At the end of Iron Man, Nick Fury said to Tony Stark and audience members, “You’ve become part of a bigger universe. You just don’t know it yet.” Twelve films later (by the end of this summer), and 10 more on the docket, I think Marvel has made good on that promise. But Marvel’s “bigger universe” isn’t entirely dependent on big screen box office blowouts. A lot of the legwork for this cinematic universe and its increasing fandom is being put in by Marvel Television, and I don’t mean that just in terms of setting up story elements and characters for later films. One of Marvel Television’s biggest successes that a lot of people aren’t talking about, is how much it does for creating diversity both in front of and behind the cameras. While minority, female, and LGBTQ roles are still major issues for their film slate, Marvel Studios’ ABC productions and their Netflix partnership have at least made an impact on that front, while delivering quality weekly entertainment (or in the case of Daredevil, a weekend’s worth of entertainment). While they’re not perfect, I think it’s high time we stop complaining and start celebrating the shows Marvel is putting out and the chances they’re taking.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Marvel Studios first entered the realm of television in 2013 with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The show built up hype by promising the return of the fan-favorite Agent Coulson. But Clark Gregg’s ever-likable performance as Coulson is only part of what makes the show work in my book. While others have bemoaned the fact that the show doesn’t play with enough Marvel concepts and characters, and instead focuses on newly created characters, I think that works in the show’s favor. I don’t need to see Tony and Bruce popping up on a bi-weekly basis. I already know they’re out there. What I’m interested in is exploring what’s new and different. While the show took a little while to gain its footing (as I think all of Whedon’s productions had to. Yes, even our beloved Buffy.) S.H.I.E.L.D. is on really solid ground right now. While its scope is markedly smaller than many expected, two seasons in we’ve already seen the introduction of Deathlok, the expansion of Asgardian mythology, the construction of the Inhumans’ story a full five years before the movie, and a game changing direction for the show that tied in with The Winter Solider. S.H.I.E.L.D. has dug pretty deep into the Marvel Universe, and for a network television budget it translates most of its concepts to the screen quite successfully. While the characters are not always as well-written as Joss Whedon would have scripted them if he had a greater role in production, S.H.E.I.L.D. succeeds in ways that Whedon could never manage with his previous shows. Half the cast is female and the majority of roles are played by racial minorities. For whatever flaws the show may have, it successfully breaks down racial clichés and puts actors of color in interesting roles in a way that most television shows aren’t doing. While the show hasn’t provided any roles on the LGBTQ front yet, I’m confident it’s only a matter of time. With another season, and a spinoff in the works, S.H.I.E.L.D. provides Marvel with a great platform to celebrate diversity with an all-ages audience.
This diversity has continued over to Marvel’s eight episode Agent Carter mini-series. Not only does the show tie into the larger Captain America, Black Widow, and Iron Man mythos in surprising ways, Agent Carter tackles women’s issues in the 1940s in a way that made them relevant to today’s women’s rights struggles. The fact that the show was run by two female executive producers (Tara Butters and Michele Fazeka) is even better. While Agent Carter wasn’t the ratings smash ABC hoped it would be, it scored critical acclaim for its well-rounded characters, compelling lead, and the understanding that being a feminist simply means being a worthwhile human being who believes in equality. While so many people spent their time fretting about the lack of female superheroes in movies, they missed a great one right on TV. While I’m not saying that TV exposure is the same as film exposure, those who don’t watch strong female led shows by female creatives on TV shouldn’t complain when studios refuse to develop more female led genre films. Fair or not, TV has become a platform by which to judge the worth of films put into development. Agent Carter was just as good as any of Marvel’s solo-movies and I hope that with a second season, viewers can make it known to studio execs that this kind of entertainment is valued.
Marvel Television recently had its greatest success so far with Netflix’s Daredevil. While I already covered most of the positives in my review of the show, I want to again reiterate its multi-racial and multi-ethic cast and what a triumph that is. It’s a show with a handicapped character as its lead, and one whose first relationship is with a woman of color. The show’s plot deals heavily with neighborhood poverty and gentrification, which is pretty crazy when you consider it’s still a superhero show. Daredevil is Marvel’s most topical and socially relevant work, offering a critique of the world we live in while still delivering on all the Marvel goodness that action fans have come to expect. Netflix’s partnership with Marvel allows them to explore the more mature elements of Marvel’s properties and create some variance in mood and style, which is welcome given the Marvel features’ (with exception of The Incredible Hulk) overall visual and tonal similarities. This not only creates a wider scope to the cinematic universe, and a wider audience base, but also creates a freedom to explore issues and characters that an audience (or Disney shareholders) might not support on the big-screen with a hefty price tag attached to it.
A Look Towards the Future
Along with the aforementioned Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. spinoff, Marvel has partnered with the Oscar-winning screenwriter/producer of 12 Years a Slave, John Ridley to “reinvent” an existing Marvel character for ABC. Marvel and Netflix’s next show is A.K.A. Jessica Jones (based off of Brian Michael Bendis’ Alias). In that show, former superhero and sexual abuse victim, Jessica Jones turns her attention to NY’s downtrodden as a private investigator. The show is being developed by Mellissa Rosenberg, making that another win in Marvel Television’s willingness to hire women. As for Jessica Jones, not only is she a strong female character who’s tough and capable, but she’s also in an interracial relationship with one of the most prominent black characters in comics, Luke Cage. Following Jessica Jones, Cage will get his own series, debuting in 2016. The show will be developed by black showrunner, Cheo Hodari Coker, who will surely break the mold of the negative and stereotypical characterizations of street-smart blacks. Following Luke Cage, is the mystical martial-arts centric Iron Fist. While the character, Danny Rand is a wealthy white male in the comics, if I was showrunner I’d push ahead with Marvel Television’s progressive streak. Everything that works about the character would still work if Rand was gender-swapped. Danielle ‘Dani’ Rand could propel the idea that Marvel isn’t bound to sticking to the way things were when they were developed in the ’60s and ’70s. Imagine if the show made Iron Fist female and kept the best buddy relationship with Luke Cage that exists in the comics, without ever veering into romantic territory. If Marvel has the smarts and courage to make such a move, we could be looking at one of the most forward-thinking relationships in all of pop culture.
While Marvel’s television may not create the same level of buzz as their films, in some ways the shows are more interesting because they more accurately reflects the world in which we live. While I’d like to see this kind of diversity reflected in the films, I think that TV, being the force it is today, is a great place to start introducing audiences to just how big the Marvel Universe truly is and how many people of all backgrounds can bring these characters and their stories to life.