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What Does Marvel Want to Use Television For?

‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’ suggests Marvel is embracing TV not just as a business venture to prop up Disney+, but also as a storytelling device for the larger cinematic universe

Disney/Ringer illustration

In the premiere episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Bucky Barnes—former brainwashed assassin, current scowling loner—lays out his current predicament. “I never had a moment to deal with anything,” he explains to his court-mandated therapist. “I just went from one fight to another for 90 years.”

Bucky’s confession is a literal description of his near-century in combat, first as a young GI and then as the living puppet of a criminal cabal. He’s also describing how Marvel Studios has tended to operate when it comes to story development. Tentpole blockbusters like Avengers: Endgame, the events of which loom over the plot of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, tend to be about the fight; in a franchise with 20-plus films, the movies, like Bucky, go from one fight to another. But television, the Disney-owned division seems to have realized, can afford to be about the moments in between.

Now halfway through its six-episode run, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier arrived directly on the heels of WandaVision, the first series set within the Marvel Cinematic Universe and a very different show—yet one with a similar narrative function. WandaVision didn’t reveal its intentions until well into the season, preferring enigmatic teasers in the name of hype-drumming secrecy. But it, too, was less about a final showdown than the aftermath of one. Between Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, the two-part conclusion to Phase 3 of the MCU, half the Earth’s population was instantly vaporized and, five years later, restored to life in the Avenging equivalent of a full-court press. One of the casualties of that endeavor was Wanda’s husband Vision, a sentient android she mourned by constructing a magical, sitcom-flavored fantasy in suburban New Jersey.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is more concerned with the global fallout and logistical details of what’s come to be known as the Blip. In the most recent episode, for example, we learn there’s an entity called the Global Repatriation Council trying and failing to deal with the refugee crisis that ensues when billions of people materialize from the ether. But even as the show’s wider focus contrasts with WandaVision’s insularity—though she uses living people as props, the bulk of the show essentially took place inside Wanda’s head—The Falcon and the Winter Soldier shares a sense of being more a reaction to the films than an extended, episodic action in and of itself. And while the serialized, streaming era of the MCU is still in its infancy, the two shows offer a preview of how Marvel plans to use TV as a medium.

When The Avengers deployed mass disappearance as a story device, it prompted comparisons to The Leftovers, the three-season HBO series tracking the aftershocks of 2 percent of the Earth’s population vanishing into thin air, a cataclysm known as the Departure. Most of the analogies were knowing jokes; of course a family-friendly franchise wouldn’t resemble a somber HBO drama beyond the broad strokes. But in dealing with such subjects as grief, state assistance, and even the institutional racism of the American financial system, the Marvel shows thus far actually share some of The Leftovers themes and structure, not just its premise. The Leftovers was a show about a long-term healing process with no finite end. It made natural sense in a format more extended and flexible than a feature film—and so, too, do WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier at their best. MCU movies don’t stop to smell the roses, and they certainly don’t stop to explain the process of getting a bank loan when your credit disappears for half a decade.

It’s in big movies’ interests to sell themselves as self-contained spectacles. Not only do their stories have to wrap up in just two to three hours; theatrical releases also have to justify the costs of tickets, parking, and related expenses with a sense of climax. Marvel’s trick has been to preserve the spectacle while easing up on the self-contained experience, getting audiences to show up for movie after movie without diluting the promise of fireworks. But releasing so many CGI bonanzas in a row has also taken a toll, sapping the impact of major conflicts by neglecting to explore their consequences. Marvel has dabbled in course correction before, like when Captain America: Civil War actually pondered the question of collateral damage. But the approach hasn’t stuck and leaves a few examples as exceptions, not an overall approach.

Filling in such gaps—How would the world react to the destruction superheroes leave in their wake? How do the heroes themselves feel when they have to process what they’ve been through?—is a notable, if not urgent, need for the master Marvel narrative. It’s also a logical use for TV, which offers both more space and lower stakes than a film. Yes, the Disney+ shows feature lesser-known characters like Scarlet Witch, Falcon, and, soon, Loki. But they’re also centered on sifting through the emotional, and literal, debris of Endgame’s massive shift: Wanda processing the loss of her safe haven after a life of chaos; Bucky and Sam Wilson squabbling over how best to honor their friend’s legacy, even as the rest of the world has bigger fish to fry. The result feels more organic than skipping straight to the next Big Bad or introducing the next generation of heroes. (The sole Marvel movie following Endgame to make it to theaters pre-quarantine, Spider-Man: Far From Home, mostly used the Blip as a gag.) And thanks to the pandemic, it’s a mode the MCU will stay in for a while before heading back to the multiplex.

This doesn’t mean either WandaVision or The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has completely succeeded in fulfilling their potential. WandaVision infamously ended by punting on the question of Wanda’s morality, letting her off shockingly easy for all but imprisoning hundreds of innocent bystanders. The show’s ending demonstrated the limits of Marvel using TV to explore the movies’ impact; if Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige and his deputies followed that ethos to its natural conclusion, Wanda’s victims would have a show of their own. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier flirts with similar pitfalls, highlighting America’s legacy of racism and imperialism even as it positions its heroes as successors to Captain America. With three episodes to go, though, there’s still time to stick the landing.

Marvel’s early efforts also don’t embrace TV as a format with equal enthusiasm. Even though WandaVision wasn’t intended as the first MCU show, it made for a fitting introduction. A scrupulously detailed, time-traveling tribute to half a dozen specific shows, with references to many more, WandaVision’s sitcom guise turned out to be rooted in the character’s past. (Wanda watched American sitcoms with her family as a child in Sokovia, picking up both English and a rosy view of suburbia.) But it also signaled, in part, that Marvel had done its homework—that it had studied TV closely and was ready to join its ranks, a fact reflected in structure as much as substance. At first, every episode of WandaVision was tied to a particular influence, from Bewitched to Modern Family. Even after the rhythm loosened, however, the show retained an episodic feel, its discrete parts adding up to a whole.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, by contrast, is more distended. Its episodes, already twice as long as WandaVision’s, are also less defined by a certain style or event. Not only does The Falcon and the Winter Soldier mash together many genres, toggling between buddy comedy, military epic, and espionage thriller; it combines them in each episode, which begin and end at points that seem more arbitrary each week. You could call it formless, but it does, in fact, resemble a form: a movie, doubled in running time and chopped up into six parts. Thematically, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier makes sense as a TV show. Formally, it hasn’t adjusted to Marvel’s latest outpost.

Such shortcomings beg the question: What does Marvel want to use TV for? Embracing TV as a medium, not just a business venture bringing its parent company into the streaming age, has enabled the MCU to take on new dimensions—and not just in the Multiverse of Madness sense. But it’s also suggested some Marvel shows will be happy to take the path of least resistance: taking a story that could easily have been a movie, stretching it out, and releasing it as is. Which attitude will prevail remains to be seen. TV is what you make of it, and Marvel has only just gotten to work.