Despite Marvel Studios and Marvel Television being separate companies, they share a similar model for building profitable franchises. While everyone points to the Marvel Cinematic Universe films as evidence of this, we are remiss to not look at the Marvel Netflix Series as, arguably, a better model for the Marvel media juggernaut. Thanks to the burgeoning streaming market, old-school television networks desperate to stay competitive, the market for Marvel projects has never been better. Using the unique Marvel method of building a shared universe, the MCU can extend far beyond the big screen to screens of all sizes. While they may not connect with each other seamlessly, it creates an urgency for fans to consume all the projects lest they miss something.
How it all Began
To truly understand the Marvel method of building a shared continuity, we need to go back to the post-Avengers days of 2013. Marvel just pulled off a coup by winning at the box office with a team-up picture. The conventional wisdom, that movie audiences wouldn’t go to a movie featuring characters from four separate films crumbled like New York streets hit by the Chitauri.
Thanks to corporate synergy with their parent company Disney, the first Marvel Television efforts set in the MCU premiered on ABC. But in 2015, they announced a massive deal with Netflix. The streamer would produce live action series featuring four “street level” heroes: Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist. After their (first) seasons, the four would unite in The Defenders mini-series. Multiple seasons and one spin-off later, the Marvel and Netflix experiment is no more, a casualty of the Streaming Wars.
The Marvel Method of Building a Franchise
The Marvel and Netflix experiment began with Daredevil, the most popular of the four Marvel Knights. Jessica Jones debuted after, and introduced Luke Cage. Then that character debuted in his own eponymous series. These were huge hits with fans and critics. Iron Fist, the fourth effort, faced some harsh criticism but the fans were a bit more forgiving. The series all earned second seasons. Jessica Jones and Daredevil each got a third. They also spun-off The Punisher after Frank Castle appeared in Daredevil’s second season.
The Defenders, an eight episode mini-series where the team faced off against Marvel villains the Hand, was a huge success. While the show faced some criticism for its slow-burn, everyone assumed the series would repeat. Surprisingly, it did not. Shortly after this, Disney announced their new streaming service, and Netflix canceled all of the series.
Marvel Television can be Successful Elsewhere
Still, even though Marvel Television is finished with Netflix, it can repeat its success elsewhere. For studios, producers, and filmmakers who want to create a shared universe, comics legend and head of Marvel Television Jeph Loeb spilled all the secrets to Deadline. They take a group of characters who all fit together well, then cross them over for a big event series.
Hulu will soon see four animated series starring Howard the Duck, M.O.D.O.K., Hit Monkey, Tigra and Dazzler each get their own show and team up in the hilariously-titled The Offenders. Ghost Rider, Helstrom, and other horror characters will also debut on the streaming platform, leading to their own team-up. Even their teen-focused shows, The Runaways and Cloak and Dagger will cross over in their third seasons. (Though Cloak and Dagger airs on Disney-owned Freeform and has not been renewed at the time of this writing for a third season.) With their deep roster of characters (now including mutants), Marvel Television can repeat their Netflix success anywhere.
How Not to Build a Shared Universe
The first successful superhero feature films came not from Marvel but their rival DC. So, when Marvel pulled-off Avengers, executives at Warner Bros. realized they’d missed a huge opportunity by not crossing over Batman and Superman. So, they hired director Zach Snyder to do just that and follow that film with a full-on Justice League series. Yet, the execution wasn’t quite what they expected.
No matter what one thinks of those films, there is no question that the execution of the shared universe was rushed. They’d only just established Henry Cavill’s Superman and Christian Bale’s Batman sat fresh in fans’ minds. Introducing the most violent, Dark Knight Returns-style Batman with Ben Affleck is a tall enough order.Adding Gal Gadot’s Wonderman and the rest of the Justice League (in video clips) may have asked too much of the movie.
The TV Side
On the TV side of things, specifically on the CW, Greg Berlanti and his partners actually followed the Marvel method to create the Arrowverse. They established Arrow as a grounded take on superheroes. Then they introduced Grant Gustin’s Barry Allen (from Flash) in the second season, and then both introduced the Legends of Tomorrow in Arrow’s third season. They took their time and, since they all film in Vancouver, crossed them over in ways that made their “universe” feel bigger. Unlike with The Defenders, which was its own series, the CW shows “cross over” each year, but the effect is still the same. The success at the CW shows that this method works with characters from any universe.
With an ever-growing need for content and lots of interconnected intellectual property out there, we’re sure to sure a lot more shared universes in our entertainment futures.