Marvel shows (specifically Netflix) try to be about the journey. The majority of a season’s running time is devoted to character interactions, mostly revolving around discussing and reacting to major events. Many episodes take place in single locations devoting an entire hour to characters denoting their feelings on the current plot happenings. It’s important for shows to have downtime, but Marvel shows tend to overly traffic in that. Action set pieces only come once every 3 or 4 episodes, with the interim episodes dedicated to reacting to them. This type of television storytelling doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative, instead making the show ostensibly about the characters rather than the fights, but in Marvel’s case this becomes their biggest flaw. The journey the shows provide is usually pretty thin and the 13 episode count barely hides a story that’s been stretched thin. Another show to come from Marvel comics, Legion, proves to be their stylistic antithesis; a superhero show that is entirely about the characters that intrigues the viewer as it slowly teases out it’s plot. Legion’s odd-ball sensibilities prove that superhero shows light on superheroics can be interesting.
Marvel’s Netflix series do a poor job of masking little story momentum. Most episodes following big pivotal moments are met with hour long episodes of major downtime. Luke Cage has an entire episode of him recovering in a tank, Daredevil is chained on a rooftop, and Jessica Jones faces a moral dilemma in her apartment. These episodes are frustrating as part of their own series, but when it’s an episode concept that’s repeated across all 5 (6 included Defenders) shows it becomes overly tiresome. It doesn’t help that these episodes are also incredibly thin; there’s nothing meaningful in the character dialogue. There’s usually some new heroic resolve (that Luke Cage can show weakness, Daredevil’s vigilante actions are only one step removed from murder, Jessica sacrificing family to do what is right) but this is arrived at through static shots of actors speaking lines to one another. I remember feeling that the original Daredevil season felt like it had some padding but by the time I was watching Jessica Jones season 2, the same season structure pushed me away.
Legion on the other hand makes episodes that might seem like filler exciting. In its current season, Legion dedicated an entire episode to probing Syd’s backstory to great effect. David traversing of Syd’s childhood, which means taking a break from the main overarching story, doesn’t feel like filler because it adds depth to the character not only through the real-world examples it provides, but also through David’s problem-solving in escaping Syd’s mind. What turns out to be a test from Syd shows her motivations as a character and creates a new thematic path forward. Syd communicates to David that while love can be a motivation for doing the right thing, your tragedies and experience are the tools in which to do enact it. This is all helped through Legion’s cool as hell style (more on that in a moment).
The Marvel shows all tend to be cut from the same cloth, stylistically speaking. The descriptor of “house style” that people use for the Marvel Cinematic Universe also could apply for their Netflix shows. All of the shows tend to look just about the same, with minor changes in hue to differentiate (more purples for Jessica Jones, a dustier brown for Luke Cage). They all tend to have fairly boring locations to; rustic New York apartments and warehouses make up the majority. The one way they do vary is in their themes. The shows smartly play up what makes each superhero unique. Luke Cage is a commentary on being black in America (emphasized through his bulletproof skin), Jessica Jones is about finding female power against male oppression/abuse, and the Punisher ties his revenge to a story about being an Army veteran. These different themes prove to be enticing, especially during the better (early) parts of each of those shows. They really start to wear though when the shows quickly run out of ways to talk about these themes. Marvel shows tend to drag a lot towards the end for a reason; they have run out of ground to cover. Daredevil suffers more dramatically than the other 3 in this regard. It covers a lot of the same things that the Nolan Batman series did better; mainly what constitutes the line between being a hero and a villain. Vincent D’onofrio’s first season villain helped pave over some of the well worn territory with sheer acting ability, but the second season really suffered without a notable antagonist (it’s over reliance on Elektra and the hand while under utilizing Jon Bernthal being its downfall). The shows also have a problem of telling rather than showing. It’s one thing to have the characters verbalize the theme; it’s another to actually use the medium to visualize it.
Legion on the other hand blows the other shows out of the water. The show explores the psychological effects David’s powers has on him and smartly visualizes his supposed “insanity.” The show obscures reality with its off-beat set design. The locales all take a cues from 70’s style, with lots of rounded edges and sunken rooms. Characters dress in jumpsuits and woolen athletic clothes with a pastel color palette. Modern and futuristic technology intermingle with this look, creating a place out of time. It’s hard to tell if these places are real at first; David as the protagonist is unreliable and doesn’t offer the viewer any footing. The psychedelic nature of the show really comes through in its non-linear story structure. The first season explicitly bounces around David’s past and present, while the second plays with time in a different way. Both these elements obfuscate the true nature of the story while using visual and auditory symbols to cement the style. Hushed voices are used to great effect and visual abnormalities such as a large monster and Minotaur highlight the thematic ideas. David’s telekinetic abilities thus become the very structure of the show itself. The unwieldy nature of peaking into everyone around mind’s are illustrated through Legion’s puzzling style.
Marvel’s Netflix shows are sorely lacking in this type of cohesion. Instead they opt for a more bland, generic type of genre show where Legion takes superhero ideas and runs with them. Marvel shows skew towards one type of style and storytelling, making the shows more or less identical. It also doesn’t help that Marvel shows barely offer a payoff for the investment either. If we are going to continue seeing multiple seasons of the same type of Marvel show, they could do worse than start taking cues from other shows like Legion. Leveraging their superheroes unique identity not only leads to more fertile storytelling, but unique style of direction as well.