When Marvel Studios announced they were going to start their own interconnected world of superheroes, people scoffed. The age of superhero movies was almost over in the mid-2000s, after all. Yet, more than a decade and 30 live-action projects later, Marvel Studios is the dominant force in pop culture at the moment. Yet, their reliance on formula for their Disney+ TV series is not as savvy as it was during the first phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marvel Studios needs to change up their approach.
To say that the earliest films from Marvel Studios were formulaic is not a criticism on its face. In fact, it proved to be a smart decision. Moviegoers didn’t really have the cinematic vocabulary that comics readers might’ve, especially when it came to crossovers. “How does Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark know the late William Hurt’s Thunderbolt Ross?” and so on. By making the films have a familiar structure subtly helped audiences understand that this was all happening in the same world. The formula is well documented, too. A hero is introduced with a problem. The hero then has to overcome that problem with the help of friends. Finally, the hero faces off against a dark mirror of themselves further showcasing why they are good, and the villains are bad.
It makes sense that as Marvel Studios starts to produce television, that they would adopt a similar formula. However, the formula that worked for any hero in a two-hour feature film is not one that really works for a television series. The character stories and important moments are highly individualized. The formula worked for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, showing how both Bucky and Sam deal with Cap’s absence. It worked less well for Loki, as the story shifted its focus every pair of episodes. The formula at play in Ms. marvel takes it in the wrong direction, creating forgotten story threads, tonal changes, and lackluster villains even by Marvel’s standards.
In the Disney+ series from Marvel Studios, the formula seems to be one that includes a little misdirection. There is our hero, and they are going up against a character that seems to be a villain. Usually midway through the series, it is revealed that the villains aren’t what we thought. There is often another antagonist, typically a group of folks who are bedeviling our heroes. Sometimes this group is the one that characters thought weren’t villains, such as the TVA in Loki or SWORD in WandaVision. Also, the penultimate episode is always the most revealing about our central characters, usually involving some kind of heartbreak moment for fans. Moon Knight eschewed a lot of this formula, save for that Episode 5 rule. And that’s why Moon Knight has maybe captured the hearts of fans more so than any series since WandaVision. Ms. marvel does this in the episode “Time and Again.”
Without getting into spoilers, the fifth episode of the Ms. marvel series reveals a big emotional story from Kamala’s past. It happened in the episode it did because of the Marvel Studios formula for TV series. Yet, this bit of the story might have worked better much earlier in the story. The need to save this part of the story for the penultimate episode has resulted in Ms. marvel feeling aimless in the middle. The show uses a real event from history, weaving those events into the personal story of the characters. watchmen did this with the Tulsa Massacre, slowly rolling out its connection to the characters throughout the series. If they’d saved all the revelations until the end of the series the impact wouldn’t be the same. Marvel Studios made a similar error to Obi-Wan Kenobi and their ‘cards-down’ approach to Reva.
Except for hawkeye, the final act of all these Marvel Studios series on Disney+ feature some kind of world-shattering event. Whether it is the emergence of powers-for-profit or the mass ‘judgment’ by an ancient deity, the stakes remain high. The beauty of TV series, even for Marvel as Daredevil and Jessica Jones show, is that they don’t need to be world-ending events. The storytellers can keep the tension and stakes small while still creating drama. Not only that, these stories may work better with more personal stakes. Rather than whatever is going on with the ClanDestines in the MCU, we didn’t need these villains. A story of discovery about Kamala’s past and her future is all we needed. Emotional character revelations with scenes of her learning how to be a hero would’ve made Ms. marvel a masterwork.
as it stands, Ms. marvel is still a delightful show. Iman Vellani remains the most perfect casting in the MCU since Robert Downey Jr. got the nod for Tony Stark. It’s the rigid bones of the Marvel Studios formula showing through in this TV show that gives audiences pause. Six hours of storytelling is plenty, but Marvel Studios must abandon a formulaic approach and really allow their creators to get creative not just with the characters but with the form itself.
Check out Ms. Marvel and the other Marvel Studios TV series streaming now on Disney+.