Entertainment Geekly is a weekly column that examines contemporary pop culture through a geek lens and simultaneously examines contemporary geek culture through a pop lens. So many lenses!
1. The last few years have seen a rash of columns about the end of Golden Age of Television. It might at this point be more accurate to declare the end of the Television Age of Television. In the last nine months, the Netflix programming experiment produced a prestige drama with a powerful fanbase; a buzzy comedy which became a love-it-or-be-skeptical-about-it talking point; and a genuinely original (and aggressively uncommercial) series that earned accolades, whatever passes for high ratings in Netflix-land, and a Halloween costume controversy. It’s like Netflix relived the whole post-Sopranos history of cable television in less than a year. And now they’re rewriting the entire development playbook. Why greenlight a pilot when you can greenlight an entire show? And why greenlight just one show when you can greenlight a linked series of shows? Essentially, Netflix just greenlit a season of the CW, except people might actually watch more than one of these shows.
2. This isn’t the first time someone has tried this. It’s just the first time when it might actually work. For years, George Lucas talked about the possibility of a Star Wars TV show that would run for a hundred episodes – a package he would sell to any network willing to commit. (Fifty scripts were written for the show, which was occasionally referred to as “Deadwood in Space.” For comparison, there were only 39 episodes of Deadwood.) More recently, there was the putative movie-TV crossover adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower epic, an insanely ambitious idea which no one could commit to, partially because The Dark Tower is so R-rated and partially because The Dark Tower is insane. Now here’s Netflix committing to four spinoffs of a pre-existing world leading to a spinoff-linking miniseries – with, presumably, the intention for all those spinoffs to have sequels and spinoffs. There’s never been a more ambitious moment for world-building fictional universes on television. It’s possible that Marvel will have more spinoffs in the next four years than Star Trek had in the last forty. At this point, we need to admit that Netflix isn’t just as successful as television; it might actually be a radical new form of serialized narrative.
3. There might come a time when every network is composed entirely of TV shows set in a linked fictional world and talk shows about those TV shows hosted by Chris Hardwick. There might come a time when The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase looks like a network-executive playbook.
4. I don’t want to talk too much about Marvel, partially because I’ve written about them a lot lately and partially because there’s much more to this story than the future of superheroes on big and small screens. But this column is about the intersection of geek culture and pop culture – and the sneaking suspicion that there isn’t really a difference anymore. And no company in Hollywood defines that intersection more than Marvel Studios. They have taken characters who ten years ago occupied the fringe of mainstream culture – Iron Man, Loki, freaking Hawkeye – and turned them into the mainstream culture. They didn’t get there first – Iron Man hit eight years after X-Men. But with four separate franchises, plus two more in the offing, and now four serialized TV shows, it’s clear that they’ve done this whole superhero thing the best – financially, if not critically.
5. Put more simply: No company is more responsible for taking superheroes into the mainstream, which also means no company is more responsible for sanitizing the superhero genre and making it palpable for the normals.
6. But what a lineup they’ve given Netflix! Iron Fist! Luke Cage! Jessica Jones! These are three characters near and dear to comic book lover’s hearts – characters who always seemed unlikely to receive the bigscreen treatment, but who could actually benefit from the possibilities of long-form storytelling. Luke Cage will star the first black lead in a Marvel project. Jessica Jones will star the first female lead in a Marvel project. Iron Fist will star someone playing Iron Fist. Iron Fist, guys, Iron Fist!
7. And Daredevil. Forget the movie. Daredevil has produced two of the greatest narrative sequences in the history of monthly mainstream comics: The near-Biblical Miller/Mazzucchelli “Born Again” saga and the noir-epic Bendis-Maleev early-00s run. And Mark Waid’s current run – the precise tonal opposite of those two – might be just as good. Not too long ago I tried to make the argument that Daredevil was a cooler superhero than Spider-Man. If their plan for the Daredevil show is to pick thirteen issues at random from the Miller or Bendis or Waid days and then film them word-for-word and shot-for-panel, then Daredevil will be one of the ten best shows of 2015.
8. Reading the press release from Disney and Netflix, a comic book fan will notice echoes of past history. The idea of a linked series of second-tier heroes has its roots in Marvel Knights, the self-consciously gritty (and generally pretty great) sub-brand which included Daredevil. The reference to a “gritty” world also calls to mind Marvel’s MAX imprint, a mature-content sub-brand which included the Jessica Jones series Alias.
9. Since these shows are on Netflix, will they feature Mature Content? Marvel Studios’ films are all comfortably PG-13, and Agents of SHIELD is a live-action Saturday morning cartoon show. Does the company have any interest in exploring mature content? What does it look like when a Disney subsidiary tries to be “gritty”?
10. Cause for skepticism: In the press release, Disney and Netflix specifically say that the linked saga will take viewers “deep into the gritty world of heroes and villains of Hell’s Kitchen, New York.” The notion of Hell’s Kitchen being gritty is practically more outdated than the notion that superheroes won’t sell movie tickets. Could this be the central problem with Marvel Studios: That – by weaving a fictional tapestry based entirely on characters created decades ago – they are incapable of creating anything that actually feels new? The comic book writers who conceived characters like Daredevil and who wrote their greatest stories were working stiffs living in Old New York. They could smell the grit. Contemporary Marvel is a corporate superstructure inside of a corporate superstructure. The Marvel films only visit New York to destroy it.
11. Cause for skepticism, part 2: The plan is apparently to trickle out the four TV series over the course of a few years, followed by a franchise knitting miniseries called The Defenders. Now, the “Defenders” as a brand has meant various things throughout Marvel’s history and can best be understood as a catch-all term for “Team Of Characters Who Aren’t Currently Avengers.” Jessica Jones was never a member of the Defenders. Classically, Daredevil wasn’t really a team player – although in the last decade basically everyone has become an Avenger, including the X-Men. But there’s a weird sense that Marvel is basically copy-pasting their Avengers roadmap: Solo franchises leading to one super-franchise. Or, as the press release has it: a “miniseries event that reimagines a dream team of self-sacrificing, heroic characters.” Is this just The Low-Budget Avengers? Will they all hate each other until they all love each other?
12. But the narrative possibilities are rich. With the films, Marvel has gone macro, sending their characters on adventures across space and time. They went macro. If we’re to believe a press release – always a tenuous proposition – the Netflix Marvelverse will go micro. Daredevil patrols Hell’s Kitchen. Luke Cage comes from Harlem. Jessica Jones operated out of New York – and so, generally, does Iron Fist, especially if they take their cue from the Brubaker/Fraction Immortal Iron Fist run, which they clearly should do since it’s the best thing ever. This could be a chance for Marvel Studios to really drill down into their fictional universe.
13. So many of the best and most interesting chapters in the history of Marvel Comics happened when nobody was looking. In the ’70s, the success of the mainline Spider-Man/X-Men comics allowed weirdos like Jim Starlin and Steve Gerber to craft elaborate epics and gonzo fictions. One of the most mind-exploding things I ever experienced as a kid collecting comics in the ’90s was Warren Ellis taking the bland futuristic 2099 imprint and transforming it into a parade of Britpunk dystopian bloodshed. (By way of comparison, imagine if Ryan Murphy took over NCIS: LA, killed off half the characters, and turned Chris O’Donnell into a cyborg vampire.) As Marvel Studios expands, the possibilities for experimentation expand right along with it. Maybe they’ll hand one of the Netflix shows to a dynamic young showrunner. Maybe they’ll make one animated. Maybe someone will actually make something worthwhile out of The Punisher.
14. Boy, Batman vs. Superman better be really, really good.