It's not even out yet, but Marvel's Avengers already has a bevy of new heroes queued up to join the cast after its September 4 launch date. There's Hawkeye and Spider-Man on the horizon, rumors of She-Hulk and Kate Bishop, and promises of more hero announcements in the near future. But what about the game's core cast of iconic superheroes, tied together by the new kid on the block, Kamala Khan?
With a veritable who's who of voice acting royalty at its center – including Troy Baker as Bruce Banner, Laura Bailey as Black Widow, Travis Willingham as Thor, and Nolan North as Tony Stark – Marvel's Avengers has a cast that perfectly mirrors its core story: veterans brought together by an eager, bright newcomer. That newcomer is Sandra Saad, who portrays Kamala Khan aka Ms. Marvel, the beating heart of Marvel's Avengers. We sat down exclusively with Baker, Bailey, Willingham, and Saad to get a better understanding of how these Avengers assembled, and what each talented actor brought to the War Table.
Same faces, new stories
Developer Crystal Dynamics might be playing with characters that we've come to know and love in the pages of comic books and through the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the studio has made the decision to put a brand new spin on these iconic heroes. That presented something of a challenge for each of the voice actors. "We're following this huge, successful, wave of a thing that has permeated through our culture for a decade," explains Troy Baker. "And all eyes are on us going 'are you going to live up to that?' The beauty of that is that Crystal D was like, 'Nope. We’ll never try to compete with that. We’re never going to try. But what we can do is give you a completely different kind of experience, and tell a completely different kind of story, with a completely different version of the characters that you know and love.'"
Laura Bailey had to wrestle with that notion more acutely than some of the other actors that make up the roster. She has, after all, been the voice of Black Widow for a multitude of other TV series and video games in the past. With Marvel's Avengers putting a new spin on a familiar character, Bailey looked for a way to connect emotionally with this new version of the hero. "I still had that history of knowledge, but this story that we're telling really grounds her in a way that I haven't ever gotten to experience before. She's really struggling with loss and with guilt," Bailey says, reflecting on the motivations that helped shape this new interpretation of Natasha Romanoff.
Black Widow isn't the only character struggling in this version of the Avengers. Travis Willingham approached Thor from a different, more relatable angle, one where the God of Thunder must figure out his place in Midgard and beyond by carving it out for himself. "He figures out what his responsibilities are, where his borders are, in terms of responsibilities for this realm but also just as a member for this team," says Willingham, who insists this shift is crucial to understanding Thor's growth as a character. "His worth is tied so much to what his responsibilities are, and who he is as a protector, and who he is as a warrior, and who he is in his father's eyes, and how he relates to this team and to this realm of mortals. Without saying too much, you really see a lot of vulnerability and weakness in a character that, from the outside, doesn't look like he would have that much."
The superheroes of voice over
It's no coincidence that game director Shaun Escayg personally reached out to several of the Marvel's Avengers cast and in some cases pulled a few mind tricks to get them involved – he was acting, in many ways, like the game dev version of Nick Fury.
"Shaun called me up out of the blue and he was like 'Hey… so it's Avengers. Would you be willing to come over and play Black Widow?'" Bailey tells me, laughing. The actor had previously worked with Escayg on Uncharted: The Lost Legacy (she voiced Nadine, while Escayg was writer and creative director) and, despite being pregnant, was determined to make it work – so she joined the cast shortly after her son was born.
Willingham, like his wife, Bailey, has been doing his character's voice in various shows and games for nearly a decade (he even has Elder Futhark runes spelling out "Worthy" tattooed on his right arm). Despite that, he still had to audition for the role. "Initially, Shaun was trying to figure out how things were going to go," says Willingham. "He was trying to land on Bruce Banner and Captain America, so he asked me 'Do you want to read for any other characters?' I took a shot at them, and Shaun was like, 'Let's just stick with Thor,'" Willingham laughs.
Baker may have worked with Escayg on a number of projects in the past, including The Last of Us and Lost Legacy, but he wasn't prepared for the Nick Fury moves the creative director pulled to get him onto Marvel's Avengers. When Escayg called him up, the actor immediately offered to play Hawkeye or Loki – and was less than thrilled when Escayg offered him the role of Bruce Banner. Baker says he immediately refused with a pointed, "I don't want to play the Hulk."
But Escayg was a step ahead of him, countering with, "Good, I don't want you to play the Hulk either. I want you to play Bruce Banner." This simple line got both Troy Baker's attention and his contract, as the actor wasn't looking to portray an already-established version of the iconic character. "I realized he was not punting to what would be the easiest thing to do," Baker says. "Which would be: let's play into tropes, let's do what's established, let's paint by numbers here."
Instead, Escayg was looking to re-examine characters we as consumers know far too well from the Marvel Cinematic Universe – and to do that successfully he needed an all-star cast of voice acting royalty – and one very special newcomer to anchor the story and characters around. And that's where Sandra Saad comes in to play.
Sandra Saad as/is Kamala Khan
The day I spoke with the cast of Marvel's Avengers, Southern California was experiencing power outages en masse. Some actors might use that as the perfect excuse to avoid chatting with journalists, but not Saad. She went out to her car, cranked the AC, plugged in her phone, and spoke with me and Baker for nearly half an hour. What a Kamala move, am I right?
Funnily enough, it's that same spirit and determination that helped her secure the role. "I didn't know what this project was going to be, I didn’t know it was a game. I didn’t know it was an Avengers project. I didn’t know Shaun at all. I didn’t know anybody," Saad tells me.
She says she was kept in the dark through the entire audition process, with no concept of what medium she was auditioning for, the name of the project or her character – even her script was full of redacted sections worthy of a SHIELD briefing. While this may be par for the course in many high-profile video games, Saad used the secrecy as an opportunity to wrestle with the source material and understand her character at an emotional level before learning anything superficial. "For me, that was really important, to get to know this character for who she was, before adding any of this superhero stuff onto it."
Before you add the Terregin-mist induced superpowers into the equation, Sandra Saad and Kamala Khan are rather similar. Kamala is an Avengers fanatic who writes fan fiction, but there's no way she'd ever be a member of the elite force – and there's certainly nobody on the Avengers team who looks like her (Kamala is Pakistani-American). Saad knows that feeling all too well. "I never had somebody who I looked like to look up to," Saad explains. "I watched Full House a lot when I was growing up, and people would be like 'You don't look like Mary-Kate or Ashley, so sorry that's not going to happen. That's not for you. Your dream isn't for you.'"
It turns out that dream was for Saad, as the dream of joining the Avengers ends up becoming for Kamala. It's as if the actor and character are intrinsically linked – it's hard to believe it's an accidental connection. That's why I flat-out ask the cast if Escayg's casting intentionally placed a rookie voice actor in the role of rookie Avenger. "Dude, I can't help but think there was some design to that," Baker insists. "To kind of assemble a crew of more established actors, especially in this medium, then to all of a sudden bring in the newbie; it really, really played. There had to have been some design to it."
Saad is Kamala Khan, the newbie with tons of moxie and curiosity, who's there to ask questions, work her ass off, and remind the vets of the beauty in their every day. "There’s not an air of arrogance about her at all. "She’s just like, 'This is the coolest job ever,'" says Baker, moments before heading off on a tangent about a time when he got to record at Capitol Records, and how the guy working the sound booth seemed disillusioned with the process until Baker's exuberance at being in such a hallowed space convinced him otherwise.
"That was the same energy that Sandra came into this with. She was like, 'If you ever think that this is just another game that you’re a part of…' Baker trails off before continuing. "Sandra was there to remind us and to come in with the kind of energy that says, 'We get to do this' – that is who Kamala is, in this story – 'We get to be superheroes.'"