One of the things that bugs me about franchises is that people rarely see them objectively, from a remove. The most fondly remembered installments overshadow everything else, even when “everything else” is the larger work.
For example, Star Wars hasn’t been primarily a movie franchise since the Ewoks and Droids cartoon shows of the 1980s. Even with 23-minute episodes, they quickly eclipsed the three movies in release at the time. At this point, Star Wars became a primarily animated series, which also had a few films. And it’s remained that way ever since. Clone Wars alone eclipses all other Star Wars video content. It’s not inaccurate to say that Clone Wars occurs occurs between the second and third prequel movies, but that’s a little like saying the sun is something the Earth rotates around. It’s far more precise to say the second and third prequel movies occur around Clone Wars, which is currently the bulk of the franchise.
Similarly, Star Trek is first and foremost a 1990s TV franchise. Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager together run 526 episodes. That’s more screen time than all of Doctor Who (which mostly consists of half-hour episodes). Compared to this, the 1960s series, the animated series, the movies, and Enterprise are little more than a drop in the bucket.
We’re quickly coming to this point with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So far, it consists of eight movies, which average about two hours each. Of course, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., currently in its first season, is also a part of this universe. With each episode running about 45 minutes (without commercials), the Marvel Cinematic Universe will become “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Other Stuff” once that show hits about 22 episodes.
Imagine that you were going to watch the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the start. You’d begin with Iron Man and “Phase One” would conclude with the sixth film, The Avengers. And then you’d put in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The movies (so far including Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World) take place between episodes.
Yes, those movies are flashy. Yes, their cost (per minute of screen time) eclipses that of any TV show. But they’re prospering because they’re part of a shared universe. That’s why Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World have gotten such a boost, compared to their previous installments; they’re seen as sequels to The Avengers as much as to their previous films. But if you consider this shared universe, it’s about to become a TV universe more than a movie one.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. might be a spin-off of these movies. But due to the amount of screen time TV shows churn out, these movies are now structurally more like motion-picture spin-offs of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., starring the characters to which that show alludes but which that show doesn’t have the budget to feature. They’re accents to the TV show, rather than the other way around.
In fact, that’s kind of how Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been designed — as the backbone of the Marvel cinematic universe, starring a team of characters who can explore that wider universe and follow up on elements featured in the movies. But I don’t think people have adequately thought through the ramifications of this fact — and how it’s distorting or watering down this universe.
Because here’s the thing about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: so far, it isn’t very good. Sure, most of the movies aren’t all that good either; they’re filled with plot holes. But they’re spectacularly flashy. They’re super-hero action movies with tons of special effects that accent the plots’ often absurdly vast scales, and this distracts audiences from some pretty middling (and sometimes actually embarrassing) writing. But Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t have these effects or vast scales, and as a result, more critics have noticed that it’s pretty middling fare — so much so that some have called for the show to make a radical course correction. And a lot of what people enjoy about the show is simply the fun of looking for its references to the movies, or hoping that it’ll explain things from those films, such as S.H.I.E.L.D.’s odd absence during both Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World.
This probably isn’t a very sustainable model, and it illustrates how the show’s connection to the movies may well be a double-edged sword. Sure, it’s providing a big boost to the show now, and episodes tying into new movies, as they’re released, are likely to get a lot of attention. But the show’s existence encourages people to speculate about what it could or even ought to cover, not only to explain certain aspects of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but to make sense of the movies as part of a coherent world. Because the movies don’t, really.
Where S.H.I.E.L.D. was, during Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, is nothing compared to the fact that this Earth is now aware of the existence of aliens and gods, as well as the possibility that all life on Earth could be snuffed out without notice due to the actions of off-world players no normal human could influence. The Earth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe should be seeing temples rising to Thor. It should be seeing depression and even psychiatric breakdowns, as people realize that everything they’ve accomplished in life doesn’t matter if the Chitauri return and the super-heroes are looking away. You couldn’t even say that someone who’s wrapped his head in tin foil because the aliens are listening is crazy. Life on the Earth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has profoundly changed. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. ought to be the place to explore these things. Instead, while it (and the movies) occasionally give lip service to the idea that life on Earth has profoundly changed, the very next minute may well feature someone agape at a fairly modest super-hero, as if all of this is still terribly new.
In many ways, this same problem afflicts super-hero comics, in which human society is generally kept similar to our own, in order to encourage audience identification, despite the presence of absurd, world-changing technologies, which must forever remain the sole possessions of the elect — those glitzy super-heroes, the over-people. Run any super-hero universe forward, even a few years, and you either have to go the Miracleman and Watchmen route of changing society or you start looking pretty stupid. And with every passing year in the narrative, the super-heroes start looking more and more like villains, not only for hording technology but for failing to stop things like tsunamis, global warming, starvation, human rights abuses, refugee crises, and despotic regimes. A new super-hero might be forgiven for focusing on the bad guys at hand, but he or she has no excuse for not thinking bigger, five years later, after innumerable new reports about tragedies across the globe. A continuing story either has to address these things, or it begins to collapse beneath its own weight.
Super-hero comics get away with failing to do so for two reasons: first, they’re usually exceedingly vague about how much time is actually passing, and second, they’re usually filled with super-villains to distract us — and the “heroes” — from actually thinking the way any human being would, day in and day out. Super-hero movies usually get away with failing to address these concerns because they’re so episodic; it’s easy to brush over what a character’s been doing, between installments, and the audience doesn’t usually project themselves into this space to imagine, for example, what Tony Stark has been thinking, as he follows the nightly news, aware that he has the technology and the genius to solve these problems if he cares to.
But the Marvel Cinematic Universe seems to be running more or less in real time. And content like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. serve to fill up this time, so that it becomes increasingly hard not to wonder what a Tony Stark has been doing. Instead of his stories requiring the audience to project into themselves into the years between installments, all that’s required is that the audience ask, “What was he doing during these last three seasons?”
So while Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. might get a boost from its inter-connectivity with the movies, it actually threatens to injure those movies in the long term. The concept of a TV series “diluting” a franchise isn’t simply a matter of prestige or of quality; it’s also a matter of narrative logic.
So far, this doesn’t seem to be something Marvel’s concerned about. Fans and critics have thus far allowed themselves to be dazzled by the fact that these movies are connected and by the long-term planning evident in the movies, with their overarching structure of “phases.” But Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. so far illustrates a remarkable lack of vision, as to what it actually feels like to inhabit the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Instead of fixing this and attending to the building of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a universe, Marvel now seems to be considering additional TV shows. A network series starring Agent Carter of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been discussed, and Marvel recently entered into a deal with Netflix to produce multiple series, beginning in 2015. The Netflix plan calls for four 13-episode series, focused on Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist, and Luke Cage, culminating in a mini-series that unites these characters as the Defenders. It’s essentially a street-level version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s “phase one,” in which the Avengers debuted individually before combining as a team. It’s certainly a smart and ambitious idea. These characters are ones that can thrive with TV’s (or Netflix’s) lower budgets, compared to film, and this meta-series could really be something… if the scripts are good.
But it’s worth pointing out that the Netflix plan, as it’s currently being reported, would amount to maybe 60 hours of footage, which eclipses the 12 hours or so of “phase one.” This deal alone would produce an amount of in-continuity footage that’s multiple times the size of all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far. Assuming this comes to fruition as announced, by the time it’s over, the Marvel Cinematic Universe will feature as much live-action content featuring each of those four Netflix characters as it has content featuring Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, or anyone else.
The same can’t be said, of course, of Agent Coulson or the cast of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Presuming they’re not cancelled, they’ll be the main protagonists of the Marvel Cinematic Universe by then.
And that’s fine, of course — especially if the quality improves. I’m just not sure that fans realize that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is about to become the Marvel TV Universe. Or that the big-name heroes who made the Marvel Cinematic Universe were only the vanguard of a much larger wave of content, into which they will soon be submerged.
Personally, I like the Netflix deal. Maybe the Marvel Cinematic Universe won’t be salvaged as a coherent place; its corporate comics predecessors usually haven’t felt like coherent places. Maybe the most lingering effect of Iron Man, Thor, and the rest will be that we get some smart TV series starring characters with less of a spotlight on them — stories that have to be footnoted with explanations that yes, they technically exist in this shared universe. And perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. After all, it’s often how corporate super-hero comics have worked.
Someday, perhaps, we’ll get the TV equivalent of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing or Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, set in an odd and sprawling and deeply flawed shared super-hero universe, dominated by more marquee characters with their faces plastered on lunch boxes. Maybe it’s not the shared universe itself that matters, but the way it can act as a kind of soil, giving such rare flowers an opportunity to grow.