Over 10 years ago when Marvel Studios announced their plans to create a franchise of interconnected properties (dubbed the Marvel Cinematic Universe), their aspirations seemed laughably lofty. A project so large, involving then unfamiliar characters like Captain America and Iron Man, had never been attempted by a studio – let alone a fledgling one without a credit to its name. Turns out Marvel was he one laughing — all the way to the bank, that is. Their first film, Iron Man, was a huge success and MCU took off at light speed. What followed was 12 films, $10 billion in box office receipts, 4 television series, and the coronation of Marvel as the undisputed king of comic book adaptations. It’s been a good reign, but not all has been well in the kingdom.
While it seems the connectivity in Marvel’s feature projects grows stronger with each film, their television properties have left fans desiring a bit more. Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, its first TV series, started with a promise that the show would tie closely to the movies. That certainly seemed to be the case as the first season had notable feature film character cameos such as Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Lady Sif (Jamie Alexander in her Thor role). The second half of season one was deeply tied to the events of Captain America: Winter Soldier and greatly benefited. The show had a rocky start as it found its legs, but it was clearly biding its time until Winter Soldier was released. The series was kicked into high gear and served as a great companion piece to the movie.
And that was about it.
Later episodes of Agents of SHIELD rightfully began to diverge from the greater MCU as the show continued building its own mythology. Though more characters from the films would be introduced, none were high-profile such as Black Widow or Hawkeye (y’know, actual SHIELD agents), and the series felt increasingly disconnected from the films. For instance, the globe-spanning events of Captain America: Civil War barely received a mention in the series’ third season and had no impact on the story. A similar trend ran with Agent Carter, a limited series that saw Haley Atwell and Dominic Cooper reprise their roles from Captain America: The First Avenger. The first season was virtually an epilogue for the film while the second sort of ran off the rails to less than stellar results.
While Agents flew the coop, fans that desired more MCU inclusiveness would find new hope when Marvel announced they would produce several new superhero series to debut exclusively on Netflix. They would deliver beloved characters Daredevil, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, all which would culminate with an Avengers style team-up in a Defenders mini-series. The cinematic quality and feature film worthy acting talent assembled for the projects signaled they would blur the line between the film and TV sections of the MCU.
Netflix released Daredevil, the first of the planned series, to near universal critical acclaim. Though more mature and grounded than anything we’ve seen from the films thus far, Daredevil was a smash hit with fans and showed everyone the characters on TV could stand as equals with their cinematic counterparts. On its heels came Jessica Jones, which proved to be equally successful and gave a grand introduction to Luke Cage, the next hero out of the gates whose series is already drawing incredible critical response. But fans hoping shows would have more interaction with their feature film brethren may stand disappointed. Yes, the Netflix shows are a part of the MCU, but only by way of easter eggs and name drops. No characters from the films, or Agents of SHIELD for the matter, have been featured at all. For a studio that touted their connectivity, Marvel is starting to feel very disconnected when it comes to television. It has drawn the ire of fans and cast members alike.
Earlier this year Agents of SHIELD star Chloe Bennet made press when she aired her frustrations during a Wizard World panel, echoing a sentiment that many fans share. “People who make movies for Marvel, why don’t you acknowledge what happens on our show? Why don’t you guys go ask them that? Cause they don’t seem to care!” Bennet stated. “I would love [crossing over]. The Marvel Cinematic Universe loves to pretend that everything is connected, but then they don’t acknowledge our show at all. So, I would love to do that, but they don’t seem to keen on that idea.”
The comments felt especially damning. After all, Marvel had just moved heaven and earth to get Spider-Man in the MCU with a celebrated role in Civil War. The fact Marvel could pull a character that’s owned by another studio, but not any from under its own umbrella struck a curious note. The connection between Marvel’s film and TV properties would appear tenuous at best. In fact, the avenue across all the programming has been a one way street. Not one character introduced in any of the series has found their way into the films.
When delving into the reasoning behind this there’s a litany of commentary from the heads at Marvel. In a recent interview, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige spoke with iO9 about the difficulties bringing the universe together. “It’s about finding the right way to do that,” Feige explained. “The honest answer is, movies are developed so far in advance that a lot of those things [Inhumans, Hydra monsters, etc.] weren’t done when we started to film [Captain America: Civil War].” While this statement certainly sheds some light on the issue, it fails to reveal the situation in its entirety. There’s contractual, financial, and departmental conflicts that impede efforts.
The actors of Marvel’s television properties are contractually obligated to appear in Marvel movies if called upon, but the actors from the movies have no such obligation. Getting Robert Downey Jr. to appear in Agents of SHIELD would mean drawing a new contract and paying RDJ’s exorbitant fee. TV programs run on notoriously tight budgets and forking over large sums of cash for inconsequential cameos simply isn’t practical. But this is Disney owned Marvel we’re talking about. Their pockets run deep and surely they can spare the pocket change to keep fans happy, right? Who would stand against that?
Ike Perlmutter, CEO of Marvel Entertainment. Up until recently everyone in Marvel answered to him. It wasn’t until last year when Disney decided to restructure Marvel Studios’ leadership and divorce Kevin Feige from Perlmutter, putting the former in charge of the feature film division. For the uninitiated, the enigmatic Perlmutter is famous, or infamous, for his eccentric leadership style and spend thrift habits. Operating under Ike was reportedly a constant source of frustration for Feige and almost caused him to quit. It was likely Ike’s influence that led Marvel Studios play hardball in contract negotiations with acting talent that nearly resulted in disaster. Though Feige gained autonomy, Marvel Television is still under the control of Perlmutter. Any crossover between Marvel’s TV and film properties would mean Feige and Perlmutter would have to cooperate with each other. Don’t hold your breath on that.
For now, Marvel is a house divided and that division runs though their projects. Any chances of seeing a characters from the TV side crossover into the films, or vice versa, are slim to nil. However, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The lack of such interactions thus far hasn’t exactly hurt any of the products. The Defenders line up is currently some of the best television around, superhero or otherwise. It can be argued the quality of the series now rivals that of the films. Though a bit removed from the greater MCU, the programs have been able to explore darker themes and subject matter that simply wouldn’t lend itself well to Thor showing up and bludgeoning bad guys into submission. As Agents of SHIELD drifted away from the influence of the films it improved along the way, carving a unique identity for itself. Standing on their own has allowed the TV properties to expand into their own well-defined space where cameos could prove more of a distraction than a draw. That’s the beauty in the conflict.
The sole reason any of this is even an area of focus is because the television projects have been so successful. If the characters were poorly adapted and the stories were uninspired, then fans wouldn’t be pleading for Marvel to include them in anything. Marvel is falling victim to its own success, but in that success lies the hope the studio will see enough potential (and dollars) to close the divide, making crossovers an inevitability. To Kevin Feige’s credit, there is something to be said for timing.
Finding the right place and time to orchestrate a crossover is tricky. With both the TV and film divisions rapidly expanding the slate of ongoing projects is enough to make an executive’s head spin. Punisher will spin-off into his own Netflix series in 2017, a year that will also bring Runaways, New Warriors, and Cloak and Dagger to TV. Additional seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones are also in the works. Trying to figure out where characters can cross-pollinate on top of that could just be an overwhelming task that Marvel simply hasn’t figured out yet.
What they have figured out is how to create excellent feature films and TV projects that have captured the hearts and minds of fans across the globe. With projects continually on the horizon the opportunities to will come to heal the rift that has grown within the brand, hopefully, sooner rather than later. But what has resulted from this rift is a MCU that’s far more rich and diverse than anyone had ever imagined, perhaps more than Marvel could’ve even anticipated. If relatively contained, but high quality programming is our consolation prize, then it’s a fair bargain. It’s a quagmire that’s the envy of every other studio in Hollywood. For the time being the MCU will have to stand divided. It’s a situation we may rue, but we should never dread.