The One Way Marvel’s TV Shows Are Better Than Their Movies
After you strip out the unbelievably long Marvel closing credits — why are they so long??? — Episode 3 of Hawkeye runs about 37 minutes. Of those 37 minutes, the two characters named Hawkeye only appear in about 29 of them. The other eight minutes, roughly 25 percent of the entire episode, belong entirely to a new character joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe named Echo.
Played by Alaqua Cox, Echo has the ability to mimic anyone’s movements. Episode 3’s prologue (titled “Echoes”) shows how she came to hone this skill, and reveals her tragic backstory. (Like most good Marvel heroes, she mourns a dead loved one she couldn’t save.) After Echo’s introduction, the story returns to the present with Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) and Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld), but Echo remains the key supporting player in the drama; she blames Ronin for the death of her father and seeks revenge.
Echo figures so prominently into Hawkeye Episode 3 that the show almost feels like a backdoor pilot. And maybe it is, as Marvel has already confirmed the character will get her own Disney+ series in the near future. Marvel’s television shows for Disney+ have been a mixed bag so far, but this is the one thing they have consistently done far better than the company’s movies. This first year of MCU series have gotten extremely good at mimicking the concept of a “special guest star issue” that has consistently remained one of the hallmarks of Marvel’s comic-book storytelling for the last 50 years.
After the first generation of Marvel’s Silver Age superheroes — the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor, etc. — most of the company’s most famous characters debuted as guest stars in other series. Wolverine’s first appearance came in The Incredible Hulk #181. The Punisher first debuted in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man #129. The Silver Surfer soared through the cosmos for the first time in Fantastic Four #48. While Captain America debuted back in 1941 in the pages of Captain America Comics #1, his introduction into the Marvel Universe came as a special guest star in The Avengers #4, when the Avengers thawed him out of an iceberg he’d been trapped in since the end of World War II.
This way of introducing characters made a lot of sense in comics. It was risky and expensive to add a new comic about an untested hero to the company’s line. Introducing them elsewhere allowed Marvel to gauge the feedback (not to mention sales) before committing resources to a full-blown franchise. It also kept things fresh in Marvel’s pre-existing books; Spider-Man can only fight Doctor Octopus so many times before audiences get weary of the repetition. These special guest star introductions also added to the sense that the Marvel Universe was a massive storytelling tapestry that was ever-evolving and expanding. The notion that a character might appear in one series and then leap to another or perhaps get their own solo book, enhanced that feeling that everything in Marvel was interconnected and part of some unseen master plan.
That vibe has permeated all of Marvel’s Disney+ shows so far. The penultimate episode of WandaVision focused heavily on the character of Agatha Harkness — previously a comedic sidekick character, but actually a powerful and immortal witch who had been pulling the title character’s strings throughout the series. (Agatha is due for her own spinoff, Agatha: House of Harkness, sometime in the next couple years.) In The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the two leads often took a backseat to the character of John Walker, the government’s choice to replace Steve Rogers as Captain America. Over the course of TFATWS, Walker crumbles under the weight of his newfound responsibility, then eventually adopts a new identity, U.S. Agent. Next came Loki, which had a similar episode devoted to revealing the backstory of Sylvie, the female variant of the title character who becomes his adversary and love interest. She hasn’t gotten her own spinoff series yet, but she will return in Season 2 of Loki.
Marvel’s movies have had similarly conceived guest stars through the years. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow first debuted in the MCU as a side character in Iron Man 2, while her replacement as the MCU’s Widow, Florence Pugh, debuted in Johansson’s solo Black Widow movie. There would have been no WandaVision to introduce Agatha Harkness in if Wanda and Vision hadn’t both debuted in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Hawkeye’s own hero shot his first arrow in a scene during the first Thor movie back in 2011.
But while many of these characters went on to become fan favorites, their actual introductions were often clumsy, and sometimes came at the detriment of the overall film. Iron Man 2 is one of Marvel’s most ungainly movies in large part because it tries to shoehorn in too many side characters like Black Widow. The same goes for Age of Ultron, where the story’s emotional impact is blunted by the fact we barely know the key characters by the big finale. (The death of Wanda’s brother Pietro would have meant a lot more if the character had spoken more than a handful of lines before it happened.) Hawkeye’s introduction in Thor is so brief it could have been completely removed from the film and no one would have noticed.
Even the shortest Marvel show is longer than the longest Marvel movie; Hawkeye’s first season runs just six episodes, but that still gives it about four and a half hours of screen time to tell a single story. It can present a detailed introduction for Echo and still provide full character arcs for Clint and Kate, and feature plenty of scenes involving their respective families as well.
That’s one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about this first year of Marvel Disney+ series. The company did its best to mimic their comic-book storytelling style in films, and they arguably did it better than any of their many imitators. Still, the episodic nature of television will always be a better match for the pacing and style of serialized comics, and watching Hawkeye or WandaVision weekly, where new characters can pop in and become seamlessly integrated into the story, actually captures the flavor of going to the comic store every week to keep up with the regular adventures of your favorite Marvel characters. Can it be a coincidence that new episodes of Hawkeye and new issues of Marvel comics both debut on Wednesdays?
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