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What Disney’s Stand-alone Superhero Series Mean for the MCU

With limited series dedicated to Loki, Scarlet Witch, and maybe more headed to Disney’s upcoming streaming service, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is about to get bigger, more detailed, and potentially more efficient

Marvel/Ringer illustration

It’s a sentence that must be whispered in the halls at Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon every day, a message of warning and urgency: Disney is coming.

Though it will arrive years behind its biggest competitors, Disney’s forthcoming streaming service already has an impressive arsenal of content to tempt people into paying for one more subscription, and the pile is only growing larger: Variety reported on Tuesday that Disney is also planning to build out a roster of limited series based on characters from its Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Thus far, Variety notes that six-to-eight-episode limited series are already being planned around Loki and Scarlet Witch — with actors Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen reprising their respective big-screen roles — and that more similar stand-alone series focusing on other second-tier MCU characters (basically, don’t expect Captain America or Iron Man shows; they’re a bit too big time) will be developed in the future. The budgets for these series, Variety reports, will rival “those of a major studio production,” which, in simpler terms, means that Disney and Marvel are planning to spend a Brink’s truck worth of cash to make these shows look good.

Disney’s push into Marvel-related content for its streaming service — which is expected to arrive sometime in 2019 — is another big step in the company’s aim for entertainment omnipotence, and comes on the heels of an expected merger between the company and 21st Century Fox. The company is taking more and more steps to compete with — and attempt to topple — Netflix. But this latest move will have an even greater effect on the Marvel Cinematic Universe and how its IP is delivered to fans.

The MCU Hits Television — for Real This Time

Thanks to ABC (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), Freeform (Cloak & Dagger), Hulu (Runaways), and Netflix (The Defenders, Jessica Jones, Daredevil, etc.), the current television landscape is not bereft of Marvel heroes. But those shows have, at best, been only tangentially related to the MCU — save for the occasional reference and the revival of Agent Coulson in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the series have existed in their own worlds, removed from heroes like the Hulk and Thor. There is a clear divide between the world built by Marvel Television head Jeph Loeb and that of Marvel Studios, and aside from the first season of Jessica Jones, which won a Peabody Award, the former hasn’t been as warmly received by fans and critics as its big-screen counterparts.

The Disney streaming shows, however, will be overseen by Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige, the man responsible for the lucrative cinematic universe that is about to enter its Phase 4, and who has previously rebuffed the idea of connecting Marvel’s TV efforts to the MCU at large. With the new series focusing on at least Loki and Scarlet Witch, and the original actors along for the ride, there is a direct connection to the MCU that the other Marvel shows haven’t had — a through line that gives fans an incentive to watch the Disney streaming shows. Feige’s involvement also guarantees that both the tone and efficiency of the MCU — some of the franchise’s strongest attributes — will carry over into the new shows.

It will certainly help that Disney plans to give these series budgets rivaling that of the MCU films — if the Star Wars live-action series plans are anything to go off of, these shows could hit the $100 million range. That hasn’t always been the case: There were a lot of things wrong with ABC’s Inhumans misfire, but one of its most shocking flaws was that it just looked cheap. If nothing else, Disney plans to spare no expense transferring its established MCU heroes to the small screen. That bodes well for Marvel as it looks for more sustainable success than the previous TV efforts have been able to garner.

Marvel Has Heard Your Complaints About Overly Long Seasons

The prevailing issue with the Marvel-Netflix television enterprise is that they’re prone to narrative bloat: Minus the Defenders crossover series and the second season of Iron Fist, every Marvel-Netflix season has been 13 episodes. While having 13-episode seasons isn’t universally bad, it has been a detriment to all of Marvel’s efforts on Netflix. From Daredevil to Iron Fist, none of the shows have been able to stretch a compelling narrative over 13 hours without dragging at some point — even the first installment of Jessica Jones had midseason, stuck-in-the-sand stumbles. Whether the Marvel-Netflix shows will ever address these issues remains to be seen — that they’ve been churning out new seasons for years and haven’t changed a thing is disconcerting — but Disney’s service has apparently heard fans’ complaints, cutting the episode order for the new series by as much as half.

Less isn’t necessarily more, but there’s something relieving about these shows adhering to a smaller episodic commitment. (Or maybe that’s just my Iron Fist–induced trauma acting up again.) As Peak TV has expanded, the corresponding shows that have best captured the zeitgeist are frequently shorter series topping out at eight episodes (Stranger Things Season 1, American Vandal, Big Little Lies, even the final two seasons of Game of Thrones). Shorter orders lessen the risk of bloated story lines or filler episodes. The narrative has to go somewhere, and in the case of the MCU, it could literally be out of this world — it’s not hard to envision a Loki miniseries taking place on alien planets, since he’s spent a lot of his MCU screen time there. Embracing shorter run times along with the budget of a proper blockbuster should ensure the MCU’s small-screen turn pays dividends.

It should be noted, however, that Disney’s newest plans do not spell the end for Netflix-Marvel’s current commitment to the Defenders (Jessica Jones, Daredevil, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and the Punisher) and future seasons of those shows. Netflix’s partnership with Marvel Television is not affected by Disney’s streaming service, or the fact that Disney’s movies will eventually be removed from Netflix’s library once their streamer is ready in 2019. The Defenders shows are still Netflix Originals; they aren’t going anywhere. If they’re still drawing a lot of viewers — which, of course, Netflix won’t disclose — the company has no incentive to move on from them anytime soon.

More MCU Heroes Get a Spotlight

While the MCU has met its considerable demand with 20 films and counting, fans still clamor for even more stand-alone stories focusing on the less-represented heroes. Just one example: Even Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye — an impressive human being, but basically the Kendrick Perkins of Avengers — has warranted enough interest to fuel a rumor that Marvel could eventually give him a stand-alone film in its Phase 4. Hawkeye! The man who slings arrows in a world where a giant purple alien can wipe out entire populaces! HAWKEYE!

Having a set of MCU limited series should be an outlet for the studio so that smaller-scale heroes don’t have to be put on the backburner in perpetuity. Whether in a stand-alone film or a limited series, a Black Widow–centric story seems like a safe bet — after clamoring for a stand-alone project for so many years, I doubt that fans will care where that story is developed so long as it happens. Similar bets could be made with characters like Letitia Wright’s Shuri, Don Cheadle’s War Machine, and, God willing, even Taika Waititi’s lovable rockman Korg.

Branching out these series to include more MCU heroes won’t just provide more screen time for secondary characters, but a chance to explore the worlds they inhabit — be it the Nordic vibes of Loki, or the technologically advanced world of Shuri’s Wakanda. (Who’s gonna say no to more Wakanda?) Sure, Disney and Marvel now face the danger of saturation, but until people stop making Hawkeye petitions, the studios might as well keep supplying the demand.

Disney’s plans for its streaming service are just beginning to manifest, but the company is smartly throwing its weight around, barging into the streaming arms race with big-budget salvos surrounding the Star Wars and Marvel universes. With built-in fan bases that may never be fully satiated, along with a library of other Disney shows and films (including Pixar!), it might only be a matter of when — not if — Disney’s streaming service rivals Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu.