So with Jessica Jones upon us (released as of just a few hours ago) now is as good a time as any to do a column on the Marvel Television Universe (MTU?). With a burgeoning list of shows in production and development, the television side of Marvel’s portfolio is nothing to scoff at. Taking a bird’s eye view with regard to overall world-creation strategy however, what do these programs offer? What direction(s) can they take our great Marvel paracosm (learned that word from this entertaining recent article in Wired)? I have some thoughts. Let’s have at it.
First, however, a quick recap of what’s currently on air or in development (feel free to skip this paragraph and head to the meat/commentary below if you’re already well versed on MTU happenings). On the ABC wing of things we have Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. heading into its third season, Marvel’s Agent Carter coming back for a second, and Marvel’s Damage Control in development. I’d have to say I’m most excited about the middle (Agent Carter’s first season was very well done), but I’m open to being pleasantly surprised with the latter. I’ve given up on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (if someone wants to try to convince me to give it a second chance in the comments, feel free). On the Netflix side of the aisle, the roster goes even deeper. Daredevil by all accounts was met with critical acclaim its first season, and with the Punisher and Elektra it’s shaping up to bring in some exciting new characters for its second. Jessica Jones, thus far, has been receiving equally stellar reviews (I’ll be reviewing it myself in my column next week, post binge-watch). And then Luke Cage and The Defenders are on the docket for the coming years. I’ve purposefully left out Iron Fist, as that isn’t 100% certain nailed down yet, with rumors flying that the Punisher will replace him on the Defenders roster, or the possibility of an Iron Fist Netflix movie (despite the execs denying such rumors). Personally, I predict we will eventually see Iron First join the MTU, not least because that’s what Marvel’s CCO says. But I’d be surprised if the Punisher wasn’t also prominently featured in The Defenders as well (maybe as an anti-hero type villain a la Loki?).
These shows can be entertaining in their own right—Daredevil and Agent Carter have proven that. But, as we know, they also have the capability to transcend mere standalone segments of entertainment. They are part of a larger world, both in terms of the Marvel Television Universe and the Marvel Cinematic Universe more broadly. What then should we look for in regard to this contextual landscape?
First and foremost, these shows can, and very likely will, grow character options for the Marvel movie universe. If Daredevil, Luke Cage, or Jessica Jones crush it (or continue to crush it) in their standalones, it is not altogether inconceivable they pop-up in future Avengers movies or other Marvel movie franchises (more likely the former than the latter I’d say). I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of TV characters making cameos in Phase III (in fact I’d say this should happen connective-tissue-wise during Infinity Wars). I’d also guess there’s a fair possibility of television characters playing supporting characters in Phase IV. In this sense, the television shows further develop Marvel’s back bench, and should be conceived of as farm teams for the Marvel movie universe.
That said, I do predict we won’t see a television show upgraded to its own movie franchise any time soon. Despite the not insubstantial amount of clamoring for a Charlie Cox/Matt Murdock movie, navigating a TV character onto the movie screen is a hard course to traverse. More importantly, it doesn’t make much business sense—why use up a movie franchise on a TV character when you can create a new movie franchise and keep a successful TV franchise? It’s not like Marvel is lacking for characters to develop in Phase IV.
The single greatest opportunity the Marvel Television Universe is providing and can continue to provide, however, is experimentation. I’ve mentioned in previous columns the necessity for the MCU to continually evolve and experiment, lest the bubble we’re currently experiencing pop all the sooner. We’re seeing this in the movies, but the MTU offers even more room for tinkering.
First, one can have experimentation with style. Daredevil was bar none the darkest addition to date in the MCU. I try not to overuse the term gritty, as it’s become the go-to word to describe anything even resembling a Nolan Dark Knight Trilogy take. But Daredevil was indeed gritty, and more importantly it was the first gritty addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Jessica Jones, by all accounts, appears to be following suit, possibly going even darker. Agent Carter has delved further into a period-piece format. And while some might laugh off the idea of Marvel’s Damage Control, expanding the MCU with a sitcom comedy is maybe the boldest attempt yet to change things up. This experimentation should be welcomed.
Experimentation isn’t simply limited to style, however. It’s also incumbent in the very subject matter that is chosen for inclusion or left on the cutting room floor. We never explored Tony Stark’s struggle with alcoholism in the movies—it was too dark a topic for the mass movie-going audience. Captain America: Civil War certainly touched upon current political issues, but very briefly and without much nuance. To date, a host of significant topics have yet to be explored in the MCU, and Marvel’s television slate is arguably the best antidote to this. Already there are indications that Jessica Jones will explore PTSD and sexual assault. Luke Cage will likely explore the timely and meaningful topic of race relations. Pick an issue that is important to you—the fact is that the format of television and the viewing audiences of the MTU makes it eminently more likely your issue will be explored on the small screen (or digital streaming).
That’s all the commentary I have room for today, ladies and gentleman. But as always, your thoughts and critiques are welcome in the comments below. And, enjoy your Jessica Jones binge watching fellow fanboys and girls!