The Year In The Marvel Universe

With countless movies and Netflix shows, Marvel has never produced more than in 2016. But was all this content actually any good?

We didn’t see this year coming, but we heard it from all sides. In Signal & Noise 2016, you’ll find the way we made sense out of all of that sound.

To be a Marvel fan today is sort of like being one of Alfred Hitchcock's icy blonde heroines. You’re locked forever in a tense game of suspense, doing your best to anticipate what's coming next instead of focusing on what's happening in the moment. Hitchcock's method of suspense is to place a bomb underneath a table and clue in the audience, so they can be upset with the characters on the screen for focusing on trivial matters while something explosive is about to happen. Now, imagine sitting through a boring scene in Netflix's Daredevil, knowing that eventually all of this will matter. Eventually we'll see The Defenders, a massive superhero show that will corral Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist into one series. But until then, we sit and wait as the bomb continues to tick along, unnoticed.

There's nothing Marvel loves more than a rollout of what's to come. Even though Doctor Strange and Luke Cage had yet to drop, the excitement swirling around San Diego Comic-Con this year was due to the casts of 2018's Black Panther and the reveal of Brie Larson as the titular lead of 2019's Captain Marvel. During New York Comic-Con, Sigourney Weaver was announced that she'd have a huge role in 2017's The Defenders (it was later confirmed that she would play the villain). 2016 was barely over and already anticipation was built for three years down the pipeline.

If it sounds like sleight of hand, that's because it definitely is. You have no time to think about whether the current Marvel project you're watching is actually good when you're thinking about all the possibilities it's creating, when you're looking for foreshadowing in every scene. Captain America: Civil War featured nearly every character that's been introduced thus far in the Marvel Cinematic Universe while also teasing out Spider-Man: Homecoming, the upcoming third reboot of the Spider-Man franchise that finally sees Marvel teaming up with Sony Pictures. Which isn't to say that Civil War was a bad film by any means. In fact, it's one of the best Marvel has made, and certainly much more cohesive than Joss Whedon's Avengers films, but there's still that persistent nagging, the feeling that you're not watching a film so much as a runway show for Marvel's latest creations.

That aesthetic in particular once marred Marvel's relationship with directors — Whedon felt defeated by Avengers: Age of Ultron, Patty Jenkins was dismissed from Thor 2 (and went on to direct DC's Wonder Woman), and Edgar Wright's take on Ant-Man never came to pass. But what once used to create friction now seems to have become a clever balancing act. Guardians of the Galaxy helmer James Gunn claims that Marvel allowed him complete creative freedom for the 2017 sequel and the only major high-profile superhero flick exit came from DC this year, with Rick Famuyiwa departing The Flash. Ryan Coogler and his vision for the upcoming Black Panther seem very much intact.

Whether Gunn or Coogler's films show true creative autonomy is yet to be seen, but it does seem that Marvel has used 2016 to learn from its mistakes and implement the one thing that's driven the popularity of comics for the past few decades: creative control. For instance, as a Spider-Man fan, I have my own personal list of which eras the character flourished in. Each of those eras depends on who was writing the series at the time. Dan Slott has written The Amazing Spider-Man since 2010 and is certainly popular, but I prefer the work of Gerry Conway (author of the iconic "The Night Gwen Stacy Died"), Tom DeFalco, and Todd McFarlane (Amazing Spider-Man artist turned writer). The same goes for every other comic series. It's the writer's vision that drives a series, that makes it stand out from the decades of stories that have come before it.

Which means that the unity of voice that exists in the Marvel Cinematic Universe was never going to produce films as great as the comics that inspired them. Even now, looking at Marvel's slate of comic series, it's dominated by creative minds like Tom King (The Vision), Chelsea Cain (of the rudely canceled Mockingbird), and, of course, Ta-Nehisi Coates (Black Panther). Coates's Black Panther became 2016's top-selling comic thanks to his recognizable name, yes, but his culture writing also made him a perfect choice for Marvel's relaunch of the title to coincide with T'Challa's first appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. No fools, Marvel quickly hired Roxane Gay, on Coates's advice, to write a Black Panther companion series, making Gay their first black woman to write a series for the publisher.

Series like Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur and a young black girl named RiRi Williams taking on the mantle of Iron Man are great steps for Marvel. But still, these are small, incremental steps toward diversity in comics (or "normalization," as Shonda Rhimes used to call it before that term was co-opted online to describe magazines that love writing glossy op-eds about white supremacists). Most of these series remain written by white men, as has been the status quo in comics since their invention. Hollywood is similarly cursed by the altar of white maleness — let's not forget that Black Panther and Captain Marvel won't even debut until 2018 and 2019, respectively — such that the ripples of diversity in the pages of Marvel's comics have yet to fully translate to the big screen. That is, until Marvel got into the television game.

Well, make that the cable television game. Marvel's network fare so far consists of the unjustly canceled Agent Carter and the long-running Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which despite an appearance by a Hispanic Ghost Rider, has yet to make itself culturally relevant. But Marvel's slate of Netflix series manages to boast not only diverse voices, but a chance for creative control that the films will never allow. Melissa Rosenberg used Jessica Jones to tackle themes of sexual assault, and Cheo Hodari Coker used Luke Cage to confront racism and police brutality. The Netflix series have a singular approach that feels a lot like reading a comic, as opposed to the films, which feel like crossover events involving characters and titles you might actually care about (usually Hawkeye).

The problem of anticipating what's to come instead of focusing on what's at hand is much less severe for Marvel's television series, simply because there's so much content. Becoming engrossed in 13 hours of a television show leaves little room to think about casting notices for the next year. Furthermore, story lines tend to wrap up rather than being sprawled from film to film. It's rare to get that in a Marvel film these days, save for Doctor Strange, which offered up an incredibly fun and inventive new world that felt removed from the tropes we've come to associate with Marvel films. Bad guy appears; good guys fight; bad guy levels New York City; good guys save the day; who's gonna clean this shit up?

However, Netflix does still suffer from Marvel's white male problem: Daredevil is a largely uninteresting show with far too many stock racist characters, Iron Fist is about a white man who knows kung fu (as if we haven't had enough of that), and, well, who really asked for The Punisher to get his own damn series when we haven't even gotten a second season of Jessica Jones yet? But for the most part, the series manage to be refreshing in a way the films no longer can be — at least Marvel films. Deadpool did wonders for the superhero genre this year, but it's a Fox film, so Marvel doesn't get any credit for that.

Ultimately, Marvel is in a much better position this year than it was last year. The conversation is focused on its stories and its characters instead of drama with directors and actors saying sexist shit at press junkets. But more and more, that conversation is also about things that are nowhere near happening yet. And so Marvel spends most of its time acting like a magician, keeping you distracted by what's to come so you're not focusing on minor disappointments in the present. But maybe if they spent less time planning to impress us in the future, there'd be more focusing on the here and now. Black Panther might very well be the most amazing film Marvel has ever released, but in the meantime, it's feeling a lot like a magic hat trick to distract from the diminishing returns of Daredevil and Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the overwhelming whiteness of everything that's not Black Panther and Luke Cage.

Check out more from the year in music, culture, politics, and style in Signal & Noise 2016.