Marvel And Star Wars Are Taking Opposite Approaches To Television — And Neither Is Working

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything.)

Chances are you've heard the phrase "Marvelization" before, generally used as a catch-all term to describe the Marvel Cinematic Universe's effect on other franchises. This has become somewhat commonplace in recent years (mostly on social media, for whatever that's worth), particularly as a reference to the growing discontent among some viewers for prioritizing cameos and "#It'sAllConnected" gimmicks over actual, meaningful storytelling. For their part, mass audiences have not only grown to love this aspect in Marvel movies, but seem to expect it — even in otherwise separate properties. Think of "Free Guy" eliciting all sorts of euphoric praise for including certain cameo appearances of recognizable iconography, or "Space Jam: A New Legacy" attempting to fend off a wave of lousy reviews with an ungodly assortment of IP crossovers and Easter eggs. Most recently, of course, Marvel and Sony teamed up for the epitome of this trend with "Spider-Man: No Way Home," uniting three different iterations of "Spider-Man" movies into one massive, fan-servicing extravaganza.

Even longstanding properties like "Star Wars" have found a way to play into these criticisms, drawing inevitable comparisons between themselves and Marvel. Last week's "The Book of Boba Fett" season finale reignited this topic of discussion, causing a stir for shortchanging the show's own main character in favor of doing "The Mandalorian 2.5." More and more, the popular narrative among fans seems to be that "Star Wars" is trying to copy Marvel's strategy ... but I'd argue that Lucasfilm has already leapt ahead of their superhero counterparts. In fact, the more I think about it, the more it becomes clear that Marvel and "Star Wars" are taking the exact opposite approaches in building out a shared universe from their respective movies and Disney+ streaming shows.

For obvious financial reasons, both franchises want audiences to think that each and every one of their streaming series are integral, must-watch additions to the overall story. So far, Marvel makes that seem to be the case but — believe it or not — each show actually remains completely optional. Lucasfilm, on the other hand, has taken this to an extreme and rendered it impossible to miss any episode from any show if you want to make sense of the larger story. Here's what's most damning, though: neither of these approaches are working.

Marvel's illusion of importance

Beginning with "WandaVision" back in January of last year, Marvel's promise of truly interconnected, multimedia storytelling finally seemed to come true (no, even with recent actors reprising their roles, the one-way street of Netflix and ABC shows merely reacting to the movies doesn't count). But looking at the actual results so far, I'm left to wonder whether that's really the case. When considering the overall impact of each Disney+ series so far, an unmistakable pattern begins to emerge. As it turns out, not one of these shows are required viewing to understand the overall story.

A brief glance at the events that transpired in "WandaVision" seemingly paint a picture of a show that can no longer be ignored by the movies: an entire town taken hostage, Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) becoming more powerful than ever, the introduction of Teyonah Parris' Monica Rambeau, the dangling fate of White Vision. But in reality, this show is actually the most compelling evidence in favor of my argument. Consider that "Avengers: Endgame" ends with Wanda alone and grieving the death of Vision (Paul Bettany) at Thanos' hands in "Avengers: Infinity War" and, for all its appearances to the contrary, "WandaVision" ... ends with her alone and grieving the death of Vision. Despite everything, the series carefully brings Wanda right back to the status quo from when we last saw her in the movies, allowing any audience member who may not be subscribed to Disney+ to watch her next appearance in "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" without missing a beat.

The same applies to "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier," where Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) embarks on an entire journey to "earn" Captain America's mantle. Predictably, the finale ultimately leaves him in the exact same emotional headspace as when he accepted the shield in "Endgame" in the first place, rendering all six episodes into little more than an inconsequential (but fun!) little detour. What about "Loki," you say? Not only can we safely assume that Marvel will reintroduce all of its brand-new multiverse rules moving forward as necessary (like in "Spider-Man: No Way Home"), but I bet that even Jonathan Majors' Kang — ostensibly the franchise's next Big Bad — will be (re)introduced as if for the first time in "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania."

So far, every Disney+ show's most lasting contribution appears to be ... costume changes.

But wait, what about that Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness trailer?

Rest assured, I can already hear the mounting complaints about all the obvious holes in my logic. After all, "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" only just released a brand-new look at the sequel that, with the addition of Wanda in a supporting (and likely an antagonistic) role, certainly feels like explicit acknowledgement of "WandaVision." Again, though, I have to ask: to what extent is that really the case? I can pinpoint two ways that Marvel may continue to have their cake and eat it too, rewarding fans who've followed along with all the extraneous streaming shows without the risk of alienating general audiences who will never watch anything but the actual movies themselves.

First, we can expect exactly the sort of "acknowledgment" we saw in the first trailer for the "Doctor Strange" sequel, where Wanda begins to talk about vague "mistakes" she made before Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) quickly cuts her short, brushing it off with, "I'm not here to talk about Westview." For fans, any reference to events taking place in another movie or show feels like an answer to prayer, but the truth is that everyone else who never watched the show can easily ignore that throwaway line and never feel left out. It's all part of Marvel's tricky balancing act, hyping up shows like "WandaVision" as can't-miss events without ever fully committing to that.

Secondly, we have to recognize Marvel's established history of handling every single movie in the MCU as if viewers hadn't seen the previous ones. We can immediately point to examples like 2012's "The Avengers," which goes out of its way to catch us up with CliffsNotes versions of each hero's backstory. By embracing the serialized storytelling of the comics, Marvel also put themselves in the position of catering to casual moviegoers who pick and choose what they watch. Despite all that good-natured mockery of "Thor: The Dark World," "Thor: Ragnarok" works perfectly well without having seen the previous movies — in fact, cleverly enough, those stage-play scenes actually double as exposition for what happened previously. And as unthinkable as it may seem, many a fan has found that movies like "Endgame" can still be enjoyed without having seen any previous Marvel movie.

Rumors of needing to watch every Marvel movie or show may have been greatly exaggerated.

Alright, let's talk about Star Wars...

So, you may or may not remember reading a certain /Film article published a little less than a year ago, waxing poetic about the glaring similarities between two specific Marvel and "Star Wars" shows that ultimately came up short — in the eyes of that particular /Film contributor, at least. Okay, fine, I confess: that writer was actually me, and the shows in question were "WandaVision" and season 2 of "The Mandalorian." I still fully stand by that, to be clear, especially since their specific flaws in the micro absolutely share a common DNA. But in the macro, the differences between the two franchises couldn't be more glaring.

I still can't believe we ended up at this point, but take every preconceived notion you have about MCU interconnectivity and apply it to modern "Star Wars," instead. With the arrival of "The Book of Boba Fett," Lucasfilm has now progressed far beyond Marvel's talk and put #It'sAllConnected storytelling into action — and I don't mean that as a compliment. We've written extensively about this phenomenon and how the end of the 4th episode marked the point of no return. From that moment on, any viewer who only ever wanted to watch either "The Mandalorian" or "The Book of Boba Fett" without feeling pressured to stay up-to-date with the other could no longer do so.

Imagine watching only "The Mandalorian" and reaching the moving conclusion of season 2, where Din Djarin (Pedro Pascal) and Grogu part ways for the good of the infant's future. Thanks to "The Book of Boba Fett," that ending has been completely undone and season 3 of "The Mandalorian" will move on with its core dynamic intact as if its season 2 finale never even happened. Or on the flip side, someone who came to "The Book of Boba Fett" as nothing more than a fan of the bounty hunter would've needed prior knowledge of "The Mandalorian" to explain why this random character suddenly invaded the story out of nowhere and met up with R2-D2, Luke Skywalker, and Ahsoka. Reader, I still don't know why we got a "Night of a Thousand Tears" flashback, and I actually watched "The Mandalorian"!

While early ratings tentatively show this approach paying off, nothing about this feels sustainable in the long run.

Where do we go from here?

If the future really is streaming, then Lucasfilm and Marvel are the ones leading the charge to define this new era of storytelling on the broadest possible scale. Both fan-favorite properties may have a chokehold on the box office with seemingly every movie they put out on an annual basis, but their relatively recent foray into streaming on Disney+ may prove an even better indication of their dominance of pop culture.

But as much as fans may continue to feel properly serviced and franchise lore only gets denser and more nerd-friendly, when will general audiences at large finally catch up and cry foul? Neither Marvel or Lucasfilm are in any danger of collapse or sliding into irrelevance, to state the absolute obvious, but neither of their disparate approaches to their ongoing plotlines are actually servicing what their respective stories need. Marvel can surely find a way to bridge the gap between Disney+ and their ongoing movies in a way that doesn't render the shows into DLC add-ons. Lucasfilm, meanwhile, might need to go back to the drawing board and recognize that TV shows can remain both heavily serialized and stand on their own two feet. Viewers shouldn't feel compelled to begrudgingly check out "The Book of Boba Fett" in order to make any sense out of "Ahsoka" or "Obi-Wan Kenobi," but the current leadership in charge (and I'm not referring to Kathleen Kennedy) show no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

As thrilling as this may feel right now, I can't imagine any of this aging well even a few short years from now. And, for better or worse, that doesn't seem to be a priority for either franchise. As far as they're concerned, viewers are turning in, social media is abuzz, and writers like yours truly play our part by doing more legwork than the actual shows and explaining everything that's happened after every episode.

Both Marvel and "Star Wars" could set their sights so much higher from a creative point of view, but I'm afraid that both have settled for merely good enough.