A few days ago, an article from Forbes contributor Paul Tassi made the rounds on the internet, and probably not for the reasons he had hoped.
“’Jessica Jones’ Makes Me Question The Entire Point Of The Marvel Cinematic Universe” was the title of the piece, and, well, I couldn’t help but feel it was an article written by someone who doesn’t fully understand the business of television and movies, and certainly not Marvel’s method and game plan. Don’t get me wrong, Tassi is a fine writer. I have read and agreed with quite a bit of his writing in the past. But he’s predominantly a gaming industry writer, and, despite what readers might think, the gaming industry and film/tv industry operate differently. Having an intimate knowledge of one doesn’t automatically grant you a deep understanding of the other. So keeping that in mind, I understand where he is coming from, I do.
I just don’t agree with it.
The premise of the article was that when the first few Marvel movie character franchises (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America) were launched, the entire point was to create a huge, interconnected Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the TV shows have failed to live up to that promise of interconnectivity, aside from the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. And despite having really enjoyed Jessica Jones for its own sake, he argues, it is so disconnected from the rest of the Marvel films, and even its sister show, Daredevil, as to feel like it’s not even in the Marvel universe at all. So if the TV shows aren’t going to stick to that formula, then what is even the point of having an interconnected universe?
Well, there are a few points, actually.
Touching upon the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. thing, Tassi’s not entirely wrong when he points out that it’s weird that it’s unclear whether or not the Avengers even know that Phil Coulson is back from the dead. I mean, you’d assume that at one point, Lady Sif might have mentioned to Thor that she, you know, ran into his friend formerly known as “killed by Loki.” It is a plot point that the show’s writers have never really addressed, one of those understood willing suspensions of disbelief that we’re just expected to roll with.
His major issue is that the show “just references the ‘big leagues’ every so often,” and that now it has almost nothing to do with the Avengers at all. But here’s the thing: The Marvel movies no longer need the TV series to support them or build up hype, at least not the franchises launched in Phases 1 and 2. It’s the very fact that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is so sprawling and huge that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can’t afford to focus on the activities of the Avengers from a storytelling perspective. It just can’t. The MCU has to focus on not just the short-term, but also the mid-term and the long-term story arcs. Not every seed of what’s coming down the pipeline in the MCU can be planted in the movies now; the TV shows have to pick up some of the slack.
Fans already get the storylines unfolding in the movies now. We’ve had years to wrap our brains around the big concepts of Thanos, of Hydra, of the Infinity Gems. We’re already on board with all of that; it no longer needs to be explained to us, not really.
But the introduction of The Inhumans, who, for all intents and purposes, are replacing the mutants and X-Men in the MCU, is huge. It opens up an entire other universe in a way that not even Guardians of the Galaxy did. That’s where Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. comes in, and what it’s been doing quite well: introducing the big, sometimes unwieldy concepts, like Inhumans and Terrigen Mist, into the Marvel Cinematic Universe to an unfamiliar audience. No, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is no longer really concerned with what the Avengers are doing, but that’s because it’s playing the long game. It’s not that it’s not connected to the MCU, it’s just that it’s focusing on a much, much larger piece that is coming to the movie side of things later.
Likewise, the Netflix shows, Daredevil and Jessica Jones, are very much a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but they are planting their flag in a different corner of it and building out another major piece of the Marvel puzzle. The Defenders have long been important to the Marvel pantheon, and while they have teamed up with the Avengers and other superheroes (most notably Spider-Man), their focus has always largely been on their own hometown of New York.
Of course Jessica Jones wouldn’t reference the Avengers on a regular basis; she has nothing to do with them. Yes, in the comic books, she is very closely tied to the Avengers, especially in her pre-Kilgrave days and then later as a New Avenger. But we’re focusing squarely on the Marvel Cinematic Universe here, not the comics. To that end, her extremely short-lived time as a superhero is a very painful part of her past and not one she talks about often. So it makes sense, from a character perspective, that she wouldn’t spend much time dwelling on the Avengers or what they’re doing. She doesn’t see herself as a hero whatsoever, certainly not someone worthy of name-dropping the Avengers or calling upon their help. They deal with global and galactic problems; she, much like Daredevil, just wants to clean up her own neighborhood – the same neighborhood that the Avengers completely fucked up in the Battle of New York. It’s tonal continuity that the show would sardonically refer to them as “the green guy and the flag-waver.” The Avengers are out there in the larger world, there’s no logical overlap with Jessica’s small corner of the world on a day to day basis. I’d argue that it would feel less organic, less like a naturally evolving universe, if they tried to shoehorn in references to the Avengers on a regular basis. Instead of letting the show find its own place in the larger MCU, it would have felt like pointing bright neon arrow at it and screaming, “THIS IS PART OF THE MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE; BRAND ASSOCIATION!”
It does take a slight leap of faith that Jessica, with her PI background and nightprowling ways, hasn’t yet run into Daredevil doing the same with both moving within the main confines of Hell’s Kitchen. But, again, from a storytelling perspective, it makes sense. Marvel’s movies established the individual character franchises separately at first, only bringing them together with the first Avengers movie. With the exception of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the Avengers have not really crossed over from one individual character franchise to the other. They’re kept separate for a reason. Too many of the same characters would make it all feel the same after a while, no matter whose franchise it is. What’s more, it would limit the stories that could be told.
The Netflix series must have their own separation. Daredevil was a 13-hour long martial arts action flick, Jessica Jones a 13-hour long noir crime drama. Much like CBS’ Supergirl has been making a point to vocally state she does not need the help of Superman, thank you very much, just as the show does not need an appearance by Henry Cavill to stand on its own, the Netflix shows have to establish themselves as individual series on their own first before merging. Otherwise, the waters get muddied.
Jessica Jones had no problem introducing Luke Cage as a major character, because it made sense. He plays a major role in Jessica’s own story, and vice versa. But it wouldn’t have made sense to introduce Matt Murdock/Daredevil this early on in the story. A good 90% of the series was about Jessica Jones fighting to overcome her loner mentality and the idea that she didn’t want or need any help; it would have been completely incongruous to her character to have introduced Matt Murdock as an ally so early on in her formation.
It’s also a fundamental concept of brand building: If you feel a fledgling project won’t be able to stand on its own, then you call in an established audience brand favorite for the positive association. But if you know you have a good movie or series on your hands, then you establish it as a completely individual entity that can generate a new fanbase in its own right – at least at first.
Personally, I like that Claire Temple only showed up in the last episode. I like that Daredevil was never mentioned by name (understandable; Claire keeps his secrets), and that he was never mentioned at all until that last episode. It gave me a little thrill and I found myself grinning at his mention. The scene was used much in the way post-credits scenes are used at the end of the Marvel movies. Never the main point of the films, they instead just give audiences a hint of what’s to come and build anticipation.
Marvel audiences are smart. The hardcore fans already know that Matt Murdock and Jessica Jones will be crossing paths at some point; they’re not worried about it. The Netflix shows are for those people who aren’t already hardcore fans; bringing too much of the Marvel mythology and previous backstory into it too soon will lose viewers. Let the Avengers, Daredevil, other superheroes exist as Easter eggs meant to whet the appetite of savvy fans so that when they finally do ever cross over and team up, the payoff is a whole lot of damn fun.
The TV series are very much part of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s just that, while the Avengers are busy carrying out the storylines that have already been well-tread by this point, the ABC and Netflix shows are doing the important work of establishing brand-new corners of the Marvel universe to explore. For a canon as sprawling and vast as Marvel’s, it’s necessary to divide and conquer. All hands on deck are needed to build the gigantic cinematic net that will do the scope of the Marvel universe justice.