As the MCU Phase Three comes to a close, "Wolverine: The Long Night" is giving audiences brand new ways to think about and experience superhero stories.
Marvel is on the verge of one of the biggest weekends in its history. With the release of “Avengers: Infinity War,” one film will bring together a laundry list of superheroes in one convenient place. Barring some miraculous surprise cameo, one character who won’t be a part of that team-up is Wolverine, the X-Men stalwart. But while he might be taking a break in the film world post-”Logan,” the character is alive and well in the world of podcasts.
“Wolverine: The Long Night,” the newest venture from Marvel and Stitcher, is a 10-part audio drama released in podcast form. Not only is the story the first of its kind for Marvel in this hyper-evolving podcast world, it’s wholly unique within the superhero world the way it uses its larger-than-life title character.
Rather than filter the story’s murder mystery through Logan’s eyes, “Wolverine: The Long Night” takes its perspective cues from a handful of law enforcement officials in the sleepy fictional locale of Burns, Alaska. Between the local cop, Sheriff Ridge (Scott Adsit), and a pair of out-of-town agents called in to investigate a series of grisly (and potentially, grizzly) murders, that unexpected focus makes Wolverine an in-story myth the way no other star-driven movie or TV show could. For writer Benjamin Percy, no stranger to the comics world, that was one of the biggest appeals of the project.
“Wolverine has a history of violence. He’s trying to escape that but is unable to, because he is the ultimate weapon. And you don’t leave a weapon like that lying around to rust,” Percy told IndieWire. “He’s been in the spotlight for so long. We’ve all read the comics and we’ve all seen the films and I wanted to make him into something mystifying once more. I wanted to relegate him to the shadows. I wanted him to feel like a threat. He’s been put forward as a team player so often that I think we’ve forgotten about the fact that he’s a true loner. I guess this was my attempt to re-mystify Logan.”
As the noir-tinged narrative plays out, “Wolverine: The Long Night” leans into the challenges of removing an entire sense from the audience experience. Much the way a camera can tell a story by moving through a scene, this series does the same with a microphone. Even though most of the conversations take place between a pair of characters discussing evidence of various crimes, it’s not limited to simple back-and-forth on the page. A handful of scenes even gauge the entire town’s response to the growing violence in their area.
There’s the feeling of uneasiness on a larger scale that comes from capturing that Alaskan environment. Using a recording process that let outdoor New York locations double for a place near the Arctic Circle, directors Brendan Baker and Chloe Prasinos were able to craft a soundscape that’s truly immersive. One main tool was a setup with an ambisonic microphone.
“It’s the same technology that’s now being used for a lot of virtual reality. So you get to have a single microphone that records in four different directions and then it records in the sphere,” Baker said. “And then after you’ve done recording, you can not only isolate sounds in any direction after the fact, which is kind of unique in terms of audio recording, but you can also hear sounds as if they were above you or below you or behind you. So we used both of those techniques as we were going to try to create this very three-dimensional soundscape.”
Part of the usual tricks of audio drama still applied. Centering the story on detective characters gave them a built-in excuse to talk to a number of individuals around Burns. Investigative conversations gave Agents Marshall (Ato Essandoh) and Pierce (Celia Keenan-Bolger) the chance for each character to remind whoever’s listening that they’re in any individual scene, absent the benefit of the audience just being able to see it for themselves.
But having that technological advantage of a surround-sound approach to the listening experience helped Percy do more in the writing of this series than just comply to the framework of the form or connect the dots of the mystery.
“In anchoring characters in a scene, you’d be thinking about, ‘OK, how can we make the most of this naturalistic environment at the atmosphere of it?’ Like maybe there’s an air conditioner hissing on the windowsill, maybe there’s a teapot that comes to a gradual rumble and whistle on the stove. Maybe there’s a chickadee chirping in the distance or a semi downshifting.
And the great thing about the ambisonic technology that Brendan uses is that you truly feel immersed if you’re using headphones in this 3-D environment,” Percy said. “So it’s like I can hear somebody breathing in my ear behind me and I can hear the waves crashing on the distant shoreline not too far away off to my left and so on. We’re thinking about not just making our audience feel grounded, but taking advantage of the atmospherics and I think that there’s a great advantage actually when it comes to storytelling.”
The result is an audience experience that requires more active participation than any other medium. Superhero stories are perfect for taking advantage of spectacle and giving an audience a glimpse into something no mere mortal could ever hope to achieve. But for this story built on the basis of discovery and uncovering some unbelievable truth, “Wolverine: The Long Night” is a detective yarn that can take advantage of the inexplicable in a way few other shows can.
From a production standpoint, working in audio also gave the creative team the unique opportunity to adjust their storytelling approach midstream. Through a supercharged version of storyboarding or the audio version of pre-vis, the team was able to track which of their ambitious sequences, be they a trip to an underground cave or a flashback fight sequence, would track with any listener.
“The assistant director Chloe Prasinos and I actually made prototypes of these episodes before shooting them. So we acted out all the parts and recorded them and made this whole sort of parallel prototype series,” Baker said. “That helped Chloe and I get a better sense of what was happening in the story and also the things that were just not working in audio. And then we could go back to Ben and say, ‘We need to find a way to tweak the script in this way in order to clarify for the listener.’ And Ben was always very receptive to those notes.”
Interacting with these characters on a fundamentally different level presents a great opportunity for an emerging wing of a company that thrives on blending powerhouse fictional icons with the new fascinations of tomorrow. Dan Fink, Executive Director of Development at Marvel Entertainment said the response to the show has been encouraging, laying the potential groundwork for incorporating newer characters into this world and offering a bridge to other corners of the comics universe.
“Of course when you launch your first scripted show, you want to launch with a character that has a strong following. But being that this is audio, it’s just so different than comics and so different than film, that it kind of has to live in its own universe,” Fink said. “We are creating a lot of new characters. We are creating new IP, in our opinion. Everything from Prophet to Agent Pierce to Agent Marshall to Joe Langrock.
These are all characters that we now have the ability to start thinking, ‘Do we want to put these in a future Marvel comic?’ I’m not really looking to step on the Marvel Studios’ or the cinematic universe’s toes at all. I want this to stand out on its own and not feel like anything ancillary. It should be all original.”
The best part about “Wolverine: The Long Night” is that it’s not beholden to any particular model. It can lean on the best episodic elements of a TV series and play with a nonlinear structure in a way that a tentpole summer blockbuster might not be able to. Going through the list of influences on the show — “Unforgiven,” “Jaws” “True Detective,” even “S-Town” pop up in these conversations as story references — it’s clear that as the concept of Marvel audio evolves, it’s starting its own distinct corner of this storytelling empire. For Fink, it’s one that has a connection to a tradition that’s been around thousands of years longer than Professor Xavier.
“You go all the back to ancient Greece and you have stories of gods and the mythology that comes there. Those stories, the way people consume them is they were told them. It was an auditory experience,” Fink said. “Honestly, there wasn’t sound design in 3D sound like there is now with what you have in ‘Wolverine: The Long Night.’
But hearing about these mythological beings, there’s something that your imagination does to play tricks on you. And it’s really cool that Marvel can go back to that really rudimentary form of storytelling with something like this, of course, elevating it with the sound design that Brendan and Chloe constructed.”
And with an after show podcast of its own hosted by Jerah Milligan and Christina Harrington, “Wolverine: The Long Night” listeners have a built-in way to engage with how this particular story plays out. It’s a way for the show to offer something additional for the Marvel newcomers who may not catch all the nods to other characters and stories from the comics world and a way for diehards to parse those out for themselves.
With a handful of episodes left in the show’s first season, everyone involved with the show is keen to let the show speak for itself. (Baker did tease that the season’s penultimate episode was especially ambitious, clocking in at 156 different audio tracks.) But what would a Marvel project be without that trademark mix of excitement and secrecy?
“I don’t know that I’ve ever had more fun when writing. This has been a complete treat from first pitch to final draft,” Percy said. “Let’s just say that we’ve carved out our own 40 acres here. But those 40 acres are very much a part of the larger Marvel universe and you’ll understand the interconnectedness as though as the series progresses. I can’t say anything more about the future of the Marvel Podcast Universe or the Weapon x assassins would take me down. I have a laser sight on my forehead right now.”
“Wolverine: The Long Night” is available on Stitcher Premium, with new episodes premiering on Mondays.