Marvel's Long And Confusing Path To Figuring Out Television
Over the past 30 years, Marvel's risen meteorically. The company's gone from pawning off its most lucrative superheroes to keep the lights on to hedging untold millions on D-list characters even the most obsessive fans barely remember. And now that Black Widow's finally hitting theaters, Cracked's looking at the past (and future) of the studio that revolutionized the modern superhero narrative. Check out parts one and two.
Unless you've been living underneath a rock, inside of another rock, in a city made entirely of rocks, you're probably aware that Marvel has released a few streaming series this year. While Black Widow will be the first Marvel movie we've gotten since Avengers: Endgame in 2019, after being delayed by more than a year, thanks to y'know, the small screen has been home to Wandavision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and now Loki.
So far, these shows have somehow fulfilled wildly different functions simultaneously. On the one hand, they've allowed Marvel Studios to break out of the traditional superhero epic Jell-O mold that has shaped the jiggly gelatin desserts of the MCU so far and do something … different. Wandavision went full Pleasantville to explore the trauma of loss, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier actively interrogated the iconography of Captain America, and Loki is basically Quantum Leap set in Terry Gilliam-ville. While still staying within a Disney-friendly framework, these shows have inarguably ventured into more experimental waters, as their comic antecedents have been freer to do.
But weirdly, these less commercially indulgent stories are fulfilling a very commercial purpose, serving to tee up future adventures and actively stoke fan interest in upcoming Marvel movies. The end of Wandavision blatantly set the stage for The Scarlet Witch's appearance in Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier ultimately turned out to be an introspective waystation on the road to a fourth Captain America movie -- not to mention an updated theme park character.
As pointed out by ScreenCrush, these shows share a commonality; each one so far has actively dealt with characters who are wrestling with alternate versions of themselves. Vision battles his synthetic doppelganger, Sam rejects the Captain America mantle only to have it given to some bozo, and Loki is tasked with hunting another timeline's Loki "variant." For these themes to emerge via television makes sense because, in many ways, Marvel has been struggling with its own identity crisis in what has, historically, been their hardest format to crack.
It wasn't so long ago that Marvel made its triumphant debut in the world of streaming television, beginning with Daredevil, which was not only good enough to make us all forget about the days of Ben Affleck brawling with whatever the hell Colin Farrell was doing. It also seemed to take place within the MCU, even referencing Captain America and the events of The Avengers.
That's because it was all part of a massive 2013 deal between Marvel and Netflix, back before Disney+ was just a glint in the eye of Walt's frozen head. Netflix wouldn't just be the home of Daredevil, but a whole cadre of Marvel TV heroes, whose admittedly smaller-scaled world would exist in parallel to their movie counterparts. Following Daredevil was the excellent Jessica Jones, originally developed as an ABC project, which also introduced the character of Luke Cage and set up his own solo series. Following what had worked in the movies, these individual shows ultimately collided in a superhero team-up: The Defenders.
But despite its initial popularity, Marvel's Netflix-verse was soon under fire with the release of Iron Fist. The story of a white dude who travels to Asia and becomes a martial arts master may have been of its pop-cultural time when the comic came out in the '70s, but in 2017 many fans saw it as a failing on the show's part not to rectify a cringey origin story by casting an Asian American actor in the role. If this wasn't damning enough, in 2020, Daredevil actor Peter Shinkoda alleged that the architect of the Netflix-verse, Jeph Loeb, told his writers that "Nobody cares about Chinese people and Asian people."
Had the Netflix-Marvel union spawned several undeniable masterpieces of entertainment, it's tough to say what would have happened. But with a handful of shows of wildly varying quality and Disney's own streaming service in the works, just two years later, the Netflix shows were snapped out of the MCU. This may have come as a shock to fans, but, in retrospect, is comparatively unsurprising given Marvel's long and troubled history with live-action TV.
Marvel wasn't always the premiere entertainment giant it is now. Back in 1976, after only a handful of children's cartoon adaptations, a Marvel superhero made the jump to prime time television when the rights to Spider-Man were purchased for a song. Soon after, Universal television bought the rights to 12 other Marvel characters, including The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, and Doctor Strange, for just $12,500. It … didn't go great. For starters, Spider-Man was an awkward mess with action scenes that were seemingly choreographed by a high school drama teacher two months away from retirement.
While The Incredible Hulk was a hit, boosting the green guy's comic sales in the process, Spider-Man was clearly a bust. Ignoring the comic's proven track record of success, producers disregarded Stan Lee's story suggestions, leading him to publicly criticize the show's un-excelsior-ness, and later refer to the experience as "a nightmare." A pilot for Doctor Strange bombed in the ratings, but it probably didn't help that it aired opposite the legit cultural phenomenon that was Roots.
These failures can easily be written off as disposable '70s kitsch, like pet rocks or respect for John Travolta, but they may also have served an essential purpose: reminding Marvel of the value of maintaining control over their own adaptations. Their next major TV projects came smack in the middle of the MCU's relatively fresh popularity. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. promised, not just a show with some tenuous story connection to the movies, it would actually star a familiar face; Nick Fury's right-hand man, Agent Coulson … who wasn't dead, apparently. (It's a whole thing.)
Agent Carter similarly focused on another character from the movies, Captain America/some rando who got screwed over by time travel's great love, Peggy Carter. Despite fervent fanbases, both shows were quietly booted from MCU canon, shuffled off to the "Marvel Legacy" corner of Disney+.
But while those shows still had to adhere to the demands of being a weekly ABC drama, the new Disney+ shows don't. And while the subject matter may veer more towards the idiosyncratic, and the storytelling is arguably more serialized, Marvel is still adhering to roughly the same running times and Disney-friendly content restrictions of broadcast TV. So … where do they go from here?
It mostly remains to be seen how exactly Marvel's TV storytelling will change the franchise going forward. These shows could become venues for stars who have bowed out of the film series to come back for a final curtain call. Kind of a retirement farm for superhero actors or the Marvel equivalent of hanging out at your old high school reminding kids that you used to go there. Mark Ruffalo will reportedly appear in She-Hulk, and Jeremy Renner will pop by Hawkeye to train his replacement in the ways of archery and getting "desperate middle-aged cry for help" haircuts.
… perhaps we'll get a Thunderbolts series? TV could allow Marvel to tell stories that A) may be less instantly friendly to mainstream America than Iron Man and Captain America, and B) necessitate a long-form medium to properly tell a story that can't be crammed into a two-hour movie.
And with America's toothless antitrust laws and the end of the Paramount consent decrees stoking rumors of a Disney-owned cinema chain, we could see the line between streaming content and theatrical content blurring even further. And if that happens, comic book movies may end up looking more and more like the earliest comic adaptations: the serial.
Almost a hundred years later, and we're still finding ways to mine the success of those early cheap-o Republic serials such as Flash Gordon, which famously formed the base inspiration for Star Wars. But while Star Wars (and later Indiana Jones) contrived the nostalgic vibe of having wandered into a children's matinee to catch the latest in a long line of adventure stories, now blockbuster entertainment is actively replicating the serials' narrative specifications; shorter episodes over a longer period of time. So are we on the precipice of movie-caliber streaming series outright replacing movies as the apex predator of Hollywood?
In many ways, the erosion of Marvel's movie and TV divide is representative of what's happening across Hollywood; streaming television and motion pictures aren't totally separate like kids at a grade seven dance. What is clearly an existential crisis to some movie studios, Marvel has turned to their advantage. And Disney obviously has the resources to push this trend even harder and change the way we all consume narrative media, for better or worse. But really, could anything be worse than that goddamn Spider-Man show?
Top Image: Marvel Studios
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