The news this week fell like a double-whammy on what had hitherto been the unstoppable Marvel television juggernaut: not only was Agent Carter cancelled, but the proposed Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. spinoff, Marvel's Most Wanted, failed to land a series pick-up order.
On the one hand, given that Marvel was, until just recently, developing 12 different shows across three different networks or streaming services, the blow isn’t a particularly devastating one; there are still 10 possible series for fans to fall in love with, and for the studio to keep exploring the various nooks and crannies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with. On the other hand, however, the recent developments cast a rather revealing light on Marvel TV and raise some questions about how the rest of the television slate – and even the roster of films, which have up until this point been extremely hesitant to acknowledge their small-screen sibling – will adapt to absorb these shocks.
In short, it’s time to explore The Future of Marvel TV.
Why the Cancellations?
Although Agent Carter was an interesting concept (following one of the MCU’s strongest characters, who would never otherwise have the opportunity to step into the spotlight, while exploring an alternate time period) that was populated by an interesting cast (Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy) is pure gold, while the proto-Black Widow, Dottie Underwood (Bridget Regan), is mysteriously compelling), it is remarkably cut off from the rest of the shared universe. Though its narrative did throw the occasional bone to the greater mythology – including a cameo by Captain America baddie Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), glimpses at the very beginnings of the Black Widow and Winter Soldier programs, and a (comparatively) more in-depth exploration of Doctor Strange’s Dark Dimension – Agent Carter was mostly concerned with developing its own characters and its own plotlines, set some 70 years before the Marvel Cinematic Universe proper. Indeed, it’s the only production to be set entirely in a time period other than the modern day.
Most Wanted, meanwhile, threatened to be even more egregious in the continuity-relevance department: with Bobbi Morse (Adrianne Palicki) and Lance Hunter (Nick Blood), a former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and contractor, respectively, teaming up with “rogue adventurer” Dominic Fortune (Delroy Lindo) to help further his mysterious agenda, it sounded as if the concept were more interested in using the Marvel brand to prop up a globe-trotting, treasure-hunting ABC television show than having the production help further the Marvel mythology. This makes sense within the business side of Hollywood, given that the popularity of comic book properties seemingly adds a bit of guarantee to the insanely unstable world of TV development, but which puts the cart before the horse, narratively speaking.
A lack of impact on the cinematic part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – which, therefore, led to a lack of viewers – is only the first part of these two shows’ problems, however; the other revolves around the sudden absence of ABC Entertainment Group President Paul Lee, who was fired thanks to a combination of bad ratings for this current season (the network’s down by 13% in the overall audience and by even bigger margins in key specific demographics) and behind-the-scenes in-fighting. The latter point is actually an important one: Lee is reported to have not gotten along well with his recently-appointed superior, Disney-ABC Television Group Chairman Ben Sherwood, thanks in part to Lee’s affinity for serialized dramas and Sherwood’s interest in closed-ended episodic procedurals, which are believed to draw bigger crowds in syndication. Not surprisingly, a number of the ABC series that have gotten the axe this week were all championed by the former president – especially Carter, a show which was used to fill in for S.H.I.E.L.D. during its mid-season break (another Paul Lee trademark). This can very easily be read as Disney/ABC senior management cleaning house, which is standard practice during regime changes in Hollywood.
What Happens Next?
This upcoming season – that’s fall 2016 to spring ’17 – will prove to be even more pivotal for both Marvel’s business and storytelling executives, given the heavy lifting the other shows will need to do in order to compensate for the sudden lack of narrative resolution or pay-off, and how the several other proposed series may be forced to react to the cancellations.
First there’s the leftover story threads that will need to be addressed. Agent Carter ended on a cliffhanger, with S.S.R. Chief Jack Thompson (Chad Murray) being shot by an unseen assailant and Peggy’s love life – which has been the focus of much fan speculation since the mention of her mysterious husband in Captain America: The Winter Soldier – finally starting to heat up. Not to mention, of course, the eventual transformation of the S.S.R. into S.H.I.E.L.D., a story point that was originally covered in the Agent Carter Marvel One-Shot short film before it was retconned out of the canon by the television series it inspired. While it’s possible that Marvel can attempt to provide all this information in another One-Shot – they are supposed to be coming back sometime soon – or, even, for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to attempt to shoe-horn the answers in, neither is an elegant solution. A one-off telefilm, especially one that finds its way to Netflix, home of the Defenders, would be the ideal way to go - providing closure to the 1940s section of the MCU and (hopefully) helping to cue up even more of Phase 3 in movie theaters.
And then there’s Bobbi Morse and Lance Hunter, two of the more original and engaging characters from S.H.I.E.L.D., and two individuals whose prolonged absence would surely make the MCU a less hospitable place. The first – and more expected – option here would simply be to reinsert them into their originating TV show, but given the nature of their departure from it (see a full explanation here), it would have to be something truly original and, frankly, impressive.
An even better solution could be having them both transition over to the film side of the shared universe, something that Marvel Studios has been extremely hesitant to do thus far; indeed, Adrianne Palicki agreed to the part specifically because of the possibility of having her character join the Avengers on the big screen. Mockingbird, as she’s known in the comics, has a long-lived history with the team of superheroes, including a bout as the wife of Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Morse’s presence in The Avengers: Infinity War (or whatever it’s going to be called) could be the perfect solution for directors Anthony and Joe Russo to acknowledge the whole other half of the Marvel Cinematic Universe without movie-going audiences ever even knowing ex-Agent Bobbi Morse’s television origins.
What about the other Marvel TV shows?
This is where things start to get a little hazy. The idea of using Marvel as a justification for a cool new TV production instead of as an organic outreach of pre-existent storytelling is a charge that could, theoretically, be laid just as fully at the feet of literally all the other ABC series currently in development, starting with the half-hour sitcom Damage Control and ending with the still-untitled drama from showrunner John Ridley. Should this actually be the case, a round of retooling – to make them all just as instrumental to the MCU’s ever-more-expanding mythology as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. already is – might urgently be called for before the new ABC president’s grim reaper act claims their lives, as well.
Then again, such diversity isn’t necessarily a harbinger of doom. Netflix’s crop of shows, which just got added to by the Punisher announcement, have made it a point of pride to ignore the larger Marvel world, and the Freeform channel’s surprise Cloak and Dagger pick-up could very easily operate on the same basis. If anything, ABC’s overreach could teach the rest of Disney’s various subsidiaries or partners to simply slow the development game down and proceed with an extra abundance of caution (Freeform ordered its teenage property to series before even getting a showrunner in place).
Since such a move would undoubtedly result in a higher level of quality in the end-product, it might even make Agent Carter’s untimely demise (somewhat) justifiable in the big scheme.
Think we missed a reason in our reasons for why these Marvel shows didn’t make the cut? Have your own assessment of how their narratives could continue on in the larger MCU? Sound off in the comments.