Marvel does it, DC is doing it, so why not Valiant? The indie comic company recently announced they're doing an online series called Ninjak vs the Valiant Universe which will introduce the company's popular comic book characters into live action for the first time ever, creating what they hope will be their own shared, cinematic universe. We were among a small group of journalists who visited the Los Angeles set of the show on September 19, three months into a production that will continue through March 2017. The vibe on set was more like that of an indie film than a major comic book property, simply because Valiant is casting, producing and making the whole show themselves. At the time, the crew was in the middle of filming episode two, Ninjak vs Bloodshot, with Ninjak played by Michael Rowe (Arrow, The Flash) and fan favourite Jason David Frank (Mighty Morphin Power Rangers) as Bloodshot.
The six-part show will debut in summer 2017 and revolves around the high powered ninja Ninjak who is forced by the evil Roku (Chantelle Barry) to steal a top secret item from the British secret intelligence service, MI6. When he succeeds. MI6 activates Unity, kind of the Avengers of the Valiant Universe, to stop him. The result is the first step into a brand new live-action comic book universe that will see Bloodshot, Eternal Warrior, Archer and Armstrong, XO Manowar, Livewire and Shadowman all making their cinematic debuts, all in hot pursuit of Ninjak.
Ninjak vs the Valiant Universe is directed by the Aaron and Sean Schoenke, the father/son directing team behind the popular YouTube show Super Power Beat Downs. Their addition, as well as the long list of characters, makes it obvious that the intent and scope of the show are ambitious and bold. In scale, though, it's a teeny tiny sliver of what DC or Marvel have done with their characters. Valiant says it's not worried about that. It thinks it's found a unique niche, one that Marvel and DC long since forgot about.
Valiant CEO and chief creative officer Dinesh Shamdasani points out that a generation of comic book fans were brought up on superhero cartoon shows. Shows like the animated X-Men and Batman: The Animated Series were a gateway drug that lead millions of people not just into comic book stores, but into theatres to see those characters on the big screen.
"That really doesn't exist any more," said Shamdasani. "So we looked at the space and found that digital is where that demographic will go for today's generation." They're taking Ninjak and a future digital footprint so seriously, they're launching a whole new division, Valiant Digital, and started production on Ninjak without a distributor. They're funding the whole thing themselves. This is their baby.
"The way this production is set up, you don't have to answer to studios," said Ninjak himself, Michael Rowe. "The CEO is actually on set with us, finding the heart of these scenes, talking through the story and we all come out the other end feeling really good about it because we know we've found the grit and the grime and the truth in these scenes. It's so refreshing. On a bigger budget thing, you get certain liberties but you also get a hell of a lot of constraints. So I feel like the shackles are off a little bit on this."
He's almost underplaying it. The set of Ninjak vs the Valiant Universe really feels like a low-stress hangout. Actors, directors and miscellaneous crew sit along with the CEO of the company, eating lunch at the same table. The Ninjak costume is stored in an unassuming 1m plastic container. Rowe doesn't go into a dressing room to put the costume on, he does it in the middle of the warehouse where they're currently filming. It all feels like a group of friends, who also happen to be super fans, are making a show. That won't, however, be what people see on screen.
"Our hope is much larger in scale and scope and ambition than anyone's done online," Shamdasani said. "We're essentially trying to do a Netflix original series, or a CW show, that's digital exclusive."
The early footage screened, not just at New York Comic-Con but for us on set, definitely has a cinematic feel. The question is, are fans too acclimated to the Avengers and Justice League to care? How can Valiant compete with Marvel and DC?
"The best way to fight Marvel and DC is to not fight Marvel and DC," said Shamdasani. "With Marvel you're talking 20 years of successful movies with only a few failures. That's the best track record in the history of cinema. So they're able to do Civil War. We can't just jump to that. We have to take the same baby steps that Marvel took and each time [present] quality."
The collected Valiant Universe
Shamdasani also pointed out the reason Marvel and DC can coexist is they have different tones. He believes Valiant's own tone is unique enough to separate it from those worlds.
"Where other companies have tried to come into the space and failed is because they have tried to imitate one of the existing tones," he said. "We were very lucky the founding fathers of Valiant were geniuses. They all came from Marvel and DC, knew those characters inside and out and understood with the next incarnation of the genre is, and that's what Valiant is."
The actors playing those characters may not be household names, but they too know their characters inside and out. Many of them got on board as a result of their relationships with co-director Aaron Schoenke. They'd previously worked with him on Super Power Beat Downs and were approached based on physicality and ability. After that, each actor took a deep dive into the mythology. Rowe talks about how he and Ninjak's true identity Colin King shared several personality traits and both dreamt of flying. Frank explains how Bloodshot's constant ability to compartmentalise fantasy and reality excites him so he doesn't mind sitting in makeup for four hours to become the character. Morrison loves how the Eternal Warrior's long life gives the character a deeper perspective on everything happening with the other characters in the universe. Each of them are totally invested, even if they aren't a huge part of the show.
"We've put a tremendous effort into the narrative scope of the show," Shamdasani said. "You fall in love with the characters, you understand their plight, there's pathos, and there are questions being asked that will hopefully bring people back again and again."
When the show eventually debuts, the first episode of the show will be a double, running about 15 minutes. In that time, viewers will see scenes shot at 15 locations, which is massive for an online short. Subsequent episodes will be about six minutes each until the finale, which again will be a 15-minute double-sized episode with a surprise ending.
A surprise ending you shouldn't expect is a crossover with what Valiant is planning for the big screen. In addition to the live-action online show, the company is working on projects in various mediums, including several Valiant projects set up at Sony Pictures. Rumour has it the team-up series Harbinger could be coming to theatres in the next few years. Bloodshot has been mentioned too, as have other characters like Archer and Armstrong. The feeling, however, is that Ninjak vs the Valiant Universe will operate independently of the films. Just like Batman from The Animated Series or the X-Men cartoons didn't change the movies, this show is being geared as an entry point into a much larger Valiant universe.
"We knew we wanted to do something big in scope," said Shamdasani. "We didn't want to just do a beat down where two characters fight each other and that's all. So we said 'If we've got the characters, let's show the characters and do as many as we can that fit the story organically.' Ninjak was the best entry point to that. He touches M:I6. He touches the supernatural side of our universe. He allows us to tap into a host of characters in a narrative we felt was exciting."
Archer and Armstrong
Plus, when you put Ninjak against all these very different characters, the filmmakers are able to explore a whole plethora of genres in a single show. So XO Manowar will be more science fiction. Archer and Armstrong will have a lot of comedy. Shadowman is heavily supernatural and Bloodshot is pure action and so on.
With Ninjak vs the Valiant Universe, the young company is going all-in with a ton of passion, ambition, risk and reward. And they're doing their own way.
"We're punk rocking the shit out of this," says Rowe.