Streamer Disney+ is hoping for a Marvel-ous future, spinning out series from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film/TV franchise, starting with WandaVision.
Today, the entertainment industry faces several unknowns as the “streaming wars” play out between Netflix and its many rivals. With families shifting their dollars from cable to on-demand video services, some heavyweights may fall or merge, while new players emerge.
One constant remains: Disney is investing billions into branded family entertainment, executing its streaming strategy with a high degree of proficiency and wall-to-wall advertising.
For parents of middle-school kids and up, this means even the most guarded young eyes and ears are psyched to watch action-packed Marvel TV series set to premiere this year.
Marvel’s first Disney+ entry, WandaVision (all episodes currently available), became a global phenomenon (light spoilers ahead) — and its follow-up, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, coming March 19, has been even more anticipated.
Here are five things families should know about this ever-expanding fictional universe.
Each drama has its own spin on superhero comics
Marvel plans on premiering at least four new TV seasons every year on Disney Plus. The first batch of shows are all linked closely to popular Marvel film characters, seeming to further character story arcs and themes from those blockbusters. Further out, with the next 10 shows Marvel has announced, it’s currently hard to judge storytelling quality or thematic focus.
WandaVision features two romantically involved Avengers in a speculative sci-fi story.
Trading on Captain America iconography, The Falcon and the WInter Soldier series adds a buddy-cop dynamic to the usual action and intrigue.
Coming in May, Loki has the fan favorite anti-hero traveling through time on a comic, high-stakes quest.
While the tone and plots of each differ — i.e. WandaVision with its emphasis on “magic” — ultimately, these series are all in a similar comic-book mold.
The shows build on a vast cinematic universe
Committing to one of these shows means you’ll need some knowledge of the previous 23 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which began with Iron Man in 2008. Most are PG-13, and nearly all are on Disney+. While ads emphasize the new shows’ “broad appeal,” WandaVision revealed that detailed knowledge of past films is a necessity to grasp the story.
Indeed, Marvel has linked its TV shows and movies for about a decade. Agents of SHIELD tied in to MCU films for its first two seasons; and Agent Carter (two seasons available on Disney Plus) is tightly knit to the Captain America films. Now that Marvel has fully committed to all its TV and film projects being a massive cross-over, it’s a bigger obligation for producers and viewers.
Content concerns include violence, some language, and mature themes
If you’ve seen at least one MCU movie — and global box office of $22 billion indicates you likely have — then explicit content issues in these comics-based TV series will be of little surprise. Action scenes are violent, but usually bloodless. Characters use some off-color four-letter words, but not the most offensive ones. Mature themes often include genocide and mass devastation by powerful characters with murderous intent, who may win in the first act.
People of faith ask: how do these stories deal with the supernatural? Marvel’s approach to magic was defined in 2016’s Doctor Strange, a film debated among Christian critics. Deacon Steven Greydanus noted: “Director Scott Derrickson’s Christian sensibilities… critique Strange’s rationalistic, materialistic worldview.” Christian fantasy author Brian Godawa counters: “His redemption lies in becoming a master of Eastern occultic technique… true spirituality is not the same thing.”
These shows seek to spark social-media buzz, first and foremost
Kids who watch Marvel shows week-to-week will likely want to devour 20-minute YouTube recap videos soon after (which may have language issues apart from the show.) It’s part of the fun, but also by design. WandaVision became a phenomenon thanks to mystery-box plotting and online buzz, drawing viewers ever deeper into a created reality.
One example: WandaVision wasn’t a bona fide hit until a surprise reveal in the fifth episode. For years prior, the character Quicksilver had appeared in Disney’s Marvel films and 20th Century Fox’s X-Men movies as distinct personas (due to rights issues).
By having X-Men film actor Evan Peters appear in WandaVision, it sent millions scrambling to speculate on “larger implications” for the Marvel universe. Spoiler alert: it turned out to be a bait-and-switch, saying nothing about two franchises merging. But show producers meant to “break the Internet,” and they did.
Lessons in heroism and virtue can be found -- with some searching
The darkness and light of Marvel’s TV world-building is reflected impeccably in the second-to-last WandaVision episode, regarded by many as its best. It begins with a jarring, horror-genre flashback to 1693 Salem, Massachusetts — as a coven of witches prepare to burn one of their own at the stake, who retaliates in a terrifying mêlée.
What had been a standard superhero show transformed with imagery that likely gave many kids nightmares.
Yet beyond that four-minute opening, viewers learn what this strange show has been about all along. Wanda revisits childhood trauma, how powerful captors once manipulated her, and the loss of her dearest loved ones … heart-rending scenes that unfold with sensitivity and pathos.
In seeking to console her, Wanda’s android soulmate Vision uttered a phrase shared widely online: “What is grief, if not love persevering?”
In the end, themes of empathy, courage, truth-telling, and confronting evil are potently depicted on the show. It underlines how Marvel’s many TV series will not be one-size-fits-all for families. Some will pass on the MCU due to content, their kids’ ages, or other factors. Others who can navigate troubling moments may find the shows, well, marvelous.
Josh M. Shepherd covers culture, faith and public-policy issues for various media outlets. He and his wife are raising two children in Northern Virginia.