Marvel on Netflix: Is TV a Step Up for the Superhero?


The news that Netflix’s latest, most ambitious foray into original programming will be a joint venture with Marvel comics makes intuitive sense: the latest torchbearer of the premium TV gold rush (sorry, HBO) and the driving force behind the past decade’s proliferation of superhero franchises (sorry, DC) are a match made in heaven. But shifting gears from the multiplex to the small screen — or in the case of many, many Netflix users, the laptop — isn’t just a logical progression for the costumed characters who head up the world’s most bankable franchises. Television might not be merely a good format for Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and their peers; it also offers an opportunity to move beyond the blockbuster flick and overcome the genre’s ever-more-apparent shortcomings.

It’s not that the superhero movie is in desperate need of a bailout. Far from it: The Avengers, Marvel’s crown jewel, is the third-highest-grossing movie ever made, with in-house runner-up Iron Man 3 pulling in an eye-popping $1.2 trillion worldwide. Existing franchises continue to churn out reliable sequels like this weekend’s Thor: The Dark World and the upcoming Captain America: Winter Soldier, and Guardians of the Galaxy promises a whole new slew of characters to earn their own spin-offs and Tony-and-Steve -tyle fandoms. The unflagging bankability that’s stuck to superhero movies like Spider-Man to a wall is the whole reason Netflix is willing to commit to a minimum of four seasons of television and a miniseries in the first place.

But there have been enough missteps in the past couple of years to suggest that the superhero franchise may finally be hitting a wall, or at least experiencing some growing pains. Just ten years after Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man arguably started the craze, Sony trotted out the character yet again for a good-not-great reboot, and while Man of Steel did well at the box office, the critical consensus signaled that expensive explosions and an injection of angst are no longer enough to give new life to old characters. When blockbuster kingpin Damon Lindelof vented to New York this summer on the constraints of the back story + high stakes + “destruction porn” = big movie model, it was difficult not to feel frustrated with the color-by-numbers feel of even well-executed superhero romps like the aforementioned Iron Man 3.

Granted, neither Superman nor Spider-Man are Marvel properties — the former’s as DC as DC gets, and Sony still has Spidey’s character rights — and a massive built-in fan base bolstered by international audiences has kept studios’ wallets well-lined. Still, Marvel’s move into television presents an opportunity for the entertainment juggernaut to stretch its legs, investing in its creative future as well as its economic one. A new medium means a host of new advantages in terms of character development and long-term storytelling. It’s not a novel observation in the post-Sopranos/The Wire “Third Golden Age” of TV, but companies like Marvel have yet to dip their toe into the brand-new world of flawed protagonists and well-crafted arcs Davids Chase and Simon hath wrought.

The Netflix collaboration isn’t, of course, Marvel’s first series. And it’s true that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., or at least the handful of episodes we’ve seen so far, doesn’t inspire much confidence. Thanks to its lack of either momentum or three-dimensional characters, there’s not enough there to fill the Avengers-sized hole in the show’s DNA. It’s a spin-off that fails to live up to its mothership in terms of both spectacle, which it can’t help, and charm, which it can. It’s no wonder, then, that Agents has almost zero traction among the geeks and Tumblr hordes who are supposedly its core demographic.

But Netflix is not ABC, and the long-term project Marvel outlined in its press release yesterday is not Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. For one, Agents is essentially a superhero show without a superhero, a critical flaw we know for a fact the Marvel series won’t share. And Netflix has a proven track record of airing shows that are both well-executed and startlingly ambitious (even if that ambition doesn’t always pan out). So there’s reason to be cautiously optimistic that Marvel won’t repeat its mistakes once it starts rolling out shows starring super-powered stock characters instead of generic secret-agent types and their insufferable British tech support.

Besides, even Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s failings don’t erase the main draw of television as the superhero story’s next home: the chance to develop its characters in 13 hours instead of 90 minutes. The first outing in a typical superhero film franchise is forced to do double duty, telling an origin story while cramming in a villain to give the movie internal closure. Imagine the possibilities of stretching out that process of acquiring, mastering, and coming to terms with superhuman abilities over the course of a full season — how much more thoroughly a series is able to dig into the impact that development has on a hero’s relationships, and how much more screen time there is for delightful moments like Peter Parker’s subway romp that a typical movie can only allow a handful of before shifting focus to a Big Bad.

The origin story’s just one example among many of the superhero tropes that stand to benefit from the television treatment. Even if it starts its exploration of the Iron Fist or Luke Cage’s careers in medias res, Netflix now has far more room to develop a compelling cast of supporting characters, a task at which a movie genre single-mindedly focused on a single protagonist has unsurprisingly struggled. Or take a few detours from a straight-shot buildup to a showdown with a Big Bad to explore smaller-scale villains or episodic conflicts (see: Vampire Slayer, Buffy the). Television may not have the dollars-per-minute budgetary firepower of a blockbuster, but it’s got more of one key ingredient than movies will ever have: time, and all the ability to flesh out a superhero’s world that comes with it.

It’s not surprising that television and the superhero renaissance might be a natural fit, considering that television bears a much stronger resemblance to the superhero’s original home. Comic books introduced us to the costumed crusader in the form of serialized narratives, spreading a single story across up to hundreds of installments and dozens of self-contained, multi-issue arcs. Sound familiar? Given the parallel, it’s almost hard to believe it took the entire aughts for the prestige TV boom and the superhero craze to collide. But now that Netflix has finally made the commitment, there’s reason to believe a family of series may be less of a lateral move for Marvel and more of an upgrade.