The Big Picture
Earlier this week, accompanying news that Daredevil: Born Again was going to be getting an overhaul, a piece in The Hollywood Reporter revealed the bigger picture: Marvel Studios is starting over in its approach to its television shows. The original concept of making small-screen Marvel Studios productions that were all limited-run projects, as well as how those shows were produced, was going out the window. Additionally, it was confirmed that the studio would be implementing two significant changes: shooting pilots for its TV shows and hiring showrunners, initiatives that have been in place in the realm of television since the very beginning of the medium. Leave it to one of the biggest companies on the planet to discover such a well-worn method for producing television like it’s the long-buried Ark of the Covenant.
This news comes hot on the heels of endless problems for the various Marvel Studios shows on Disney+. Though the initial crop of small-screen programs in the Marvel Cinematic Universe got off to a massive burst of hype and viewership, since then, the problems in these productions have become more and more apparent. This summer’s Secret Invasion, which got dismal reviews and was plagued by a nightmare production process, was the nadir of this entire endeavor and a clear sign that something needed to change. Long before THR’s report about the changes taking place behind the scenes emerged, it was clear that an overhaul was long needed for the company’s movies and television.
Where Did the Marvel Studios TV Shows Go Wrong?
The Marvel Studios method of making projects has always been very producer-driven and often about making individual movies work in post-production. Countless Marvel Cinematic Universe features have had scenes added or digital backgrounds changed at the last minute, sometimes to cute entertaining results (like that last-minute shawarma Avengers post-credit scene) and often to the tune of efforts that pushed the limits of visual effects artists. It wasn’t like this process was ever foolproof, but one advantage the Marvel Studios movies had, especially during Phase Three, was a combination of having a concrete narrative end goal to work towards (Avengers: Endgame) and the studio regularly working with artists familiar with how the company operates. Anthony and Joe Russo directed three of the 11 Phase Three movies, for instance, while Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers wrote all three of the MCU Spider-Man movies (plus Ant-Man and the Wasp).
These movies were still always evolving and motivated more by producer demands, but they were also being handled on a day-to-day basis by filmmakers and writers familiar with how the Marvel machinery worked. For the TV show side of Marvel Studios, the outfit decided to translate this entire creative approach to the world of television with a slew of writers and directors almost entirely new to the company. To boot, trying to rejigger a two-hour movie in post-production is one thing. Trying to constantly alter six hours of storytelling with very specific dividing lines between disparate installments, that’s a lot trickier. The constant post-production changes Marvel Studios had grown comfortable with in movies were not feasible on television.
Worse, Marvel Studios only rarely made shows that actually felt like TV shows. Typical programs like Hawkeye or Moon Knight felt like bloated two-hour movies. This included a trend where Marvel shows, including the recent Secret Invasion, would just conclude their runs with a final episode that devolved into a 45-minute CG-heavy fight scene. TV is supposed to be a medium where characters can breathe. Audiences can become more comfortable with fictional individuals and follow their exploits for years and years. Sadly, the view of TV shows as just “longer movies” led to the creation of episodes like those action-packed finales that ran counter to the kind of storytelling this medium does so well.
The Hollywood Reporter’s piece also divulges a creative process for the Marvel TV shows that failed to ever have a constant creative figure in charge of each program. The Marvel movies have never been auteur projects, but you don’t hear stories about James Gunn suddenly not being in charge of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 once post-production occurs, ditto Ryan Coogler on the Black Panther movies. Having just one person clearly in charge of each movie has at least allowed individual Marvel Studios films to run smoothly, it’s always clear to people who’s running the show. Plus, the best of these films do clearly have the fingerprints of artists like Coogler and Gunn, which informs some riveting emotional specificity to the proceedings. By contrast, the various Marvel Studios TV shows make creatively tormented Marvel Studios movies like Thor: The Dark World look like a cakewalk. At least Edgar Wright left Ant-Man before filming began, whereas Secret Invasion lost one of its directors before production began.
Is There Hope for Marvel’s TV Shows?
In hindsight, the initial version of the Marvel Studios TV initiative is nothing but extreme hubris in action. Kevin Feige and other Marvel Studios executives had an incredible track record of success in movies, which led these folks to believe that they could similarly revolutionize the world of television. In exploring this terrain of storytelling, there was no attempt to adjust the studio’s creative process for the world of television (like, say, hiring showrunners). Instead, Marvel Studios tried to translate its already flawed approach to realizing major motion pictures to six-hour creative endeavors, a bad decision that anyone could see was going to be a problem from a mile away. As a cherry on top, the idea of trying to intersect narratives between the massive movies and the innately less viewed streaming shows (premium streamers are less accessible to people than your neighborhood movie theater) was always going to be an issue. Were people really going to be excited to see or even recognize Secret Invasion references in the next Avengers movie?
Can this deeply troubled operation reverse course? Maybe, though at this point it’ll take some drastic changes on the part of Marvel Studios. So many of the near-future Marvel shows (Ironheart, Echo, whatever they’re calling the Agatha Harkness show this week) are deep into post-production. It’ll be years until we see what a new style of Marvel Studios programming looks like on far-off programs like Daredevil: Born Again or Wonder Man. Even then, it feels like, at least at this juncture, that Marvel Studios publicly acknowledging the flaws in its TV business is just putting a band-aid on a much more gaping wound. Right now, we just have promises that eventually there will be executives dedicated to overseeing TV shows and that future projects will make use of showrunners and pilots. However, will those upcoming Marvel Studios shows also eschew the tormented post-productions that have plagued past programs like Secret Invasion? Will those forthcoming entities make use of more episodic storytelling? That remains troublingly up in the air.
2023 has turned out to be a referendum on the troubling way this company does business, whether it’s in the treatment of visual effects artists, the box office failure of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, or all the innate problems in Marvel’s small screen projects coming home to roost. While Marvel Studios is vowing to improve its TV shows in the future, the firing of the original creative team on Daredevil: Born Again and the reported desire from Marvel Studios to make that show less like a standard legal drama already seems like the company is just repeating the mistakes of the past. Once again, original authors and more distinctive creative aesthetics are being eschewed to meet the whims of producers in the middle of shooting. Marvel Studios desperately needs to overhaul how it produces TV shows… but it remains to be seen if the company is capable of executing that sort of sweeping change.
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