Are we really supposed to believe that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Luke Cage, and Doctor Strange are equally important parts of the same big story?
If you're not paying attention, you might not even notice that Netflix's Luke Cage is a Marvel series. Sure, you've got a protagonist with super-strength and impenetrable skin. Sure, you've got a meaty role for a supporting character first introduced in Daredevil. And sure, you’ve got the now-standard references to "the incident"—the go-to Marvelese euphemism for that time when a bunch of aliens suddenly appeared from a rip in the sky and attacked midtown Manhattan, which you probably remember from The Avengers.
But for all its halfhearted ties to the greater Marvel universe, Luke Cage never feels like a series in which, say, a dark elf could pop in and start blasting energy beams all over the Paradise nightclub—or even a world in which someone like Thor might exist. In the middle of a binge-watch, it's easy to forget that all of this is supposed to be happening in a world that literally just survived a civil war between its greatest superheroes, who started fighting right after they battled a sentient robot bent on eradicating humankind.
After an almost decade-long stream of interconnected stories, we've reached a fascinating place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: 13 movies, five TV shows, a handful of canonical shorts, and many, many more projects on the horizon. On the whole, Marvel has been uncannily savvy about expanding in the right directions at the right times, and the company clearly has a plan to avoid over-saturation and increase the diversity of its storytelling, while simultaneously attempting to knit a more coherent whole. (One long-in-the-works series, Damage Control—a sitcom about the regular Joes and Janes tasked with cleaning up all the fallout from all these crazy superhero battles—would aim to do exactly that.)
But even the most deftly told stories reach a saturation point, and careful viewership reveals a few cracks in Marvel's cross-platform narrative. Major characters are recast, or the same actor ends up playing two totally different characters. Cliffhangers, like the revelation of Thanos at the end of The Avengers, can drag on for years without any convincing reason to care about their outcomes. And the need to set up future installments—like the boring and baffling Thor subplot in Age of Ultron—can end up harming the movie you're actually watching.
In practice, the MCU is just a few discrete chunks of interconnected stories, with some half-assed, unconvincing points of connection between them.
And all of those problems build up to a larger catch-22: When it comes to the MCU, is everything really equally important? If you're committing to ensuring that everything matters, you're asking an audience to spend lots of time and money on each individual piece of the MCU—with the implicit reward of a massive, trans-media story that will justify all that effort. (Of course, you’re also accepting that a sizable chunk of that audience will choose to opt out from that level of commitment anyway.) But if you're going to prioritize some stories over others, you run the risk of splintering the audience—particularly if a future story relies on elements of a past story that viewers have already rejected.
You can feel Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige attempting to thread this particular needle when he talks about the other big Marvel project on the horizon: next month's Doctor Strange, which has been tasked with introducing mainstream audiences to the character who essentially embodies in the magical wing of the Marvel universe, and whose big-screen debut comes without a single familiar superhero in sight. "If you didn’t know this movie was connected to 13 movies before it, nothing in this movie would indicate that was the case," said Feige in an interview with Slashfilm. "This is very much a standalone introduction to a very complex character and a very complex world."
But "standalone" is basically the opposite of the principle that has enabled Marvel to amass such an enviable roster of superheroes—and when pressed, Feige also acknowledges that Doctor Strange has also been engineered to sit alongside the company's other movies. "One would imagine that anyone living in New York was aware of what had occurred in various instances," Feige explained. "But like in our real life, people go about their daily business, their job, and [Doctor Strange’s] job is to be the best neurosurgeon and to take the best cases and to get the most attention and to get the most accolades and that’s what he’s focused on until his accident. So he doesn't spend a lot of time talking or thinking about The Avengers."
This narrative compromise has a kernel of truth in it, but it's also a logical workaround to the natural schisms that have arisen between Marvel's various projects. In practice, the MCU is less a grand unified whole than a few discrete chunks of interconnected stories, with some half-assed, unconvincing points of connection between them. There's the MCU proper, with films that have either already crossed over (Iron Man, Captain America, Ant-Man) or will clearly cross over in the future (Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange). There's the Defenders wing of the universe, which encompasses the adult-oriented, New York-set Netflix shows—Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage—which will eventually cross over, too.
And then, most interestingly, there are the bits that don't quite fit at all. If the MCU has an unloved stepchild, it's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the ABC drama that just premiered its fourth season, which exists at the uneasy nexus between the company's crowd-pleasing blockbusters and the smaller, darker TV shows it runs on Netflix. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s now-cancelled sister show Agent Carter was easier to justify in the larger Marvel continuity; it centered on a Captain America heroine who played a key role in multiple MCU movies and took place decades before the MCU's central narrative, which rendered most of the standard continuity questions moot.
It's not like audiences haven't faced similar hurdles before. You can enjoy the Lord of the Rings trilogy and not bother with The Silmarillion or even The Hobbit.
But despite the soothing presence of Phil Coulson—a mainstay in Marvel's "Phase 1" movies, killed off in The Avengers and resurrected for the TV show—Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. often feels like it's taking place in some kind of parallel universe, only dipping into the greater Marvel world for synergistic marketing purposes when the latest MCU blockbuster rolls along. The events of the movie have certainly pushed the series into new territory (most notably in the first season, when Captain America: The Winter Soldier revealed that S.H.I.E.L.D. had been infiltrated by Hydra). But apart from a few cute cameos by Nick Fury and Thor's Lady Sif, this cross-pollination has basically been a one-way street. As Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has introduced threats that seem large enough to attract the attention of at least one Avenger—an ancient evil being from another planet, or a dude with an indestructible car and a flaming skull for a head—the MCU's large roster of big-screen superheroes have kept playing in their own sandbox. Meanwhile, a planned Inhumans movie—which would presumably cover some of the same ground as the TV series, which introduced the Inhumans as a central plot device back in its second season—has apparently been scrapped.
As Marvel projects continue to multiply, it's obvious that some stars feel they're being left behind. In a rare moment of public dissent from the company line, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. star Chloe Bennet complained about Marvel’s apparent disinterest in returning the favor. "I would love [crossing over]," said Bennet at a convention in May. "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. […] I am kind of, like, ready for Steve Rogers to make an appearance on our show. I'd be okay with that. And like, where's Romanoff? Where's the Avengers? Or maybe Robert Downey Jr. as Robert Downey Jr. That would be kinda nice."
For Marvel, the simplest answer might be the best one: Just stop pretending all of these stories are so tightly connected. It's not like audiences haven't faced similar hurdles before. You can enjoy the Lord of the Rings trilogy and not bother with The Silmarillion or even The Hobbit. Game of Thrones fans might enjoy George R.R. Martin's A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms or the in-canon episodic video game that debuted in 2014, but neither is essential to understanding the TV series. And when it comes to comics, Marvel itself has plenty of experience catering to a segmented audience; if you'd rather goof around with Squirrel Girl than dive into another Civil War, you can.
And even if the Marvel hasn't gotten around to acknowledging it yet, the same trick will probably work just as well for the MCU. Wondering how Luke Cage and Doctor Strange are connected? Worried that you're missing something if you don't tune in for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. each week? Don't sweat it. If you take the individual pieces you like best, it'll soon be clear that the grand overarching story isn't all that important anyway.