The following is adapted from YouTuber Patrick Willems’ new video essay “The Limitations of the Marvel Cinematic Universe PART 3.” Watch the full video above.
Marvel, under the wing of the monolithic Walt Disney Company, is the biggest, most influential force in media in our current moment. The company created and perfected the cinematic universe, the thing every other studio wants but can’t seem to replicate. Now it’s in a position to continue innovating modern cinematic storytelling.
For years, Marvel has had TV shows that are technically part of the MCU: the Netflix shows, Agents of SHIELD, Runaways, Cloak and Dagger. These shows are overseen by Jeph Loeb and Marvel TV, not Kevin Feige and his team at Marvel Studios, and, perhaps because of that disconnect, the films have essentially ignored the TV continuity. They’re in the MCU, but feel like they’re off in a separate universe.
That will change with a new batch of shows set to premiere on Disney Plus, the Walt Disney Corporation’s upcoming streaming service. Feige is set to produce a handful of MCU-adjacent series featuring major characters and cast members from the movies: There’s one about Bucky and Falcon, one about Loki, and another about Scarlet Witch and the Vision. The plan could be what finally brings the MCU closer to what Marvel has been doing with the comic books for decades.
Previously, I wrote about how the MCU, with its format of two to three feature films per year, isn’t ideal for replicating the serialization of comic book storytelling, and how the smaller stories that give the big events meaning are often lost. But the Disney Plus shows (or at least the idea of them, since no one has seen them yet) could be the solution to replicating a defining feature of comics for the live-action medium.
Television, by nature, is much closer to the model of comics books than feature films: Something like Breaking Bad or Lost could never work as a two-hour movie, but one could easily imagine either one as 60-issue series published by Image Comics or Vertigo. The installments are shorter, released closer together, and add up to a much longer story. There’s more room for the short, self-contained stories you’d find in a single issue that provide a breather from the massive spectacle and dig deeper into the characters. A classic story like Ultimate Spider-Man #13, in which Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson sit in a bedroom for 21 pages as he reveals his superhero identity, is the equivalent of a bottle episode of a TV show. Unlike the movies of the MCU, these don’t all have to be massive events.
And importantly, they’re focused on the characters who don’t get the spotlight in the movies. I wrote before about how the movies skipped over the pivotal events of Bucky’s life, asking us to care about him without taking the time to earn that. But with a six-episode show featuring him as the lead character, that could be remedied.
Some of the emotional impact of Infinity War required us to be invested in the love story between Vision and Scarlet Witch, which happened almost entirely offscreen after the events of Captain America: Civil War. A smaller scale story, devoted to these characters, getting us invested in a relationship that’s going to be an essential part of the next film, is exactly when a functional TV side of the MCU would come in handy. This is closer to how Marvel’s comics work: If a new supporting character is a hit with fans — say, Cosmic Ghost Rider, who debuted in 2017’s Thanos ongoing series — they’ll often get a spinoff mini-series lasting four or five issues telling a smaller-scale story.
Disney Plus provides Marvel with a platform on which anything is possible. There’s no need to deal with movie theater chains or Netflix licensing deals. It’s all self-contained, all straight-to-consumer. The possibilities enter the realm of speculation, but also the futurist shattering of traditional runtimes and episode counts. I honestly believe that an entity as powerful and influential as Marvel should be taking further strides to advance how we consume stories in this medium.
The most exciting thing Marvel could do would be to experiment with truncated formats. The short film is something that has always seemed out of place in modern cinema; the only place most people ever see them is before Pixar movies and the weeks leading up to the Oscars. But Marvel could take short films, make them the equivalent of a single-issue story (or one-shot) in the comics, and turn them into essential viewing for fans of the franchise. If the opportunity had existed four years ago, a 20-minute, canon-approved short film/episode/whatever of Bucky piecing together the remnants of his past would have taken care of the character development that was missing from Civil War, and make the drama more resonant. This is something Marvel literally did in the comics, with the 2006 one-shot Winter Soldier: Winter Kills.
From 2011 to 2014, Marvel actually toyed with this concept by putting bonus short films on their Blu-ray releases. Affectionately known as “one-shots,” these were always treated as bonus content, essentially longer versions of the post-credits scenes. But with Disney’s instant-access home-video option, there’s an opportunity to make them much more than that.
Marvel could use them to introduce new characters and expand the universe without shoehorning extraneous plotlines into the main movies. Even more urgent: The company could incubate new directorial talent before promoting them to feature directing jobs. Marvel’s usual protocol for hiring filmmakers is to wait for talented people to emerge in the independent film scene (Chloé Zhao, Destin Daniel Cretton), then snatch them up for blockbuster gigs like The Eternals and Shang-Chi. By developing talent in-house, Marvel could do some of the heavy lifting itself.
Last week, a deal that had been in the works for months was finalized when 20th Century Fox officially became a part of the Walt Disney Company. While this has massive, very real consequences on the lives of Fox employees and the future of the film industry that should by no means be ignored, it’s also going to impact the superhero genre.
To say that Fox’s superhero movies varied in quality is being generous, but in the poorly-managed chaos, sometimes something unique would slip out — the most obvious examples being Logan and Deadpool. Beyond just the novelty of their R-ratings, they stand apart from Marvel’s movies in the way they allowed their filmmakers to offer their own distinct takes on the material, without having to tie into other movies or match an established tone.
Hard genre exercises like these feel like they’ll be another casualty of the Disney deal, as the default mode for every Marvel superhero film is a massively-budgeted event film designed to have four-quadrant appeal (and, if we’re being brutally honest, sell backpacks to kids). To again use the source material comparison, these movies are the big event comics: your Civil Wars and Infinity Gauntlets. There isn’t room for anything smaller.
But here, once again, Disney Plus could be the answer. Some of the most acclaimed Marvel comic books of recent years are smaller scale, self-contained stories that are more about people reckoning with their position in the cosmos rather than massive battles that level cities. Matt Fraction and David Aja’s run on Hawkeye is largely set around a single apartment building and features the title character raising a dog and protecting his neighbors from tracksuit-clad mobsters. The Vision, by Tom King and Gabriel Walta, is a tragic drama about a family of androids living in the suburbs. Both of these stories are about members of the Avengers, but neither is likely to become a blockbuster film that needs to appeal to eight-year-olds.
If we’re going to get a roll of the dice like Logan within the MCU, or something like the Vision or Hawkeye, rich with pathos and tempered spectacle, it’s probably not going to be as a movie. Disney Plus gives Marvel the platform it needs to tell those stories, where it can take risks and offer more freedom to filmmakers. The beauty of a shared universe like Marvel’s is that smaller stories coexist side by side with sagas about the Avengers fighting space gods.
And most importantly, this is the place we could finally get the story the MCU really needs: a spinoff about Luis, Dave, and Kurt from the Ant-Man movies.
Patrick Willems is a filmmaker. He lives in New York City, where he makes videos.