“These were high-level corporate decisions that had nothing to do with the creative content of the Marvel shows,” Daredevil Season 3 showrunner Erik Oleson told me after he found out his show had been shut down. “What [Netflix chief] Ted Sarandos told me was that it had nothing to do with the creativity or the quality of the show. This is about market share, and rival corporate behemoths vying for space in the minds of consumers.”
Creatives like Oleson and Hawley may have handed their toys over to Feige, but he was not the visionary they had their eyes on when their series ended. “I’m always interested to see what Damon Lindelof is doing and what he’ll do with Watchmen,” Hawley told me on the eve of the Legion series finale. “Watchmen,” Oleson echoed. “I’m looking forward to that.”
Damon Lindelof’s Emmy award-winning smash hit adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ pitch-black 1987 graphic novel explored the dark underbelly of powerful masked vigilantes and how they abused the power of their position. Moore conceived his book as a direct challenge to certain popular superhero narratives at the time—and so, Watchmen executive producer Nicole Kassell told me, “If Watchmen the source material is interrogating it, then that’s just in our DNA.”
The Watchmen book, which was written in response to the authoritarian abuses of Ronald Reagan and the Cold War era, has a spiritual twin in the 2006-2008 comic The Boys, which Garth Ennis wrote in response to the authoritarian abuses of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and the War on Terror. That story has also gotten a gleefully dark TV adaptation—which, over the course of two seasons, has become a massive hit for Amazon. It features a cast of vain, greedy, and depraved superheroes who, even more than the characters in the original comics, bear a striking physical resemblance to the heroes who have raked in billions at the box office for Marvel and DC. The show’s central bad guy, The Homelander, is a gleefully psychotic hybrid of Superman and Captain America. But the real villain of the piece might just be the corporation that created him in the first place.
The Boys showrunner Eric Kripke boiled down the plot for me: “Marvel’s real, they have real superheroes, and they’ve taken over the world. My mom, who doesn’t watch superhero movies, completely understands that superheroes are the top of every box office list, and they’re all over television and have completely hijacked pop culture. Our show is the real world in every single way, with the one difference that the superheroes that everyone are worshiping happened to be real.”
Part of this particular approach to superhero storytelling is born out of the desire to say something fresh and new with a genre that, if left to the basic rinse and repeat of origin stories, could quickly grow stale. “I think there’s a natural instinct with writers to recognize when something is oversaturated and come at it from a different angle,” Oleson said. “The superheroes are the bad guys! That’s just a fun idea.”
But there’s a difference between subverting expectations—something comic books have been doing for decades—and punching holes in the very fabric of the genre itself. The original versions of both Watchmen and The Boys were written with the idea of speaking truth to a political power that sought to manipulate and control the masses—a concept both Lindelof and Kripke had no trouble applying directly to the Trump era. “It’s an anti-authoritarianism show,” Kripke said. “If there’s a political theme, it’s fucking question your leaders.”
What’s changed in the years since those books were written is that comics themselves, and the geeks who love them, have also become overpowered, influential leaders in our culture. And who, to bastardize an Alan Moore phrase, is watching over them? Especially now that so many non-Feige-controlled shows have been snapped out of existence?
Unlike the masterminds in the pages of Watchmen or The Boys, Feige and his counterparts at Warner Bros. aren’t operating with any kind of villainous, world-conquering agenda. (Feige has always struck me as a very polite and genial man who just wants to tell the most fun stories.) And the MCU has even occasionally flirted with its own interrogation of power, be it the distrust of government encouraged by Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the very salient points on globalism offered up by Black Panther baddie Killmonger, or the debate over an attitude of “peace through superior firepower” explored in Captain America: Civil War.
But at its heart, the core thesis at Marvel has often been “might equals right.” And that, Legion creator Noah Hawley said, isn’t necessarily the only message we should be serving up to the young (and often white and male) audiences who largely consume comic book narratives. His series delved into morally murky waters that engaged with sexual assault and, ultimately, a resolution achieved through discussion rather than violence. These are the kinds of stories we likely would never see in the Disneyfied age of Marvel. Actor Karl Urban, who has appeared in both Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok and The Boys—in the latter as Billy Butcher, a superhero-hating character—said the Amazon show is about “delivering something that is more different, edgy, and dangerous than the traditional altruistic superheroes.”
“I’ve seen all the films. I enjoy them. Most of it is probably pure entertainment,” Hawley said. “The parts that felt like I didn’t need to focus on is the idea that conflict can only be resolved through war. Traditionally, these stories have been consumed by people 15 to 25, and a large number of them male. To tell a genre story about power and male power and accountability and consent—we have this opportunity to have this conversation in a way that we can couch as entertainment. And I think that’s really important.”
The kinds of questions Hawley, Lindelof, and Kripke et. al. are interested in asking are unlikely to be a priority for Feige—who has, throughout a career that began with a deep love for Richard Donner’s hopeful Superman, seen the value in family-friendly entertainment that uplifts rather than exposes dark truths. Feige is also uninterested in satirizing or sneering at traditional comic book narratives. His approach has always been sincere.
And if Falcon and The Winter Soldier, just the latest in a long line of Marvel/military interconnectivity, were Marvel’s first Disney+ offering, the conversation could end there. Instead, Feige is offering up WandaVision, a story inspired by some comic book tales that delve into the realm of psychological trauma— specifically, female psychological trauma. This may, actually, be the ideal story to meet America mid-pandemic and at the tail end of the Trump administration, when women, stuck at home and facing more challenges than ever, could use a little of the domestic-flavored sympathy WandaVision has to offer. In introducing a creeping menace to its idyllic suburban environment, it also comes closer than any previous Marvel Studios product to an interrogation of the American dream.