One inarguable triumph of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been its ability to take formerly second-tier superheroes—characters well below the likes of Spider-Man, Wolverine, or the Incredible Hulk on the Marvel call sheet—and turn them into mass-appeal blockbusters that untangle and streamline years of convoluted comic book continuity. Sure, there are now a lot of movies featuring Iron Man (maybe too many?), but nine or ten feature films is nothing compared to decades’ worth of origins, twists, retcons, and alternate universes in the comics.
In contrast, the round of MCU confirmations and announcements that happened on yesterday’s heavily hyped investors’ call from Marvel’s parent company Disney are notable for their heedless, comics-like much-ness. In the past, these announcements have typically involved release dates for a “phase” of a half-dozen Marvel movies over the course of three or four years. That slate remains quite full, with the completed or near-ready Black Widow, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and Eternals movies up next; a third Spider-Man movie (co-produced with Sony) shooting now; a second Doctor Strange, fourth Thor, second Black Panther, and second Captain Marvel all tentatively set for 2022; and, coming sometime after that, third installments of Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy, plus actual part-ones for Blade and a rebooted Fantastic Four. Twelve movies in all.
But wait, there’s more! In a bid to draw even more subscribers to the massive Disney Plus streaming platform, Marvel is planning an extensive lineup of series and miniseries, with the already in-production WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Loki joined by Hawkeye, Armor Wars (featuring Don Cheadle’s War Machine), Ironheart, Secret Wars (featuring Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury), She-Hulk, Ms. Marvel, and Moon Knight. That’s not even counting the animated What If series, some Groot shorts, and the Guardians of the Galaxy holiday special. (Yes, really!) That’s around two-dozen Marvel filmed-entertainment projects in the works, give or take whatever falls off the radar or becomes a higher priority in the meantime.
The message is clear: These Disney Plus series are events, just like the Marvel movies. The aim obviously isn’t to create a Loki series that runs for seven seasons and 140 episodes, or even to explore more intimate corners of the MCU, like the series of in-continuity but largely-ignored Netflix series (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, etc) did some years back. Based on the trailers for the early 2021 offerings (and some crossed-over casting announcements for the movies and shows), these series are designed to feed into the MCU continuity and bring big-screen production value directly to streaming. In other words, the lines between TV and movies are about to get even blurrier.
Plenty of TV shows from the past two decades have been praised for their cinematic style and richness; somewhat less attention has been paid to the ways some movies have come to more closely resemble television shows. The Marvel movies are pioneers in this field, especially for their ability to erase the pejorative aspect of the comparison. Typically, a movie is described as TV-ish for resembling a chintzy procedural, or a pilot for a CW series. While some have complained about the flat visuals, serialized storytelling, and producer-driven approach in the MCU, plenty of Marvel fans take this comparison as the highest compliment: These movies are consistent and relatively quality-controlled, with cast members who come to feel like old buddies.
The fans aren’t exactly wrong. (Myopic, maybe, but not wrong.) There are no truly disastrous MCU entries–though this idea starts to feel more tautological the longer the series runs, and the more of its rules feel self-governed. (In other words: By the MCU’s standards, none of its movies are bad.) And this fictional universe is so well-populated by likable characters played by talented actors, there’s no reason it couldn’t expand into multiple TV series to tell superhero stories unburdened with big-screen expectations.
But what are those big-screen expectations, these days? Mid-pandemic, with mass vaccination still months away, the future of movie theaters looks a little shaky. While Warner Bros. is sending its entire 2021 theatrical slate to HBO Max (with simultaneous and, at least for now, likely meaningless theatrical releases), Disney has pledged flexibility. Their next big animated feature will be a simultaneous premium rental and theatrical release in March, but the Marvel movies are among those chosen to stay theatrical-only (at least for now).
This makes a certain amount of sense; how else to differentiate Black Widow from its TV cousins if not for an inability to immediately watch Black Widow on your phone? It also makes the MCU announcements fascinating for the way they reinforce some superheroic hierarchies. The Disney+ lineup is chock full of movie stars—and clearer than ever about who really counts an Avenger. War Machine, Falcon, Winter Soldier, Vision, Scarlet Witch, Nick Fury, Ms. Marvel, and She-Hulk—hmm, mostly women and POC—are TV-level, even if they can occasionally score a cameo from Groot or He-Hulk. Thor, Doctor Strange, Captain Marvel, and Ant-Man are grandfathered into theaters, whatever becomes of them. The Fantastic Four, despite four previous movies, get another shot at the big screen.
This doesn’t mean the TV shows will be less important to Disney, or less interesting. They may well be more; WandaVision, with its trippy-seeming riffs on sitcoms through the ages, looks like the kind of detour Disney might balk at when courting billion-dollar grosses, but could help drive another subscription boost among adults who weren’t so sure about an ongoing subscription just for eight Mandalorian episodes a year. TV shows have traditionally provided predictability and comfort; with the MCU features already offering that, maybe the Disney Plus series have nowhere to go but weirder.
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Yet as oddly reassuring as it is to hear that a giant conglomerate still cares about putting movies out in theaters (far from a guarantee right now), it’s hard not to wonder whether Disney might be precisely counting on those lines to keep blurring. As with Star Wars, Pixar, and other Disney sub-brands, the idea seems to be a steady river of high-profile streaming titles, flowing around the occasional giant rock of a theatrical blockbuster. (If there was a single mention of a two-hour movie aimed mostly at grown-ups in yesterday’s call, it was buried under an avalanche of Brand Excitement.)
In a few years, the model for Marvel and Star Wars may not prioritize theatrical releases so much as turn them into totems of devotion. The plan may be: Stay in and watch Disney+, watch some more Disney+, dutifully trek out to spend a billion dollars for two or three crucial hours, then go back to Disney+. Maybe go to the movies, but never cancel Disney Plus. The parent company still gets that periodic billion-dollar cash infusion, but the actual movies will become as optional as the $25 hardcover tie-in novel or, gulp, the decades of comic-book collecting that may inform a love of the MCU but certainly doesn’t have exclusive rights to it. After turning so many comics into movies, maybe Disney’s next step will be to inadvertently turn the movies back into comics.
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