Liza Wyles has spent a lot of time crying at work lately. But that's not a bad thing — it makes her happy. As an executive producer on "Marvel's Hero Project," a new Disney+ docuseries about youths influencing positive change in their communities, she'd need the steely heart of a supervillain to avoid tearing up.
"I watch every cut of an episode — so upwards of 10, 12 passes — and I cry every time," she says. "It's just genuine."
Each "Hero Project" show focuses on a different child who has emerged as a real-life hero. Whether they overcome adversity, become activists or make other selfless acts, these youths, as the show's narrator puts it, are "everyday kids who have accomplished the amazing." At the end of each episode, that week's star is surprised with a gesture that literally illustrates their inspirational status: a comic book depicting them as Marvel's newest superhero.
"We have a lot of people paying attention to the kind of work that we're doing," Wyles says, "so we wanted to highlight these real kids because that is very much the Marvel way — reminding people that, despite the difficulties in your life or any type of insecurities or vulnerabilities, everyone has this greatness inside of them, and all you need to do is find a way to unlock it."
"That ultimately is the classic superhero story of a regular person wanting to do good despite the odds, despite the naysayers, despite the dark times and the dark environment," says executive producer Sana Amanat. "I think that's what is so heartwarming about this show."
The "Hero Project" premiere tells the story of Jordan Reeves, a teen girl who was born without a left hand or forearm. As an advocate for limb difference awareness, Jordan designed a purple, horn-shaped prosthetic arm — appropriately named Project Unicorn — that doubles as a glitter cannon. The second episode turns the page to Elijah Lee, a charismatic activist who brings attention to the issue of child abuse. The third installment tackles the story of blind high school football player Adonis Watt.
"What I love about all of these kids is that they're so certain about what they're doing and why they need to do it," Amanat says. "They have a sense of conviction that is so unique, particularly for their age. Camera there or camera not there, that doesn't really change.
"No one told them that they had to go do this thing — they just did it. They're not making money off of it, and they're not expecting to get fame. They're just regular kids."
Each episode visits Marvel's New York headquarters for a glimpse of the creative process that ultimately results in that week's special edition comic book. (All of the comics will be available to read for free on Marvel's website.) Marvel editors, illustrators and executives collaborate on these comics, which are largely grounded in the child's real-life experience while also integrating superhero tropes.
"We referenced a lot of classic Marvel superheroes," Amanat says. "It's a balance of realism with the heightened Marvel world that we like to build up in our comic books."
Three months after the Marvel Studios film "Avengers: Endgame" became the highest grossing movie in global box office history, with $2.8 billion in ticket sales, the 80-year-old Marvel brand is more culturally relevant than ever. It comes as no surprise that Disney+ is betting big on the property, having announced plans to make 11 different Marvel shows in the coming years.
Most of those projects, including the Jeremy Renner-starring "Hawkeye" and Tom Hiddleston-starring "Loki," will be dramatized series set within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But the makers of "Hero Project" relished the opportunity to use Marvel's visibility as a spotlight that they could turn toward worthy real-world stories.
Amanat quotes Spider-Man's famed saying: "With great power there must also come great responsibility." In her mind, those words have become much more than one web-slinger's mantra.
"I think that's fundamentally the tagline of Marvel," Amanat says. "There is a sense of responsibility, of highlighting the positivity — of reminding people to look upwards and also inwards, toward the brightness within themselves."
"Hero Project's" first episode will premiere Nov. 12, on the Disney+ launch date. A new installment of the 20-episode series will subsequently drop on the streaming service every Friday.