Deep into the marathon that was this year’s New York Comic Con, Marvel Television head Jeph Loeb hit the main stage at the Javits Center to lead a panel for Runaways, Marvel’s newest small-screen foray and the company’s first team-up with Hulu. He bantered with the crowd, led attendees in an enthusiastic if awkward chant of the show’s name—”Hulu!” “Marvel’s” “Runaways!”—and showed them the as-yet-unaired first episode. The pilot got a warm reception, and after the credits rolled Loeb celebrated the fans who had stuck around for the Friday evening panel. “Those of you that are sneaking out now,” he continued with just a hint of sarcasm in his voice, “I know you gotta get home and watch the second half of Inhumans, but you might want to stick around.”
For Marvel’s television chief to fire a shot at one of his own shows (especially one that isn’t doing super great) felt like an unusually candid in-joke. However Inhumans fares, though, it’s clearly not the end of Marvel’s linear-TV plans; the very next day Loeb would get on another stage to announce that one of Marvel TV’s flagship network shows, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was going to return for its fifth season on December 1—the same Friday night graveyard currently occupied by Inhumans. After the laughter, though, it was hard not to wonder: Where do Marvel’s TV shows actually belong?
Marvel’s current cinematic universe first started bleeding into TV with S.H.I.E.L.D. in 2013. Initially, largely thanks to the crossover of fan-favorite movie character Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), the show did well with fans. But in the time since it’s generally fallen off in the ratings and its spinoff Agent Carter only lasted two seasons. (Which is a shame; it was good.) Meanwhile, Marvel’s partnership with Netflix—which has yielded (mostly) well-received shows like Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and The Defenders—has seemingly done much better, largely because Netflix has both money and freedom to indulge in violence and grittier subject matter. Now, having tried both of those methods, Marvel TV is bringing content to Hulu, and next year will bring Cloak & Dagger to Freeform (the cable network formerly known as ABC Family). That’s a lot of TV in a lot of places that all allegedly exists in the same universe—one that is quickly becoming unwieldy. (None of the Fox or FX properties depicting Marvel Comics characters—Legion, the currently airing The Gifted, etc.—are Marvel TV productions, belonging more under the nebulous X-Men umbrella that Fox controls.)
And really, Marvel doesn’t seem particularly interested in constricting its universe any time soon. “What we do with every show is we look at where the best place is,” Loeb told Polygon when asked about bringing Runaways to Hulu. “We were very excited about the possibility of joining a network that was young and growing in the same way that when we went to Netflix it was young and growing on the original side.”
Marvel needs to pick a platform, preferably a streaming one, and go with it.
That’s fair, Jeph, but it also means you’re making people look in a lot of different corners for your content, many of which require subscriptions beyond basic cable. During the Runanways panel when Loeb noted that fans getting to see early footage at NYCC “comes with a little bitty price” (aka, the stipulation that everyone turn off their phone), a woman sitting next to me said, “What, a Hulu subscription?” It’s possible many fans already have access to the platforms where Marvel’s shows live, but for those who don’t, the cost of being an MCU completist by 2018 will have increased to basic cable (Freeform), Netflix, and Hulu, in addition to the cost of movie tickets for at least one film a year and, presumably, comics. That’s a lot.
But it doesn’t have to be. For financial and toe-dipping reasons it makes sense for Marvel to do what they’re doing—but for fans, it would be much simpler to have everything on one, maybe two, networks. So, posited: Marvel needs to pick a platform, preferably a streaming one, and go with it. The beauty of the Runaways pilot shown at NYCC was that while its diverse and politically aware cast of characters could say shit, because they were on Hulu they could also say “shit.” Despite the fact that they have the same polish as the well-coiffed kids of The Flash or Supergirl, they are not restricted by the limitations of having a network TV home. Same goes for the Netflix shows. If Marvel wants to differentiate itself from DC Comics’ CBS- and CW-based programs, the company is best off doing it by making unfiltered—and binge-able—content.
That’s easier said than done. When Loeb introduced the S.H.I.E.L.D. cast on Saturday at Madison Square Garden, he referred to them as the “heavyweights” of the Marvel TV universe. He’s right; between character crossovers and pure numbers, S.H.I.E.L.D. is still the biggest thing tying the TV world to the cinematic one. There’s also a direct corporate line between ABC and Marvel, via shared parent company Disney. In fact, although Netflix currently has the most robust slate of Marvel shows (with Punisher dropping later this year), ABC, Freeform, and Hulu are all Disney-affiliated—and the Mouse House isn’t going to let Marvel’s entire TV universe exist on a platform that isn’t theirs. (Especially considering Disney is building its own streaming platform.) But with Netflix’s Marvel shows belonging to Netflix, it’s too late for Marvel to move all its content to one place.
Unfortunately, that kind of balkanization looks a lot like incoherence. It’s a shame. Once upon a time, the studio managed to get the Defenders and Avengers to assemble in one place—even if that place ends up changing, it seems only right to extend the favor to its other heroes.