Netflix; ABC; FOX; Hulu / E! Illustration
When Marvel first made its way to TV, expectations were high.
The Avengers had just assembled their way to becoming the studio’s first production to generate over $1 billion in ticket sales, transitioning the Marvel Cinematic Universe out of its first phase and into its second, and the idea of the interconnected superhero world coming into our living rooms every week for the low, low price of the cable bill we were already paying was thrilling.
And then, in the fall of 2013, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. actually premiered.
In the four years since the ABC series revived S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) and, at the start, underwhelmed fans, the powerhouse studio’s small-screen output has been something of a mixed bag. With their latest Netflix series, the dour Marvel’s The Punisher, now streaming and their first Hulu series, Marvel’s Runaways, just around the corner, it’s time to take stock of the state of Marvel TV. And at the onset, one thing’s abundantly clear: For a studio that continues to soar to new heights, both creatively and financially, at the box office (Seriously, have you seen Thor: Ragnarok yet? If not, what’s stopping you?!), they’re sure having a hard time sticking the landing on TV this fall.
Between August’s premiere of The Defenders on Netflix and today’s release of The Punisher, the studio has launched four new shows and all of them have shown some signs of struggle for the powerhouse studio. While The Defenders once held much promise for fans of Marvel’s Netflix suite who wanted nothing more than to see Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), Luke Cage (Mike Colter) and Danny Rand (Finn Jones) in something of a small-screen Avengers team-up, many still had a sour taste in their mouth from the disastrous Iron Fist series that debuted in March.
Despite some inspired moments (Sigourney Weaver‘s casting as the villainous Alexandra, for example), the eight-episode mini-series came and went with little fanfare and too much emphasis on an evil group (The Hand) we’d all grown tired of. While Netflix steadfastly refuses to share viewing data on any of their shows, the lack of chatter surrounding The Defenders in the weeks immediately following its release was a pretty good indicator that the streaming giant’s Marvel trail was losing some steam.
While the lack of cultural dominance from The Defenders would certainly register as a disappointment, the September launch of Marvel’s Inhumans will likely go down as the studio’s biggest embarrassment thus far. The big-budget series, a first-of-its-kind partnership with IMAX, was meant to be ABC’s next great Marvel hope, replacing the artistically-rebounded, but ratings-struggling Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on the fall schedule. Hopes were so high for the series that a limited theatrical release of the first two episodes was planned, asking fans to pay good money for something that would be free on their TVs in just a few weeks. But a cast that read like a who’s who of “Who?” (Anson Mount, Serinda Swan and Iwan Rheon were the leads) and a critical drubbing that took the show to task over its stilted dialogue, ludicrous plotting (the show told the story of an alien race that lived in a city hidden on Earth’s moon) and bargain-basement special effects kept the fan base away. The IMAX release netted a paltry $2.85 million worldwide, while the series, which premiered to 3.75 million viewers, saw its audience erode by nearly two million people when its run ended on Friday.
Though not part of the MCU, Fox’s The Gifted has proven to be a bit more of a success story for the studio—albeit only slightly. The series, which is part of the larger X-Men universe and stars Stephen Moyer, Jamie Chung and Amy Acker, tells the story of a family of mutants on the run after the X-Men have disappeared, forcing mutants to go underground to evade the government and survive. Buoyed by positive reviews and effects that don’t elicit laughs, The Gifted premiered to 4.9 million viewers in October, though they’ve dropped with every successive airing, with the most recent episode netting only 3 million pairs of eyeballs. The jury’s still out on where the series goes from here, but if it can manage to stop its ratings backslide, it could find some lasting power.
This all brings us to the release of Netflix’s latest Marvel spinoff, The Punisher. After Jon Bernthal‘s interpretation of the violent vigilante was introduced in season two of Daredevil, many were left puzzled as to why this particular character was so demanding of his own vehicle—especially in our current climate, rife with gun violence as it is. The series, which follows Bernthal’s Frank Castle, a former Green Beret haunted by the murder of his family, as he sets out to fight the criminal underworld, no matter how lethal the methods. In the premiere alone, he dispatches of three goons from the construction site he’s taking up work at in bloody fashion with a sledgehammer. While the show has received faint praise for its examination of what returning home from war does to a soldier, it’s notably followed in the footsteps of the rest of Netflix’s Marvel shows by stretching out too little story over too many episodes, being relentlessly grim, and remaining gratuitously violent. (The opening credits sequence includes the iconic Punisher skull logo, only comprised out of several pieces of heavy artillery.)
In the months since the spinoff was announced, excitement for the series continued to wan, likely due to the fact that we live in a world where each week brings a new horrific act of gun violence and no one’s really in the mood to pretend we want the same from our entertainment anymore.
Needless to say, it’s been a rocky fall for Marvel. But why? Why can’t this studio, which continues to get it so right on the big screen, get a handle on what we want out of it on the small screen? For starters, let’s look at the disconnect in tone. While Marvel continues to churn out fun theatrical romps like Guardians of the Galaxy and the latest Thor sequel, their vision for TV remains unnecessarily dour and dark. In an attempt to deliver more mature, adult fare, as has seemed to be the edict at least as far at its Netflix suite is concerned, they’ve allowed almost all the fun to seep out of the proceedings. And it’s certainly not a good sign that their first attempt at something of a true Marvel comedy, the adaptation of the New Warriors, with characters that include Squirrel Girl and Microbe, just lost its home at Freeform and remains in limbo.
Fans of these comics are turning out in droves at the box office because the movies are fun escapism, a celebration of comic books in all their ridiculous, frenetic glory. And Marvel, unlike its competitor DC who has managed to figure out how to deliver on TV nearly perfectly with the CW’s Arrowverse (while they, inversely, can’t seem to figure out what they’re doing on the big screen), just can’t seem to deliver those thrills in quite the same way on TV.
That’s not to say all hope is lost. Hulu’s Runaways and the fifth season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are both waiting in the wings, ready to bring some much-needed levity to Marvel’s fall proceedings. In the case of the former, the studio wisely teamed with Gossip Girl and The O.C. vets Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage to bring to life the story of six teenagers with different backgrounds who must team up to take down their supervillain parents. The pair’s sensibility pairs nicely with the coming-of-age superhero story, making Runaways the studio’s best new series this fall, by far.
As for the latter, while ratings have never rebounded to those season one highs, S.H.I.E.L.D. has steadily improved, creatively, and this new season looks no different. As Coulson and his crew wake up in outer space with no clue of how they got there in the first promo for the season, there’s jokes, action and a sense of wonder. It looks fun. It looks like Marvel.
“We’re bringing that a man can get bitten by a radioactive spider and then go out and swing across the skyscrapers of Manhattan, or that a blind superhero can actually, somehow, use his heightened senses in order to take down those that are opposed to abiding by the law,” Marvel TV’s executive vice-president Jeph Loeb told ComicBook.com in 2016. ” If you’re going to have that as part of it, it’s always a good idea to make sure that the audience is aware that, yeah, it’s funny. It helps along the way in telling the story.”
As the studio moves into 2018, no doubt expanding its pact with Netflix as it debuts its first series on Freeform (Cloak & Dagger, a superhero love story) and explores other outlets to order its content (including Disney’s planned streaming service), they’d be wise to take his words to heart.
The Punisher season one is available to stream now on Netflix, while The Gifted airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on Fox. Runaways‘ first three episodes drop on Tuesday, Nov. 21 on Hulu, while Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season five kicks off with a two-hour premiere on Friday, Dec. 1 at 8 p.m. on ABC.