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Will Poor TV Ratings Hurt Marvel’s Box Office?

The Longbox Theory

Whether it’s too much of a good thing, or that things simply aren’t all that good, Marvel‘s television output looks like an example of the Law of Diminishing Returns. Choosing to show The Inhumans pilot episode on IMAX screens irritated more fans than it drew, and may have doomed the show before it even premiered on TV. As successful as the films have been, Marvel’s small screen output has been mixed. Although the two divisions, film and TV, are run independently of one another, fans identify them as one entity. Unlike DC, which has kept their cinematic and television productions unique and separate, Marvel’s characters clearly exist in one shared reality. Poor TV ratings set off alarm bells because momentum matters, particularly in regard to public perception. You don’t have to always top yourself, but you’d better be consistently moving in the right direction. Anticipation is high for the next two movies, but neither is a guaranteed moneymaker; the previous two Thor films have only been moderately successful and Black Panther will be launching a new franchise, which always carries risk. As audience opinion turns against the TV shows, there’s a risk of it spilling over and affecting the films’ box office numbers.

Inhumans was initially scheduled as a feature film but Marvel pulled the plug after first delaying its planned release date. IMAX offered Marvel development money because they wanted to fill a dead space in their schedule. The lure of those funds probably overruled the studio heads’ better judgement. The likelihood of being able to develop and execute an eight episode series in the few months available to them, was low. To make matters worse, the showrunner Marvel chose was coming off the universally panned Iron Fist from their Netflix slate of shows. Even before the trailer had aired, there was a strong bias built up against it; once fans saw the first images, all their worst fears seemed confirmed. Regardless of the merits of the production, opinions were set before it had aired. It’s been reported that Marvel had already cancelled the show before its premiere. Inhumans certainly isn’t great—and for the most part, all its faults were preventable—but how much of the failure is due to its rushed execution, and how much of it comes down to a matter of perception due to increasing dissatisfaction with other shows, is debatable.

Marvel's "street level" version of The Avengers

Marvel’s “street level” version of The Avengers

Iron Fist was poor, and suffered in comparison to the Luke Cage series which preceded it on Netflix. Though inclusion of the character in The Defenders may have made some fans wary, it created a bounce for the team-up show. Fans often want to find reasons to like a favorite studio’s creations, and therefore willfully ignore elements that fall short of expectations. Iron Fist was muddled, its protagonist so confused and hesitant, that any other characterization of him in Defenders was bound to be well-received. The juxtaposition of the two shows created a perception that the latter show was better than it actually was. However, now that Inhumans has come out and underwhelmed, fans are looking back not only at Iron Fist, but revisiting their opinions on Defenders. Initially, the reviews were positive; fans were excited to see the culmination of bringing the Netflix characters together, à la the Avengers in the films. Surprisingly, no one criticized its apparent flaws—build up to an underwhelming climax, antagonists with muddled/unclear motivations and goals, story contradictions, loads of expository dialogue versus strong visual storytelling, uneven pacing leading to a lack of action etc. Since the IMAX release of Inhumans though, fans are revisiting Defenders and critiquing these issues and more. And their criticism hasn’t stopped there: Many are now going back through the catalogue and asking if we’d all been too charitable in our reviews of the previous series. In regard to coherent storytelling, characterization and pacing, most critics agree that the first season of Daredevil is Marvel’s strongest effort to date. The positive momentum it generated was the tide that lifted all the ships. However, we are in a golden age of television; because movie studios have become so risk-averse, there’s greater experimentation and creative expression on TV. Fans are spoiled. We often forget how challenging it is to actually make a great series—let alone keep it fresh and relevant. There’s a reason the phrase “jump the shark” exists in the public vernacular; though applied to any and every thing now, it refers to the moment a popular TV show lost its way because the creators had run out of ideas. TV is cyclical by nature—it has seasons—so fans expect and live with change. Sometimes a show is cancelled before we’re ready to say goodbye; more often than not, it overstays its welcome and loses its audience before they pull the plug. Marvel is pulling out of its deal with Netflix, but regardless of the economics of that decision, the creative cracks have been showing already.

The ABC shows are plagued by a different misconception. Disney is parent company to both the network and Marvel, so fans assume the shows (Agents of SHIELD, Agent Carter, Inhumans) are immune to cancellation or internal criticism. As charitable as fans have been regarding the Netflix shows, they’re often overly harsh regarding the network productions. There is an understandable difference in tone between the two: Netflix Marvel productions hover somewhere between a PG-13 and R rating, and have license to portray things that aren’t allowed on a primetime network show. They’re edgy. However, the word that best describes the ABC/Marvel slate is earnest. Where the Netflix shows reflect the ethos and aesthetics of the grim and gritty 80’s comics runs or Marvel MAX titles that inspired them, those on ABC reflect the more innocent comics of the 60’s. The Netflix shows drop all at once and are generally binge-watched, so fans rush through and perhaps don’t notice their flaws. In contrast, the ABC shows have natural viewing breaks and struggle to maintain anticipation between episodes, having to compete with everything else fans are watching throughout the week. How differently would each be perceived if the situations were reversed?

Some fans wanted Inhumans to be a success; others can’t get past the fact that Marvel is trying to push the

Long Live the King!

Long Live the King!

characters as a replacement to the X-Men. The characters do have a rich history in the comics. Though they aren’t easily adapted for television, they merit the effort. I feel similarly about Iron Fist, who possible whitewashing controversy aside, was one of my favorites along with Shang-Chi when I was a kid. When you’re emotionally invested in the characters, you tend to react one of two ways to an adaptation: You either willfully ignore all its faults or you’re hypercritical of those you perceive. Many fans were critical of both Captain America: The First Avenger and the first Thor film, which are arguably the most complete films in the MCU. They both feature compelling, realistic character arcs for their protagonists, and in the case of Loki, for the antagonist as well. Each film also features a handful of interesting, fleshed-out supporting characters as well as coherent plots and consistent visual storytelling. Neither film was perfect, but they were generally greeted with ambivalence. Perceptions changed with their sequels: Thor: The Dark World was lambasted while Captain America: The Winter Soldier was hailed as the best Marvel film to that point. Momentum was moving in different directions for each franchise. Though Civil War was enjoyable, well acted and engaging, judged only on its merits as a film, it was flawed. Now the onus is on the much hyped Thor: Ragnarok to redeem its franchise. A new director and an exciting visual aesthetic look promising… but fans are likely going to scrutinize it more closely because of previous chapters.
That’s the thing with momentum: It can lift you up one moment and wreck you the next.
But I will be seeing both Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther in IMAX, by the way. ‘Nuff said.

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