For all intents and purposes, Marvel Television as we know it is dead.
The arrival of the third season of Marvel's Runaways on Hulu at the end of 2019 was basically the last gasp of Marvel's original television programming arm, as almost every other series it had on-air had either been canceled, revoked, or otherwise told to wrap it up as quickly as possible. Fox's X-Men drama The Gifted failed to get a renewal. FX's weirdo Legion quietly ended things in its third season. The entire Netflix Marvel universe was summarily canceled, and teen series like Runaways and Freeform's Cloak and Dagger were given their walking papers as well. Even the shows in development were dumped —apologies if you were looking forward to that Ghost Rider series that was supposedly coming to Hulu this year.
At least Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will get one last hurrah on ABC in 2020, before it joins its brethren in the proverbial television graveyard.
Sure, there will still be plenty of Marvel properties on the small screen—fans everywhere are enthusiastically counting down to the release of titles like The Falcon and The Winter Soldier and WandaVision, after all — but those series will firmly exist within the sphere of streaming platform Disney+ and generally sport more direct ties to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. Corporate synergy writ large, across what is likely the biggest franchise in the world.
To be fair, in some ways, the idea of bringing all the Marvel properties together under one roof makes a lot of sense. Fans get a central hub for all their Marvel superhero programming needs, Disney+ gets a bunch of new subscribers, and no one has to work to coordinate things across multiple networks and platforms.
But it's also creatively unfortunate, and a real loss for fans of comics, superhero stories and diverse dramas everywhere. Because the shows that ended were the precise parts of the Marvel on-screen universe that told the most interesting stories and were willing to take the biggest creative risks.
It took Marvel's film universe over a decade to put out a feature film led by a woman (Captain Marvel). It took almost that long for it to give us one fronted by a character of color (Black Panther). Its sum total of LGBTQ representation is a five-minute appearance by director Joe Russo as a random, never-before-seen civilian character in Avengers: Endgame, and this month the studio scrambled to walk back the misquote that a future film would feature a trans hero.
To put it mildly: The film side of things isn't exactly racing to do anything other than play it as safe as possible, for as long as possible, churning out enjoyable blockbusters where we all know exactly what we're getting.
The Marvel television division, on the other hand, has featured characters of diverse races and sexualities for years now. Three of the four Netflix Defenders series were led by a black man, a woman and a character with a disability, respectively. Runaways' central romance was one between two women. Legion turned its handsome white lead into a villain. Cloak and Dagger told stories about police brutality, drugs and more. Even ABC's considerably more straightforward S.H.I.E.L.D. featured a diverse team centered around two capable women of color.
This was possible largely because these properties were dispersed across a variety of platforms and networks, which each made different kinds of shows and served different audiences. Netflix was the home for grittier adult fare like Daredevil and Jessica Jones, which featured violent, intricate fight sequences, multi-faceted villains and themes rooted in heavier subjects like faith and trauma. Teen-focused stories like Runaways and Cloak and Dagger found homes on Hulu and Freeform, and told more creative, youthful tales about discovering and coming to terms with your identity or fighting with your (in this case, literally evil) parents.
These shows didn't tell safe stories. They often didn't do what viewers expected. And they certainly aren't homogenous copies of one another, whether in terms of tone, story or cast. They repeatedly push the boundaries of what it means to be a superhero, and redefined what that role looked like within the Marvel universe, especially for those who didn't carry a shield or swing a hammer.
Marvel's TV universe took real risks, often exploring precisely the sort of dark, relevant and human stories the MCU films will never touch, whether for reasons of time or fears that mainstream audiences won't relate to or embrace the material. And given what we've seen of the upcoming Disney+ slate, there's little reason to believe the streaming platform will approach its product terribly differently. (Particularly since they're now supposed to tie so closely into the film universe.) As a result, we probably won't see very many shows like Daredevil, Legion, or Cloak and Dagger in their lineup anytime soon, since they're likely to be considered too violent, too weird, or too niche-y for the viewers they see as their primary audience.
Yet, with everything seemingly moving in-house, it's less likely than ever that these are the stories that will be greenlit. Does Disney+ seem likely to say yes to something like The Punisher, with its hyper-violence and complicated politics? Or to allow a series like Jessica Jones to confront sexual trauma so forthrightly? Could it ever give us a villain like Wilson Fisk? Or a "hero" like David Haller?
Maybe! But we probably all know the real answer to that. And even as we inevitably swoon over Sam and Bucky's first small-screen adventures together or grieve with Wanda over her dead love when those stories arrive on our televisions later this year, it's going to be difficult not to wonder, how many other innovative shows did we sacrifice to get them? Is playing it safe really worth it in the end?
Marvel TV is dead. Long live Marvel TV.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.