The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been one of the more impressive achievements in the entertainment industry of late. Its latest entry, Spider-Man: Homecoming, draws heavily on the franchise’s existing history and characters, despite telling a smaller and grounded story than one of Marvel’s big team-up films like The Avengers or Captain America: Civil War. In fact, I’d argue that Spider-Man: Homecoming finally gets right what spinoffs like Marvel’s Netflix shows get wrong: giving us a true ground-level perspective of the MCU.
That’s not to say that Marvel’s Netflix shows — which encompass Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and the upcoming Defenders and Punisher series — are bad. The gritty, more mature shows range from great (Jessica Jones) to good (Luke Cage) to well, not so good (looking at you, Iron Fist). But I’d argue that their success is in spite of the fact that they’re set in the Marvel universe, not because they’re inherently linked to the story that Marvel started telling in Iron Man. Sure, they work well together as a unit, and hopefully the payoff promised in Defenders is worth several seasons of setup, but that’s internal to the Netflix series, not reliant on the rest of the Marvel universe.
To put it another way: do Marvel’s Netflix shows gain anything from a storytelling perspective by being in the MCU? Would they lose anything if they were completely standalone?
Both Homecoming and the Netflix series operate on a similar scale and scope. The Vulture isn’t that much more of a threat to New York City than, say, Kingpin or Cottonmouth, and there’s just as much of Peter Parker juggling his personal life and superheroics as we see from Matt Murdock trying to run a law firm and fight crime. But Homecoming draws on the MCU in a way that the Netflix shows haven’t — or perhaps, can’t — do.
These events happen in big ways, like the presence of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and Chris Evans’ Captain America, and small ones, like when characters simply acknowledge the fact that Marvel’s superheroes and the events from previous films actually exist and had an impact on the world. Fans have been embracing the Marvel film universe for almost a decade now, and acknowledging that shared fictional history as a place to build off is one of Homecoming’s greatest strengths, even as it largely tells a self-contained story of Peter Parker learning how to web-sling his way around Queens.
Now, to be fair, a lot of this isn’t the fault of the Netflix shows. There seems to be strict, one-way barrier between Marvel’s TV and film divisions. The shows can reference — or heavily rely on, in the cases of shows like Agents of SHIELD or Agent Carter — the films, but there’s clearly some strict rules about how far creators can go and what they can say. And the Netflix shows are even worse — over at io9, James Whitbrook has put together an almost comical list of the Marvel Netflix-verse’s various attempts to avoid directly referencing anything or anyone from the MCU by name. (“The Old Dude With the Shield”? “The Big Green Dude (and his Crew)”? Seriously?)
It’s unclear if this is corporate infighting or an intentional effort from Marvel’s Netflix series to distance themselves from the more fantastical events of the Marvel universe, but if there’s a lesson to take away from Homecoming, it’s that there’s a better way.
There’s an argument that this is all simply irrelevant, and that maintaining or acknowledging continuity simply doesn’t matter. But, much like I argued when nitpicking the Pirates of the Caribbean films, the whole point of having a franchise like this is to serve storytelling and develop characters, plots, and the world over time. I’d argue that Daredevil is worse off for not being able or willing to draw more fully on the effects of the world it’s allegedly set in. The post-Chitauri New York City seems like it’d be a much more interesting a place to set a superhero show than our own reality, and it feels like Marvel is pulling its punches when it comes to showing us the world of The Avengers. There are gods and superheroes and robots and aliens running around! Why not use the realistic worlds of the Netflix shows to show us the fallout and reaction of normal people to that?
On the flip side, it’s almost certainly never going to happen that the films acknowledge the TV shows. Quite simply, the financial balance of power is so enormously tilted toward the films that even the most successful TV series have no sway. But there’s no reason that this synergy couldn’t go the other way. If Spider-Man shows that smaller stories can benefit from the MCU’s larger narrative, it also proves that there’s room for more “on the ground” heroes to impact the larger universe.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is a richer, better story for being fully part of the MCU. It’d be nice if other Marvel universe properties would be able to do the same.