Being a superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe equips its stars with unique powers both on-screen and off.
“We all have a number sign above our heads when we make independent films [for] whether or not we can sell them internationally to help get financing,” says Elizabeth Olsen. “If we want to do that, it does allow us to be able to do that. So, I think that’s a great benefit to being a part of such a huge international franchise.”
Olsen first appeared as Wanda Maximoff, aka the Scarlet Witch, in Marvel’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” in 2014 before going onto such films as “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Avengers: Endgame.” In-between she worked on indies including “Ingrid Goes West” and the television series “Sorry for Your Loss” for Facebook Watch. This past television season, though, she brought her big-screen superhero to Disney Plus, headlining “WandaVision” alongside Paul Bettany.
The ability to flit between platforms at all can be special for actors, but to do so with the same character is a testament to the power of the MCU. And Olsen and Bettany were only the first from the comic company’s franchise to achieve this. Soon they were followed by Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan in “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” and Tom Hiddleston in “Loki,” all of whom are taking part in a special panel at Variety’s Virtual TV Fest.
Despite the long and wide travels these performers take on with their Marvel roles, they are usually kept in the dark about the fates of their characters. After 2011’s “Captain America: The First Avenger,” Stan was not sure if he would be in another Marvel movie — until he got a call from a friend at San Diego Comic-Con, who told him that his character was in the title of the next film that had just been announced.
Stan and Mackie found out about “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” in a similarly surprising way. The two were separately called to Los Angeles for meetings and ended up crossing paths in the hotel lobby.
“I had an idea of what was cooking, but I didn’t think it was going to be a TV show,” Mackie says of bumping into Stan. Initially, he admits, he was “horrified” by the idea of taking his character to Disney Plus.
“I was very afraid and very disappointed when I heard it was going to be a TV show because I didn’t think we could take the scope of what we had just done in all these movies and then put it on TV and it would work,” he says. “I didn’t want to be the first failed entity of Marvel. You have all this amazing stuff and then this one thing sucks and it just happens to be me. … I thought it was going to be like Batman and Robin — the original one — where it was like, ‘Pow! Bing!’”
It wasn’t until the production on the show started that Mackie says he understood they were maintaining the cinematic scope — and that he would be able to reconnect with all his MCU compatriots.
“When you become a part of the Marvel franchise, it’s almost like summer camp,” he says. “So when you show up to set, it’s everybody and you never miss a beat. Some people have kids, some people bought a car, some people did this, so it’s like you going back to seeing all your same friends over and over.”
As soon as production starts, however, each performer also must carry highly classified secrets. “I tell everyone in my personal life, and I tell no one in the press,” Olsen says, noting you have to have people you can trust.
Having so much information about where the franchise goes makes these actors experts on the material. Continuity can get complicated in a television series that has to serve as a bridge between films, especially if there are new crew members who are not as steeped in the story. That is how Hiddleston found himself hosting a multi-hour symposium on the set of “Loki.”
“There was a whiteboard, I’m afraid,” Hiddleston says. “I said to Kate Herron, our director, ‘Would it be helpful if I gave everybody all the information at the same time?’ And Kate and Kevin Wright, our producer, were like, ‘That’s a brilliant idea.’ Shamefully, it then became a Loki lecture.”
Since each of these shots were shot on the same studio lot in Atlanta, word about the Loki lectures got out to the other actors — who were crestfallen that they couldn’t attend themselves.
“They made us work,” says Mackie. “They scheduled one of our biggest scenes so we could not sneak out and crash the Tom Hiddleston symposium.”
None of these actors take their part in the MCU lightly, though.
“These films mean so much to so many people and that is a privilege,” Hiddleston says.
Perhaps the biggest privilege, it turns out, is who gets to interact the most with Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige — a topic of significant interest to all of the panelists.
“How many times during your shoot did you talk to Kevin Feige, Tom?” Mackie asks Hiddleston.
“A couple of times,” Hiddleston replies. “Because of the pandemic, he was in touch about the shutdown.”
At this point, Stan jumps in. “He’s only asking because Anthony was calling him every Friday night,” Stan says.
Olsen then weighs in and calls out her own co-star. “Paul texts Kevin every other day,” she says.
“I was booking this trip to Greece and I had to know how much I could spend!” Bettany retorts.