I’ll get to DC at another point since it is actually outpacing Marvel in output at least. But I will write a bit about the two studios’ approaches to their TV franchises. Marvel is endeavoring to make a holistic universe; that is, the TV shows tie into the MCU. DC, on the other hand, is treating the TV world like Earth-2; that is, the TV shows are pretty much entirely separate from the movies. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. For Marvel, it means that the TV shows are advertisements for the movies, which is certainly an advantage. However, that also means the TV shows are at the mercy of what happens in the movies. For DC, it means the TV shows can pretty much go in their own direction from the movies. However, it means there may be confusion when the TV characters appear in the movies with completely different back stories.
Agents of SHIELD – This show takes the brunt of the collateral damage from the events in the movies. Sometimes the impact is more or less a passing reference (such as after Thor 2) but sometimes the impact is more problematic (Captain America 2). I’m not sure what they are agents of given SHIELD doesn’t exactly exist, at least not in the incarnation of the show’s premise. This show is the most mainstream, and I find it the least interesting, unfortunately.
Characters – I like the characters of Phil Coulson and Melinda May, but the others are kind of bland, despite the writers’ efforts to make them more interesting (in the case of Fitz, that just made me sad).
Plot – Oh, the first season was painful. There were a whole lot of plot elements that operated on chomper logic and I could barely take it. The second season was improving but the events of Captain America 2 just pulled the rug out from underneath the whole show. Now the plot seems somewhat scattered between the Inhumans, the new HYDRA, and now Darkforce.
Tone – Uneven. There are parts that are clearly meant to be almost genre savvy, parts that are meant to be straight up funny, dead serious, campy, grimdark, or sweet. Now into the fourth season I find that the tone is still uneven, but the scattered plot threads don’t help. Also, the show’s specific effects ambition is often greater than its budget. Unfortunately, those blockbuster elements just aren’t going to be funded for a TV show, so sometimes those elements just fall flat.
Overall – As Marvel’s flagship show, it just doesn’t quite live up to my expectations.
Marvel’s Agent Carter – The prequel show no one realized they wanted until Captain America. Sadly, the ratings are looking worse for this season even though the show is even better, so I’m very much afraid Season 3 just won’t happen. That’s too bad.
Characters – I heart Agent Carter, and I love all the characters. I love how properly British Jarvis is, How irreverent Howard Stark is, and the interplay between them all. Carter and Jarvis have a Steed and Mrs. Peel vibe going. It’s really fun to see how much of a jackass Stark is and yet still be such a genius (“That man is a menace” says another character after an all-nighter working on a difficult scientific conundrum with Howard). Tony Stark is every bit his father’s son.
Plot – The adventures of Agent Peggy Carter touch on the origins of SHIELD and the co-infiltration of HYDRA, as well as some foreshadowing hints of plot developments in the MCU and present-day Agents of SHIELD. The first season was in many ways the sequel to Captain America and tied up a lot of those plot threads. This season is much more its own story, and is also introducing some canon villains (although slightly time-displaced). As a mini-series, the series story arc is a lot tighter than Agents of SHIELD and that focus is very welcome.
Tone – Being set in the past, the show has some extra style and flair to it. The show is not as faithful to the time period as a period drama, but it’s faithful enough to give it a different feel than many other shows. But also being set in the past, the show does deal with some social issues the AoS just doesn’t, such as rampant sexism and racism. However, it’s still generally a lot more fun than AoS. Also, because the show is set in the past, the technology is likewise dated. This really helps with the special effects budget, as does the fact that Agent Carter is a bit more street-level than AoS.
Overall – If I had to pick one series to keep on network and one to cancel, this would be the series I choose to keep. However, being set in the past means it is not quite as good an advertisement for the MCU, which is why AoS is being allowed to struggle along despite all the setbacks the show has suffered. Agent Carter gets no such grace, although if the network can’t retain the ratings, I hope Marvel will consider moving it to Netflix.
And speaking of Netflix, the Netflix shows are night to the Agents’ day, in some ways quite literally. While AoS has dark and edgy elements, the Netflix shows thus far are made of dark and edgy, and I don’t expect that to change. These shows take place in NYC and therefore are related to the MCU, but those events and characters are given barely a casual mention (for example, the invasion of NYC by aliens is commonly known as “the incident”), although the events are used as the basis for why Hell’s Kitchen (which is in modern day a pretty decent section of NYC) is closer to the hellhole it was when heroes were first hired to clean it up. The Netflix shows, unlike the network shows, are driven (so far) primarily by exploring a theme rather than a plot as such. Or rather, the plot serves the theme.
Daredevil – the theme of this show is obviously fear. Matt Murdock is the man without fear, and Wilson Fisk, for all his personal and financial power, is fundamentally a scared child. The first season is a dual origin story – that of Daredevil and that of Kingpin. It makes sense to have the two rise/fall together because it serves the exploration of fear and what it can drive a person to do.
Characters – The main characters are, of course, Matt Murdock/Daredevil and Wilson Fisk/Kingpin. Wilson Fisk is just a shade more compelling than Matt Murdock, but they are both very good. The writers did a good job (until a disappointing finale) of making Wilson Fisk a complex villain. In fact, Fisk is the most dangerous kind of villain (in my opinion) – the one who thinks s/he’s the hero. It’s much easier to rationalize terrible acts if those acts are done in the name of the greater good (history is littered with examples). And really, very few people want to think of themselves as the bad guys.
The supporting cast is good as well, featuring many of the comic book’s stand-bys including the ever optimistic Franklin “Foggy” Nelson, spunky but naive Karen “Screwed Over by Frank Miller” Page, completely jaded struggling journalist Ben “Screwed Over by the Writers” Urich, and Claire “Everyman” Temple, the night nurse. On the villain side, Fisk is joined by the completely loyal, ruthless Wesley and the made-of-steel Vanessa. Vanessa in particular comes across as a woman who knows exactly what’s she getting into and is careful not to ask the questions that would result in the answers she doesn’t want to hear.
Plot – The plot is of course the origin story of Daredevil and Kingpin. But both characters are also tested to see how far they will go in pursuit of their goals. Daredevil obviously wants justice, and Kingpin wants improve Hell’s Kitchen. In the course of the first season the pasts of both men are explored, especially how fear shaped the boys into the men they would become. In a larger plot, Kingpin is getting rid of crime more effectively than Daredevil except that his goal is to be the only criminal. Also, there are set-ups for later episodes/series, including the mysteriously powerful Madame Gao (because clearly no one has watched kung fu movies or they’d all know the little old wise wo/man is always the most dangerous). Matt has to learn to trust others more, and Kingpin closes himself off more and more to everything and everyone except Vanessa.
Tone – Dark dark dark, but appropriately so. There is a lot of graphic physical violence in this hard PG-13 series. However, I don’t find it gratuitous. Daredevil is the man without fear; the writers use graphic physical violence to make sure the audience appreciates the stakes involved in all these fights and appreciates how brave/crazy Daredevil is to go into these situations blind. Sure, he’s got superpowers, but he’s still fighting a bunch of well-trained, ruthless thugs, and his best advantage is in hand-to-hand combat in the dark. Most thugs would elect to use guns in good lighting. The violence too is used to show how very dangerous Fisk is, and how much rage is seething beneath the surface. There are some moments that lighten the mood, but not many. There’s not a lot of romance either.
There are a lot of subtle stylistic choices that play well into the show, such as the one glimpse we get from Matt’s perspective (Daredevil sees a world on fire). The color palette is very muted (even the women do not wear particularly bright colors). In some ways, focusing on the fights was the best way to do justice to the meager budget. Hell’s Kitchen is portrayed as dark, tight, and cramped, which minimizes the need for a lot of complicated sets. One of the finest fight scenes in the show was a long-run shot in a hallway. This choice also allows the audience to get a good understanding of how Daredevil fights and how his powers play into that.
Overall – Pretty good, if a little weak at the end. Matt realizes his limits in pursuing justice (that being murder) and is forced to share his secret but realizes he could use a little help from his friends and thus becomes Daredevil. Fisk realizes he has no limits in pursuing his vision, and when everything collapses around him he vows to return and do whatever it takes, thus completing his transformation into the Kingpin.
Jessica Jones – the theme of this show is control. Whereas at the end of Daredevil, Matt Murdock claims the identity of Daredevil, at the end of this show Jessica Jones reclaims her own identity. It is based loosely on the comic book series “Alias.” Jessica Jones is a mid-level powered flying brick who finds herself enslaved by Kevin “Kilgrave” Thompson and his ill-defined mind control powers. The focus of this show is even more tight than Daredevil and all the supporting characters and their story arcs show different aspects of control. There is an origin story in this, but it’s not a traditional one.
Characters – Jessica Jones and Kilgrave are the main characters, of course. Jessica is a hard-bitten alcoholic private detective who is so noir she could use the terms “broads” and “dames” and I wouldn’t be surprised. She’s a terribly broken person, and she’s broken because of Kilgrave. She’s a survivor of abuse and clearly suffering from PTSD, so even though she is not a very nice person (to say the least), the audience still sympathizes with her and is rooting for her. Kilgrave may possibly be the most evil villain Marvel Studios has ever put on the screen. Formerly the Purple Man (because he was actually purple) in the comics, comic writer Brian Michael Bendis realized the sinister potential of a character with mind-control powers in “Alias.” Kilgrave only wants what he wants, and with his powers he always gets what he wants. The worst part of Kilgrave is that he is very effective at using perfectly ordinary manipulation tactics. He knows, despite later protestations, what is right and what is wrong and nothing matters except what he wants, and he wants to control Jessica.
The supporting characters are very good as well; it’s important to note that almost all of them are victims. Jessica’s best friend and sister (via adoption) is Patricia “Don’t call me ‘Patsy'” Walker (a.k.a. Hellcat) who wants to help Jessica and is still working through the issues she developed during her youth as a child star at the hands of her abusive mother. Jessica’s love interest is Luke Cage (a.k.a. Power Man) is a paragon of physical power (super-strength and nigh-invulnerability) who falls victim to Kilgrave’s control, and eventually leaves Hell’s Kitchen to deal with all the issues. Hope, Malcolm, Will “Formerly Frank” Simpson, Robin and Ruben, Wendy, Pam, the Thompsons, all of them suffer due to Kilgrave. Jeri Hogarth, the scuzzy lawyer, is the only one whose misery is almost entirely her own making, and that is because she is the totally human counterpart to Kilgrave. She’s a master manipulator herself and control freak and she loses everything.
Plot – The plot and characters are inseparable. Jessica was enslaved by Kilgrave until he commanded her to kill Luke Cage’s wife. That act allowed her to escape, and she thought Kilgrave had been killed (because generally getting hit by a bus will do that). But less than a year later, she realizes Kilgrave is not dead and she struggles to find him and bring him to justice while watching him destroy life after life all around her. Kilgrave just wants Jessica back because she’s the only person who ever got away from him, and he just can’t allow that.
Tone – Dark dark dark. So dark. I think this show is darker to me than Daredevil. While not nearly as physically graphic, the psychology at work is just as brutal if not more so because abusive relationships and their tragic consequences are all too common in the real world. I personally had a hard time watching more than one or two episodes at a time, and I wasn’t the only one. Jessica had a tragic back story before she encountered Kilgrave and pushes everyone away, even her best friend/sister. Kilgrave is absolutely, unapologetically evil. However, he has a natural charisma (which is what makes the mundane manipulation work so well) that somehow just makes his character darker. The end was inevitable and much less uplifting than Daredevil, but I don’t think there should have been any more humor than there was.
Budget wise, Jessica and Luke in particular have more spectacular powers than Daredevil, but the special effects were kept at a minimum to keep the show street-level. I’d also like to note some of the stylistic choices here. Like Daredevil, everything tended toward a muted color palate. However, as I mentioned, Kilgrave was known as Purple Man in the comics. While the show wisely decided not to go with that, the show-runners incorporated the color purple as a visual representation of Kilgrave’s influence. For example, he always wore at least one purple piece of clothing, Jessica’s flashbacks were at least tinged in purple, and following her arrest, Hope had faint purple bags under her eyes for the duration of the show. Opposite purple on the color wheel is yellow, so that color was also used sparing and for symbolism (it’s the color of the abortifacient Hope takes and the color of the first dress Kilgrave makes Jessica wear). Additionally, I like how the show’s few fights differ so strongly from Daredevil. Whereas Daredevil is a disciplined martial arts master, Jessica and Luke are base-level brawlers who rely on their super-strength more than any skill to defeat their opponents.
Overall – So far the best series in my opinion. Full disclosure, there was a big hole in the plot in that Jessica never seemed to figure out how to bring Kilgrave to justice (but perhaps that could be considered an extension of the theme of control or lack thereof), and the twins never really quite fit in.
Looking Forward – I think Marvel’s future is really on Netflix. There’s a great deal of creative freedom there and not just because of the hard PG-13 ratings. The thirteen episode arcs allow more room for the stories to breathe than a two-hour movie, but minimize the amount of filler that is inevitable for a 22 episodes full series. The themes and handling of the Netflix series also provide a welcome contrast to the blockbuster movies. The MCU is certainly enjoyable, but not deep. In the works are Daredevil Season 2 (featuring Punisher), Luke Cage Season 1, Iron Fist (which I hope gets a season instead of downgraded to an origin movie), and eventually a team-up Defenders movie. After that, who knows? But I’m excited to find out.