One of the prevailing themes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe over the past few years has been the claim that “It’s All Connected.” The slogan appeared around the time of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and marked a turning point for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., with the show finally coming into its own thanks to a Winter Soldier tie-in episode and subsequent fallout.
When watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or any of the Marvel shows on Netflix, it’s obvious that the MCU films exist out there in the background somewhere. When watching the MCU movies themselves, though, the same can’t really be said. The closest that the movies have gotten to really acknowledging the TV universe was in Avengers: Age of Ultron when a Helicarrier that was seen in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. showed up at the end to help rescue everyone. Even then, though, Nick Fury simply explained its presence away as being provided by “a friend.”
Unfortunately, just as Marvel TV began to really come into its own with critically acclaimed series like Daredevil, the rift between Marvel’s movie and TV properties grew a little wider. Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige and Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Permlutter had reportedly been butting heads for years when, in September 2015, a reorganization of the company meant that Feige began reporting directly to Disney boss Alan Horn rather than having to answer to Perlmutter. Feige now oversees Marvel Studios, while Perlmutter oversees Marvel’s comics, animation and TV. Although Marvel TV head Jeph Loeb has maintained references to the movies’ goings-on in TV shows, it’s very much a one-way relationship.
That was wasn’t too noticeable when Marvel TV’s flagship show was about a group of secret agents working in the shadows. But between the worldwide awakening of Inhuman powers and the increasingly noisy goings-on in Marvel’s version of New York – a busy superhero hub that’s now home to Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Avengers Tower, Spider-Man and Doctor Strange – the question “Where are the Avengers?” is becoming harder and harder to brush off. Is Marvel Studios really outright ignoring Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., The Defenders and its other TV properties (such as the upcoming Inhumans series)? More importantly, can Marvel keep pretending that its properties are truly connected if the movies can’t acknowledge that a sizable portion of its universe even exists?
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has featured a handful of cameos from movie characters and tie-in episodes for some of the movies, but there’s essentially nothing the other way. The Avengers still don’t know that Coulson is alive, despite Sif learning that fact a few years ago, which is a significant oversight considering that the superheroes didn’t come together as a team until Coulson’s death gave them something to avenge. S.H.I.E.L.D. is up and running again with seemingly no one in the movie universe having noticed, and there are Inhumans popping up all over the place with no mention of them or any of the other powered individuals who have appeared on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in a movie whose entire premise centered around the registration of super-powered individuals. There’s even a sharp division between the TV shows themselves, with no attention paid to the very public actions of Luke Cage, Jessica Jones or Daredevil in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – a show premised on investigations of people with superpowers.
Of course, Marvel has an official explanation for all of this: It’s hard to get the scheduling right for TV-to-movie (and even Netflix-to-TV) crossovers. This does make sense, to an extent; Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can adjust its airing schedule a little to make sure that tie-in episodes match up with the movies they’re tying in with, while movie release dates can’t be adjusted very easily if something goes awry on Netflix or ABC. There’s also the issue of getting TV actors to the movies’ filming locations in between shooting the episodes of their own shows and, vice versa, the financial impracticalities of getting Scarlett Johansson or Robert Downey Jr. to make guest appearances on TV shows.
When asked, many of the Marvel TV stars offer up some version of the company line regarding scheduling difficulties preventing the TV characters from appearing in the movies. A few have voiced their own complaints about how the movies apparently ignore the TV shows, however, and commented on how they want the shows to not only have the movies acknowledge them but also how the shows should connect to each other. Even a name-drop or reference to the shows could provide some sort of a connection without the actors being involved, but we can’t even get that.
Unfortunately, this is a problem that’s only going to get worse from here. Marvel has a full film slate planned out for at least the next four years, and there’s only so much space within any of those films that can be dedicated to cameos and name-drops. Marvel’s Kevin Feige has said that he didn’t want to just drop characters in “for one second” as a cameo, though even this would be some acknowledgement of the larger MCU that’s out there. When it comes down to it, it’s probably more important to Marvel’s film properties to tie the movies together and hook viewers on upcoming blockbusters than to work in a visit from Coulson and May. On top of that, the TV (and Netflix) universe is growing at an even faster rate than the film universe is… meaning that it will become even harder to tie it all together in the future.
Currently, the Marvel TV universe is made up of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. Next year it will add Iron Fist, The Defenders and The Punisher on the Netflix side, and there are TV projects in the works for Cloak and Dagger, Inhumans, New Warriors, Runaways and even Damage Control (assuming that those projects don’t go the way of Marvel’s Most Wanted), plus a few other projects that are announced to be in the works by specific creators even though the property isn’t known. In the coming years we could see even more on the TV and Netflix side of Marvel if things continue going well, including rumored shows such as Moon Knight, Ghost Rider and maybe Blade or Ms. Marvel. This means that the TV side of the MCU is going to get pretty large, and that will make it even less likely for the movies to try and connect with the various Marvel shows. Even show-to-show connections may be murky at best.
Earlier this year, Marvel Studios went a step further in separating its movie and TV properties: It redefined what it meant by the shows being “connected.” This happened around the time that Legion (which is based on the X-Men properties that Fox has the film rights to) was reported to be a “connected” show. It turns out that “connected” doesn’t mean that the shows and movies are actually connected… they just explore the same sort of themes and are character-driven. Needless to say, this new definition didn’t exactly sit well with fans who’d argued that the connections were more real than people gave them credit for.
It’s getting much harder to ignore just how disconnected the MCU’s various storylines really are. S.H.I.E.L.D. worked hard to take down the remnants of Hydra, but Hydra’s demise wasn’t even mentioned in Civil War. Alfre Woodard pulled double duty in Luke Cage and Civil War as two different characters, which is usually considered one of the cardinal sins of the Marvel films (and while she’s not actually the first to appear onscreen in different roles, she was the first to have those roles be significant). The mystics of Doctor Strange don’t seem to have noticed the Darkhold, or if they have then they’re not concerned about all of the murdering that’s going on around the book. No one has noticed the army of supernatural ninjas running around Hell’s Kitchen except for Daredevil, or apparently read any of the papers talking about the “Devil of Hell’s Kitchen” except for those who hang out in the Netflix corner of the MCU. The “connected” Marvel Cinematic Universe is fractured, and it’s only getting worse as easy opportunities for references or cameos are ignored.
Some fans have given up on any meaningful connections between Marvel properties, and more are on the verge. There are a few glimmers of hope, however. Gabriel Luna, who plays Robbie Reyes/Ghost Rider on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., has confirmed that there are exit strategies for the character in case Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. gets cancelled… he could go on to star in a Netflix show, or possibly even a feature film. While that doesn’t mean that either one will actually happen, the fact that it’s been discussed by those involved indicates that there’s no specific contractual problem that separates the various parts of the MCU.
The big issue will be if none of the TV or Netflix characters appear in any way, shape or form in the upcoming Avengers movies. With the Russo Brothers discussing dozens upon dozens of characters showing up, if none of the TV characters are represented then it will indicate that Marvel is content to let its film stars play in their own sandbox while its other MCU properties are left out in the cold. Given the Russos’ comments so far, it’s entirely possible that this is exactly what will happen too… but there’s always hope.