This past Sunday in “Marvel’s Avengers Assemble,” Iron Man played “By the Numbers” and Red Skull made him pay for it.
Convinced that his new probability engine would give him the upper hand, Tony led the Avengers into a clash with the Cabal that seemed locked from the beginning. Unfortunately, despite Captain America’s protest, Tony’s inability to see the worth of the human element led to the team’s brutal defeat and the Red Skull getting the prize he sought from the beginning, the Tesseract. Although the Avengers came together at the last moment to save Los Angeles and Las Vegas from missile attack, the result remained: the Red Skull had ascended to the Cosmic Skull and Tony could find no algorithm that pointed the way to an Avengers victory.
Liam O’Brien, the voice behind the Red Skull, and Supervising Producer Cort Lane spoke to Marvel about the trouncing, Thor’s poor attempts to master human humor, and the darkening future. So wield your own vastly powerful cosmic artifact (the internet!) and join us, won’t you?
Marvel: To begin with, directing this question to Liam, how is it, as a voice actor, to play the smartest guy in the room, the position that it turns out Red Skull is in for most of this episode?
Liam O’Brien: He holds a lot back. He spends the whole season playing the long game and playing 20 chess moves ahead of Stark and his team. I think we finally get to see him…we finally get the big reveal for what’s starting to fall into place. But, I think, I still kept it pretty close to the vest until I get the magic sugar cube [the Tesseract] in my hand and start floating around and unleashing power. As always, just a pleasure to be so devious.
Marvel: That actually alludes to my next questions. You talked about how you play it close to the vest…in a lot of ways, there’s a sort of nesting structure to your performance in that you are playing an in-control Red Skull who’s playing at being beaten. I’m curious if that presents any particular challenges as an actor or if that changes your approach to Skull at all?
Liam O’Brien: No. It’s always just, “What’s my purpose?” and “What’s my persona?” in this moment or for this character or for this character in this moment. He wants to be believable and Skull’s probably a better actor than I am. If he wants Tony and the team to go in the directions he needs, then he needs to make it real. He’s not playing at playing, he wants to be beaten, he wants to be at a loss, feeling the anger and frustration that comes from getting your butt whipped.
Marvel: To widen to a larger view of the episode as a whole, we’ve talked about before the overarching theme of the season is the Avengers coming together as a team. How is this episode advancing that?
Cort Lane: It’s a turning point for the team because, you’re right, it is about the team coming together. But the character arc that is necessary for that theme, really, is the education of Tony Stark. He’s becoming a more effective leader and his arrogance here is a fatal flaw, as it is in a lot of Iron Man stories.
They really have their butts handed to them in this episode and there are tremendous consequences for the rest of the season because, as you can see, the Red Skull has the Tesseract. He began [the series] with stealing Tony’s technology to become the Iron Skull to now becoming the Cosmic Skull.
Marvel: Continuing to explore that theme of Tony and the team growing, Captain America and Tony represent the didactic here between the human element and “numbers,” or the scientific element. While they argue in this episode, they never seem to lose control of themselves and it never seems to derail the team. At the start of the season, how differently would you expect this disagreement to go down?
Cort Lane: The conflict is present for them all season, but they’ve learned to be more respectful and give each other more room. Cap cuts Tony a lot of slack this episode, and unfortunately Tony is wrong. Cap knows what Red Skull knows and that’s [Tony] is relying too much on his technical smarts.
Liam O’Brien: I actually think that Skull and Cap have that in common. It’s the man, it’s not the–science and math are wonderful and it helps to have them at your disposal, but it’s the individual that makes things happen.
Marvel: Although Tony has this setback here, he is also a pretty stubborn guy.
Cort Lane: Yeah.
Marvel: Given that, I find myself wondering how big an impact that will have on Tony. Will he integrate this lesson or will he quickly lapse into old patterns?
Cort Lane: He begins integrating. You’ll see in the next several episodes how this comes to pass. Unfortunately, they’ve always been a little outmatched in battle with the Cabal. We’ve worked all season to show what a viable threat they are. But now, Skull has possession of the Tesseract so you’ll see in those episodes that [the Avengers] don’t really have a reasonable chance at all. What Tony and the team do is to try to cope with that and try to find ways around that. It’s an interesting twist.
Marvel: We’ve talked about the Avengers’ continuing evolution, but the fact is that they are not the only team changing, we see it in the Cabal as well. How is a team made up of villains, who are known for being selfish and greedy and impulsive, staying together and making this work?
Cort Lane: They don’t like each other and they don’t truly just each other. The “Bring on the Bad Guys,” episode is one of my favorites for that reason. You really get to see how those relationships play out. What they are willing to do, as a group of bad guys, is, for now, to follow Red Skull’s orders to the letter and see how they play out. They’ve discovered, and we see it in this episode here, “Yeah, it works. I’ll just keep doing that.”
Red Skull realizes if he fails on a massive scale, they’re gone and he’s ripped to shreds.
Liam O’Brien: That’s the trick for Skull to pull off on the show, is to get these guys who loathe each other to look in the mirror and say, “Yes, you want it all, but what have you gotten so far? Honestly, look at what you’ve been able to accomplish.”
He says, “At least give this a try and if it works, swallow your bile and we’ll make something happen.”
I’m sure they all think they’ll take more than their share and end up the last alive, but, for the moment…
Cort Lane: And of course, the thing that they’re counting on is the Red Skull has no affection for them and he will betray them in the end. We do an episode with that and you’ll have to wait for the end of the season to see how that plays out.
But we’re so fortunate in the Cabal to have this amazing group of actors playing these villains. Really big personalities ready for the challenge. We have Liam, Corey Burton (Dracula), Dwight Schultz (Attuma), Charlie Adler (M.O.D.O.K.), and Brian Bloom (Hyperion). The way they play off each other is a lot of fun.
Liam O’Brien: I’m blushing.
Marvel: Speaking of that interplay, Liam, has there any been any particular moments, in this episode or beyond, that have stood out for you as really enjoyable to play? Or any moments of Red Skull on his own that you’ve really liked?
Liam O’Brien: I like playing getting the Tesseract and moving into Cosmic Skull territory. He’s been working and had to keep working so to sort of revel for the first time, to taste the fruits of your labor after such a long time, is fun. He’s been a pro the whole time and now…it’s like Christmas.
Cort Lane: It’s been fun to watch because you wanted it badly, so much, all season. And trying to rustle these guys is like herding cats the whole way. There’s a period where you kind of want him to win and if that means an end to Earth…well, that’s fine.
Marvel: Just to connect back to last week’s episode a moment, I noticed that, in this episode, Thor has a couple of, I guess you could call them endeavors, into comedy. I was wondering if that was building on the characterization in last episode, something that just happened organically, or just a bit of fun?
Cort Lane: The idea is that Thor is a fish out of water and in a new culture. He’s actually a really fun guy. He’s a party guy in Asgard. He’s trying to join in on the human side of things and make little puns and jokes. They’re wince inducing attempts at humor and I actually love them. You’re talking about him saying things like, “Cry-perion” and “Bye-perion”?
Marvel: Yes, exactly.
Cort Lane: They’re great moments. Lame is the whole point because he’s struggling to get Earth humor. But the point of it is not just the humor but to show how he is a fish out of water who is trying to fit in.
Marvel: And yet, in general, after a few episodes that did have healthy dollops of humor, this was a bit more serious. I’m curious if that is a sign of things to come as things continue to ramp up with Skull having the Tesseract. Will things get more dark and dire?
Cort Lane: Yes, because the stakes are higher. That’s really the trajectory of the struggle that began with the pilot. It’s about two teams trying to do their best, their all, to try and counter each other. Now that the Tesseract is in play, things are costly.
Liam O’Brien: Skull’s finally got the trump card. So, before, [the Cabal and the Avengers] were pretty evenly matched in the strength department. Now, Skull’s got a one-up. So before, Skull’s problem was he had to get his guys together. Now he’s got the team strong and he’s got the tactical advantage.
Marvel: To move from the general to perhaps a bit more specific, what’s in-store for the next episode?
Cort Lane: While the Cabal protects the Tesseract and prepares for their next battle, we have a quick break that features the Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s a big story, another cosmic story, that prepares us for the epic cosmic conclusion of the season, but it’s a departure. It’s a great opportunity to introduce the Guardians in this series and see how the two teams get along or don’t get along; to see the interesting personalities and relationships of them versus our team of Avengers. Actually, that’s the fun of it. Two teams that have these complex relationships not only within each other’s teams but then trying to all cooperate together. It doesn’t go so well for a big chunk of the episode.
Marvel: I imagine part of what makes it interesting is that the Avengers are still coming together as a team and are not quite there. What state are the Guardians at in terms of cohesion?
Cort Lane: They’re working on it as well. They have a mission and that’s what brings them together, but they have not fully gelled as a team and what we’re trying to do is reflect the direction of the [“Guardians of the Galaxy”] feature film and the personalities within the film.
Marvel: Excellent. Something to look forward to. Before we end, any last words about this episode, anything you want to make sure people note?
Cort Lane: I just want to say my favorite part of the episode is the super hero dodgeball in the beginning. It is really just an opportunity to showcase how cool Hawkeye is and how amazing his skills are. He’s my favorite Avenger, and always has been since I was 10.
Liam O’Brien: And I just want people to know the best, and worst, is yet to come. [maniacal laughter]