Until Disney+’s WandaVision, none of the Marvel television series that stretched across ABC, Freeform, Netflix and Hulu were the brainchild of Kevin Feige, the architect responsible for the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s big screen success. Yet a 2019 hierarchal shakeup at Marvel Studios put Feige in control over every facet of its vast on-screen empire, sparking a new era of MCU storytelling that began with WandaVision.
The series and its upcoming Disney+ compatriots—which include The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, What If…? and Loki—provide the MCU with a new dimension of storytelling opportunities and enable Disney to unlock new levels of success. But these complimentary series must strike a delicate balance with their big screen counterparts to keep the Marvel machine whirring long-term.
New Types of MCU Stories
Disney+ creates room for secondary characters to be more deeply explored and developed. The standout element of WandaVision thus far is the emotional journeys of its two leads (Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda and Paul Bettany’s Vision) who were rarely center stage in the films. This is the advantage of ping-ponging characters, stories, and various plot elements across different mediums, creating a two-way funnel of fan interest.
“There is a certain, inescapable formula to Marvel movies, and blockbusters in general,” Jeff Bock, Senior Box Office Analyst at Exhibitor Relations, told Observer. “While Marvel movies are still miles away from a heat check, what Disney+ will continue to be able to do in the future with Marvel properties is focus on slow character burns, which have always been a staple of comics. These superheroes are rooted in character development, which is precisely why Disney+ Marvel series will be able to expand on a much deeper level than big screen adventures ever could.”
This formula has proven effective for existing Marvel fans as WandaVision is performing well in the early going.
The series premiered January 15 with two episodes that clocked in at 22 minutes and 29 minutes, respectively, when excluding credits. Despite the small number of episodes available, their short running times and just two days of availability, WandaVision managed to rank sixth among all streaming shows and 13th among all television shows in Nielsen’s total minutes watched metric for the week of January 11-17. The show drew 434 million minutes of viewership with the smallest number of available episodes and shortest total running time among the top 10 programs available across all SVOD platforms, per Nielsen.
As of last week, WandaVision had also become the most in-demand TV show in the world, according to Parrot Analytics. Following a relatively soft first week, where it rattled between #7 and number #35 worldwide, WandaVision had been the second or third most in-demand series since January 22, when episode three was released.
On Feb. 5, the same day episode five was released featuring a widely discussed shocking ending, the Marvel series finally catapulted to the number one series worldwide and, as of February 7, has has remained there. WandaVision was 111.2x more in-demand globally than the average TV show worldwide. Its rise to the top spot is a testament to the weekly release strategy employed by Disney+, which has also helped lift the streamer’s flagship original The Mandalorian to even greater heights, as well as the strength of Disney+’s pre-established IP.
The idea of granting secondary characters behind Iron Man and Captain America a grander stage all their own is at the heart of Marvel’s small screen expansion. Actors such as Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson/Falcon), Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier), Don Cheadle (Rhodey/War Machine) and Jeremy Renner (Clint Barton/Hawkeye) are all getting their own series in the near future. Disney+ will also serve as a launching pad for new characters not yet introduced in the MCU such as Moon Knight (Oscar Isaac), She-Hulk (Tatiana Maslany) and Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani).
“From a business perspective, it’s truly genius: rake in hundreds of millions theatrically with big-budget fireworks, and then clean up on streaming, expanding the fanbase with stories that further connect the audience to the characters,” Bock said. “It should almost be illegal, that synergy. It’s Disney’s golden goose when you get right down to it.”
New vs. Existing Fans
WandaVision was not meant to be Marvel Studios’ first Disney+ series. That honor originally belonged to the more traditional action-adventure The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (debuting March 19) before COVID-19 production shutdowns forced the two series to swap release slots. Though WandaVision has struck a chord with the Marvel faithful precisely because it is unique from the rest of the MCU, its experimental style and reliance on recognition and connection to previous MCU canon has not appealed as strongly to newcomers.
According to ANTENNA Data, WandaVision drove 66% fewer sign-ups in its release (Jan. 15-17) than Season 2 of The Mandalorian (Oct. 30-Nov. 1) in the U.S. That doesn’t account for Marvel’s global appeal, but it’s still surprising to see Mulan outpace WandaVision in this regard.
Kendall Phillips, a professor at Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts who teaches Rhetoric of Film: Marvel Cinematic Universe, enjoys WandaVision‘s homage to classic sitcoms, its theory-inducing mystery, and the running motif of a hero being reborn out of grief. But he also notes that the series is mainly looking inwards and backward. The sitcom framing device is fun but the real pleasure in viewing the series comes from looking for the stitching that connects the show to the history of the MCU. And the deeper the viewer’s knowledge of that history and surrounding blockbuster superhero properties, the more pleasure they elicit. (See: the online reaction to Evan Peters’ Pietro.)
“What’s smart about this move is that it really activates all the fan networks as various MCU fans share theories about the who/what/where behind the underlying mystery,” Phillips told Observer. “But, for those viewers who aren’t deeply enmeshed in the MCU or even casually familiar, this excitement might be, well, less exciting.”
Marvel has previously explored two variations of the TV format. The Netflix shows that began with Daredevil are almost entirely self-contained and made only occasional gestures to the wider MCU. The other Marvel TV model was ABC’s Agents of SHIELD, which served as connective tissue between the major events of the movies in its early seasons. WandaVision appears to be following the latter model and, if the return of Daniel Brühl’s Zemo and the presence of Cheadle’s War Machine is any indication, so too will The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Loki namedrops Thor in its trailer and Hawkeye has already cast Florence Pugh, whose character will be introduced whenever Black Widow is released.
The other way that the Disney+ shows are skewing closer to the ABC approach rather than the Netflix-model is in tone, Phillips observes. WandaVision does not boast Punisher-levels of violence nor Jessica Jones-levels of sex. Despite the focus on grief and trauma, it’s leaning into the MCU’s lighter tone with its sitcom framing and reliance on characters such as Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) and Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) who were largely utilized as comic relief in previous appearances.
Prior to the pandemic, Marvel’s greatest strength was the interconnected nature of its sprawling narrative with each chapter feeding into the next. With the Marvel movies playing a seemingly never-ending game of chicken with their release dates, the franchise’s greatest strength has suddenly exposed a potential vulnerability.
“So, at this point, the Disney+ segment of the MCU seems to be focused on servicing the fan culture and fitting into the lighter overall tone of Disney+,” Phillips said. “I don’t disagree with this strategy (not that Disney cares what I think), but I don’t think it can sustain without some movement on the film front. The WandaVision approach still relies on the big movie moments, unlike Daredevil or Jessica Jones. But without any big films coming down the pipe, I’m not sure how long that can sustain interest or, for that matter, expand interest.”
Marvel seems aware of this pitfall as it is set to introduce a handful of exciting new MCU characters and storylines via Disney+ in the coming years. The cler benefits of Marvel’s burgeoning Disney+ empire far outweigh the drawbacks. Yet for now, despite the solid success of WandaVision, the studio may run the risk of becoming too insular without major blockbusters at the ready to continue expanding the fanbase and feeding the small screen new storylines to work with.
Movie Math is an armchair analysis of Hollywood’s strategies for new releases, the streaming wars and pathways to profit.