Aliens’ Villain Carter Burke Is Back! And Paul Reiser Told Us All About It

Mike Powers

James Cameron’s Aliens is one of the great sequels of all time. Heck, it might be one of the greatest movies of all time. And, in the almost 40 years since its release, moments, images, and characters from the film have cemented themselves in the pantheon of pop culture.

That includes the aliens themselves, of course, but also the true villain of the film: Carter Burke, played by Paul Reiser. In Aliens, Burke is the corporate man sent on the mission with Ripley and the Marines; we eventually learn he’s been tasked with returning a viable xenomorph embryo at all costs, even if it means sacrificing the lives of everyone on board. This does not endear him to anyone and, eventually, Burke is killed.

Or was he?

A new comic book from Marvel, Aliens What If…? will ask and answer the question: what if Carter Burke survived? The series comes from the minds of Reiser himself and his son Leon, as well as Adam F. Goldberg (The Goldbergs), Brian Volk-Weiss (The Toys That Made Us), and Hans Rodionoff. It shows us how Burke got off LV-426 and where he went next, and it also explains why Burke did what he did, what that meant for his future, and much much more.

The five-issue series is releasing issue #2 this week and, to mark the occasion, io9 sat down with Carter Burke himself, Paul Reiser, to talk all things Aliens, What If, and more. Check it out.

Reiser, flanked by Hicks (Michael Biehn) and Newt (Carrie Henn) at Comic-Con 2016.

Reiser, flanked by Hicks (Michael Biehn) and Newt (Carrie Henn) at Comic-Con 2016.
Photo: Kevin Winter (Getty Images)

Germain Lussier, io9: You’ve had such an incredible career that’s covered so many different genres and mediums. So I’m wondering, before this comic book project, how often did your work in Aliens come up in your day-to-day life? Was it something people recognized you from regularly? Tell me a bit about your relationship with it.

Paul Reiser: It wasn’t until we did a reunion at Comic-Con a couple of years ago, which I think was the 30th anniversary. It was packed, like 3,000 people or whatever. And it wasn’t until then that I really understood the impact, and the breadth, and the depth of the connection that the people have. I mean, I knew it was a great movie and it was a big hit. But, I didn’t realize how ongoing it was. And though it was, you know, almost 40 years ago, it trails me in a good way because people enjoyed it. So from Stranger Things to whatever, people will go “You know, I really liked Mad About You but I didn’t like Burke. So it took me three seasons to warm up.” So the stink of the character trailed for a while but that’s a testament to Jim Cameron making a movie that great.

io9: So at the time, did you ever think you’d see him again? Because clearly there have been sequels to Aliens that Burke isn’t in.

Reiser: No, I never really did. As a joke, but not really a joke, my go-to response when people would say, “What was it like playing a bad guy?” I would always say, “Well, you say ‘bad,’ I say ‘misunderstood.’” So I would just kind of leave the door open to like maybe there was more to him. But that was really just for my own protection and self-defense. I never thought of it as an ongoing thing.

So when this was pitched to me, my producing partner buddy said, “I think I’ve sold this thing. You’re going to hate this. But what do you think? Don’t laugh.” He said, “Ready? Burke lives.” And I just said, “That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard. I’m in. I love it.” And he is a much bigger Aliens aficionado than I am. I’m really not. In fact, when I went to his house the first time I met him— Brian Volk-Weiss, who came up with this idea—when we first met to start working together, he said a couple of quotes from the movie that flew over my head. He said, “You know, this installation has a substantial dollar value.” And I said, “Well, it’s a nice office.” He said, “No, that’s your line.” I said, “Oh, I don’t go around thinking about it.” Then in his office he has the Dropship, and he goes “Do you recognize that?” I said, “No, what is that?” “You were in it!” And I said, “Let me explain something. That was fake! And by the way, I never saw the outside! We didn’t have an outside.”

A page from Aliens What If #1 by Guiu Villanova

A page from Aliens What If #1 by Guiu Villanova
Image: Guiu Villanova/Marvel Comics

So I was aware a lot of people have a much deeper connection to the film than I did. But I loved the idea. And I also thought there was great comedy in it. The idea that this guy has been sent to oblivion and had a desk job for 35 years trying to live down [his actions]. And then the irony was, when I started talking with Adam Goldberg—he pitched out this whole story—it really lined up with what I was joking about [all those years], which was perhaps there was a really, good reason it went bad. Maybe he didn’t set out [to be bad]. Not all villains set out to be destructive. But [Goldberg] had this idea. I said, “That’s so funny because I’ve been making that joke for 35 years that maybe there was a good reason he was trying to get this thing back.” And, lo and behold, here we are.

io9: You touched upon it there but how did you find out about this idea initially and what were the steps following that?

Reiser: It was literally that phone call, and I think [Volk-Weiss] had already spoken to Adam Goldberg. Adam was also a huge fan of Aliens and apparently enjoyed my work. And Brian said, “You know, I work with Paul” [note: Volk-Weiss produced a Mad About You revival] and I wasn’t in that meeting but somewhere he pitched that idea. And he has since told me that he’s had that idea since he saw the movie in the ‘80s. I went, “Well, you must really hold on to your notepad.” So, Adam sparked right to it and he said, “Well, I like Paul. I like Aliens. This is a thing.” And then Adam sent me sort of a sketch of what he had in mind and I chimed in and then they pitched it. But like so many things out here, everything takes time because of ownership. And this Marvel-Disney-Fox, I think it’s all the same phone call now. It’s not the same phone, but it’s the same company. So it had to get clear through everybody. I don’t even… I mean I’m sure he knows at this point, but I never spoke to Jim Cameron. [Laughs] I don’t know how he feels about this. I hope he’s tickled. It’s a comic book, so we’re not stepping on his toes exactly. But we are playing with his character.

But Marvel sparked to it. And I am not at all a comic book guy, and I never read comic books. So again, it’s a whole huge culture that I’m unaware of. But my son [Leon Reiser] is sort of a savant. He knows so many worlds: DC Comics, Marvel Comics, he just knows all. So I kind of said “I would love if my son could be involved because he really knows this stuff.” So turns out he knows a lot more than I even knew, because Adam and Hans Rodionoff would say, “Yeah, I don’t know if you know this, but your son really knows his shit.” So apparently all those years that he was in his room reading comic books and I was saying, “Go play outside”—apparently, he was nurturing something. So for me it was a great kick to see him flourish as a writer, and to work together on this thing was really novel and a great treat that not everybody gets to do.

A page from Aliens What If #1 by Guiu Villanova

A page from Aliens What If #1 by Guiu Villanova
Image: Guiu Villanova/Marvel Comics

io9: So exactly what is your involvement on an issue-to-issue basis? Obviously like you said you gave your approval and it was pitched to you. But I read in another interview that you give notes here and there. Tell me a little bit about that.

Reiser: Well, they sketched out this thing and from the beginning, on the very first note, I had thoughts about it. I can’t even remember how much was there or how much we came up with together. But my contribution was really only about the character. I wouldn’t know how to write the action or even think in that world. But they would have an outline and then I would give my thoughts and notes. “Love that, maybe we could change that, improve that.” And then, they’d write the script—Leon and Hans and I guess Adam, I’m not really sure what happened behind closed doors. And then I would see the script, which I had never seen a comic book script. It doesn’t look like what I’m used to. So I would pitch lines.

And it was interesting because even though it was for my character and based on the character that I played, I had to remind myself, “You’re not going to be saying it.” It’s going to come out of a balloon. So sometimes I go, “That feels a little too expositional… but it’s a comic book. It’s okay.” I think if this were to ever become something else, like a live-action thing, it’s like, “All right. I know how to contribute better to that.”

But what was funny to me is a lot of times they would send a script and I would send in 20 suggestions and my son would send his independently. And then I get an email like, “Listen, with all respect to you, your son’s were funnier,” and I went, “Yeah, I felt so too. Let’s go with the kid.” So, you know, that made me nothing but proud. I was like, “Yeah, that’s funnier than what I had.”

io9: Is there any point where you worried about how taking this character in a new direction and kind of recontextualizing him might impact or undercut the original?

Reiser: First of all, it’s 40 years. And if you love the movie, go watch the movie. We’re not going in and tampering with what was truly a classic, seminal piece of work. But, you know, it’s not unheard of to take a dive into a world and take a little tributary. So this is playing with this character. And it’s “What if?” It’s not saying it did happen. That happened. The movie happened. And this is, “Pretend this happened.”

Aliens What If #2 cover by Phil Noto

Aliens What If #2 cover by Phil Noto
Image: Phil Noto/Marvel Comics

io9: So issue two is out this week and it ends with [spoiler]. What can you tease us about what’s next? Where else does the story and character go?

Reiser: More clarity will be given as to what Burke’s original intention was and where it went wrong. And the relationship… you know, it was really fun to write the relationship of Burke and his daughter, who has nothing but resentment for living on this isolated, horrible planet because of his screw-up. And so the human stuff and the parental stuff was really the exciting part for me. So that gets elaborated. And then there’s a lot about her, about Bree, that gets revealed as well.

io9: That sounds great. So obviously you’re best known for your comedy but every once in a while, you pop up in this big sci-fi thing like Aliens, Stranger Things, and The Boys. Is it a genre you enjoy and is it something you seek out?

Reiser: I certainly don’t seek it out. And I kind of laugh at the fact that you can even make that sentence. That there were three things… 

io9: [Laughs] Big ones. Those are big!

Reiser: …so divergent from my own sensibilities that I would be in them is ridiculous. I imagine that the Duffer Brothers, when they said they wrote Dr. Owens thinking of me, I can’t help but think they were thinking of “Well, what if the guy who played Burke was this guy?” Because as I say, that’s an example where the baggage paid off. So people go, “I don’t trust this guy.” But again, he turned out to be not a bad guy, Dr. Owens. So no, it’s not something that I seek out or watch. I’m so… [Laughs] I don’t know how much to emphasize this, but it’s so not my world. And one of the great things about having my son is I call him the Paul Whisperer. He could help them understand, like, “Well, this would be funny if Paul’s character said this,” and going the other way, he would explain to me the technical stuff, Like, he would break it down so a third grader could understand what it’s about.

Reiser (with Millie Bobbie Brown) on Stranger Things

Reiser (with Millie Bobbie Brown) on Stranger Things
Image: Netflix

io9: Right now is a great time to be an Aliens fan. We have this comic book, there’s a new movie, and a new TV show. I’m wondering do you keep up with the franchise? Have you seen or enjoyed the other movies?

Reiser: I’m trying to calculate how bad it looks if I tell you the truth, which is no. I haven’t seen any of the other films.

io9: [Laughs] Okay. Well, that’s no problem.

Reiser: Well, a little bit of a problem.

io9: No, it’s fine, Aliens is the best one anyway, Okay, last thing unfortunately, but, doing Aliens at that point in your career, how do you think that impacted your career going ahead?

Reiser: Well, you know, it opened up… I don’t know if I can directly, it’s not like Mad About You came out of that, but it certainly was hugely visible globally. When I’ve traveled out of the country people will often recognize me from that or from Beverly Hills Cop and that’s even older and I don’t look like that anymore. But to be a part of people’s references and be a part of the world is a thrill. I know movies that I’ve seen years ago that meant a lot to me. And then when you meet somebody and say “Oh, you were in that thing that I love.” So to be on the other side of that is nothing but good. It’s funny to me. It’s entertaining to me that something I did 40 years ago [still resonates].

And at the time, I remember friends of mine going “What are you doing in that? You have no business being in that movie.” I go, “I know that, you know that. Jim Cameron doesn’t understand that.” But I think, in fact, as he explained it at the time, he was endeavoring to cast Burke with somebody who would raise the least amount of suspicion. So, you know, I was young, if you knew me at all, it was probably in a comedy world. But I think the minute I showed up on screen, I was like the guest stars of Star Trek. You go, “Yeah. They’ll be dead. They’ll be dead soon.” Like what’s wrong with this picture? That guy. Something is not right.

Until, 40 years later, you get to bring him back in a comic book.

Thank you to Marvel Comics and Paul Reiser for making our dream of talking to Carter Burke come true. Aliens: What If…? is now in comic shops with issue #2 out this week. Find out more over on

Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel, Star Wars, and Star Trek releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about the future of Doctor Who.

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