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A TV Critic Reviews the Marvel Cinematic Universe

The MCU is often compared to another popular serialized medium: television. But is it good television?

Marvel Studios/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Avengers: Infinity War is not really a movie as we’ve come to understand them. Even The New York Times says so! The definition of “a movie” has come a long way in the past decade, but it still might be fair to call it “entertainment that’s at least 80 minutes long and that you don’t have to research beforehand.” But with Infinity War, neither the characters nor their relationships nor the plot make much sense in isolation. Would you know Shuri was T’Challa’s sister if you hadn’t seen Black Panther or that the ship in the opening scene was full of Asgardian refugees if you hadn’t seen Thor: Ragnarok or that Scarlet Witch and Vision are dating if you hadn’t seen … whichever movie that happened in?

If Infinity War doesn’t totally scan as a movie, then logic holds that its fellow component parts of the Marvel Cinematic Universe don’t always either. (Though not all of them! One of Black Panther’s many virtues is how self-contained it was, apart from that Bucky teaser.) And if these soon-to-be-dozens of component parts aren’t movies, what are they? Probably something close to television, a medium where serialized storytelling drawn out over a period of years isn’t the exception—it’s the norm.

“The MCU is actually TV” is a take that belongs squarely in the first couple of panels of the Expanding Brain Meme (meaning it’s warm, but not exactly hot). Joe and Anthony Russo, the directing duo entrusted with Infinity War, its sequel, and several prior Marvel ventures came up through the world of episodic television, having worked on shows like Community. Taika Waititi’s charming Thor: Ragnarok prompted a wave of articles with headlines like “Why Thor: Ragnarok Is the Best Example of Marvel Treating Movies Like TV” and “Is the Marvel Cinematic Universe Actually the Most Popular TV Show of the Decade?,” the latter of which quotes producer Kevin Feige directly comparing Infinity War and its follow-up to a season finale. Even The New Yorker’s famously contrarian Richard Brody uses the analogy in his Infinity War review.

Most of the time, however, the MCU’s status as a de facto television series is used as either an excuse for its flaws (it’s unfair to evaluate something by the standards of a movie when it isn’t really a movie) or an explanation for them. In both cases, elaboration is considered unnecessary. Rarely is “The MCU is actually TV” used as a starting point instead of a destination. Sure, it’s a show—but what kind? Is it any closer to conventional television than it is to conventional movies? And most importantly: Is it good?

As a TV critic, I decided to try to answer (some of) these questions. Much like a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man suddenly doing battle in deep space, I’m not one to let being obviously underqualified for the task at hand stop me.

There’s a lot keeping MCU elements from working as a traditional movie, but there are just as many barriers to the whole enterprise working as traditional TV. Most movies don’t lean so heavily on their own self-generated mythology; most episodes of television don’t cost $9.16 on average to watch apiece. Most movie franchises don’t release 19 installments a decade; most TV series don’t release an average of one episode every six months.

Those prices and that schedule trip up a TV brain like mine. It’s fair game for film critics to chafe at the obligation to constantly consume the next Marvel product in order to understand the next next Marvel product, so it’s fair game for me to grumble about shelling out each and every time I want to hang out with my make-believe friends. As a person with rent to pay, let alone a critic, I’m wary of anything that requires a $150 buy-in. That’s 10 months of HBO Now! I could watch half a dozen pantheon shows and infinite middling studio comedies for the price of those 19 “episodes.” Same goes for the problem of just how much time passes between new entries in a larger continuity. Lots of Marvel movies are available to stream, but given the importance of box office revenue, one can safely assume the MCU isn’t intended as a binge, give or take a punishing 31-hour stunt. Bingeable shows can afford not to constantly refresh their audience on relevant information on the safe assumption they first learned it mere hours ago; live (or live-ish) shows can’t. And Infinity War relies on a lot of years-old information, for both its MacGuffin (what’s the Tesseract again?) and its emotional stakes.

Looking at the MCU purely as TV, the project seems to take on and shed formats as it sees fit. Sometimes it’s an episodic anthology, with building blocks that are distinct from each other to the point of being totally disconnected. (Believe it or not, Guardians of the Galaxy takes place in the same narrative continuity as Ed Norton’s Incredible Hulk.) Sometimes it’s an over-serialized drama in the vein of the “13-hour movie” streaming series, where two-hour segments are so concerned with resolving what’s happened and setting up what’s to come they forget to meaningfully exist in the present. The connective tissue of the MCU—your Age of Ultrons, your Captain America: Civil Wars—resembles nothing so much as a midseason excerpt from a punishingly long Netflix season.

The MCU swaps out TV styles as frequently as it does TV templates. It’s by turns a CW teen drama, a Thrones-ian high fantasy, a period piece, and, most frequently, a workplace comedy. Combined with the MCU’s almost militaristic commitment to origin stories, the whole looks less like a single series than an assemblage of pilots, some of them backdoor. (Civil War dedicating 20 minutes apiece to T’Challa and Spider-Man smoothly sets up the emotional stakes of two fledgling franchises.) It’s useful to think of the MCU as a collection of interrelated series—The Iron Man Show, The Thor Show, The Captain America Show—under the watchful eye of a single producer, with Feige as its Ryan Murphy or Shonda Rhimes.

The MCU may be without precedent, but it does have a close contemporary: the Arrowverse, a joint TV collaboration between the CW and DC Comics. Infinity War has been billed as “the most ambitious crossover event in history,” but the Arrowverse has been replicating the comics model of separate properties and heavily hyped climaxes since Arrow’s debut in 2012. It’s since been joined by Supergirl, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, and most recently, Black Lightning. Of course, the MCU has its own TV branch, which turned a convenient metaphor for streaming bloat into a textbook example of one. The Defenders didn’t quite turn into a TV version of the Avengers phenomenon, perhaps because the Marvel Netflix ventures embodied so many of the MCU’s weaknesses—slack pacing, monotonous uniformity, the uneven success of some characters over others—and so few of its strengths. (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., on the other hand, is trucking along well into its fifth season.) Meanwhile, the Arrowverse has crafted a mega-narrative that fits more comfortably into customary definitions of TV, which closely mirrors the issue-to-issue style of actual comic books anyway.

That Netflix is a major Marvel partner feels fitting, because reckoning with the MCU’s grip on the culture feels not unlike grappling with Netflix’s inexorable influence on our viewing habits. Both thumb their nose at category distinctions: Is it TV? Is it movies? Who cares, as long as they’ve successfully created a Pavlovian incentive to watch? Ditto for typical markers of quality: Does a movie or episode deliver a satisfying experience on its own? Who cares, if nothing exists on its own anymore? All critics are left to do is stand on the sidelines and grumble into our CMS.

So, is the MCU good TV? The answer is: sometimes. Like any good anthology, the MCU can be nimble and flexible in a way that lends itself to pleasing the widest possible assortment of crowds. Any universe that’s found a way to teleport from Asgard to Wakanda and make both worthwhile places to spend our time is to be commended. The MCU can also be as distended and overburdened as any B-minus Peak TV drama. Its worst moments are when a sense of obligation or entitlement—the root cause of all prestige bloat—peeks through: Doctor Strange’s cameo in Thor: Ragnarok exists for no other reason than to further ingratiate him as a primary MCU character for years to come; the ending of Infinity War is as cheap a cliffhanger as any sweeps-week stunt.

To my mind, the most important takeaway is that the traits that often compromise the MCU apply in any genre, as do the ones that make it so popular—I don’t care how a heist caper or space opera is packaged so long as I have a good time. Pointing out the MCU’s resemblance to a different kind of storytelling doesn’t hand-wave its challenges, including the ones showcased in Infinity War. It just highlights common problems both movies and shows tend to take on at their most excessive, and they’re not the kind that can get magically Departed by an unfriendly purple dinosaur. But a $600 million opening weekend isn’t broke, so I wouldn’t get my hopes up about fixing it.