Molding A Cinematic Universe: It Doesn't All Have To Be Connected

With the Netflix street hero quartet of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist set to make their debut as "The Defenders" in 2017, many fans hoping they will soon make their appearance on the big screen alongside the Avengers in some way shape or form.

However, such a move is easier said than done. While the shows have been confirmed to reside within the property's larger cinematic universe, Jeph Loeb, Head of Marvel Television, has been reluctant to confirm whether its Netflix street heroes will take that vaunted crossover step onto the big screen alongside the Avengers.

“You’re trying to trap me into saying, ‘Hashtag, it’s all connected,’” Loeb stated in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. “If the story warrants it, we will obviously do our best to have folks cross into each other’s story lines.”

This should come as no surprise, given that Marvel has conditioned its audience to expect that its properties all reside within the same cinematic universe, thanks in large part to its bevy of end-credit scenes. But, developing such expansive cinematic properties  begs the following questions: to what extent should these cinematic universes connect to each other, and does it all have to really connect?

Loeb's statement come on the heels of an interview with X-Men franchise producer Lauren Shuler Donner during the 2017 TV Critics Association press tour. Shuler revealed that contrary to earlier reports, the upcoming FX television show "Legion" will take place separately from the larger X-Men universe. "With Legion, we're our own universe," she said. "It gives [show creator] Noah [Hawley] the freedom to do what he wants to do. Because we play with so many different timelines, and we rebooted and not really rebooted and all that, we felt like, OK, we're going to throw it out there and hope the fans accept it."

Donner's statements come in light of FOX's upcoming live-action "X-Men" project, which writer Matt Nix has said won't be tied to "Legion" at all. It will, however, be connected to the larger X-Men Universe. "A fan of the movies but also the comics would not be disoriented at all as to where this fits in the mythology," Nix said. "If you look at the movies, which take place from — they started in 2003 to now — they don't all line up perfectly. I'm not slavishly fitting them into a particular slot. But at the same time, if you like the world of the movies, there are definite nods to the movies. It exists in the same general universe."

Given the reboots that have occurred within the X-Men franchise over the past decade, the writers of both series are in murky territory. This is especially true for Nix, who may be better served by taking a route similar to "Legion," establishing the untitled X-Men project as separate from its larger universe. While maintaining these connections can be successful if done properly, it runs the risk of reaching the point where storytelling suffers for the sake of trying to keep continuity, an issue found in Marvel's other television property: "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D."

In its first season, "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." made it a point to emphasize that it was connected to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, making continual references to its characters and even suffering the repercussions of its film properties. While this seemed like a good idea in theory, the first season's attempts to maintain a constant connection to the MCU resulted in less focus on the characters and a weakening of the overall story. Then, as the films went all in on establishing the Avengers as their own entity separate from S.H.I.E.L.D.,  the show gained a bit of an identity crisis.

This changed in subsequent seasons, as the show became much stronger by giving more focus to its characters and exploring storylines independent of the larger MCU. While not perfect by any means, "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." gradually developed its own identity, one separate from the films, and as a result became viable on its own merits. One has to wonder, had the show not been under pressure to take place in the same universe as the MCU and connect to the films, would the first season have been more successful?

On the other hand, much of the success behind Marvel's Netflix properties can be attributed to their darker, grittier tone and the type of superheroes they portray.  These street heroes don't have the benefit of Tony Stark-level equipment; Daredevil takes a lot of physical punishment on a very realistic level. Heroes like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, while boasting super strength and levels of invulnerability, don't have the mainstream popularity of characters like Captain America, but are explored in much deeper and significant ways that films aren't able to portray. While these heroes are within the MCU, aside from subtle Easter eggs and name drops, the shows never make it a point to consistently remind viewers they take place within the same universe, and often act as though they don't. This separation from the larger MCU heroes and events almost makes it feel as though the Netflix heroes reside within their own world, each one even unique from each other, thus helping to avoid the pitfall of audience burnout.

In fact, if burnout can be found anywhere, it's in the X-Men universe. With the mixed reviews that emerged from its ninth film outing in "X-Men: Apocalypse," it's clear that the franchise is sorely in need of some new perspective and fresh blood. While "X-Men: First Class" and "Days of Future Past" were met with financial and critical success, the franchise has generally not managed to really add much of anything new or different to its universe. Though "Deadpool" provided a strong ray of hope, and "Logan" should make waves if it lives up to expectations, there's no arguing against the idea that Fox's X-Men has been comparatively stale compared to Marvel Studios' offerings in terms of storytelling, connected or otherwise.

The decision to have "Legion" take place in a separate universe is one that has gained plenty of traction and interest, and, should the series find success, it should emphasize that not all cinematic universes need not be connected to have strong storytelling. The need, or, rather, desire for it to all occur in the same universe is something that, while good for continuity sake, isn't necessary in order to tell engaging stories. In fact, separating oneself from the larger universe can be good for the sake of storytelling, and television has a unique opportunity to tell different kinds of stories films are unable to convey.

Continuity can be fun if done correctly, but at the end of the day, let's all remember one thing: it doesn't have to be connected.

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