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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Static Thoughts - Future of Marvel TV

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At the time of writing, we’re in a bit of a dead zone for Marvel TV.  Iron Fist has just finished its premiere and Agents of SHIELD won’t be back for a couple weeks.  As such, I’ve elected to take that time to revise an old topic and delve into where Marvel TV is headed.  I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that TV is the area where Marvel has enjoyed the least success.  That’s kind of a couched statement as Marvel hasn’t really branched out into that many mediums, but even so, it’s kind of impressive that Marvel has made 12 movies, all of them solid, but only one genuinely great TV show. 

It just seems like the house of ideas can’t crack the formula to bring its superheroes to the small screen, aside from 1 or 2 notable exceptions.  As such, the future of Marvel TV, though a clear slate of announced projects, feels more tenuous than anything else at their company.  It’s basically guaranteed that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 will be a blast and their upcoming Secret Empire event comic promises to be absorbing, but in the land of television, Marvel’s upcoming features read a lot more like a list of threats than promises. 

Before we dive into where we’re headed let’s look back at where we’ve been.  The dawn of Marvel TV was in 2013 with Agents of SHIELD, a lavish series that boasted a lot of continuity with the films and the first appearance of fan-favorite character Phil Coulson since his apparent death in Avengers.  Agents of SHIELD was, for a long time, known as Marvel’s little mistake, mostly because the series emphasis on distancing itself from the films ended up rubbing fans and fan reviewers the wrong way.  Even taking Agents of SHIELD on its own merits it was hardly the stuff of legends. 

Its best descriptive identity might be “NCIS but with genre stuff,” especially in terms of the somewhat sleepy aesthetic it tended to strike.  The big red flag, though, is how much Agents of SHIELD really was leaning on the Marvel aesthetic of banter, long-form stories, and exploring genre niche.  To be clear, there was nothing unusual about the series within the Marvel canon other than how decompressed it was.  It turns out that Marvel movie magic isn’t nearly as impactful when it’s spread out over 22 episodes. 

That seems to have been the thinking going into the next Marvel project Agent Carter, which did end up garnering a bit more support.  It isn't exactly a better show than Agents of SHIELD as they both labored under a complete lack of budget or the ability to really shake up their universe but it was doing something interesting with the time period and real life plot stuff.  All of that bled over into Daredevil in 2015, Marvel’s first genuine TV success story. 

They ditched the Marvel movie aesthetic in favor of a grimy, sleaze and cheese type approach, and actually made the story about failure of the system and gentrification.  After that success, Marvel turned around and pulled the same approach on Jessica Jones, their only unabashedly good superhero TV show.  However, that was really the end of the story of Marvel improving on TV, probably because it was right when Marvel Studios and Marvel TV actively split as an entity. 

After Jessica Jones there was Daredevil season 2, an admirable misfire that’s about 1/3rd of a good show, in particular the third that involved the Punisher.  After that it was all down hill though.  Luke Cage was well-intentioned but mostly an unfortunate bore with a completely muddled and shockingly conservative message.  Iron Fist has turned out fully unwatchable.  It’s like the people making the Netflix shows just completely forgot how to do their ob, which brings me neatly to my biggest concern going forward. 

Now that we’ve all been reminded Marvel can mess up just as bad as DC and Fox I’m really concerned about what to expect from Defenders.  Going into the series, only one of these characters has managed to carry a show by themselves, and while I love Jessica Jones, she seems the most removed from the show’s implied plot.  

If you don’t know, it’s been continually and heavily suggested the big bad of Defenders will be the Hand, a group of undead ninjas with no clear goal, no clear history, no leader, and no ideology to speak of.  Making these guys the villains is a complete misstep that seems to actively unlearn the lessons of Avengers and Civil War. 

Both of those were stories with a ton of characters bouncing around but their villain worked because it was a lone face with direct ties to one or all of the heroes.  There was dramatic weight to be hung off Loki’s feud with Thor or Zemo’s dead family.  With the Hand, they’re so immaterial they’re unable to act as a dramatic foil to anybody.  It’s not like they stand for racism or sexism or gentrification or any of the social ills opposed by the Defenders because the Hand doesn't stand for anything.  

What’s more, the group is most liked to Iron Fist, the most hated of the Netflix shows.  It seems like Marvel has actively hung their next big, superhero crossover event on bad guys no one likes most tied to a hero audiences found either bland or offensive.  Combine that with the steady drop in quality, and I really wonder if Defenders will actually be better than the shows that led up to it. 

Speaking of said shows, let’s talk about those upcoming season as well.  Jessica Jones season 2 has been in development the longest as she’s yet to return after premiering in fall 2015.  There’s been some rumbling about multiple villains for that season, but mostly we’re in the dark aside from the original show runner returning, which is an absolute good.  I’d expect Jessica Jones season 2 to be slotted for sometime spring next year, probably as a palette cleanser if Defenders crashes and burns.  Luke Cage also managed to eek out a second season despite its disappointment, but I’m a lot less optimistic about it. 

Luke Cage Season 1 ended with some pretty clear cliff hangars for things to come and all of them seemed boring and aimless.  More Black Mariah being a directionless bad guy with no real identity, more Diamondback hamming it up to the extreme, and more nonsense complete plot cul-de-sacs into Luke’s origins.  Previously I might’ve guessed his second season would involve teaming with Iron Fist like in the comics but the failure of the Iron Fist show probably killed that possibility.  

Daredevil also has a season 3 in the works, but it seems the most contingent on the events of Defenders.  His turn around will probably involve Kingpin’s return from prison, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this ends up Marvel’s big “we’re back!” show if Defenders doesn’t land as it’d let them bring back everyone’s favorite bad guy.  That’s cynical, but I can’t deny that I like the Kingpin and a chance to have more of him probably will be a breath of fresh air after the Hand. 

On the horizon, for Netflix, the only thing that’s been confirmed is a Punisher series spinning out of Daredevil season 2.  Given the Punisher show is in the stages of production it seems like it’ll probably be hitting in 2018 as well.  If I were guessing for a schedule I’d say Jessica Jones season 2 will air first as it’ll be the easiest to disentangle from Defenders, Daredevil season 3 can hold the summer event show spot, and Punisher will slide into the fall position to fully redeem audience goodwill just in time for Luke Cage season 2 to let us all down all over again.  

As for the show’s content, I’m pretty worried about this one too.  Punisher isn’t really a character that needs a full 13-hour movie to be fun and engaging, he’d be better served with an episodic show that’s just people doing wrong and getting punished.  But it seems like Marvel wants to adapt a blend of his War Journal comic and the MAX series that made him a star.  That could end up a good series, but currently, it feels like they’re relying on Bernthal’s performance to carry the day. 

There’s also a plan for a possible Ghost Rider Netflix spin-off from Gabriel Luna’s turn as the character on Agents of SHIELD.  Now personally I don’t really like the Robbie Reyes version of Ghost Rider.  Making him drive a car and unwilling to use his powers for fear his ghost uncle will possess his body was a pitch perfect way to drain everything interesting out of the Ghost Rider character while also repeating the mistakes of Spawn.  

However, it was established in Agents of SHIELD that other Ghost Riders exist in the MCU so if they wanted to launch a Ghost Riders show, I could definitely get behind that.  However, given how little traction I’ve seen this idea get it might be a good long while before we see Ghost Rider on the screen again, especially given how cheaply Marvel makes its Netflix shows. 

Aside from Netflix, Marvel has also struck a deal with the streaming service Hulu to produce a show out of their teen hero group the Runaways.  Again, I’m not really a fan of the Runaways, but that’s more about my aversion to teen heroes than anything unique to this group.  They’re a bunch of teens whose parents make up the Pride, an eclectic collection of gang lords in LA that span the comic book genre gauntlet.  

Some are magic, some are mad scientists, some have dinosaurs, some are psychic, and all of them have afforded a measure of their power to their kids.  Basically, the kids don’t like their crime lord parents and team up to run away and oppose them.  It’s a solid pitch and could be a fascinating show, especially if they actually shell out for the dinosaurs and stuff, not to mention keeping the racially diverse cast of kids involved. 

On the subject of teen superheroes, Marvel is also developing a show out of the New Warriors.  Created in 1989, the New Warriors were basically invented because Marvel saw how much money the New Mutants and X-Force made and wanted to apply that same set-up to the Avengers.  Though none of the team really correspond to the Avengers members, the group was mainly meant as rebellious junior heroes doing their own thing.  

The show, along with Runaways if we're honest, mainly seems to exist because Marvel is desperate to have an X-Men type project in the field with younger heroes.  Seriously, Marvel’s desire to work around losing the rights to the X-Men has become the guiding story of the MCU’s peripheral material.  Speaking of which. 

There is no greater example of Marvel’s desperation to replace the X-Men than their 4-year running failure to make the Inhumans relevant.  I say this as someone who genuinely likes the Inhumans, who has read plenty of Inhumans comics I actually liked- the Inhumans cannot replace the X-Men.  Marvel built 3 seasons of Agents of SHIELD around this push and countless comic book events, and they still haven’t managed to make the Inhumans stick as something people want, to the point they’ve opted to start negotiating with Fox instead of struggling with this beast anymore.  As such, even though we’re still getting an Inhumans show I get the sense not even Marvel is holding its breath on this one anymore.  It also doesn’t help Inhumans is being handled by the show runner of Iron Fist, so we’re starting badly on this one. 

There are two other Marvel projects that’ve languished in development Hell for years but only one that’s allegedly soon to see the light of day: Cloak and Dagger.  This series had been promised for years as part of rebranding ABC Family as “Freeform.”  It seemed like the show was never going to materialize, but suddenly it’s kicked into gear with casting, a show runner, and a pilot ordered for next year.  

The series revolves around two street kids who took some bad drugs and developed super powers out of it.  The boy, Cloak, gained show powers and teleportation while the girl, Dagger, can heal and shoots light daggers out of her hands.  The show moves the characters to New Orleans rather than New York but will still be the first interracial relation in the MCU.  If there’s any show on here, I’m really hoping to be a knock out it’s this one. 

The other show that’s been lingering in Marvel’s dead zone is Damage Control, an adaptation of a short-lived ‘80s comedy book about a company that specialized in cleaning up after superhero battles.  ABC ordered a pilot in October 2015, back when Marvel was first starting to expand their TV offerings, with Ben Karlin sliding in as a proposed show runner.  Despite a complete lack of casting or development news, ABC President Paul Lee suggested the show was going to come out sometime during the 2016-2017 TV season.  I don’t know if that’s still going to happen, DC’s Powerless show seems to have done a real number on the comedy potential of superhero TV, so if Marvel quietly killed Damage Control in the crib I couldn’t blame them. 

So, with 11 shows in various stages of production that’s what the future has for Marvel TV and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to being worried.  While Marvel has pulled a rabbit out of its hat in this medium before, they haven’t done it often enough to earn the benefit of the doubt.  There are few standout projects that I’m hopeful about but not many of them.  Moreover, a lot of these shows suffer from the same collection of problems that no one seems able to solve. 

They take a structural format that works for a movie and stretch it out as much as possible, they give us bland or half baked villains, and they’re unable to make actual changes to the world or tie into the films that spawned this universe.  Maybe back in 2013 that was enough because there wasn’t much competition but in a world of Flash, Legion, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow Marvel are quickly being left in the dust no matter how many new shows they green light. 

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