Mr & Mrs Cage

Not having Netflix means I haven’t followed what’s going on in the live-action Marvel Universe, which everyone keeps calling the Marvel Cinematic Universe despite parts of it not being exclusive to the cinema–ABC and Netflix. I call it the Marvel Live Universe because it doesn’t include the animated works on Disney XD and only the occasional tie-in comic. For the sake of clarity though I’ll go with the official name until they wise up. (Pardon my rare ego moment.)

One thing I do know about the Netflix wing is that it tends to be on the darker side, from what I’ve heard about Daredevil and the recently dropped Jessica Jones, based on the Marvel Max (the adult side back when that wasn’t the regular universe) series Alias, I’m hearing is the same way. Heck, I’ve seen the clips of David Tennant as the Purple Man and wow is he an awful human being. (Killgrave I mean, or as they spell it “Kilgrave”, not David Tennant.) Now you know me by now. When they start praising something for being dark and gritty a flag goes up for me. “Dark and gritty” may work for a story but it’s not a praise-worthy thing BY ITSELF. It works right for the stories they want to tell over at Netflix, even though it clashes with the lighter tones of the movies and ABC shows. I don’t have a problem with that, since the Marvel universe varies in tone within the same continuity and that works fine, but to praise it JUST for that annoys me. As if they couldn’t pull off a good story if it followed the style of the other two media sources or something.

Anyway, to better understand this approach I go to an interview by CBR‘s Albert Ching with Jeph Loeb, who is in charge of the TV (and presumably internet, which I guess some people watch on TV thanks to smart TVs and modern game consoles) production for Marvel Studios. I haven’t always been fond of Loeb’s stories (the one coming right to mind is the Ultimate universe where the Blob eats the Wasp and Giant Man bites his head off in retaliation…seriously, what the hell!) but the shows haven’t joined that tone on TV. The Netflix shows (including the upcoming Luke Cage and Iron Fist shows, which will lead to a street-level team using the old superhero team name The Defenders) seem more like his style. Let’s dissect his interview for the points where I agree with him and the parts I don’t. Because I have no other topic for tonight.

While a number of critics and fans are excited by how different “Jessica Jones” is from typical Marvel — similar to how the source material, the “Alias” comic book series by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos, was different than the rest of Marvel’s publishing line when it launched in 2001 — Head of Marvel Television Jeph Loeb actually sees it fitting firmly in the 50-plus-year-old classic Marvel tradition. In an interview with CBR News, Loeb expressed his viewpoint that “Jessica Jones” is an “extremely relatable” and “very aspirational” story that is ultimately “really basic Marvel” — even if the tone and content is considerably more graphic than the Marvel Studios films.

Considering what I just told you about Loeb, this shouldn’t surprise you. But this is only the intro. We’ll get more into that when we get to the full quotes.

CBR News: Jeph, when “Daredevil” debuted, a lot of observers commented as to how it was something that felt very different from live-action Marvel up to that point. Now with “Jessica Jones,” that same notion is taken even further in terms of tone and content. For you as Head of Marvel TV, what are you proudest of in what the show was able to accomplish that viewers hadn’t seen before?

. . .

The short answer is, “What’s the best story? What’s the best place to tell that story, and how do you tell that story with the best people that you can get?” That’s both writing and cast and crew, which has been exceptional in New York. The Netflix shows are very different from the ABC shows, not just in content, but also in the sense that we do our ABC shows in California, and we do the Netflix shows in New York. The city is really a character there, and everyone from the governor to the mayor and the city itself has welcomed us, and made it an incredibly exciting place to be able to shoot, not just on the streets, but in the subway, on the rooftops, at the piers, on the water — it’s an extraordinary experience, and something I hadn’t had a chance to do since I was in college. [Loeb graduated from Columbia University.]

See, this is what I want to hear over “we want to make it dark”. As I’ve said in the Art Soundoffs I have darker ideas in my head that I would love to make into a story. It’s not my usual style, but they’re still interesting stories but not because they’re dark, but because it’s what the story demands. And of course they won’t be so overly serious that it doesn’t feel like the real world, because real life (that thing certain parties keep demanding) has humorous moments as well.

When we sat down to talk about “Jessica,” we knew that what Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos had created was very unique. Her story didn’t begin the way the average superhero story starts. The idea of someone who is hoping to become a hero is generally where you’re going. The risk that we took was the risk that Brian took — to begin with, the idea that someone who was broken, and how could she find her way back to being a hero? And did she want to be a hero?

What many people are responding to is, it’s a confusing time out there for a lot of people — what they want to do with their lives, how they’re going to achieve that. “Jessica Jones” opens that door, and tells that story in a way that is extremely relatable. It’s one of the many things it does — it’s also very much about a woman who’s had something extraordinarily terrible happen to her, and hopefully in a very aspirational way, what we see is how she picks herself up and moves forward in her life. That’s something that is really basic Marvel. The quote that I like to refer to all the time from “Daredevil: Yellow” [by Loeb and Tim Sale]: “The measure of a man is not how he got knocked down to the mat, but how he picks himself up.” In this case, it’s the measure of a woman.

We used to write those stories for kids, but I can see where targeting the college kids, that time where you feel trapped between past and future, would work. I didn’t even have a problem with the CW version of The Tomorrow People shifting gears like that, although I always hate seeing a product for kids ripped from them and given to that group who wants to take everything from kids they think is cool enough to be just for them. See the current non-cartoon Transformers offerings. Again, this doesn’t impact the quality of the work, and I haven’t read a lot of reviews for Marvel’s Jessica Jones to hear how good or bad it is. It just means I have my preferences, with a sidebar about kids losing their IPs to kid-hating college brats.

Of course, Mike Colter as Luke Cage was really, for us, the find of the year, because not only did he have to make his presence known in “Jessica Jones,” but he has to carry his own television series.

Television series? Netflix isn’t a cable channel, it’s an internet channel. Is “web series” the new “cartoon” or “comic book”? Are we getting snobbish against internet productions?

Compared to say a Daredevil or a Luke Cage, Jessica Jones has not had that long of a history in comics, and this series takes its inspiration from a very specific place, Bendis and Gaydos’ “Alias” series. How did that affect the process in developing and adapting the series? Was it easier to focus with a narrower field to draw from?

Sometimes it’s very exciting to have 50 years of history, like we did with “Daredevil.” when people asked us what story we were telling, we said, “All of them.” That was great fun. What Brian and Michael created was a very real character, and someone who very much fit into this world. One of the things that’s very important to us at Marvel TV and at Netflix is that when we first brought them this idea, it wasn’t just telling a Daredevil story and a Jessica Jones story and a Luke Cage story and an Iron Fist story. We wanted to tell stories about the street-level heroes, and we wanted to tell how each of them was dealing with crime in their own particular way. They’re as different as the Marvel movies are — if you look at “Iron Man” and “Hulk” and “Thor” and “Captain America” that’s led up to the “Avengers,” that’s a pretty gutsy move, to try to make four films, one of which takes place in the 1940s and is a war picture. And yet they somehow all very much feel very “Marvel.”

Purple Man

Too bad they didn’t paint Tennant for his role as Purple Man (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Two thoughts in this part of his answer. One: it’s nice to see that someone thinks that other properties can make just as good a show as the ones the general public knows the name of. That plays into my rant of giving characters of culture their own production (I still want my Icon and Prowler movies!) instead of altering the characters we know and pretending to solve the problem of underrepresentation. Plus you have all these fascinating characters that the world has never seen that could be brought to light and they should learn about because comics are still put so far down on the media totem pole that need their spot.

The other thought is that I like to see Loeb taking positive cues from his movie compatriots as to how to create a shared universe, and I’m presuming that the Netflix corner takes place in the same continuity as the movie and ABC productions. Each show gets its own flavor (I’m hoping Luke Cage’s show is the fun one but still with the dark tone they’re making for the Netflix/street level corner of the MCU) and stands as its own production, looking to bring superheroes to a particular genre. It’s what makes superhero comics work as a shared universe, including Marvel.

Obviously Bendis had a great deal to do with this — these characters “knew” each other. It wasn’t like we were going to reach into a grab bag of Marvel heroes and go, “We’re going to take these four or five characters and we’re going to try to find a way of making them know each other.” There have been lots of stories that have been told about how Matt knows Jessica, and obviously Jessica and Luke have a relationship. I think everyone’s looking forward to the day Danny and Luke get together, because as a partnership, that’s just great fun. Each of these series need to stand on their own. We need to be able to meet our heroes, and we need to be able to understand where they come from, understand their point of view, and understand why they’re different from each other — and to a certain extent, why they’re different from the Avengers. We’ve said from the very beginning, the Avengers are here to save the universe. The street-level heroes are here to save the neighborhood. If we tell that story right, because television is such an intimate world and one that is very much dependent on character, as opposed to being able to do the epic spectacle that the Marvel movies do, you have to really get to know these people, and you have the time to do so. If we’re going to tell a 13-hour story, it’s more akin to a graphic novel than it is to a single issue. I’m in awe of what the movies do in two hours, but we have a different challenge ahead of us.

This ties in to something else I’ve talked about during Art Soundoff, how not every story has to be this grand epic adventure. However, I think Loeb’s analogy is wrong here. The movies are the graphic novels, the series are a regular comic series. I know Marvel likes to do the “write for the trade stuff” these days as well as DC but you remember ongoing series, right? Or at least a maxi-series (a longer mini-series that isn’t a full series) that has another volume (a new season of Daredevil is planned).

In reading interviews with showrunner Melissa Rosenberg about the process, she mentions that there is of course the connective tissue, but has emphasized the creative freedom she had as showrunner. For you as Head of Marvel TV, how important is it to hire creative people and give them the space to use their voice to tell these stories?

It’s important that we do hire the best storytellers that we can. I think that’s true whether it’s animation or in the comic books, or in television or the movies. But make no mistake about it, Marvel is the producing partner. It’s a very unique relationship that we have — what we like to say is, when we meet with the showrunner for the first time, “We’ll give you a nine-lane highway.” Where that goes, and how you get there, and how fast you go, those are all things that we’ll work with you on. But if you hit the guardrail, we’re going to let you know. It’s important that you have people like myself and Joe who are storytellers, and who don’t just have to approach it from the point of view of — for want of a better explanation — “the suits.”

I wonder if Netflix’s, Hulu’s, or Amazon’s original productions arm has their own marketing team who is more interested in the charts than creativity. Or have they not fallen into that trap yet? I hope they haven’t and never do.

We are there to tell the best story that we can, and put together a great writers room and a showrunner who believes in what’s going on. But make no mistake about it, it needs to feel “Marvel.” I don’t think it’s by magic that the properties that get done that have Marvel intimately involved in the storytelling, in the production, in the casting, editing, delivery, all those things — whether it’s the movies or it’s the animation or it’s television — really benefit from it. We can point fingers at some of our properties that we don’t have control over, and the fans get very vocal about it, and are very frustrated that some of those properties don’t get the same kind of care that we like to put into it. That’s just what it is to tell a story here. I think it shows in all the storytelling that we do.

You mean like the Fantastic Four movies and some of the X-Men movies?

How clear is that balance in your head, with these Netflix shows especially? Both “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones” make it clear that is part of that larger world, but they’re subtle about it.

It’s very important that when you watch Marvel Television, that you enjoy the story that you’re watching. If you’re a fan, and there’s a wink — one of my favorite lines from “Daredevil” season one is when Foggy says, “I can put wings on my head, that doesn’t make me Captain America” — it’s that kind of thing which says, “Yes, we live in that world,” but I never want it to feel like what Joss Whedon once referred to as an “Easter egg farm,” where people are continually being distracted by the fact that there are some elements that take you out of a story. But by the same token, you need to feel that you are part of a much larger universe — that’s the fun of Marvel. That goes back to Stan [Lee] and Jack [Kirby] and Steve Ditko. It always was a connected universe, so why would we not want it to be its own thing? We just don’t want people to feel like they need to have watched 11 movies and now a hundred hours of television in order to know what’s going on. But I think there’s something very comforting about knowing there’s a plan, and we really do spend a lot of time thinking about how things are connected, and how that can best work — not just for us, but for the writers and the cast and everybody that’s involved in the production. It needs to feel like Marvel, that’s really what it comes down to.

Heroes for Hire #1 (1997). Art by Pasqual Ferry.

I do wonder why they’re going with The Defenders instead of  Heroes For Hire, an actual street-level team. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m totally in favor of this answer. Easter eggs are fun but if you overdo it you can be taken out of the story you’re watching and start thinking of this other story that you now want to watch if you liked it last time. A good Easter egg needs to fit in the world while still being a good nod to the fans. Like Planet Pizza showing up so often in Pixar tales. Plus you don’t want the larger adventures overshadowing your street-level stories. Both corners should compliment each other.

So I admit I like a lot of what Loeb says here. That said, the darker stuff usually isn’t for me but at least it sounds like he’s not leaving it at “dark and gritty” but wants to tell stories that just happen to be “dark and gritty”. Or maybe that’s the direction Netflix wants them to take it in light of what else I’ve heard from their original programs (and Amazon’s come to think of it) and Loeb, who likes his dark stuff, happily worked with it. The response I’ve heard from Daredevil is quite positive, and hopefully Marvel’s Jessica Jones is the same way. The MCU may produce something horrible eventually but the later the better for mainstream geek media.

About ShadowWing Tronix

A would be comic writer looking to organize his living space as well as his thoughts. So I have a blog for each goal. :)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s