This month, ABC triumphantly announced second and third seasons, respectively, for Agent Carter and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, the network’s two television series set in the Marvel universe. The news barely registered outside Geekville. While neither show is a disappointment from a quality or ratings standpoint (although Agent Carter leased space on the renewal bubble months ago and just recently vacated the premises), it’s debatable whether these series resonate the way they should in an era where even mediocre Marvel films earn nearly $650 million worldwide.
Discerning why MCU fans don’t flock to the studio’s small-screen offerings in equal numbers isn’t difficult. Viewers crave spectacle, action, grandeur. They pay to see their childhood heroes brought to life at 24 frames per second. By contrast, the two ABC series live on the MCU’s outer fringes. The most recognizable characters are Phil Coulson and Peggy Carter, two government agents. The big Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D season one appearance by a popular MCU character turned out to be Nick Fury…another government agent. Cameos, references and occasional Phase 1 or Phase 2 plot convergences continually remind viewers these narratives occur within the MCU. But just barely. The shows are so far removed from the core cinematic storylines that the same connections designed to attract Marvel film fans eventually cause them to realize who they aren’t seeing. Coulson, if your team’s in mortal danger, why don’t you just call the Avengers, bruh?
Daredevil works because it doesn’t try to be more than a well-told self-contained story. Matt Murdock wasn’t introduced in Iron Man 2 before being spunoff into his own series. He’s not chasing Infinity Stones or searching for Thanos’ buttplug. The dude stomps out criminals in Hell’s Kitchen and macks on Rosario Dawson, full stop. If ABC wants to be in the Marvel business, they need to ape Netflix’s approach or find a way to get A-list Marvel superheroes onto their airwaves beyond Avengers: Age of Ultron commercials.
Here’s an idea, Alphabet: turn Marvels into an anthology series.
For the unfamiliar, Marvels is a revolutionary 1994 comic book showcasing the Marvel Universe from the perspective of an everyman photographer named Phil Sheldon. Written by Kurt Busiek with stunning painted illustrations by Alex Ross, Marvels’ four issues cover practically every major Marvel event from the birth of the Human Torch to the death of Gwen Stacy. It’s poignant and thrilling and could not possibly be better suited for adaptation.
If ABC went this route, they’d have to go big. Can’t skimp on costs or talent. To start, nab 10 young visionary writer-directors — Cary Fukunaga, Michelle MacLaren, Gareth Evans, Derek Cianfrance, JC Chandor, Ava DuVernay, Zal Batmanglij, Andrew Dominik, Joseph Kosinski and Neill Blomkamp — hand them each $25 million and allow full autonomy over everything from casting to scripts to craft services. Spend the money on A-list talent or hire unknowns to preserve the FX budget. Their choice. Superheroes can be featured as prominently or infrequently as the creative braintrust desires. Settings, eras, characters are all left to the director’s and screenwriter’s discretion. Air five episodes during fall sweeps and the other half in the spring. No commercials, just a five minute intermission midway through sold to a single advertiser for twice the going Super Bowl rate. Oh, and forget continuity with the larger Marvel universe; the events in Dominik’s Namor episode don’t need to sync up with Kevin Feige’s Phase 7 plans.
Showrunners can borrow an existing Marvels story or create their own. Want to do a bottle episode about a group of Madison Avenue execs brainstorming ways to market the Fantastic Four to a distrustful populace angry about the quartet’s reluctance to intervene in Vietnam? Have fun. An hour-long chase between Spider-Man, the Green Goblin, and the police through Manhattan streets? Sure. Put Evans on that one. A dialogue-free tale set in the far future where the immortal Thor reluctantly bids farewell to humanity as an expanding Sun engulfs a dying Earth? Brutal but beautiful. Like Brienne of Tarth.
Potential rights issues and internecine power struggles notwithstanding, there’s very little downside for ABC. A well-financed event anthology starring ungodly popular comic book characters would score bonkers ratings and force the Internet to applaud a broadcast television network for the first time in a decade. Casually dismiss online chatter as unquantifiable nonsense if you want, but one landmark series can repair a network’s reputation overnight. AMC aired Marx Brothers marathons before launching Mad Men in 2007. The Knick transformed Cinemax’s from a PR firm for women’s prisons into a respected original content producer. Don’t underestimate ABC’s desire for prestige. The Alphabet marketed American Crime as if it was the broadcast television equivalent of The Wire. Can you imagine how they’d treat the launch of what amounts to an alternate MCU?
Taking on a project this massive may seem overly ambitious for a risk-averse network accustomed to reality shows and 22-episode procedurals. But the approach isn’t without precedent. You could argue ABC’s own Once Upon a Time already proves the model’s viability.
The automotive world offers an even better case study. In 2001, the German automobile giant BMW recruited a slew of A-list talent — John Woo, John Frankenheimer, Guy Ritchie, Ang Lee, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Tony Scott, Joe Carnahan and Wong-Kar Wai — to direct a film series called “The Hire.” Each 8-10 minute short features Clive Owen as an elite wheelman known as The Driver who helps clients (played by Don Cheadle, F. Murray Abraham, Madonna, Forest Whitaker, Stellan Skarsgård and more) through dangerous circumstances, mostly by operating various Beamers at ludicrous speeds. Those are the only constants. Plot, cast and tone vary widely. Scott’s darkly comic Beat The Devil chronicles legendary singer James Brown attempts to renegotiate a decades-old contract he made with Lucifer himself (Gary Oldman), while Ritchie’s Star details an arrogant pop diva’s (Madonna) comeuppance at the hands of her manager.