Can WandaVision break Marvel’s TV curse?
From Agents of SHIELD to Daredevil, the MCU on TV has only had a fraction of the movies' success
This week sees the release of WandaVision, the first of many, many Disney+ TV shows set in the MCU. Disney are getting ready to roll out blockbuster shows starring existing heroes like Falcon, Winter Soldier and Loki, along with new characters such as Ms. Marvel and She-Hulk. It would seem like a sure-fire hit - but Marvel has so far had nowhere near the same success on the small screen that they’ve had on the big one.
So can WandaVision be the show to finally change that?
It is hard to pinpoint exactly why the MCU has never quite clicked on television. Considering the movies are essentially now an ongoing episodic serial, it would seem like a relatively easy process to transfer them to the serialised world of television.
But things have rarely gone smoothly for Marvel on TV.
The first attempt to expand the MCU for television came with Agents of SHIELD in 2013 for ABC. With Joss Whedon co-creating and directing the pilot, it seemed like an easy home run: Joss Whedon bringing his Buffy magic to the MCU, back when people still liked Joss Whedon.
It didn’t really pan out like that.
While it had plenty of buzz and solid reviews, the attempts to tie into the movies really stalled its momentum. It was hard to make people care about the show when it was clear it was just a side story and nothing of consequence in the MCU was going to happen on it. Stars Clark Gregg and Ming Na Wen even admitted that the show did a lot of treading water in its first season, waiting for the events of The Winter Soldier to play out on the big screen.
Agents of SHIELD also felt out of date. This was the era of prestige TV, and Agents of SHIELD was a network show. This was supposed to be comparable to the Avengers movies, but alongside Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, it looked like the tinpot sci-fi shows of the 1990s.
Agents of SHIELD did have its fans and only ended its run in 2020. So no series that runs for seven seasons can truly be called a failure. But by the time of its finale, most people had forgotten it existed, which was in stark contrast to how most things MCU have dominated the pop culture conversation.
The next stab at Marvel TV would be a big step up in both budget and prestige. In late 2013, it was announced that Marvel Television was producing four TV shows firmly set in the MCU’s New York, starring Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist, who would later join forces in the team-up show The Defenders.
It started well. Both Daredevil and Jessica Jones were met with acclaim from both fans and critics, and features on many 'best television of 2015' lists.
Luke Cage was slightly less well-received but was still praised for its depiction of African-American themes. But the wheels fell off with Iron Fist, which hemorrhaged viewers with its boring protagonist and dull martial arts action. By the time The Defenders hit, no one was paying attention anymore.
The later Netflix MCU shows weren’t all bad – the third season of Daredevil and the spinoff Punisher shows had their fans – but by this point, it was clear that Disney didn’t really consider them part of the movies. The fact that Daredevil, Jessica Jones or Luke Cage didn't even get a sniff at a cameo in the Endgame finale said it all.
There have been a few other attempts at TV shows that are part of the MCU, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who has actually watched them. Inhumans started out as an IMAX film and then lasted a pitiful eight episodes on ABC, and remains the only true failure of the MCU. Runaways and Cloak & Dagger were by all accounts much better, but you probably didn’t even know they existed.
So what makes WandaVision and this new set of shows different? Well, the budgets for one – The Mandalorian proved that Disney dollar can provide you with a miniature action movie every single week.
But more importantly, it doesn’t feel like these shows are a supplement to the movies – it feels like they are replacing the movies. They are going to star proper movie stars – including Tom Hiddleston, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen and Anthony Mackie – as the characters they play on the big screen. It has already been confirmed that they will set up future films, and with cinemas still in a state flux due to the pandemic, they might be our only MCU fix for a while.
Of course, this comes with a risk – there are plenty of fair-weather Marvel fans who’ll watch a two-hour movie every now and then, but expecting them to keep up with multiple TV shows is a much bigger ask. On the other hand, there are already so many Marvel die-hards already totally bought in, that maybe that doesn’t matter.
WandaVision starts on Disney+ on January 15th.