Hero Worship: Making Sense of Marvel and ESPN's '1 of 1: Genesis'

Holy corporate synergy! Sports and comics collide in the epic crossover we never knew we needed

Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers in '1 of 1: Genesis.' Credit: ESPN

The Marvel Entertainment/ESPN Films co-production 1 of 1: Genesis is a documentary with a simple, somewhat sublime idea: In this mundane, superhero-less world, who is our Spider-Man? Could it be goalie Tim Howard, who uses a kind of spider-sense to intuit which way a soccer ball is headed? Or maybe Tony Hawk, as determined to master a new trick as Spider-Man was to free himself from a ton of collapsed iron in the classic 1966 issue "The Final Chapter!"

And who is our Captain America, injecting himself with a secret serum that makes him bigger, stronger and – wait, scratch that. There are some comparisons too out-of-bounds for 1 of 1.

Actually there are a lot of subjects that Genesis avoids, because the film was apparently conceived as hagiography, aiming to sanitize sports even at the risk of sapping away flavor. Without the spicier bits though, the doc doesn't have much of a reason to exist. After director Eric Drath trots out a few talking-head experts at the start of the movie to say that, sure, athletes could be called real-life superheroes, what's left to fill the next 70 minutes? Everything about 1 of 1: Genesis feels only half-conceived – including the title, which sounds like it's been butchered by autocorrect.

1 of 1: Genesis popped up somewhat unexpectedly last week, as part of an announcement of several new ESPN Films projects. The feature-length doc is available now for sale through a handful of digital retailers like Amazon and Google Play – though it's not that easy to find on any of them, in large part because of its name, which seems designed to defy search engines. Genesis is meant to be a teaser of sorts for an upcoming series of ESPN/Marvel shorts, called 1 of 1: Origins, which are slated to begin airing on SportsCenter this summer. The Origins films will reportedly be mini-bios of athletes like Howard, Hawk, Danica Patrick, Russell Wilson, Albert Pujols, Carmelo Anthony and others – all enhanced with comic book art to make their life stories look more like, well, "origins."

If anything, Genesis resembles a bonus feature for the inevitable Origins DVD collection. In fact, the film's feel and format should be familiar to anyone who's bought one of Marvel's surprisingly decent straight-to-video animated cartoons, like Planet Hulk. Marvel's DVD extras are usually self-congratulatory, with writers, artists and suits waxing poetic about "the hero's journey" and the lingering social significance of these otherwise ephemeral pieces of popular culture. They take something fun – like Hulk becoming a gladiator/slave on an alien world – and load it down with importance.

1 of 1: Genesis does much the same. Marvel employees Axel Alonso, Joe Quesada and Bill Rosemann join ESPN reporter Michael Smith and authors David Epstein and Ellen Winner to talk about the similarities between elite athletes and superheroes: namely, some combination of innate talent, intense training, personal setbacks and pure will. The athletes themselves also weigh in – not necessarily to say that stopping a hockey puck is just like countering a kick from Batroc, but to acknowledge that they do work awfully hard at their jobs. 

It's all coupled with a distinctive look, one that shifts frequently between limited animation and video footage, the latter of which is dotted with enough lens flares to give J.J. Abrams pause. Everything about the production is meant to remind viewers of superhero comics and superhero movies. The big difference is that Marvel's output is rarely this dull. That's what so stupefying about the doc: that it has the slick surface of a George Perez drawing and the heart of a business seminar. ("This afternoon in the Hilton ballroom: Cal Ripken Jr. explains how to become your office's Iron Man.")

There's more than a little corporate synergy behind Genesis. The Walt Disney Company owns both ESPN and Marvel, and it's never been shy about cross-promotion. That's not to say that this film was doomed from the start, though. The documentary makes some strong points: about how sports fans are naturally inclined to turn their heroes into mythic legends, and about the symbiotic evolution of superhero and athlete body-types. Here and there, for a few fleeting seconds, Genesis feels like it's reaching for something genuinely revelatory, and that it might've gotten there if Drath had been allowed to go way more gonzo.

Instead, his interviewees often lazily strain to make the whole Genesis premise work. Does Danica Patrick's success in a male-dominated sport really remind anyone of Black Widow? Do Carmelo Anthony's academic struggles in high school equate to Captain America losing his partner Bucky at the end of World War II? Is there any reasonable person, when asked to weigh a given athlete's greatest weakness, who would say, "Well, sometimes she's too fast?"

The irony of Marvel and ESPN's vision of sports as grueling crucible for humorless champions is that it has very little to do with what's made either company great. It's far removed both from ESPN's playful "This is SportsCenter" ad campaign, and from Marvel's decades of fascinatingly flawed characters. In its nervous avoidance of anything controversial, 1 of 1: Genesis is like the opposite of ESPN's similarly titled 30 for 30 series, which seeks to humanize sports by picking through scandals and letting stars and also-rans alike talk openly about temptation, doubt and even joy.

As an extended (very extended) preview for a new ESPN series, Genesis is pretty dispiriting, because it falls back on the oldest, flimsiest clichés of what it means to compete at the highest level, at a time when social media and advanced analytics are changing our understanding of these games and their players. It's not that there's anything wrong with a little shameless hero worship, but based on this first impression, 1 of 1 is too paper-thin.