The Inverse Interview
It's Mark Millar's world. We're just living in it.
“It’s a terrible time to be a hater.”
About a decade ago, comic book titan Mark Millar sat down at his desk and wrote at the top of a Ryman pad: “The greatest superhero epic of all time?”
That might sound ambitious or even cocky, but fresh off the crossover success of his blood-drenched action-fantasies Wanted and Kick-Ass (both adapted into Hollywood blockbusters), Millar tells Inverse he couldn't aim any lower: otherwise, what was the point?
As he filled up one pad, then another, the acclaimed writer – and founder of Millarworld, his creator-driven comic line now owned by Netflix – discovered a story that, by moving beyond classic narratives of good guys fighting bad guys, could reach for the existential heart of superheroes.
Jupiter’s Legacy has since become Millarworld’s guiding light, a long-running comic weaving together elements of Roman mythology, superhero lore, and American history — not to mention stunning illustrations by the legendary Frank Quitely. Now that a large-scale TV adaptation of the series is streaming on Netflix, it’s cemented its place as the most ambitious undertaking of Millar’s career. And that’s saying something, given his track record.
“It’s a great argument because there are no real answers.”
“I wanted to do something that was an ethical look at superheroes, with grandeur and Shakespearan context,” says Millar, speaking to Inverse by Zoom from his native Scotland. “It’s a little bit Hamlet, a little bit King Lear, on a broad canvas with a lot of very complex characters. It’s also asking an ethical question I’d not seen in a superhero film or TV show before: If you have the power to pull mountains down and change the course of mighty rivers, is it ethically right to not be involved in World War II? Is it ethically right to not stop the climate emergency? Is it ethically right to let people starve to death in other countries?”
“It’s a great argument,” Millar adds, always his own hype man, “because there are no real answers.”
“The next level”
A savvy deconstructionist of superhero stories (who also earnestly loves them), Millar usually opts for a sledgehammer over a scalpel. That starts with his provocative what-if loglines. “What if Superman had crash-landed in the Soviet Union instead of America?” That’s Superman: Red Son, Millar’s Eisner Award-winning DC series. “What if Bruce Wayne became the Joker?” That’s Nemesis, his shockingly violent and entirely unauthorized twist on cape-and-cowl mythos, written (naturally) for a Marvel Comics imprint.
Jupiter’s Legacy offers another elevator pitch, one that’s both appropriately irresistible and classic Millar: “What if Superman and Wonder Woman were your parents?”
At Millarworld — which he founded in 2004 and runs with his wife, Lucy Millar — these kinds of punchy, driving concepts have only grown bigger and ballsier without outside interference. It’s no wonder Hollywood loves Millar, but it still sent shockwaves through the media industry in 2017 when Netflix bought Millarworld outright in a deal ballparked at $40-50 million, bringing this independent comics line under its vaulted roof. (The parallels to Disney’s $4 billion Marvel deal write themselves.)
Jupiter’s Legacy is their first time at bat, and it’s safe to say Millarworld and Netflix are swinging for the fences. An intergenerational saga, the series will span billions of years and tackle philosophical issues of family, power, and humanity. It’s not that Millar isn’t daunted by the scale and scope of Jupiter’s Legacy, which he first started telling as a comic back in 2013. But after decades of crafting trailblazing comics for an industry that’s grown larger than anyone could have predicted, he knows the only way forward is up.
“You have to always go to the next level,” says Millar. “Kick-Ass was very different from, say, Spider-Man, so it stood out. Kingsman was very different from James Bond. You have to show people something they haven’t seen before.”
Front and center in Jupiter’s Legacy are an aging group of superheroes known as the Union who gained their powers in 1932 and have since used them to safeguard humanity. We also meet their adult children, who struggle to live up to that lofty standard.
Leading the Union is Sheldon Sampson (Josh Duhamel), aka The Utopian, whose powers include super-strength, flight, speed, and telekinesis, marking him as Earth’s mightiest superhero. His wife, Grace Sampson (Leslie Bibb), aka Lady Liberty, has harnessed similar abilities. Together with his brother Walter (Ben Daniels), aka Brainwave, a telepath, these three enforce a code of ethics through which they help humanity through its darkest moments – without directly interfering in politics.
But Sheldon and Grace’s children – daughter Chloe (Elena Kampouris) and son Brandon (Andrew Horton) – chafe against this older generation and their iron-clad rules. Chloe rejects her parents’ ways outright, spending her adult life in a haze of drugs and celebrity. Brandon fights to prove he’s worthy of assuming the mantle of the Utopian – despite disagreeing with his father on the extent of the role such a symbol of virtue should play in the world.
“I’m obsessed with repeated cycles within history,” says Millar. “History’s not a straight line. It’s a series of circles. We bounce against our parents, and we make the same mistakes as our grandparents. Generally, that’s the cycle history tends to follow. And just when you think something is beaten, it’s not. It just pops up somewhere else.”
To that effect, Jupiter’s Legacy tells connected stories in two separate timelines during its first eight episodes, weaving together a modern plot with flashbacks to the 1920s and ‘30s that reveal how Sheldon, Grace, and others first gained superpowers during the Great Depression.
“First writing Jupiter’s Legacy in 2008, I was drawing parallels to the 1929 Wall Street crash,” says Millar. “Whenever the economy was about to fall off a fiscal cliff, you had the rise of nationalism popping up in all these countries, and people turning to extreme-right solutions to all the problems afterward.”
At first, Millar didn’t know what story he wanted to tell. But when he hit upon the idea of exploring the creation of superheroes as an analogue to America’s rise to power across the 20th century, he could suddenly think of nothing else.
“Jupiter’s Legacy is about America in a terrible place.”
“America’s century is so tied up with superhero mythology,” Millar says. “I liked the idea of using the ultimate emigrant story, which is the Superman story, along with the rise and potential fall of America. Jupiter’s Legacy is about America in a terrible place, no longer being carried along by its myths, which were the old-fashioned superheroes, turning to a very extreme solution to try and correct itself — and, of course, the complete disaster that would then follow that.”
Audiences who know Millar best for Kick-Ass and Wanted (irony-poisoned action adventures that exult in their ultra-violent nihilism) may be in for a surprise with Jupiter’s Legacy. If those franchises were Millar’s savage genre pastiches, this one is his earnest, ambitious love letter to superheroes — the kind of unabashedly grand saga he would have eaten up as a kid raised on Golden Age comics.
“I like the idea of wrong-footing people all the time,” Millar admits. No writer wants to be pigeon-holed, and it’s easy to wind up inside a box within comics, where so many creators are stuck replicating old formulas.
“Stan Lee always really impressed me because it was all cut from whole cloth; he was introducing those guys,” explains Millar, making an uncharacteristically subtle jab at modern-day Marvel. “
He made those guys up! And they meant something to him. He took stuff from mythology, from headlines, from the world outside his window. The Marvel Universe when Stan, Jack [Kirby], and Steve [Ditko] were doing it was only one DNA strand away from New York City as it was in 1962-63. People who weren’t necessarily comic-book fans could pick it up and understand it.”
“Nobody else could dare try”
When Millar first sold his company to Netflix in 2017, executives asked him and his wife, Lucy, which franchise they wanted to adapt first. It was an easy decision.
“Netflix knew the first thing out of Millarworld had to be special,” he says. “We knew, looking at Jupiter’s Legacy, there could be something great there.”
The moment Millar knew the series was off to the races, though, came when Netflix recruited Steven S. DeKnight (who’d created the streamer’s Marvel’s Daredevil) as showrunner.
“The trick with adaptations is to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are,” says Millar. “Sometimes, the mistake that people make is to hire people they can boss around, but you just get bad work. You want to surround yourself with people who bring something to the table.”
“It’s Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings, but with superheroes.”
Jupiter’s Legacy signals its comic-book allegiances upfront, describing the eight episodes arriving this Friday as “Volume 1” rather than a season. Structurally, the show feels like the first issue of an ongoing comic series, patiently introducing its characters and taking time to explore their origins while laying the groundwork for more seismic plot shifts ahead. Its eight episodes go by in a flash but burn bright, punctuated by startling twists, gigantic action sequences, and an appropriately earth-shaking cliffhanger.
“I’ve worked at Marvel, I’ve worked at DC, and Jupiter’s Legacy is the one I’m most excited about,” says Millar. “I feel as if this is the one I’ve been building my whole career toward. It’s Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings, but with superheroes. It’s a big, grand epic that nobody else could dare try in terms of ambition.”
Though release dates for future volumes of Jupiter’s Legacy have not yet been announced, Millar envisions a 40-hour arc for the series that (should episode counts stay consistent with this first outing) suggest five volumes (or seasons) in total. “This is a beast,” adds Millar. “Nobody will have seen anything like this before. If you’ve enjoyed the last 20 years of these [superhero] movies, then watch this, because this is where we’re taking it next.”
If Millar sounds confident about this sweeping vision for Jupiter’s Legacy, he’s earned the right.
An uncompromising change agent in the comics landscape, Millar has delivered standout stories for Marvel and DC while turning his own Millarworld comics imprint, established in 2004, into a creator-owned powerhouse.
After first working on DC’s Swamp Thing during the ‘90s, Millar hit his stride at the comics giant with an attention-getting run on their fascistic superhero adventure The Authority, a flagship title from Jim Lee’s Wildstorm imprint. Never one to shy away from controversial ideas or story arcs, Millar ran afoul of censors throughout his time writing The Authority, due to both the comics’ acidic political commentary and their audacious violence. If a brutish super-team unilaterally intervening in global conflicts (mirroring the Clinton and Bush administration’s interventionist policies) made top brass at DC uncomfortable, you can imagine what they thought of panels depicting rape, infanticide, and strongly implied necrophilia.
Defecting to Marvel, Millar delivered The Ultimates, which laid the groundwork for much of what we now know as the Marvel Cinematic Universe; and Old Man Logan, commonly cited as the best Wolverine story ever (and adapted into the critically acclaimed X-Men requiem Logan). Millar’s most polarizing work at Marvel was likely Civil War, a seven-issue limited series in which ideological schisms opened between Avengers members like Captain America and Iron Man. Adapted into Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War, it’s considered one of the most pivotal comic-book events of the 2000s.
Especially at Millarworld, Millar’s comics – like Wanted, Kick-Ass, and Kingsman – tend to make noise, bringing their genres’ archetypes crashing down with a mixture of provocative commentary and sickening violence. It’s the latter that’s earned him the most detractors, given that his envelope-pushing approach has historically included graphically upsetting depictions of rape and sexual assault. (Millar, for his part, has spoken about depicting this violence as an important element of his commitment to pushing boundaries in genre storytelling.) If you were to turn the story of Millar’s career into its own comic-book series, a title is already close at hand: Infamous.
Owing to his hook-driven writing and pattern of partnerships with top-shelf illustrators, Millar’s comics pop in a way well-suited to adaptation. In 2008, Wanted came to the big screen as a Universal tentpole, starring James McAvoy and Angelina Jolie. A global hit, it kick-started a decade of Millar adaptations. 2010’s Kick-Ass paired Millar with writer-director Matthew Vaughn, who’d later reunite with him for 2014’s similarly irreverent, R-rated Kingsman movie — still Millar’s highest-grossing original adaptation to date – and a successful 2017 sequel, Kingsman: The Golden Circle. (Kick-Ass also earned a 2013 sequel, directed by Jeff Wadlow, though it underperformed financially and fared worse with critics.)
But Millar is now an executive at Netflix, meaning that he can’t be involved with adaptations of his work at other studios. In particular, Disney-owned 20th Century Studios is still reaping the benefits of a prior arrangement with Millar, with a Kingsman prequel, The King’s Man, out in December, and Attack the Block’s Joe Cornish set to write and direct an adaptation of Millar’s intergalactic Starlight.
Warner Bros., meanwhile, is moving forward with an adaptation of Nemesis, to be helmed by Project Power co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, though its reported logline — “a genius engineer who witnesses the President of the United States commit a deadly crime and teams up with a vigilante to take down the President and his corrupt government” — bears little resemblance to Millar’s comic. Still, Millar expresses excitement that Emerald Fennell, whose Promising Young Woman script recently won an Oscar, has been brought in to work on the screenplay.
“That’s quite exciting,” he says. “She’s amazing. I love her.”
Otherwise, Millar says, rights to adapt his comics have almost all found their way back to Netflix – including Chrononauts, a time-travel adventure that Millar’s keen to adapt into a series. But it doesn’t exactly bother him that audiences without Netflix subscriptions may be seeing a Kingsman sequel at Christmas or a Starlight movie in IMAX.
“It just means there’ll be no escaping me, unfortunately,” he says, laughing. “It’s a terrible time to be a hater.”
Currently on Millar’s plate is Supercrooks, which he’s adapting from his 2012 comic with Leinil Yu. The Netflix series – being done as a 13-episode anime with Japanese studio Bones – will tie into Jupiter’s Legacy as its first spin-off.
“The adventures of the Utopian in the 1930s wouldn’t be that interesting to me, because anything you want to do you can do in the main series,” explains Millar. “But a series about the bad guys... When you’re doing a show about the good guys, it can be quite interesting to see the flip-side. With Supercrooks, you’ll get to see the Goodfellas version of this, what it’s like to be a supervillain in this world.”
In just one month, Millar will also deliver Jupiter’s Legacy: Requiem, a 12-issue series with art by Tommy Lee Edwards, that will provide this saga with the sense of an ending across two volumes. Of course, as Netflix launches the first chapter of its TV adaptation, it’s easy for audiences accustomed to Marvel and DC’s ever-expanding universes to question how fixed that endpoint actually is, whether the story of Jupiter’s Legacy could live on at Netflix beyond the comics. But with Millar orchestrating both comic and TV series simultaneously, his answer is the only one that matters, and it’s definitive.
“The way it wraps up makes that impossible,” says Millar. “I don’t want to do any spoilers, but the way it ends is a very definite conclusion to the whole thing.”
In laying out Jupiter’s Legacy, he’s long seen the series as a six-volume effort written by him and penciled by the foremost illustrators in the game. That may be bad news for Netflix’s long-term plans, but Millar’s not concerned.
“One’s set in the present, one in the past, and the new one is set one generation into the future, but it goes on for thousands, millions, billions of years until we reach the end of time. There’s nowhere to go after this. So if this one becomes a gigantic hit for Netflix, they’ll be furious.”