This weekend was the premiere of Luke Cage on Netflix, the latest Marvel street level superhero show and it’s already receiving rave reviews. Viewership is high enough that Netflix even appeared to have trouble keeping up with the demand. It’s also the beginning of the fall TV season, so we will soon have the return of all our favorite heroes, Green Arrow, Flash, Supergirl, Agents of SHIELD and more.
Watching Luke Cage got me thinking about how much I love the Marvel-Netflix shows. They bring an extra depth to the characters, it’s more than just the fiery explosions, it’s about the people. It’s something I’ve noticed after comparing the DC/CW shows of the Berlanti-verse to the recent superhero movies like Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad.
Recently I revisited Avengers: Age of Ultron and had so many problems still with the film, it suffers from a similar fate as Batman V Superman. They try to tell such a big story, with so many layers and moving pieces, that at times it can be difficult to keep up and the focus is lost. Even stories that succeed at balancing like Captain America: Civil War, still can feel like something that is simply too big for one movie.
However, on the small screen, they are able to balance the pieces out much better. The story doesn’t feel rushed, in fact on TV it can feel quite the opposite, stories can be stretched out so much that they lose the tension. I go back again to the Netflix model of approximately 13 episodes. This gives them time to tell a story, to dig into the characters and their motivations, but not have to give us “filler” episodes to meet the network standard of 24 episodes.
I wonder if it would be better suited to the characters and the stories, if there were no more big screen superhero movies? DC has created a large library of extremely successful animated films, they focus on a single storyline adapted from the comics, and are now starting to branch out to form a cohesive canon between films. The Berlanti-verse on CW has become a blueprint for how best to put superheroes on TV, with many going so far as to say that the weekly shows are better than the big budget movies. Marvel has had mostly positive results with Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter, but neither seem to have had the impact as their Netflix offerings with Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and now Luke Cage.
I’ve been asking myself this question for a few days now: Would it be better to not make any more movies, instead to turn them into longer form shows? Think of what could’ve been done with something like Age of Ultron with 10 hours instead of 3? What would Batman V Superman have looked like as a 6 part mini-series, with episodes delving into Batman’s time in Gotham? What if those montages of Superman rescuing people were a whole episode unto themselves?
One area that the films do succeed is in telling a single, self-contained story. Something like Watchmen or 300, which has a clear beginning, middle, and end can work best when it’s adapted into a feature film. For those stories they may not benefit from a longer form.
One major problem with the superhero movies is that we get only the faintest hint of the depth of characters in both the heroes and the villains. The Marvel films have struggled to really give us unique villains. They have succeeded mostly with Loki, but most of the others are forgettable, or at worst seem to be following similar archetypes. Right now, I’m struggling to remember the name of the villain in Ant-Man. But, I do know that the third act of that movie played out very similarly to the third act of the first Iron Man film with the hero battling the evil business man who was taking over the company using the technology that was stolen from the hero. Loki works as a villain, but he’s also had 3 films to grow and show us what he can do. Loki is the exception that proves the rule.
Compare that to Wilson Fisk in the first season of Daredevil, or Kilgrave in Jessica Jones. These villains have a depth to them that surpasses even some of the big screen heroes, and the stories are that much richer because of it.
Will anything really change in the land of the capes? No, not as long as each successive film keeps pulling in the massive box office receipts. However, I hope that the studios will continue to explore other ways of telling these stories. Ways that aren’t just limited to a story you can tell in 2-3 hours.