WHAT IF...THIS DOESN'T MATTER?: Marvel, Disney+ and The Illusion of Change
In the comic book world there is a method of storytelling dubbed, The Illusion of Change. Stan Lee called it the ‘secret’ to Marvel’s success in comics storytelling and is still a continued practice by not only Marvel but their competitor, DC. As Peter David, writer on The Incredible Hulk for 15 years and writer of Spider-Man and Uncanny X-Men, puts it:
Give audiences the belief that the character’s they are reading about have undergone character growth or development, when in actuality the status quo has remained. In modern comic book stories, big changes can and do occur, but ultimately what happens is that these moments are undone by a new writer or the editors wanting normalcy to return. Now, Marvel Studios appear to have taken a similar approach with their Disney+ series, in that they don’t push the larger narrative forward.
With the launch of Disney+, it was only a matter of time before Marvel related content hit the streamer. Within it’s first year, Marvel Studios have released WandaVision, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, Loki and Hawkeye as well as starting their own animation division, launching with What If….
In the following year, the series overload continues with Moon Knight, Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk, another season of What If… and two holiday specials, Werewolf By Night for Halloween and Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special for Christmas. For those fearful of superhero fatigue, it may be fast approaching if Marvel continues to churn out nearly 10 pieces of media that audiences have been trained to believe are all crucial to following the narrative of the Cinematic Universe. Thankfully though, that has not been the case.
Marvel’s Disney+ series’ have allowed the supporting characters their time to shine. With the original six Avengers either dead or retired, it is time for the new guard to step up. More importantly, audiences need to start to care about this new wave of heroes. So, what better way than to have fans see Wanda Maximoff coping with her grief over 5 hours or have Sam Wilson struggle with the mantle of Captain America and America’s systemic racism? The problem is that narratively, they are pointless and have little impact on the wider story being told. Let’s look at each series and how they present themselves to have major impact, but upon closer analysis, don’t really change at all.
Hawkeye sees Clint Barton a.k.a Hawkeye dealing with the repercussions of his actions as Ronin during the 5 years when his family and half of all life was wiped from existence. Barton meets a wannabe archer and vigilante in Kate Bishop, who idolises him and becomes his protégé. There are two things that the series either established or resolved; introduce Kate Bishop and close off the post credit scene of Black Widow where Yelena Belova was tasked with killing Clint Barton. For Barton’s character, we learn he suffers partial deafness as a casualty of his heroics but he doesn’t change or grow. He only acknowledges that his stint as Ronin was a dark period in his life. He starts the series with the family and ends it with him with his family.
For Kate Bishop, her inclusion is nothing more than another snappy hero in the MCU and can very easily be explained in a movie. Both Spider-Man and Black Panther were seamlessly incorporated into the universe as supporting characters in Captain America: Civil War, and Kate Bishop could be no exception. Yelena Belova’s story of revenge does get closure in this series, but only in the last 2 episodes and even then, it is not surprising or set-up for another story. She accepts that Barton was not responsible for her ‘sister’s’ death and gets closure on her grief. The Hawkeye series is better suited as an epilogue to Natasha Romanoff’s story than it is Clint Barton’s.
Loki concludes in such a way to be the most universe-altering series and legitimize the ancillary shows. Alternate reality Loki, teaming up with Sylvie (another alternate Loki) have broken down the walls of the multiverse, opening it up for the rest of the MCU. Yet, anyone who has seen Spider-Man: No Way Home without seeing Loki will believe that Dr Strange and Spider-Man’s actions opened up the multiverse. Audiences can infer or assume that the multiverse has always existed, and never needed to be opened up. The series What If… never acknowledges that the Multiverse was closed off and still establishes the idea of multiple versions of characters, so someone like Sylvie won’t be surprising to casual audiences. Or, driving home the point of how redundant the series can be, Doctor Strange in The Multiverse of Madness is confirmed to have multiple versions of the same character, so movie viewing fans won’t be caught off guard by the idea.
Dr Strange in The Multiverse of Madness does have another series it ties-in, and could be the exception to the rule which is WandaVision. Wanda Maximoff alters reality in a small town, turning it and its residents into a sitcom world where she can live out her fantasy of raising a family with her deceased husband, Vision. By the end, Wanda has been dubbed the Scarlet Witch by fellow witch Agatha Harkness and Vision has been resurrected as White Vision, who goes on a mission of self-discovery. In the closing moments, Wanda is seen using dark magic in search of the children that she created in her sitcom world. It is a major step for Wanda’s character in accepting her new title and powers and may be the motivation that makes her the supposed villain in Multiverse of Madness, and one that will require audiences to have seen the series to understand it fully. Also, the White Vision is not an easily explained character that next time he appears, it will be confusing to audiences that last saw Vision being killed (twice) by Thanos.
However, one-out-of-five shows does not validate them and especially the last series and most egregious in its redundancy which is The Falcon and The Winter Soldier. In the briefest of arguments, here is where the series picks up.
Sam Wilson is gifted the shield and mantle of Captain America by Steve Rogers.
Okay, very cool to see a black man representing America and as a hero. Nice. So how does The Falcon and The Winter Soldier end?
Sam Wilson is Captain America.
Yeah, we know that was implied in the second last scene of Avengers: Endgame.
Sam Wilson is reluctant to be Captain at the start of the series before accepting the responsibility. There are interesting thematic discussions in the series about race relations in America and a powerful scene with Wilson as Cap, but it doesn’t feel like required viewing when Captain America 4 rolls around. The only point of importance is introducing John Walker, who is basically the government operated Captain America and Julie Louis-Dryfus’ mysterious Valentina. Except Valentina cameos at the end of Black Widow anyway, so movie audiences are aware of her existence. It certainly made the conclusion of those 6 hours frustrating in hindsight, that all of it barely progressed the story.
Marvel’s Disney+ series maintain a similar standard of production and quality with their cinematic companions, but narratively are lacking in importance. Even much maligned films like Thor: The Dark World offered some additional information to the larger Infinity Saga. So far, the series have not added much more depth to the characters or the universe with an exception to Wanda Maximoff. If Marvel are committed to releasing upwards of 5 series a year, on top of 3 films a year, then they need to make every second of it count.