When Hulu launched the official trailer for season three of “Marvel’s Runaways,” it came with the disclaimer that this would be the show’s last installment. On its own, the news seemed unimportant: Another midtier series reaching a natural endpoint at the three-year mark, which has become the point where many streaming services choose to pull the plug.
But the cancellation of “Runaways” was extra significant in that it represented another blow to the already fragile Marvel TV division within Disney’s comic book franchise. Now, the superpowered teen soap’s premiere on Friday coincides with a second announcement: Marvel TV will be shuttered as a separate entity and folded into the main trunk of Marvel Studios. And so as fans binge “Runaways” this weekend, let it be a reminder of what the Marvel division is losing.
Marvel TV’s demise has been coming for a while. The “Runaways” announcement in November marked the end of a rocky 13 months, during which Marvel TV went from nearly a dozen shows in production to almost zero. First, the long-running “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” announced it would end next summer after its seventh season. Then Netflix declared “Iron Fist,” the critically panned Marvel series, would not get a third round, and a domino effect mowed through the rest of the Netflix offerings. Finally, the Disney/Fox merger brought about the end of “The Gifted” and “Legion,” the two X-Men-based TV series the studio had going with Fox.
Marvel TV’s Jeph Loeb insisted that replacement shows were in the works at ABC, touting Hulu’s upcoming “Marvel’s Ghost Rider” and “Marvel’s Helstrom” as proof of viability. But “Ghost Rider,” which would have been the first Marvel TV show to feature a superhero of color as the lead, was suddenly scrapped in September. Then Marvel’s “Cloak & Dagger” was canceled on Freeform, leaving the characters’ much-heralded crossover on the upcoming “Runaways” as their last TV appearance. And the announcement that Kevin Feige, the powerful head of Marvel’s big-screen division, would add Marvel TV to his purview suggested Loeb’s departure was also imminent. (Despite initial reports he would be leaving before years’ end, Loeb is now “staying with the division during the transition.”)
On the one hand, fans may actually cheer the decision to combine Marvel TV and Marvel Studios, much like they did the Disney-Fox merger. Marvel TV, which was created as a separate entity in 2010, has mainly kept its shows separate from the big screen. This move puts all characters under one roof, or at least under one universe. But such integration is also bad for creativity. And it limits the storytelling potential of what is currently one of the most powerful franchises in the known world.
That’s not to say that Marvel TV didn’t make mistakes. Indeed, there were missteps from the start. “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” for instance, was initially imagined as being a part of the larger movie franchise universe. But poor implementation and ugly behind-the-scenes politics derailed that vision. “Agent Carter” was critically lauded, but a ratings failure. “The Inhumans,” an experiment in big and small screen integration, was so bad it may have prevented anyone from trying such a thing again. But Marvel TV’s greatest failing was summed up by its failure to read the room at Netflix after the Disney+ announcement, believing itself to be “too big to fail.”
Mistakes aside, killing the division as a separate entity is the wrong choice. Despite what prestige TV would like you to believe, TV and film remain two different mediums in their needs. “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” was at its best when it stopped caring about what Marvel Studios thought. Marvel's “Runaways” and “Cloak & Dagger” were breaths of fresh air, with a whole different style of superhero story aimed at teens. And the Netflix shows were aimed at adults, with superheroes tackling problems like policing, addiction and religion in a way that Disney+ shows may never be able to do.
Instead of major enemies like Thanos who are out to destroy the world, “Runaways” dealt with an evil that was far more pedestrian and teen-centric — parents. It set up an interesting conundrum: What do you do upon discovering that you are the child of megalomaniacs? Considering the current political landscape, the old “Harry Potter” choice between doing what is right and doing what is easy made for an extraordinarily timely format in 2017. The show’s main problem was its unwillingness to let the kids actually run away much farther than the outskirts of town. With the series now ending, they never will.
But there is absolutely a need to tell these sorts of stories — and speak to an audience that isn’t necessarily just older white, male comic-book lovers. Marvel’s big-screen stories have been painfully homogeneous; “Runaways” was the opposite.
There is nothing that says everyone has to exist in the same universe at the same time. This is a fallacy Marvel fans of a certain stripe have attempted to use as a way to create walled gardens of fandom. (We’ve seen similar narrow-mindedness from fans of “Star Wars” or “Star Trek.”) DC Comics features two completely different versions of the same universe. The “Justice League” version on the big screen features Superman and The Flash played by Henry Cavill and Ezra Miller. The “Arrowverse” on the small has these same characters, but played by Brandon Routh and Grant Gustin. And no one has any problem keeping these universes straight — in fact, the TV universe is far better off for having been allowed to steer clear of “Justice League’s” failures.
All that's left now, as Marvel TV is absorbed into the Marvel Studios division, is “Marvel's Helstrom,” which will at least air its first planned season on Hulu next year. But barring massive success, “Helstrom” is unlikely to live on. From here on out, Disney+ shows, which so far exhibit a relentless conformity to the Marvel Cinematic Universe aesthetic, will be the small-screen flagship. The loss of innovation will make these heroes just a little less super.