Next month, the Marvel Cinematic Universe celebrates a grand achievement—just a week after the release of Avengers: Infinity War, it will have been 10 years since Iron Man hit theaters on May 2, 2008. Five years after Marvel effectively created its Cinematic Universe, the company’s TV division launched an equally bold venture: a plan to bring the movie’s universe to the small screen.
Starting with Agents of SHIELD—which would bring then movie-supporting character (in true comic book media style, he got better) Agent Phil Coulson to ABC—Marvel fleshed out its cinematic universe with a series of TV programs that, while standalone, would all be considered canonically part of the same universe as the movies. In the five years since, Marvel’s TV output has grown hugely—SHIELD is currently wrapping up a fifth season, Agent Carter and Inhumans have come and gone, and the company branched out to streaming with the debuts of the Defenders collection of shows on Netflix, and then Runaways on Hulu. There’s plenty more on the way too, with Cloak and Dagger just months away, and a slew of shows currently in the works like The New Warriors.
But even as Marvel’s TV universe has grown from strength to strength, something that was there at the start seems inconspicuously absent now, especially as Marvel Studios touts the great unity of its disparate movie superstars coming together for Avengers: Infinity War. The connection between Marvel TV and Marvel Movies as a cohesive universe has been stretched thinner and thinner—if not outright ignored—as the production headache of trying to line up different shows with different styles and different audiences on different networks has grown.
Marvel’s mantra used to be that of its live-actions works, “It’s all connected!”But that’s not a phrase the company has uttered in a long, long time. Now, if there’s a connection between these shows and the movies, it’s that they’re all produced by the same company. Here’s the a brief timeline of how the grand Marvel Cinematic Universe split apart.
In hindsight, the difficulties of crossovers between Marvel’s films and TV shows became apparent early in the lifetime of Agents of SHIELD, even as the show dabbled with guest appearances from Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury and Jamie Alexander’s Lady Sif, and made off-handed mentions to movie events every once in a while.
Reaction to the new series’ first season started off pretty negative. But when its 17th episode, “Turn Turn Turn,” followed up on the reveal in the then-newly-released Captain America: The Winter Soldier that SHIELD itself had been infiltrated by Hydra sleeper agents for years, Agents of SHIELD was suddenly revitalized, barreling through thrilling plotlines about turncoat members of the team and the ramifications of SHIELD’s collapse around them. Fans were excited, and reaction began turning around, but one thing suddenly became clear: Agents of SHIELD had suffered by being forced to keep spinning its wheels until Winter Soldier had come out, so the surprise twist in the movie could be preserved. The payoff was great, but it still meant hampering the fledgling TV show creatively.
As the show has developed over the years, its direct links to the events of the films have become more and more obfuscated, for the sake of avoiding a similar scenario. Season two’s much-hyped connection to Avengers: Age of Ultron turned out to be little more than a minor cameo from Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill to explain a plot point of how a SHIELD Helicarrier would show up in the movie. A season later, Agents of SHIELD’s reaction to Captain America: Civil War was little more than a shrug, a passing mention of the superhero law fought over in the movie that, in a stark contrast to Winter Soldier’s influence on SHEILD, barely made an impact.
These days, the connections aren’t even that as explicit as a passing name drop: season four eschewed any direct crossover altogether, instead offering a more thematic connection with the supernatural elements of Doctor Strange through its dealings with an artifact called the Darkhold, and the current season has shown few signs of how it could tie in to either the upcoming Infinity War or Ant-Man and The Wasp, full stop.
As SHIELD found itself much less inclined to tie into the happenings of the movies—and more inclined to rope in connections to Marvel’s second TV adventure, Agent Carter—acknowledgements of the series’ drifting from the movie universe started becoming more public. Speaking at an Oxford Union Q&A in 2016 about the lack of a Coulson appearance in Age of Ultron, Joss Whedon discussed the first of what would become an oft-repeated excuse for the lack of crossovers: the logistical issues of trying to catch movie audiences up on what Coulson had been up to on the TV show—most especially, why he’s alive again— in a two-hour movie packed with other characters, are rather considerable:
You have to go, ‘Well, okay, if you take it back in TV, does it take it back in film?’ That was the the thing, because it came from, ‘Why wasn’t he in the second film?’ I’m like, ‘Because I have time to explain that.’ It’s like, ‘In addition to introducing nineteen new characters, this guy’s alive again .’ I couldn’t do that, so… It’s an aspect of it, but it’s a small one. It’s not how I feel about it.
But he also acknowledged that, even if there were connections, it would always be a one-way street—the movies would affect the shows, never the other way around, and events on SHIELD would have to be beholden to plans from the movies.
Whedon’s comments were followed over the years by similar echoes from both the movie side of things from Marvel Studio head Kevin Feige, to comments from Marvel head of TV Jeph Loeb about the Netflix characters being kept out of the films. Even actors began weighing in—Agents of SHIELD star Chloe Bennett made waves at Wizard World Des Moines in 2016 when she lambasted Marvel Studios for not caring about SHIELD in relation to the movies, for example; and then Anthony Mackie weighed in to explicitly say there’d never be any crossover between the two even as Marvel executives continued to play coy about the possibilities. As the growing distance between the events of Marvel TV and the Marvel movies became greater and more public, the message from Marvel changed (and less us paraphrase): “It’s all connected, but you’re never going to get to see any of them.”
Perhaps one of the strangest divergence points between the movie plans and the TV side of Marvel came with the announcement of an Inhumans movie as part of Marvel Studios’ plans for its third phase of movies. Ever since that announcement, both the comics and the TV divisions of Marvel, under the purview of then-Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter, began to push the Inhumans out of relative obscurity and as major players. Inhumans comics cropped up all over the place (at the expense of the X-Men, specifically) in the comics, and Agents of SHIELD began introducing the concepts behind the Inhumans as a species and their presence on Earth through storylines with Chloe Bennett’s Skye/Daisy Johnson, who was revealed as an Inhuman in the second season.
But as the comics and Agents of SHIELD embraced Inhumanity, rumors began to swirl about a rift between the TV and movie sides of Marvel. After Kevin Feige wrested control of Marvel Studios out from under Perlmutter to report directly to Disney, Bleeding Cool reported hearing a story that at the time seemed inconceivable: the Inhumans movie was being scrapped, allegedly to avoid giving the Marvel TV Department the “win” of having set up the Inhumans in a major way before the movie came out.
Even now, we don’t know if that was ever the case, but the first half of Bleeding Cool’s report ended up coming true: Inhumans became less and less talked about, until Marvel Studios quietly dropped it from its schedule altogether. Months later, Inhumans was reborn, not as a movie but as a TV show spearheaded by ABC and IMAX. And as a TV show, it was a total disaster—mocked from the moment it was revealed last year. Its savage reviews and dwindling audiences seemed to indicate, even if it has not yet been officially confirmed at this point, that the show is done for.
More recently, the question about Marvel TV’s relationship with Marvel Studios has moved away from whether or not Agents of SHIELD stars will appear in the films to a slightly different question: Will Netflix’s Defenders get their chance to shine on the big screen?
As Avengers: Infinity War has drawn ever closer, and we’ve learned more about the movie’s immediate threats to Marvel’s New York, the absence of any sort of cameo from Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Daredevil or the Iron Fist seems to reflect the general disparities between Marvel’s output—even if Infinity War directors the Russo Brothers were intially more than welcome to play coy and suggest there might be hope for a crossover. If the Defenders can’t even show up when Thanos’ giant ringship of doom is practically on their doorstep—once again, for the now familiar refrain of logistical issues—what’s the point of trying to pretend they’re still part of the movie’s universe?
For their own part, the Netflix shows have always been cagey about playing up any links they have to the films. Although like SHIELD before them, they’re undeniably rooted in the aftermath of events of the movies—the reason Hell’s Kitchen is the hellhole it is in the shows, instead of the affluent neighborhood it’s grown into in our modern universe, is because of fallout from the giant New York battle in the first Avengers. Most humorously/annoyingly, all six of the Netflix series have instead loosely danced around even mentioning the names of the movie characters as well as the massive, massive events (like, the actual alien invasion in Avengers) in them. Hell, they won’t even acknowledge that Avengers Tower should exist in their skyline! It’s a stark contrast to the early days of Agents of SHIELD, that’s for certain.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe still represents a laudable idea that was mostly always too ambitious to work: a shared universe of movie franchises, weaving in and out of each other, a decade of continuity across blockbuster after blockbuster. It’s sad that that idea remains a dream when it comes to bridging the movie-verse with the growing world established on the small screen five years ago.
But in the end, maybe that liberation—the freedom to beholden only to its immediate self rather than the grand exploits of dozens of tentpole movies—is what’s allowed the Marvel TV universe to flourish into the powerhouse it is today. The future of Marvel’s TV output looks like allusions to the movie’s events have been relegated to passing Easter eggs, rather than having tangible impacts on the shows’ narratives. And then with the diversification of Marvel’s TV output with teen dramas like Runaways—which was so focused on telling its own stories and even rooting itself in our contemporary world there was barely even an acknowledgement of the show taking place within the wider MCU—and Cloak and Dagger, or the upcoming action/comedy New Warriors, seem to indicate that telling new and more tonally different stories under the Marvel name is more important than any connections to the movies.
Not having to worry about whatever Captain America or Iron Man are up to, SHIELD has branched out into telling wild and wonderful stories way beyond its original premise as Marvel’s spy show, and has allowed the Netflix shows to turn The Defenders into its own full-on event series of connected characters. There may have been stumbles along the way, but the TV side of things has become stronger than ever before, and has done so without getting to rest on the laurels of connections to the movies.
Maybe one day, when the stars align in the most specific of ways, Marvel’s TV heroes could show up in the movies, and vice versa. But for now, as Marvel’s movieverse prepares to celebrate 10 years of being one big happy family, its distant cousins on TV have spent half that time being quite all right on their own—even if that may not have been what was intended from the get-go.