robert Kirkman—but no one more than Mark Millar. At his creative peak, the Scottish writer defined the Marvel universe and his own with ultraviolent, testosterone-filled epics that became a pipeline for Hollywood’s superhero renaissance. 2012’s Avengers, 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, and 2017’s Logan are based on story lines from his time at Marvel in the 2000s. At his creator-owned peak, his biggest books—Wanted, Kick-Ass, Kingsman—became so lucrative for other movie studios that Netflix bought his company, Millarworld, in 2017.

So when Millar compares his first Netflix series, Jupiter’s Legacy, to one of the greatest films of all time, it merely feels like part of the time-honored spectacle. “What superhero show’s half set in 1929? It looks more like Godfather II,” Millar says over Zoom, while sitting in front of a bookshelf full of graphic novels. “It looks incredible.”

To be clear, Jupiter’s Legacy, the 2013 comic and now a TV show debuting Friday, isn’t on the level of a Francis Ford Coppola movie, but it certainly has the ambitions of one. The series is split between multiple generations of superheroes navigating economic downturns, wars, and their own narcissism. There are overbearing patriarchs, disappointing progeny, and scheming family members. But above all, Jupiter’s Legacy follows an existing trend for comics arriving on the small screen. It’s less cynical and violent than recent adaptations of independent comic book fare like Amazon’s The Boys and Invincible, but Jupiter’s Legacy still focuses on the idea of flawed supermen and a world that might be better off without them.

Despite competing against a glut of superhero stories he created, Millar seems unfazed. The fact that Jupiter’s Legacy can exist as a show seems like more than enough.

“Who would have guessed 25 years ago when those sucky superhero movies made out every couple of years, the terrible Batman movies? Who would have guessed the best directors, the best writers, the best actors in the world want to do this stuff,” Millar says. “So we’re lucky to be at a point in culture where the world is ready for Jupiter’s Legacy.”

Do you remember when you first had the idea for Jupiter’s Legacy?

I was at DC for years. I was at Marvel for years and I thought, “Yeah, I need to do something to top DC or Marvel,” or any of the work I did there, which was all big books and everything. And I’d just created Kick-Ass. This would be right about 2008. The financial crash happened and Kick-Ass was actually big. The book sold crazy numbers, and the movie got made within two years of the book coming out. It was nuts. I thought, “If I’m going to get back and do more superheroes, I have to make it huge.”

The financial crash was a big inspiration for me. I was actually thinking superheroes were kind of created in the last depression after the 1929 Wall Street crash. I was thinking about that cyclical nature of history. I thought, “That’s really interesting.” And I started to put notes together, but it was 2012 before I sat down and thought, “Right, I’m going to do this,” but I had Post-it notes all over my office. I had been thinking about it for years. I sat down and I wrote at the top of the page, “This has to be the greatest superhero epic of all time.” I thought, “This has got to be great or what’s the point?”

In 2013, you said, “I’m not doing a thing that’s talking about comics.” So even back then, were you feeling tired or worn out by the tendencies of a generation of readers to deconstruct superheroes and comic books?

I wanted to do something that was quite uncynical because I’d had a lot of that and I liked the idea of something that was pure. It was like a pure superhero story. So I went back to not just the golden age, which was the most pure, almost childlike version of superheroes. I went back 10 more years. So this is 1929, pre-Superman by almost a decade. I actually thought, “Well, here’s the first-ever superheroes. Here we go. We’ll start from scratch.”

It doesn’t refer to any other comic books, which is great because if you’re a comic book fan, you’re going to love it. But if you’re somebody who’s not familiar with this stuff, it’s a great entry point. Because one of the things some people find hard is comics are a bit like a club, and it’s, if you’re new, where do you pick up the first book? So I like the idea of something that my 75-year-old aunt can read. I hope she doesn’t actually, sometimes. But you can just pick this up and you’ll enjoy it.

What was it like for you to see Jupiter’s Legacy become a TV show? Because you’ve seen your other books become movies, but I’m assuming something having to sustain eight episodes is a different beast.

It was a very different experience because I sold my company to Netflix in 2017. Then a week later, we’d got on so well in the negotiations, other studios came in and bid for us and Netflix won the whole idea of owning Millarworld, kind of like Marvel getting bought by Disney. There was part of me thinking, “Yeah, it’s really cool. If I created this company with my friends and we’ve sold it and we can all relax now.” But then the other part of me was like, “This is the most exciting thing to happen in almost a century of cinema. This streaming company is where it’s at. This is going to be an amazing period in our lives, culturally.” And they’ve offered me a chance to be president of Millarworld within Netflix, as a department within Netflix, with these big gigantic shows and movies. How can I just go and lie on a beach for two years?

So I said, “Yeah, I’m going to do it. I’ll take a week’s holiday.” I took the family to Spain for a week. And then I came back and my wife took on the CEO job. I had to go with the president job, and we started developing it. It was very different from the other things, which kind of happen and you’re sort of along for the ride, whereas with this, I picked the showrunner and I picked Steven DeKnight. I wanted him to come in and do this thing. And I’ve been there every step of the way in all of the projects we’re doing at Millarworld—shaping the scripts, working with the writers, sitting in post with the editorial team, and just trying to make it as good as it possibly can be. So this is like being the mom, the dad, the midwife, and everything all in one.

What was the most challenging part of developing the show?

Well, it was funny. I thought, “Will it still be relevant in a few years’ time?” Because I remember back in 2013 when I first came out thinking about, “Well, by the time this comes out as a movie or a TV show, the world is going to be in a much better place now, America’s going to be completely at ease with itself.” But the weird thing was it just got crazier and crazier every year. So strangely, it’s more relevant than ever. That side of it wasn’t hard because maybe the world’s just always kind of crazy. Maybe this is just the way it is. But the fact that they even make references to the 1918 global pandemic and everything, the cyclical nature of history in this show is so palpable.

The challenge is always to make it better than everything that came out last year. I think what I love about superhero cinema is that every year it gets more interesting. Twenty years ago, when this period that we love—this superhero period of two decades—started, it seemed really ambitious to do a movie where Spider-Man is fighting the Green Goblin. People were like, “Are audiences ready for our organic web shooters?” Things like X-Men seemed unthinkable, like a team of superheroes that’s too much. We have to dress them in costumes like The Matrix, because nobody can handle superhero costumes.

Recently, we’ve been inundated with new versions of a very old idea—this question of “What if Superman wasn’t completely good?” It’s something that you touched on in 2003 with Red Son, and now you see it in The Boys and Invincible. Why do you think we’re so drawn to this idea of an evil Superman or a Superman that’s not perfect?

It’s just the natural evolution of exploring themes in pop culture. So what you have is the idea, and then you have a subversion of the idea. And the idea is really interesting, and you get a lot of decades out of that. And then the subversion of it you get something cool for a while too. We haven’t done the evil take. What we’ve done is looked at it from an angle that’s never been looked at before. That the evil version, the one that I love from The Boys and Invincible, has been done. But we have taken that archetype, which everybody knows, and played with that.

Our thing is, “What if that guy was a dad and he was married and he had a couple of kids and one of his daughters was on drugs all the time, his son is a disaster who’s never going to be as good as he is, and he knows he’s getting old and these people are going to be taking over the family business?” That’s scary if you can move mountains and you think, “My kids are kind of idiots.”

When I was growing up, I came to comics during another independent revolution. You’re seeing all of these independent comics now competing with Marvel and DC properties, and people love them just as much. You were outspoken back then about Stan Lee telling you basically, “Why don’t you go tell your own stories?” I was listening to a podcast where Ed Brubaker was talking about how his feelings were hurt, that he has to watch The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and not be able to reap all those benefits. Do you think there’s a way forward for independent comic book writers and artists that makes it a more equal industry within the Big Two? Or do they have to do something like you and Kirkman and go build something separate to reap the benefits?

I think the path that Stan recommended to me was so brilliant. I’ll say this for every single creator out there, and I think it works in every aspect of life in the creative arts: work with a big company and build up your name and then go and start your own thing and then some of your audience is coming with you. Because the big company will reach more people than you will reach on your own, so you build up that massive audience and you take it with you whenever you go off and do your own thing and it means you’ve got really strong legs when you go out there and do something new. You can still do it if it’s just you and you’ve never heard of it before, but how much easier is it to sail into bookstores and comic stores if you say, “Oh, this is the guy that did Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen or Civil War?”

But there’s another side to this, too, which is I had a hell of a time at Marvel. I was there for almost a decade. I wrote all the things I loved as a kid. And it was the same at DC. I got to write Superman, which is my favorite thing. So, there’s that aspect. Sometimes it’s not always about the business side. Sometimes it’s the pure love of doing it. So, I got paid really well when I was at Marvel, it was great. Obviously you make a lot more money owning your own things, but I wouldn’t swap those days for anything. And it gave me the audience that I needed to go off and do my own thing, but I also got to write Wolverine.

I think that the mistake some people make is to hang around too long and then only do the company-owned stuff. And then you maybe feel you’ve lost out in some kind of way. I think the trick is to try and do both if you can. And what I did for a while when I was at Marvel was I spent half my month writing Marvel stuff and the other half writing Millarworld stuff. I did that between about 2004 to 2009. That was nice because it meant I still had cash coming in and everything. I realized the first thing I did was Wanted. It made $340 million as a movie. And then as soon as I did Kick-Ass, within minutes we had the movie deal. It was crazy. I felt like I’m going to make a go of this, I’m going to give this a try.

What was it like seeing Josh Duhamel inhabit the Utopian? He does a killer job. What is it like for you being like, “Oh, he’s doing the thing”?

It’s amazing because we talked about it for so long before Josh came on. And it’s a really hard one, because this isn’t like a bread-and-butter cookie-cutter superhero role. Real acting is needed for this.

He stuck out to me because it seemed like he had to inhabit what we know as Superman, but make him a little bit more complex. We had to like him, but also see why his kids have such an issue with him, which is such a tall order.

He’s essentially played Hamlet and King Lear. He’s playing the young guy that’s idealistic and going out there. He’s having a nervous breakdown and hoping he can find this island that doesn’t exist and save America. Then he’s also playing the old guy who’s 120 years old and he’s thinking, “Oh my God. Every problem we had in 1929, I’m looking at it, and it’s just still here. The country has fallen off a cliff financially, nationalism’s rising all around the world. I’m looking at this and it’s as big a mess as it ever was.” So that’s really interesting from an actor’s point of view because he’s essentially playing two characters who are one person. And to get somebody who’s a great actor and looks like a superhero is really hard. You also kind of want a name. This is the lead character. You would like it if it’s somebody people knew too. An established actor would be great. So ticking all those boxes is very difficult because not many guys look like Superman, but can act like Anthony Hopkins.

When you’re writing a comic book, you have so much control over what happens and the flow of the story, but the TV show I would think is different. You have a showrunner, you have a room, you have to flesh out hours of TV. What was that like for you having to potentially hand over some of the reins to a series that you and Frank Quitely built yourselves?

It’s a little different from other people. Generally what happens if you’re the rights holder, when you license a thing to a studio, you do give up a certain amount of control. I did on Wanted, which was awesome. I was really happy with it, but my involvement was minimal on the film side. Kick-Ass and Kingsman I was very involved because Matthew Vaughn and I are good friends and we speak every day and everything, but I had a lot of secret advantage here as I’m the president of Millarworld at Netflix. So I can choose the showrunner and I can choose the writers, so it does give you a certain amount of leverage. But at the same time, you also have to be super respectful of who you bring in, because there’s nobody’s going to be your slave or puppet.

Frank Quitely, to me, is one of the most talented comic book artists we’ve ever had, so how do you make sure you stay faithful to what he did?

Well, his designs are just so perfect, but Lizz Wolf is a genius, the costume designer. She was like, “These are great. I’m not changing them.” You see these things sometimes, we’ve all seen it with superhero adaptations that didn’t work out, especially in the ’90s, where they would take a costume that you love and mess with it. And you’re like, “Why have you done this?” She looked at Frank’s designs and thought, “I’m leaning into his thing.” I mean, it looks pretty much exactly like the designs he did in the book. And I love the confidence on her part of that where she said, “I don’t need to put my own mark in this. I’ll just do a three-dimensional version of this so it works in real life and give it little touches.”

For younger comic book writers, I think it’s been a really hard year with the pandemic and the comic book industry issues. What advice would you give them?

There are so many ways to do this just now. When I was a kid, the only way to get noticed was to self-publish something, which costs a lot of money. I didn’t have money to do that. So you were hoping to try and get in on the independents because it cost hundreds, if not a couple of thousands, to put together a black-and-white self-published comic book and try and sell it and shows and everything. And I never had that money, but I managed to come in through the independent comics, where somebody slightly covered those costs a little bit. And then I worked my way up through British comics, got into DC and Marvel. Now, you can actually do it so much easier because the internet is your creative friend. Get out there, get your stuff seen by as many people as possible. And if you’ve done something interesting and people start talking about it, everyone can know about your book within 24 hours.

That was unthinkable years ago. You had to take out double-page ads in Wizard that you could never afford. The internet is an amazing leveler. It’s a great democratizer. It is fantastic. So what you’ve got is, as big a resource as Marvel and DC have got, your budget is almost the same online if you think about it. It just has to be cooler than what Marvel and DC are doing to get people talking about your work. But I would still recommend going in that Marvel, DC route. I do think it’s actually a great way to get known. And if you do a great run on Iron Man or you do a great run on Batman or something like that, or even one of the smaller characters, what an amazing entry as a calling card for your career. I think it’s a fantastic thing to do.

This transcript has been edited and condensed.