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The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a tremendous thing; although movies are at the heart of the MCU, it spans a massive range of media, from TV shows to tie-comics, and even on to in-universe YouTube videos! Fans are eager for the different strands of the MCU to connect; some dream of a glimpse of the Defenders in Avengers: Infinity War, while others wish Spider-Man could turn up on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Although it's only an indicator, over on Facebook James Gunn (of Guardians of the Galaxy fame) has given his vote on whether or not this is likely. Asked about the possibility the TV characters would appear in the movies, he responded:
"I don't think we're going to see much interactions between the Marvel TV universe and the MCU in the near future."
It's a disappointing statement, and it's worth digging in deep and asking: what's going on?
What's the Problem?
The issue began with Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., the tie-in series that featured Clark Gregg's Agent Coulson and his team as they took on the forces of Hydra. That first series was fascinating; after a lacklustre start, it took the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and used them to catapult itself to success and critical acclaim. Since then, the show's continually tied in with the films; we saw the clean-up from Thor: The Dark World, and Coulson's connection to the Helicarrier used by Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
That's where the problems began. Explaining why we didn't get a glimpse of Agent Coulson in Age of Ultron, Joss Whedon commented:
"As far as I’m concerned in the films, yes he’s dead. In terms of the narrative of these guys [The Avengers] his loss was very important. When I created the television show, it was sort of on the understanding that this can work and we can do it with integrity, but these Avengers movies are for people to see the Avengers movies and nothing else. And it would neither make sense nor be useful to say ‘Oh and by the way remember me? I died!’”
Whedon's perspective was simple: more people watch the movies than watch the TV shows, so using the resurrected Agent Coulson in Age of Ultron would shock viewers who were unfamiliar with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. It would risk drawing them out of the movie, and damaging the film's effectiveness.
This was the first hint that a two-tier MCU has developed, with the films in the driving seat. Sure, events in a movie can change the status quo of the MCU and lead to new arcs and plots for the TV shows; but nothing will ever work the other way round. Chloe Bennet (Quake in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) fumed:
"I don’t know. People who make movies for Marvel, why don’t you acknowledge what happens on our show? Why don’t you guys go ask them that? Cause they don’t seem to care!...
The Marvel Cinematic Universe loves to pretend that everything is connected, but then they don’t acknowledge our show at all. So, I would love to do that, but they don’t seem too keen on that idea."
Matters have been worsened by the fact that last year's structural reorganization separated Marvel Studios from Marvel Entertainment (who run the TV and Netflix shows). With Marvel Studios clearly in the driving seat, Marvel Entertainment is now nothing more than a concerned stakeholder to Marvel Studios.
What's the Impact?
All this means that Marvel Entertainment has to be very careful about what superheroes and supervillains they introduce. For example, now we've got two seasons of Daredevil, we know we're not going to get a Daredevil movie in the MCU. Now that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is using Robbie Reyes's Ghost Rider, that character can't make a big screen debut. Right now, fans are puzzling over whether or not Marvel is about to use a version of the White Tiger; one rumor says a White Tiger is being played by Zendaya in Spider-Man: Homecoming, while another says Marvel has made a pitch to Netflix for a White Tiger series. Both rumors can't be true; if we see White Tiger in Netflix, we're extremely unlikely to see another version of the character in the films.
There are other problems, too; for example, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will never be able to afford a Robert Downey Jr. cameo, meaning that Tony Stark and Iron Man are pretty much off-limits for Marvel Entertainment. The TV shows are essentially restricted to the C- and D-list superheroes, limiting their marketing potential.
Jeph Loeb, Executive Vice President of Marvel Entertainment, also recently pointed out the practical issues:
I can tell you that part of the challenge of doing this sort of thing is that the movies are planned out years in advance of what it is that we are doing. Television moves at an incredible speed. The other part of the problem is that when you stop and think about it, if I’m shooting a television series and that’s going to go on over a six-month or eight-month period, how am I going to get Mike [Colter] to be able to go be in a movie? I need Mike to be in a television show.
The real crisis point was always going to be The Inhumans. The last two seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have delved into the history of the Inhumans, restricting the film's vision. Either the movies took a completely separate stance, and risked splintering the MCU apart, or that Inhumans movie was going to be abandoned. As of right now, the film's been postponed with no release date, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been given permission to use "classic" Inhumans — suggesting that the film is dead.
When the Films and the Netflix Series Work Together
Setting these issues aside, though, the relationship between Marvel Studios and Marvel Entertainment seems to be improving. The build-up to Doctor Strange has seen the two Disney subsidiaries working together more closely than they ever did before. Marvel Entertainment took the opportunity to add magic into Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and is building up a supernatural world that underpins the film.
More impressively, marketing and announcements - including the announcement of the Runaways TV series - have been carefully timed to run alongside the release of the tie-in comics. Everything has been running to a smart, tight schedule, and it's been a truly impressive effort. This, I think, is what "it's all connected" truly looks like from a business point of view.
So Is the Idea of a Shared TV / Movie Universe a Good Idea?
DC Film and DC TV have taken a different approach, choosing to keep the TV and movie universes separate. It means that Henry Cavill can play the part of Superman in the DC Extended Universe, while Tyler Hoechlin's Superman can be unveiled in the next season of Supergirl. It's a far simpler way of doing things, and means that DC's TV shows can use the iconic characters at the same time as the films.
I don't actually view Marvel's approach as better or worse, just different. Marvel's whole pitch for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was that it would tie in with the movies; it's a different kind of TV show to Arrow or Supergirl. The real issue's only arisen with Marvel Entertainment broadening out their shows to include other superheroes, because the limitations have become very visible. Even then, Marvel Entertainment's hope is that their TV shows can essentially piggyback off the success of the movies. It's difficult to tell whether or not this approach is a wise one; the superhero shows are on Netflix, and accurate viewing figures for Netflix simply aren't available for comparison with The CW's rival shows.
What is important, though, is for fans to recognize that the idea of a shared universe is a trickier one to manage than we think. For business reasons alone, the movies will always be at the center of the MCU; they reach the greatest number of viewers. The TV series will always be a 'second-tier' MCU, tying in to the films, but never shaping the movies in their own right.
It's tempting to react with disappointment, but I'd point out that we Marvel fans have something quite unique in the MCU; a shared universe with a single continuity, where we can enjoy the adventures of superheroes we never really thought would hit the big time. A decade ago, the idea of the MCU would have been mocked, and nobody would ever have believed we'd be seeing a Captain Marvel movie - or that Jessica Jones would have been a hit over on Netflix. Yes, the nature of the MCU is limiting; but had Marvel chosen a different approach, there'd be just as many limitations. After all, if Marvel Entertainment had the option of using Captain America, do you really think they'd be working on a series starring Cloak and Dagger? Marvel Entertainment is being forced to dig deep, meaning we'll not just see another version of Spider-Man — we can see Quake, Ghost Rider, Deathlok, Jessica Jones, and Iron Fist!
Sorry to give you the bad news, Marvel fans, but I reckon James Gunn is right. The MCU and the TV shows won't be interacting directly any time soon; you'll have cameos and references in the TV series, but it's very unlikely that the TV superheroes will ever appear on the big screen, side by side with the Avengers. For me, though, I have to confess that I view that as a price worth paying.