When WandaVision debuts on 15 January, this Disney+ Original won’t just kick off Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – it’ll also mark the first time that Marvel Studios has taken full creative control over a TV show set in the MCU. See, until now, shows connected to the MCU such as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Runaways and (*shudder*) Inhumans have been co-produced with the likes of ABC Studios and managed by Marvel Television (which was its own separate entity until October 2019, when it officially became part of Marvel Studios proper).
The upshot of this is that WandaVision and fellow Disney+ Originals Loki, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, What If…?, Ms. Marvel, and Hawkeye will likely take their storytelling cues more directly from the MCU movies that spawned them – which doesn’t mean that Marvel Studios should completely ignore its existing library of shows. Indeed, there are plenty of lessons that the showrunners of Marvel Studios’ Disney+ shows could learn from these past efforts – especially from what could arguably be considered their closest counterparts: Netflix series Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist, The Defenders and The Punisher.
Lesson #1: Don’t pad out the stories
The longer-form approach to serialised storytelling currently in vogue has led many TV shows (even acclaimed ones) to be accused of suffering from mid-season pacing problems – something Netflix Originals are especially notorious for.
The streaming giant’s Marvel series were among the worst culprits in this regard. In particular, the first seasons of Luke Cage and Iron Fist felt like six to eight episodes’ worth of story spread out across 13, solely so that Marvel could meet its contractual obligations to Netflix.
With WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier set to run for only nine and six episodes respectively, it certainly looks like the series’ creative leads Jac Schaeffer and Malcolm Spellman are planning on setting a brisk pace for their respective series. So, let’s keep our fingers crossed that both shows (as well as those that follow them) do indeed avoid falling into the trap of padding out their narratives.
Lesson #2: Explore different tones and darker themes
Although the Marvel shows on Netflix didn’t garner universal acclaim, Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage all won critical praise for using the superhero genre to tackle darker, more socially relevant themes. They also earned kudos for adopting a grittier sensibility than the mainstream MCU, which complemented their more mature approach to the source material – and taken together, this tonal and thematic shift offered a fresh take on the MCU.
With the MCU now over a decade old, Marvel Studios should consider taking a similar approach with its new Disney+ shows; otherwise, the overarching franchise is in danger of getting stale. Admittedly, deviating too far from the MCU’s winning formula could alienate more casual fans – but surely the rewards (namely, a reinvigorated uber-property) outweigh the risks here?
Disappointingly, Falcon and the Winter Soldier appears to be playing things safe, however, WandaVision looks set to push the MCU in a new, more surreal direction – here’s hoping it’s not the last MCU Disney+ series to follow the Netflix shows’ lead and break the established MCU mould!
Lesson #3: Make sure it feels like part of the MCU
For a TV show set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to succeed, it has to feel like it’s set in the MCU – and if that sounds like a bit of a no-brainer, remember that it’s also something the Netflix series all quickly forgot. True, they started out strong, indirectly referencing the movies and using them as a jumping off point to explore the street-level impact of earth-shattering events such as The Avengers’ Battle of New York.
However, efforts to link the Netflix series with the MCU films were steadily abandoned over time and replaced with a greater emphasis on inter-series shared continuity, instead. So, while it was clear that Daredevil took place in the same world as, say, The Punisher, it didn’t feel like either show belonged in the same universe as the MCU.
To be honest, it seems virtually impossible for the Disney+ MCU shows to suffer this same fate, though. Headlined by several key supporting players from the movies – with the original actors even reprising their roles! – it’s going to be pretty hard for WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki and the other upcoming series not to highlight their connection to the MCU.
Lesson #4: Never sacrifice the main narrative to set-up future spin-offs
As mentioned earlier, the Marvel Netflix series had issues with their pacing – but a bit of padding wasn’t their only narrative shortcoming. Part of the blame can also be chalked up to the showrunners’ studio-mandated preoccupation with setting up future shows and spin-offs.
This led them to either drop key plot threads abruptly (so that they could be resolved in a different series), or introduce frustratingly tangential subplots (again, designed solely to foreshadow follow-up shows). For a prime example of this, see Daredevil’s Season 2, which spends as much time laying the groundwork for The Defenders and The Punisher as it does telling its own story– and is decidedly less satisfying than it should be as a result.
Fortunately, Marvel Studios has already learned this lesson the hard way with its big screen properties. After nearly derailing the entire MCU with Iron Man 2 and Avengers: Age of Ultron – which were both roundly criticised for their clunky attempts to seed plot points for forthcoming films – the studio has settled on a more restrained, organic approach to telegraphing new additions to the MCU canon that should hopefully trickle down to the Disney+ shows.
Lesson #5: Only do a crossover if you have a worthwhile story to tell
A key factor in the MCU’s box office-breaking success is the way it showcases superheroes and supervillains from different sub-franchises together in one crossover movie. It’s easy to see why Marvel Television thought emulating this shared universe concept on the small screen with mash-up outing The Defenders would generate similar critical and commercial acclaim to the likes of The Avengers – but there was just one little hitch: the story they cooked up was, well…kinda lame.
Indeed, not even The Defenders’ fun character interactions or the compelling interplay between its charismatic ensemble cast could fully paper over the cracks in its hackneyed plot, which lacked real stakes and suffered from sluggish pacing (there’s that Netflix padding at work, again).
The lesson here? Crossovers are only a good idea if you can cook up a story good enough to justify bringing multiple superheroes together – although given Marvel Studios’ impressive track record when it comes to team-up flicks, they should be more than up to the challenge!