At some point around ten years ago, Marvel Studios figured out a system that worked for them: take the formulaic plot structure inherent to superhero movies and wrap it in different genres that fit each character. This strategy helps Iron Man feel like a war movie, Ant-Man like a classic heist, and Spiderman: Homecoming feel like a high school buddy comedy. None of their plots are particularly surprising, and yet they all feel fresh.
In a sense, this approach is Marvel’s way of acknowledging that while they may dominate the box office, they couldn’t succeed without the innovations in movie-making and scriptwriting that have come before them. Their formula only works because there is a wealth of inspiration in other genres to pull from.
That formula is also what made WandaVision so important, as the first official TV series to be part of the MCU. (Marvel seems hell-bent on pretending Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. didn’t happen, much to my chagrin). The series begins as a homage to the great sitcoms of old — The Dick Van Dyke Show, I Love Lucy, Bewitched, Brady Bunch, among others — with each episode inspired by a different era in television. Wanda has created this fantasy world and stuck herself inside as an escape from her trauma after Vision’s death. By the fourth episode, though, that fantasy starts to break down, and the real world starts to blend with the sitcom fantasy she’s living in. By the end of the series, the show feels less like the world of old television and more like the traditional Marvel writing viewers are used to.
As a result, WandaVision represented, both literally and figuratively, Marvel Studios’ invasion into the world of television, and through this concept, they were able to acknowledge the format they were about to enter, while at the same time shifting into their own formula over the course of the series. In doing so, Marvel also sent a clear message that they were willing to treat MCU TV series differently from the movies. WandaVision is a high-concept series that makes strong use of the episodic format. It still utilizes Marvel’s tried-and-true approach, but it bridges “the formula” with a more experimental storyline that is better suited for television than film.
So far, Marvel’s best shows have all succeeded by following this approach: copying what worked about their films while also experimenting with the most successful genres and formats from television.
The best MCU show so far, Loki, did this by pulling inspiration from iconic science fiction shows. In fact, the series operates in a similar fashion to modern Doctor Who in its golden era, with an overarching plotline about saving the universe and individual episodes with contained conflicts. In the third episode, Loki and his variant get trapped on a dying alien planet and have to race against time to escape, it feels like a classic Who plotline. Importantly, the aesthetic and structural design for Loki doesn’t just feel fresh and unique for Marvel, it’s also the genre that Tom Hiddleston’s Loki works best in. He has a captivating mixture of charm and other-worldliness that works perfectly within the framework of sci-fi shows like Doctor Who.
Hawkeye employs a similar approach, to a slightly less successful extent, by placing the hero within the genre of a big city crime show. Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye has always been a gritty street fighter, and unlike most other heroes, he has no superpowers, so setting the show within a smaller, contained world like NYC works well for him. Combine that with Hailee Steinfeld’s whimsical take on Kate Bishop, and you end up with a classic detective genre pairing: a rough-around-the-edges veteran forced to work with the scrappy and optimistic new guy.
Less successful is The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which is entertaining but does little to justify its existence as a series. It makes almost no use of the episodic format, and pulls very little inspiration from existing TV genres, and as a result, feels less like an interesting TV show and more like a mid-grade superhero movie that’s been chopped up into six parts.
That series also does the worst job of hiding Marvel’s meta-purpose behind branching into television in the first place, which is to bridge the gaps between movies. In a sense, all four of these projects are designed to set up things that will happen in Phase 4 of the MCU later on. WandaVision sets up Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Loki sets up the next Ant-Man. Hawkeye sets up whatever’s going on with the new Black Widow. There are moments in all of these shows that feel more like trailers than projects that should exist in their own right, but for the most part, the writers have done a successful job of hiding that. In Falcon and the Winter Soldier, though, the whole series feels like a trailer for the next Captain America.
Of course, Disney also has its own meta-purpose for making MCU shows, which is to bolster subscriptions for its streaming service, Disney+. That is why all of the shows have been split into weekly releases, despite their binge-ability. Still, the weekly format means that Marvel is finally able to do something that in the past has been relegated to post-credit sequences: cliffhangers. WandaVision and Loki made strong use of that technique, and as a result, they were able to keep viewers consistently entertained for most of 2021.
Now, over a year after the premiere of WandaVision, it’s clear that Marvel Studios’ has figured out how to apply their tried-and-tested filmmaking approach to television, even if they don’t always execute it perfectly. What they need to do moving forward is justify these shows as stand-alone projects, rather than set-ups for future films, even if that’s what they are always going to be from a business perspective.
WandaVision, Falcon & The Winter Soldier, Loki, What If and Hawkeye are all available on Disney+ now.