At this point, just about everyone is familiar with the entertainment juggernaut that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become. The premiere of a new MCU movie is now a global event, with a long list of box-office records metaphorically incinerated by the ticket-buying crowds that turn out for each installment of the biggest film franchise in Hollywood’s history.
But here’s the secret that all of those breathless headlines about Marvel movies are hiding: The best storytelling within the MCU is actually happening on a much smaller screen.
Before you write this off as just another contrarian, Marvel-bashing missive, make no mistake: The MCU has consistently delivered some of the greatest superhero stories in cinema over the last 15 years. The numbers don’t lie in that respect, whether you’re looking at the box office, critical consensus, or audience satisfaction surveys. However, at a time when the studio’s distinguished competition seems intent on minimizing the value streaming projects bring to a shared universe — and with the premiere of Marvel’s She-Hulk: Attorney at Law still fresh — it seems like a good time to highlight just how much Marvel’s original, streaming shows have enriched the MCU.
Given all the trials of the last few, pandemic-blurred years we’ve experienced, it feels like an eternity ago that WandaVision premiered on Disney+, the streaming home of the MCU. The series was surrounded by mystery when it arrived, but as its story unfolded, it eventually became apparent that this was a project unlike anything else the MCU had ever delivered. WandaVision took a deep dive into the myriad ways we process grief and trauma, filtering its exploration of these intense themes through the lens of a superhero sitcom. The series’ nine-episode arc allowed it to take its time with its sensitive subject matter, and that patience paid off with one of the MCU’s most powerful — emotionally speaking — stories to date.
WandaVision set a high bar for the MCU, but Marvel followed it with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which explored America’s history of racial injustice and historical whitewashing, as well as its mistreatment of veterans and the power of propaganda. It was heavy stuff, indeed, and delivered one of the MCU’s most disturbing scenes so far when John Walker (Wyatt Russell) is shown using Captain America’s red, white, and blue shield to brutally murder a suspected terrorist.
The MCU followed this one-two punch of dramatic, thought-provoking stories with a combination of smart deconstructions of the MCU’s status quo that are rife with commentary on the world we live in. Loki explored the nature of redemption and the way we approach the concepts of fate and free will, while Hawkeye tackled PTSD in the MCU, and Moon Knight wrapped its study of psychological trauma in a critique of religious zealotry. More recently, Ms. Marvel had its hero learn firsthand how one’s family and cultural history can shape future generations’ understanding of the world, and Marvel’s new streaming series She-Hulk seems poised to deliver a smart, subversive spin on feminism and the superhero world.
Meanwhile, on the theatrical side of the MCU, audiences have been treated with one visually stunning spectacle after another, filled with amazing actors, epic action sequences, and plenty of humor, heart, and heroic journeys of one kind or another. Marvel movies reliably deliver a level of excitement and cinematic experience engineered to appeal to the widest audience possible, offering escapism and immersive world-building in equal measure, without asking their audience to look too deeply into the darker corners of that universe, or worse, within our own. Engaging with that particular aspect of the MCU’s potential is saved for the streaming shows, it would seem.
While there’s no official distinction between the sort of philosophical, psychological, or emotional themes that the MCU movies and streaming shows are inclined (or allowed) to explore, there are plenty of reasons why Marvel would choose to draw lines between them.
The mainstream appeal of Marvel’s movies is unquestionable, and MCU architect Kevin Feige and the studio have shown an uncanny knack for delivering one film after another that manages to appeal to all generations of audience members. Few franchises are as beloved by such a wide range of demographics as the MCU, and that has as much to do with the iconic status of its characters and the careful mix of what’s in each film as it does with what Marvel leaves out of them.
While some of Marvel’s films are sometimes surrounded by the sort of behind-the-scenes controversy and debate present in the lead-up to any blockbuster’s premiere, there’s often very little controversy about the themes and content of the movie itself. For the most part, MCU films are a safe space for just about everyone — regardless of age, race, or politics — as they opt to focus on the franchise’s never-ending battle between colorful heroes and villains instead of wading too far into the weeds of real-world social and political discourse. It’s a formula that works very, very well (both critically and commercially), and requires a deft approach to maintain with so many films, filmmakers, and writers involved in the process.
And while there are clear financial advantages to making MCU movies as safe and non-controversial as possible, Marvel also seems to understand that certain topics and themes benefit from a more long-form approach to storytelling.
Whether it’s exploring how we process grief to America’s abhorrent history of racism, there’s something to be said for giving complicated subjects the time they deserve. It’s unlike that many of the aforementioned MCU series could have done justice to their underlying emotional and social themes within the constraints of a two- or even three-hour film — a fact that Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness made abundantly clear when it attempted to pick up where WandaVision left off, only to be criticized for cheapening the arc of Elizabeth Olsen’s MCU character, Wanda Maximoff.
Understanding which sort of themes lend themselves to a two-hour movie and which ones are better-suited for a carefully paced series is something Marvel seems to understand.
Although it’s easy to criticize the MCU for the homogeneity of its films, there’s a brilliance to all of the curation that goes into that aspect of the franchise, too. At this point, movie fans know what they’re likely to get when they go to the theater for an MCU film, and they can be just as certain about expecting the unexpected in Marvel’s streaming projects.
A trip to the theater is expensive — even more so with children — and the level of confidence audiences have in Marvel’s movies is built on giving them what they’ve come to expect, time and time again. A Disney+ subscription isn’t exactly cheap, but the price of entry to Marvel’s streaming home (and everything else a subscription offers) makes it the perfect place to be more experimental and surprise audiences with something they weren’t expecting. Sure, you might come to Disney+ for theatrical blockbusters like Iron Man or The Avengers, but it’s streaming shows like Ms. Marvel, WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and yes, She-Hulk that make the MCU a more fascinating, rewarding universe to explore.
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