There’s a scene in the sixth episode of Marvel and Stitcher’s radio drama podcast Wolverine: The Long Night where special agent Tad Marshall is interviewing a boy whose home was attacked by… something. The agent is searching for Logan, aka the mutant hero Wolverine, who the agent thinks might be behind the attack. But the boy swears it wasn’t a man; it was a beast — and a huge one at that. This is the first time Marshall believes Logan might not be the cause of all the murders in the town of Burns, Alaska, though he’s still not wholly convinced.
Meanwhile, the audience isn’t sure what to believe. This account notwithstanding, the evidence points uncomfortably to Logan. But he’s the good guy, right? And the special agents must be the bad guys because they’re hunting him. Except… what if it’s the other way around?
This purposeful ambiguity is the slow, unraveling mystery at the core of Wolverine: The Long Night, a story nearly two years in the making, and it might change the landscape of scripted radio dramas in the endless expanse of podcasts.
In April 2017, Marvel’s New Media division asked comics writer Benjamin Percy to pitch an idea for a new scripted podcast series with Stitcher. He was given only two vague guidelines: the podcast had to feature Wolverine, and it had to be an investigative show in the mold of Serial or S-Town. Marvel was probably expecting a one or two-page summary. They got something much, much longer. “It had character bios, themes, my take on Wolverine’s history in comics and film, influences I would bring to the podcast, along with detailed breakdowns of every episode,” Percy says. “I put an exhaustive amount of work into it because I wanted to make it impossible for them to say no.”
“At the end of that pitch was an asterisk with a note that basically said, ‘Give this to me, or else,’” he says.
As it turns out, the not-so-veiled (and not-so-serious) threat wasn’t necessary. Percy’s pitch was exactly what Marvel was looking for, and his 30-page bible became the foundation for the first season of Marvel and Stitcher’s Wolverine: The Long Night, which concluded its 10-episode run in early May.
“The audio medium is one that, for years, Marvel was intrigued by,” says Dan Fink, executive director of development for Marvel New Media and The Long Night’s producer. “It intrigued me to know how a Marvel superhero story would work in this medium. We weren’t looking to reinvent the wheel, we wanted to do what worked.”
What worked, according to Fink, were investigative shows like Serial or S-Town, where there was a narrator or investigator to guide listeners through the experience. This is why Wolverine isn’t necessarily the show’s lead character, even though his name is in the title. Listeners instead spend the most time with special agents Sally Pierce and Tad Marshall as they search for Logan in the remote town of Burns, Alaska, uncovering the town’s darkest secrets along the way.
“As a team, we reference Jaws a lot,” Fink says. “In the movie, you don’t see him all that much, but everyone’s talking about the shark. There’s all this fear and mystery. Your imagination starts playing games. After Jaws, everyone was scared to go in the water, because you couldn’t see the shark. And so by creating this elusiveness [about] who Wolverine truly is as a comic book character, we were like, ‘Let’s bring this back, and slowly have him come back out of his shell.’ That’s what season 1 is about. It’s Wolverine coming to terms with who he is, and accepting the mistakes he’s made.”
Scripted podcasts are common today, but The Long Night is the first time a company like Marvel has centered a narrative podcast on a major flagship character. Fink says Marvel searched all over for writers for The Long Night, both within Marvel’s creative and editorial departments and outside. In a bout of serendipity, Percy’s agent had an office next to Stitcher’s, and when he caught word of the project, he threw his client’s hat in the ring. Though Percy, at that point, had only worked with DC Comics, writing titles like Detective Comics, Green Arrow, and Teen Titans, Marvel was familiar with his work.
As Marvel was recruiting Percy to write their first narrative podcast, they were also recruiting Brendan Baker, producer of Love + Radio, to direct it. While he didn’t write an exhaustive 30-page pitch script like Percy, he did submit a treatment discussing elements he wanted to experiment with in audio fiction, such as telling a story in two different timelines and working with unreliable narrators.
Both of these elements are crucial to the storytelling in the series. Nearly every episode features a flashback of some sort, whether prompted by a witness testimony or a conversation in a bar. Those testimonies aren’t always truthful, and neither are the special agents.
Baker refers to sound design as “designing an audience’s attention.” He and fellow director Chloe Prasinos were able to do that by using an ambisonic microphone, which records in a sphere, meaning it captures sounds above, below, and behind the mic. It also allows users to isolate different voices and change their positions in the mix, so listeners can hear things above or below them.
“One of the challenges of fictional podcasting or radio plays is trying to create an immersive experience for the listener,” Baker says. “In television, things are always mixed so the voices are in the center, and the side speakers are used for music or sound effects. But we knew in this case, most people would be listening through headphones, so we tried to create an audio environment that would be tailored to that listening experience.”
“Let’s say someone was telling a story about what happened to them in the woods earlier,” Percy says. “We could make the chuffing of the winds or the crackling of dried twigs beneath their feet, and sleet that might be pattering in their coat, and slip that into the conversation, and make the listener feel like they were there.”
The ambisonic mic necessitated a different method of recording the show. Instead of the standard “one-person, one-mic” studio approach that the actors recorded simultaneously, in the same room. The approach allowed for more interaction between actors, more like staging a play than recording an audiobook.
The final element was finding the perfect Wolverine. The criteria for an audio Wolverine is different than for an on-screen character: the actor didn’t need Hugh Jackman’s corded muscles or the ability to pull off the character’s signature hairstyle and sideburns. They needed gravel in their voice and the ability to intone rage, grief, and feral intelligence. Enter Richard Armitage, the actor who played dwarven king Thorin Oakenshield in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit adaptations.
Armitage was deeply involved and invested in the character, whom he saw as an addict, someone who couldn’t get away from getting involved and taking action in any given conflict. Percy says Armitage sent him dissertation-length emails concerning Logan, citing works like William Blake’s “Nebuchadnezzar” in his attempt to get to Wolverine’s “beastly heart.”
Armitage’s version of Wolverine is more brooding and haunted than Hugh Jackman’s take from the films, or any of the character’s previous cartoon portrayals. (His voice in the role sounds like a hungover George Clooney / Doug Ross, circa season 3 of ER.) Armitage’s first extensive scene as Logan comes in the second episode, not in a cinema-friendly gory fight sequence, but in a morose recitation of a letter he wrote to an old lover, Maureen:
I came back home and found you asleep. It was hot, remember? You weren’t wearing anything but underwear, and lying on top of the sheets. God… do you know what my mind did? I saw every organ, every vertebrae, every nerve, every artery, every bone, every way to hurt you. That’s how I look at everyone, you know.
It’s a grim thought, but in this monologue, in a matter of seconds, The Long Night gets at the core of Logan better than some multiyear comic runs ever did.
Inevitably, Wolverine comes to the foreground of the series, especially in the last three episodes. (Even the shark in Jaws didn’t stay offscreen for the whole film.) Yet when Wolverine takes center stage and the podcast becomes a bit more action-oriented, it still never loses its initial premise and style. It features more punches and explosions than Serial, but even in those moments, the series never approaches the kitsch of the old Superman and The Shadow radio plays. It always feels like the same procedural.
Marvel is keeping its cards close to the vest regarding what’s next for Wolverine’s podcast adventures, but Fink, Baker, and Percy each repeatedly referred to The Long Night as season 1 of the series, and Long Night’s final episode has a clear lead-in to a second season. Marvel is playing it even closer about plans for a Marvel Podcast Universe, but Percy let something interesting slip to Mashable’s Laura Prudom:
“We have a fun opportunity here, and that’s to create our own continuity. A continuity that will grow more and more expansive as the Marvel Podcast Universe expands,” Percy teases. “There are glimmers that people will recognize, references to Weapon X and wartime Logan, Japan and past relationships that he’s had. But he himself is not able to really work through his moth-eaten memory until the conclusion of this first season.”
And while Marvel is keeping quiet about the possibility of an MPU, it’s easy to read between the lines on Percy’s quote, the positive reception to The Long Night, and the fact that fans want more Marvel content than ever. Like 2008’s Iron Man, The Long Night was an experiment in finding an audience and setting the stage for a larger, more cohesive story. From a storytelling standpoint at the very least, it succeeded.
Whatever Marvel decides to do next, it’s clear it’s found a formula for success in audio storytelling, one that’s easily replicable and adjustable across their many properties. It’s fun to imagine Peter Parker running an investigative podcast “produced” by The Daily Bugle. Or a show where Bruce Banner, separated from the Hulk somehow, goes looking for his greener half. Or a high school drama set in the Jean Grey School for Higher Learning, or a world-touring espionage thriller starring the Black Widow. The only limit is Marvel’s imagination.