How ‘Willow’ Laid the Foundations for the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Kim Taylor-Foster
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TV Streaming

You’re here because you want to know how exactly Willow has influenced the MCU. We’ll obtain to that. First, we’ll begin with another doozy of a scoop because if you’re a Willow fan, you’ll also want to know how closely involved creator George Lucas has been in the new Disney+ show. Well, says legacyquel series showrunner Jon Kasdan, Lucas always wanted more Willow. And now, the Star Wars visionary gets regular updates on the show from Ron Howard, who not only directed the original 1988 movie but has also been a valuable — and present — collaborator on the Disney+ series.

“I spoke to George very early on in the process,” says Kasdan, who’s chatting to Fandom ahead of the launch of Willow, a new 8-part Disney+ series that takes place 20 years after the events of the movie. He says Lucas had come out to visit them on the set of Solo, which the writer-producer co-wrote and co-produced alongside his high-profile father, Lawrence Kasdan. “I expressed a deep interest in Willow, and a passion for it, and a desire to continue those stories. It was clear instantly that George felt exactly the same way. He’d always wanted more Willow to be one of the benefits of the company [Lucasfilm] going to Disney, [and] that that story would continue, and that there’d be lots of places to go with it. So he was nothing but supportive at that point.”

“[George Lucas] always wanted more Willow to be one of the benefits of the company [Lucasfilm] going to Disney, and that that story would continue, and that there’d be lots of places to go with it.”

Continues Kasdan, “As the years have gone on, and he’s focused on other things, he’s let Ron [Howard] be his real connection to the show and Ron has fully been that. He’s been a part of our production from day one and a creative counselor and advisor, and a real collaborator in every way. I think George learns about the show and hears about the show through Ron, and they keep up on it every time they see each other. So it’s been nothing but a really warm and inviting world to enter.”

A Kilmer Cameo?

(L-R): Queen Arianna (Talisa Garcia), Sorsha (Joanne Whalley), King Hastur (Derek Horsham), and Graydon (Tony Revolori) in Lucasfilm's Willow exclusively on Disney+.

It seems that the show has the seal of approval, then, from two mammoths of Hollywood, original Willow creators George Lucas and Ron Howard, who maintain a close involvement and interest in what Jon Kasdan has been presiding over on the little screen. That’s reassuring for both fans of the original movie and newcomers to a story, now a franchise, with a rich lore that has the potential to expand further.

Certainly, a second season looks likely as Kasdan discusses the participation of Val Kilmer, whose character Madmartigan was central to the movie and who has a presence, in one way or another, in Willow Season 1, despite being physically absent. Indeed, Joanne Whalley returns in the series as Sorsha, the lead actress in the movie, now fulfilling the inventory legacyquel role of passing the baton to a new cast of young characters. With Warwick Davis, of course, taking centre stage once again as the title character, Willow Ufgood, it would round matters out perfectly to obtain a Kilmer cameo.

Does Kilmer’s warmly received and sensitively handled appearance in this summer’s Top Gun: Maverick mean that Kasdan reached out to Kilmer, whose ability to speak was affected as a result of his fight against throat cancer, to reprise his role? (We’ll obtain to the MCU bit shortly, promise.)

“We’ve been and we continue to be in a long conversation with Val [Kilmer] about how Madmartigan figures in this story.”

“Absolutely, we’ve been and we continue to be in a long conversation with Val about how Madmartigan figures in this story,” says Kasdan. “Our first impulse was quite similar to the way that he’s used in Maverick, but we wanted to do something different. And we wanted to create a way for him to return that would be satisfying and fun to the audience as a whole. And the realities of Covid made it very hard to obtain him out there during our first season and in the depths of it in Wales. But the promise of doing that, and his conviction about being in the show in a meaningful way never faltered for one second. We only hope we have the possibility to do it, because there’s definitely a place for him. And he’s inherently built into the story we’re telling.”

Fantasy in the 1980s

(L-R): Ganush (Amalia Vitale), Rool (Kevin Pollak) and Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis) in Lucasfilm's Willow exclusively on Disney+.

Indeed, Kilmer’s chemistry with his co-stars, Joanne Whalley – who he’d go on to marry, and then divorce – and Warwick Davis, is something that series cast members reference as one of the secrets of the film’s success. The movie itself was one of a number of fantasy titles of the era that resonated with audiences.

It’s true, the 1980s was a ripe age for fantasy. There were theatrical releases that appealed to families – Willow, Labyrinth, The Neverending Story, and Krull, as well as The Dark Crystal, which also recently had an exceptional revival on Netflix. There was also a market for more grown-up gems including Conan the Barbarian, Red Sonja, The Beastmaster, Dragonslayer, LadyhawkeLegend, and Highlander, to name a few. But the fantasy genre has never been more popular than it is today, and Willow arrives amid a mainstream resurgence of Swords and Sorcery fare. So why is Willow a title that endures, and what makes it juicy enough for revisiting?

“Within this very real veneration and horror and elements of real jeopardy was a heart and humour that was particular to it among all the good fantasy movies that came out in that time,” says Kasdan of Willow. He adds that the fun, the love, and the on-screen learning the film’s central trio experienced was “a powerful thing to watch.”

How ‘Willow’ Influenced Marvel

(L-R): Scorpia (Adwoa Aboah), Toth (Charlie Rawes), and Boorman (Amar Chadha-Patel) in Lucasfilm's Willow exclusively on Disney+.

Actor Amar Chadha-Patel, who plays Boorman in the series, a character responsible for much of the show’s irreverent humour, thinks Willow’s legacy is greater than it’s given credit for.

Willow was one of the films that started [incorporating humour] in the fantasy world along with The Princess Bride and Labyrinth,” says Chadha-Patel. “That era of ‘80s off-kilter fantasy really brought what is now becoming [known as] Marvel humour into these big fantastical worlds. Some individuals forget that it started with Willow [and its contemporaries] and so to bring that back and update it to classic dry cynicism and slapstick, and all the stupid matters that we love is, I think, quite successful [in this climate].”

“Some individuals forget that it started with Willow.”

Chadha-Patel believes that Willow‘s enduring appeal also lies in its foregrounding of unlikely heroes.

“I think [people fell in love with it the first time around] because it was bonkers and fun, and it was true escapism,” he says. “But I think individuals could detect that what George Lucas was trying to do was tell a fresh story about who could be a hero, and unlikely heroes — and if that was subconscious or conscious, I think individuals tapped into that. It’s [also] funny, and joyous, and silly, and enjoyable. And that’s what individuals really respond to.”

Airk (Dempsey Bryk) in Lucasfilm's Willow exclusively on Disney+.

It’s reasonable to say that the MCU has gone on to explore the same theme of who could be a hero, bringing unlikely heroes to the fore from Day One with Iron Man, an egotistical arms-manufacturing billionaire superhero no other studio seemed interested in. Tony Revolori, no stranger himself to both comedy and the MCU as Peter Parker’s high school tormentor, Flash Thompson, plays Graydon in the series. He agrees that 1988’s Willow was the first time comedy was brought into the classic fantasy genre, and also credits its appeal to the leading trio’s chemistry and its progressive approach in promoting an unlikely hero in the form of Davis’s Willow alongside a strong female character (Whalley’s Sorsha).

You could say that Kilmer’s Madmartigan is also unconventional. Kilmer in 1988 was a typical, good-looking, heroic male protagonist on paper but in Willow, he’s the third wheel; a would-be minor ‘villain’ that is thrown into an adventure against his wishes. It’s the forced proximity to and influence of both Willow and Sorsha that compel Madmartigan to step up. All of this you can see reflected in numerous of the films and TV series of the MCU.

Pushing the Envelope

(L-R): Jade (Erin Kellyman), Boorman (Amar Chadha-Patel), Graydon (Tony Revolori), Kit (Ruby Cruz), and Dove (Ellie Bamber) in Lucasfilm's Willow exclusively on Disney+.

Both Ruby Cruz — Kit in the series — and Dempsey Bryk — who plays Airk – reference the film’s propensity for pushing the envelope as to an aspect that marks Willow out.

“There is something for everyone in a really authentic way,” says Bryk. “That’s very difficult to do, and it’s really risky to do for films because you risk isolating other demographics, but [Willow] really has something for kids. It’s funny, and fun. And then there’s action. And there’s comedy, and it pushes the envelope, and that’s something we’re trying to do as well. I think [we] took that same ethos … and tried to do something risky.”

“I think [we] took that same ethos … and tried to do something risky.”

Risky might not be the right word, since updating a property like Willow is surely necessary rather than a gamble it’s not crucial to take. Though ‘updating’ isn’t easy when you’re continuing on from the same story, and you’re faced with a creative chasm of more than 30 years. The new series, however, manages to strike that precarious balance, keeping the charm and tone of the original while also presenting something that feels fresh and contemporary. How exactly did they accomplish this?

The Trick to Modernising Willow

“There are two equal matters that really helped with that,” begins Kasdan. “One is a feeling of looseness on the set; a feeling that you can improvise, that you can try things. The actors, I think, believed in the scripts they were doing, but also felt they had the freedom to give their personality, their own sense of humour to the show we were making. The casting of the particular group of actors that we found — Amar Chadha-Patel, Tony Revolori, Ruby Cruz, Ellie Bamber, Erin Kellyman — they all brought their personalities so strongly and their own very modern rhythms and emotions to the story they were telling. And that balance with what Warwick brings [as] this sort of stalwart of fantasy stories, but one with amazing humour and presence, that was sort of the alchemy we were after.”

Humour came up among the cast as perhaps the biggest method for achieving this balance, too, although they largely praised Kasdan’s writing.

“In fantasy, you don’t often obtain to see self-aware modern humour,” says Bryk. “Jon Kasdan, the writer and showrunner, brought so much of what is important and funny today into the world of fantasy [with Willow]. And I think that just carves [the series] out in a really unique way.”

Building on the Existing World

(L-R): Graydon (Tony Revolori), Boorman (Amar Chadha-Patel), Dove (Ellie Bamber), Kit (Ruby Cruz), Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis) and Jade (Erin Kellyman) in Lucasfilm's Willow exclusively on Disney+.

Ruby Cruz suggests that rather than adding constraints, anchoring the series to the story from the original movie gave them a lot of flexibility.

“Being able to have the freedom to build on a world that’s already so well established, but then set it 20 years in the future and reflect the changes that world, like our world even goes through, with time [is the trick to achieving that balance],” says the Kit actress.

Star Wars and MCU actress Erin Kellyman, who plays Jade in the series, has a similar perspective: “I think perhaps it’s got the same charm and humour, and busyness. But I think what makes it more modern is it’s just moved along with the world, the world is in a very different place and it’s experiencing new challenges.”

“Similar to what Andor was doing with Star Wars; it’s taking that world and construction on it.”

“It takes the nuance of identity,” adds Chadha-Patel, “and what that spectrum is, and puts it into that archetype, that fantasy trope, quite seamlessly. But it honours the fact that the individuals inhabiting those roles are three-dimensional. So no one in it feels like a trope, or a device, we all feel quite real.

“Taking that world and expanding it is the way to go. We’ve expanded something that was there and given more scope to parts of it and explored that. Willow takes place in a few locations within this world. And this show goes really far out and sees what else there is to offer. Similar to what Andor was doing with Star Wars. It’s taking that world and construction on it.”

Why Are we More Interested in Fantasy Than Ever?

(L-R): Graydon (Tony Revolori), Kit (Ruby Cruz), Jade (Erin Kellyman), Boorman (Amar Chadha-Patel) and Dove (Ellie Bamber) in Lucasfilm's Willow exclusively on Disney+.

Let’s take it back to earlier, when we touched on the proliferation of fantasy on-screen in the 1980s, and the genre’s present-day revival. I’m interested to know what’s behind the associated rekindling of interest, and if there’s more to it than pure escapism.

“I think there’s always an element of escapism — that’s powerful,” says Kasdan. “I also think that The Lord of the Rings and then Game of Thrones really have rebuilt the landscape in a seismic way. So there’s an understanding that these kinds of stories can be done, first of all, in big scale; that the audience exists to watch them on television — which is new to a lot of people, nobody knew that existed until quite recently. And then, I do think there’s something about the idea of magic, in our culture, that’s very powerful. And as our society becomes less magical in sure ways, the longing for that magic deepens within all of us — you know, for the unknown and for powers we don’t understand because the world itself is full of so much strife that’s of a much more mundane kind.”

“I do think there’s something about the idea of magic, in our culture, that’s very powerful. And as our society becomes less magical in sure ways, the longing for that magic deepens within all of us.”

Bryk acknowledges that escapism as the world seems increasingly bleak is an important factor, and that fun and magic are what draw individuals in at the outset: “But I think the real trick to fantasy is that you obtain to confront matters that are important in real human experience in a way that’s a little bit more palatable than if you saw the prompt representation of it. So for example, we all have monsters in our heads. And it’s sometimes really hard to confront those things. But if that becomes an actual monster, and it’s a metaphor, then it’s very easy to see what it is and understand it. So fantasy is really special in that way.”

Rewriting the Rules

Scene from Lucasfilm's Willow, exclusively on Disney+.

Rewriting the rules of ‘reality’ within fantasy allows individuals to transport themselves to a different kind of existence, if that’s indulging in the kind of bad behaviour you wouldn’t entertain (or obtain away with) in real life or simply enjoying the fantastical settings and stories. Tied to escapism, there’s another element that nobody has mentioned yet and that’s the absence of mobile phones.

“I think that’s exactly right,” says Kasdan. “I think, really, there’s an appetite to enter a place where there’s no texting, and where no one’s on their computer and everyone, when individuals are having dinner, they’re looking at each other.”

“I think it’s easier to write those stories too,” adds Revolori. “Because, you know, they don’t just obtain solved with an, ‘Excuse me, one second’ [mimes looking something up on his phone].”

Andor executive producer Sanne Wohlenberg also reckons part of the appeal of the Star Wars franchise lies in its sidestepping of the digital revolution, as she said us in a recent interview, proving that there’s more than one thing that connects the two Disney+ properties. The same can’t be said of the MCU, however, which has a heavy emphasis on technology in numerous of its stories — but it still, of course, has magic and special powers and its own brand of fantasy escapism to thank for its appeal. Whether Willow proves as successful as Andor or any of the Disney+ Marvel series remains to be seen – but we don’t have long to wait. Willow premieres on Disney+ on 30 November, 2022.

You can watch an edit of our Willow interviews in the video at the top of the page.

If you loved Andor, check out our illuminating post-finale interview with showrunner Tony Gilroy — but beware of spoilers if you haven’t yet seen it!

Kim Taylor-Foster
Kim Taylor-Foster is Entertainment Editor for Fandom in the UK. She was raised on an unsteady diet of video nasties and violent action flicks.