In addition to preparing for the upcoming roundtable at the Modern Language Association, I also am preparing for another roundtable at the Northeast Modern Language Association, this one stemming in part from my recent publication on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Between now and March, I’ll be using posts here to organize thoughts ahead of this MCU roundtable.
This is in response to Erik Kain at Forbes, who argues that Jessica Jones and Daredevil, two Netflix series set in the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, should actually be in a separate fictional universe:
The morally complex, violent, dark world of Jessica Jones has no place in the MCU. It doesn’t fit. Sure, you can have a fairly cheery show like The Flash work well with the darker-toned Arrow but both those shows have about the same level of violence, romance, moralizing and the like. Different heroes with different personalities and problem-solving strategies, but largely the same overall guiding principles.
A great big shared universe can be terrific for creativity and storytelling, but it can also limit those things, forcing a shared story where none exists and none ought to exist.
Right now, the MCU is holding back shows like Jessica Jones and Daredevil, while those shows are contributing absolutely nothing to the MCU.
Kain’s argument sounds like clickbait to me. I came upon it when reading Oliver Sava’s review of the Jessica Jones season finale, and from the moment I look at the headline to reading these quotations, I strongly disagree with this assessment that seems only to provoke reactions rather than making reasonable, persuasive arguments.
In other words, I’m going to out-hipster Kain on his nonsense.
I apologize that this post is going to be far more snarky than what I tend to publish. Rather, it is because I am irritated when Kain claims that “these shows are contributing absolutely nothing to the MCU.”
First, that use of “absolutely nothing” makes it really easy to undermine his absolutist argument.
Second, Kain is focusing on contributions in terms of how these series move forward the plotlines of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe rather than appreciating that these series are actually more about universe-building: they are to show that there are super-powered protagonists whose struggles are daily, hence much more suited to serialized narratives, and whose ethics are likely more complex than a dualistic good versus evil conceit that has dominated almost every Marvel film, and tends to dominate in blockbuster cinema anyway.
The point of Sava’s article, separate from Kain’s, is that Jessica Jones is a superhero series that eschews many of the superhero tropes. I think I am in agreement with that point, as it guides how I’m going to discuss the problems with Kain’s article, which seems to suggest that diversity in storytelling, tone, and genre is a problem. No, it is not: it is a solution to prevent the superhero story from becoming like the film western, a really good genre that unfortunately saturates the market and risks becoming over-exposed.
Not all superheroes have the same guiding principles. Using Kain’s DC Comics example, that is the point that Arrow and The Flash still are making whenever Oliver Queen and Barry Allen help each other in their crossovers. I anticipate that point will be emphasized as well in the next DC Comics television spin-off, Legends of Tomorrow, in which the protagonists are not only superheroes like Firestorm, Hawkgirl, and White Canary, but also supervillains like Captain Cold and Heatwave. Marvel’s original comics as well had their protagonists–or, at best, anti-heroes–hardly have the same ethics: Captain America, Ms. Marvel, Storm, and the Punisher all certainly have different approaches to the same problems.
So I react badly when I hear what sounds like Kain suggesting a homogenizing of superhero guidelines: that’s dull. Marvel Studios itself gave Joss Whedon numerous edicts for the first Avengers film, one of them being that Thor and Iron Man have to fight each other–and it was up to Whedon to give a pretty good reason (a dispute over who has jurisdiction over Loki–a rather clever approach to turning pretty big issues about prosecution and national boundaries into a fist-fight between “Shakespeare in the Park” and the billionaire playboy philanthropist). Heck, DC Comics and Marvel Comics are both making their next blockbuster films all about two superheroes duking it out over different ethics. Even if I don’t personally like seeing Batman and Superman repeatedly reduced to being on opposite sides, I recognize that a plot without conflict is dull, so I can appreciate that detail for Dawn of Justice as well as Captain America: Civil War. For these reasons, it is a point that I have fixated upon, where it is not realistic to me to think that a world of superheroes are going to get along and blend with each other. You need difference in your superhero stories. And you need a Jessica Jones or a Daredevil to break up Ant-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, and whatever the Thor films are trying to accomplish.
In 2008, Marvel Studios released Iron Man with the following mission statement, coming from director Jon Favreau: “It was important so it didn’t just jump into fantasyland.” The video is even called “grounded in reality,” a phrase or idea almost always repeated in every commentary track I have listened to for every Marvel Studios film, to the point that it feels less like a practical guideline and more like a memo straight from Marvel Enterprises.
In many ways, that idea, keeping it grounded in realism, chafes me; it’s why I was happy when Marvel stopped insisting that everything had to be non-comic book-y and instead could stand to be much more fantastic. Yes, the fantastic must be grounded in rules, as the mystical and magical of Asgard and Doctor Strange need to have limitations or else negating any struggle and hence any plot. Sometimes you just need Howard the Duck or a shrinking man to pop up.
On the other hand, “grounded in reality” is still a sufficient goal for the sake of making stories that are realistic. Therefore, I cannot agree with this argument, as Kain works from a supposition that a fictional universe cannot work if its themes are inconsistent, whereas I would argue that a fictional universe is actually unrealistic when it fails to mimic all realistic elements of life. That is not to say that My Little Pony now gets a gritty R-rated spin-off. Instead, it is a recognition that, to add a realistic element that clashes with everything presented up to this moment in this fictional universe, you need a format that makes this element easier to accept. In many cases, it has been up to fan fiction to fill in those gaps. It’s one reason why series that have failed to include the reality of our world, especially when it comes to diversity and representations of non-heteronormative relationships, often have those gaps filled in not by the original writers but by the fans’ own contributions.
In a way, having Jessica Jones and Daredevil premiere on Netflix as serialized narratives rather than as film franchises allows them to approach that subject matter: Netflix becomes the equivalent of fan fiction. I think Jessica Jones was far more willing than other Marvel stories to change gender of characters, include more black characters, and make the series an obvious allegory about rape culture.
In contrast, films in theaters are still mainstream, as seen with the leveling out of content such that a marketable film has to be PG-13 for mostly bloodless warfare (much of it hardly realistic and instead making violence into entertainment rather than an actual problem). Netflix at least has a narrower goal: it is not for everyone going to a theater, it has a smaller audience, so it can afford to be more violent, more unconventional in narrative structure, and thank goodness much more diverse in casting and production.
The Netflix series are serving a much different audience than the Marvel films. Kain sounds naive to complain that–shocker–Marvel does not have to stick to a tired blockbuster format: there are only so many times that the superheroes can be after yet another Infinity Gem.
Kain’s argument also overlooks the variety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, especially in terms of genre: this is a universe that has science fiction, fantasy, romance, comedy, action, and war narratives all in coexistence with each other. Plus, as glib as it is to say, this is the same universe where Jessica Jones, Matt Murdoch, and Tony Stark live alongside a talking plant, a talking raccoon-esque extraterrestrial, a talking duck, and a giant green rage monster. Complaints about clashing tones seem far less persuasive to me when the suspension of disbelief is stretched so much that it is about to snap.
Even as the Netflix series serve that different audience, that does not excuse the films themselves: they must have the same goals for the same kind of subject matter, even if that means still operating within a PG-13 system. The discussion of racialized privileged and trauma from mind control are present in The Avengers: I wrote a chapter on that point, using Clint Barton as an example in which his mind control is coded as a form of rape.
When Kain thinks the subject matter approached in Jessica Jones and Daredevil is not suitable for a blockbuster, I disagree: I think that excellent blockbuster, mainstream films still could tackle subject matter with such gore, such concerns about trauma, and such intense focus on issues of race, gender, and sexuality–but we don’t get those films, because people like Kain complain that such material is not suitable for the blockbuster. I want smart films that also have a lot of action; I want films that focus on such topics by having far more diversity in casting and production than I have seen coming from Marvel. Basically, I want more Fury Road and The Force Awakens than Iron Man, not ignoring that the former two films still have considerable problems.
From a marketing standpoint, it seems foolish to expect Marvel Studios to make every single production only feed into a larger interwoven narrative. Sometimes, a really good story is needed that is a one-shot, existing on its own. That is not to ignore that Murdoch and Jones, along with Luke Cage and Daniel Rand, will eventually form the Defenders superhero team. Rather, it is to acknowledge that not every story has to tie together into one narrative. Life is not always so predetermined that, as the Agents of SHIELD slogan says, it’s all connected. It is not realistic that, if there are going to be so many super-powered humans emerging in this fictional universe, that they all will happen to know each other.