WandaVision not Television: Franchise on the Small Screen

What follows are my notes for my SFRA talk this past weekend.

WandaVision not Television: Franchise on the Small Screen

So I have been interested in franchise for a while and have been presenting on the subject at SFRA and elsewhere for the past few years. In these presentations and in a few roundtables I have mainly discussed filmic instances of franchise, such as Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens and the Iron Man and Captain America trilogies. My shift here to a discussion of what used to be called television has to do with what seem to me new ways franchises are making use of the medium and our nostalgia for it. Examples of this shift to original serialized streaming content that develop franchise storyworlds at critical moments in the history of a franchise include WandaVision and the Mandalorian and, more recently, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki. My cautious and perhaps vague thesis regarding these “shows” states that they represent processes within Star Wars and the MCU distinct from older instances of franchise television such as Star Trek: The Original Series or The Next Generation, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, or even Marvel’s Agents of Shield.

Star Trek television has historically been the primary medium through which the franchise developed its storyworld and the plots that take place within it and, more importantly, provided the conceptual underpinning of that storyworld as one in which narrative is primarily episodic. In the case of Star Wars and MCU television, individual shows have, in the past, been the vehicles for more narrative and in some cases more worldbuilding, but much of that narrative and worldbuilding were subordinated to the needs of the franchise’s marquee instances, namely the films. However, I would argue that this subordination had less to do with conventional notions of narrative and worldbuilding than it had to do with shows’ inability to allegorize or otherwise access the production history and model of the franchise in question, access which is required to fundamentally affect the larger franchise. For example, in the first episode of Loki Owen Wilson’s Agent Mobius shows Tom Hiddleston’s Loki a highlight reel of his worst moments, most of which result in failure. One of these moments is Loki’s murder of Agent Coulson in the second act of 2012’s The Avengers. What Mobius must know but does not tell Loki is that, of course, Agent Coulson is resurrected from this death in Agents of Shield, a fact that would seem to call attention yet again to Loki’s failures. However, this resurrection takes place only under the apparent condition that it in no way interacts with the films’ narratives or with the storyworld as understood by the films. However, the sanction against Agents of Shield interfering with the larger plotlines of the MCU (such as Infinity War plotline that ties together the first three phases of the MCU) is only apparent. The sanction, I would argue, has more to do with the production model behind the MCU than with a strict concern with plot coherence (the latter an apparent non-concern for, for example, WandaVision). For starters, when Agents of SHIELD premiered in 2013, in the wake of the first Avengers film, the production history of the MCU had barely begun to emerge as its primary object of concern. Moreover, that production history, I think, had no use, at that time, for any mechanism by which dead characters might be resurrected or otherwise transformed (something that becomes a major concern in the fourth phase of the MCU with its new version of the Vision, its new instances of Captain America, and its gender switching of Loki).

So, with that all said, I want to offer a very brief set of claims about franchise generally and then a few observations about this new interaction of franchise and the small screen. If I say anything particularly ignorant about the history of tv, film, franchise, and so on I hope someone will correct me.

  • First, franchises have often been understood as a “supply side” phenomenon, as production models that guide the development of stories. I argue that franchise also needs to be understood as a form of sorts, although that term does not seem sufficient. As a form, we would then be interested in the historicity of franchise and of individual franchises and how we might interpret them as wholes.
  • Second, one of the difficulties of thinking franchise as form has to do with the difficulty of comparing franchises as franchises. We are comfortable saying that two texts are novels or science fiction novels because in some way we understand that some aspect of what two texts have in common outweighs whatever makes them different from one another. Comparing them under such an assumption yields new information. However, the differences between franchises extend well beyond any facile notion of content. These differences very often have to do with the production history of the individual franchise and the subforms with which it interacts, such as Star Wars with its event films and its toys, Star Trek with its series and episodes, and the MCU with its comics and its mid and post credit sequences.
    • to give you a sense of what I mean here, here’s one of the points I was going to make about the Mandalorian: it’s less a tv show than it is a sandbox in which people who grew up watching Star Wars and playing with the toys can finally see those toys used in the ways those people had always imagined: you ever wonder what an IG droid can really do? here you go. you want to have a battle with fifty Boba Fetts? here you go. did you ever want to play Sand Crawler: Fury Road? now you can. this seems less about selling toys NOW (as the lack of officially licensed Baby Yoda toys should make clear) than it does about fulfilling the promise of all the toys we bought back then. when we see Boba Fett’s missile finally launch in the first episode of season two, we won’t be able to buy that toy, but we can finally share in the magic of that rarest of Star Wars toys, the initial release of the Boba Fett action figure in 1979 with its working missile launcher. The focus, in the Mandalorian’s opening credits, on the inhuman faces of droids, Darth Vader, Boba Fett, and so on—in other words on some of the most coveted toys in the Star Wars Universe—underscores this reading.
  • So, following from the claim that a given franchise’s historical interaction with its subforms plays a key role in determining the franchise itself, I offer a third observation about franchise, namely that any interpretation of a franchise must include its production history and the model that guides that history as text that itself must be interpreted. In other words, this history and that model must not be understood as what grants the franchise its coherence, to the extent that the franchise has any coherence, by providing a metaform that encompasses all of the parts. Rather, this history and production model must be interpreted at the same level as the individual films, episodes, books, games, and other instances of the franchise in question.
    • and this follows from something I have said in the past about franchise, that it complicates the distinction between the history of a storyworld and the history of the world in which the storyworld was created because the passage of time in the latter will be visible in the former in ways no single film or television episode (or even season) can accommodate

WandaVision is not television in any significant sense.

  • From a media studies or media archaeological perspective we could talk here about the technical affordances of streaming media in general, the apps that deliver it, or the screens on which we watch it.
    • my main discussion here would have to do with the release schedules for these shows and how they nostalgize historical television’s organization of time
  • But rather than those issues, I want to point another issue, namely the fact that “shows” such as WandaVision and the Mandalorian (and more recently The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki), despite not being tied to the production and distribution of model of legacy broadcast and cable television, release episodes weekly rather than all at once.
    • Television programming has, historically, tended towards live broadcasts that take place as the event being broadcast is happening or taped broadcast released according to an abstract and accidental schedule in that the days of the week (such as Must See Thursday) have no necessary or material connection to individual shows and that scheduling decisions could just as easily be made differently
    • the advent of prestige television with the Sopranos maintained the convention of the weekly release even as other media began to experiment with a condensed production schedule for serialized narrative (for example, the simultaneous production of the three films that make up The Lord of the Rings)
    • to the best of my recollection, Netflix introduced the simultaneous RELEASE of entire seasons’ worth of programming with House of Cards in 2013, or at least introduced it to a mainstream audience
    • thus it seems to me that the distribution of these MCU and Star Wars shows by way of streaming apps involves at the very least a meaningful CHOICE between one mode of release and another, a choice that was nominally available before streaming media but was not quite possible perhaps because of the assumptions about production and release operating throughout much of the twentieth century
    • the choice to release these shows weekly (and the highly publicized choice to change the established Friday release schedule to Wednesday for MCU shows with Loki) suggests the sort of nostalgia for past media forms that Jameson describes with regard to Star Wars, but develops this nostalgia into one for the organization of time those past media forms involved in which consumption was spaced out and amenable to ongoing conversations among consumers across weeks and months
    • in short, I would argue that the decision to adopt an weekly release schedule on the part of these shows demonstrates the extent to which they are not television; to choose to mimic television, among other viable choices, suggests the eclipse of the medium

these shows emerge at moments of franchise crisis

  • the Mandalorian emerges at a moment when it seems that the Star Wars films found it difficult or impossible to manage the expectations and assumptions of the franchise’s manifold fanbase, a fanbase that includes people such as myself who saw the original trilogy as it was released to theaters, people who grew up with the expanded universe, people who first encountered Star Wars in the 21st century with the release of the prequels, and so on
    • I would suggest that the show does not solve the sorts of problems that resulted in fan wars over wokeness in the franchise, over the revisionism of The Last Jedi, and so. rather, the show offers the possibility of addressing granularities within the franchise less according to the plots and themes of the films than according to other aspects of the franchise formerly distinct from its storyworld and the narratives thereof, in this case the toys
  • the MCU shows emerge after completes a major cycle of the MCU at a moment when two of the franchise’s major star-characters (Robert Downey Jr/Iron Man and Cap/Chris Evans) are no longer part of the franchise and some of its most promising star-characters (such as Elizabeth Olson/Wanda and Anthony Mackie/Falcon) have not been developed in the films enough to carry the franchise into the future
    • moreover, each of the three phase four MCU shows allegorizes the post-Endgame crisis in a particular way
      • WandaVision by asking whether an historical medium (television, the sitcom) can contain the narratives and affects that develop within franchise
      • Falcon and Winter Soldier by rethinking the convention of the secondary character (or superhero’s sidekick) and that character’s role in franchise
      • Loki, perhaps most prominently and completely, by extending the time travel introduced in Endgame and adding to it the apocalyptic events immune to the sorts of complications that time travel introduces (in fact, Loki the show with its concerns for the sacred timeline and its potential branches is so far one of the best commentaries on the franchise form I’ve yet seen)

these “shows” provide a new form of narrative bridge from one moment within the franchise to the next

  • in some ways, these shows do the work of getting the MCU back on track (or moving the MCU to a new track)
    • however, the narrative bridges they build are far more complex than past instances of such bridging, such as we find with The X-Files: Fight the Future which bridges the show from seasons 5 to 6
    • take as a starting point the X-Files film, Fight the Future, released in 1998 between the show’s fifth season and sixth season (more specifically between the last episode of S5, “The End”, and the first episode of S6, “The Beginning”). Very little that happens in the film has any direct impact on the show, except the film’s final result which sees the X-Files reopened in advance of the new season after the office had been closed at the conclusion of the last season. In fact, one of the film’s most significant moments, which depicts the credulous Mulder finally seeing a UFO, is undercut by the fact that the skeptical Scully is unconscious while that happens, meaning that the film does nothing to resolve one of the franchise’s central tensions and instead revels in its unwillingness to do so in the name of maintaining that tension for future seasons.
  • the Mandalorian does some work to bridge the gap between episodes VI and VII, but this bridging is both obscure and unnecessary as we already know what happens in the end
    • more importantly, it creates a bridge to other, more granular narrative spaces within the Star Wars universe
  • with the MCU, the shows fill in some details about the Blip between Infinity War and Endgame, details that seem to indicate major developments to come even if we, again, know what happened already in some sense
    • more importantly, the shows introduce new elements to the MCU (character transformation, for example) or ramify existing elements to degrees not yet hinted at (as with the development of magic in WandaVision or the attention to the multiverse)

relatedly, these shows (and franchises more generally) complicate the distinction between Easter egg

  • whereas the former is generally understood to be a treat for fans of the franchise or its source material that has little or no effect on narrative or worldbuilding the latter involves narrative and worldbuiling as a matter of course
  • however, in WandaVision, or example, the introduction of the term “Nexus” in E7 is instructuve on this front
    • this introduction comes in the form of a commercial for an antidepressant called “Nexus”
      • previous commercials had reminded viewers (or Wanda?) of previous tragedies in Wanda’s life: the Stark toaster of the missile that nearly killed her in the immediate aftermath of her parents’ death, the Strucker watch of the experiments done on her by the Hydra scientist, the Lagos paper towels of her role in the death of Wakandan aid workers during Captain America: Civil War, and so on
      • the reference to Nexus does not merely conjure feelings for fans of Marvel Comics
      • it also is a key element of the multiverse discourse that comes into greater focus in the first two episodes of Loki
      • the key here is that it would seem that Wanda would have no way of knowing about nexus events, energy, or beings during that episode of WandaVision (nor would any characters in the MCU to date so far as we know)
      • as such, this insertion must come from someone outside of the narrative but key to the franchise, namely a writer or producer or some other person who creates the show but does not appear in it
      • when such a reference is merely an easter egg we need not think too much about the consequences of such metadiscourse
      • when it introduces a key term for the franchise as it moves forward, I think its safe to say that we need to think harder about how it functions

finally, these shows (at least the MCU shows) are very much about the impossibility of containing franchise in the medium called television

  • the films always make clear that they cannot be contained within the structure of the Hollywood film or even blockbuster
    • the films that, in my mind, are the most successful are those that are most self-contained, such as the first Iron Man film, the first Captain America film (and the Winter Soldier) and a few others, such as Black Panther and Ragnarok, work because they make best use of the franchise and its source materials (the comic medium, for example)
    • some other instances of MCU film that do not work as well, such as Age of Ultron, are the ones that try to pack in too much, to interact with too much of the franchise
      • and its here that we can see why WandaVision is so unsuccessful AS tv
  • WandaVision does the same for television, although its endeavor to do so is much more prominent than anything that happens in the films along these lines
    • as a show its in part about the history of the American sitcom, the subjectivities that produce and consume such sitcoms over about half a century or American television history, and the sorts of narratives these subjectivities are able to produce and consume
    • Wanda is forced over the course of WandaVision to constantly age up, to jump forward to a new decade of sitcom history as the plots of her show become more complex and mature and as these plots force her to confront the tragedies in her life she is trying to forget by way of her worldbuilding
    • in the end, the sitcom cannot contain Wanda’s narrative nor can its delimitations be maintained within the MCU, which like any good instance of capitalism will always expand to include everything it can
    • the hex is like the sitcom form itself in that Wanda wants it to be a space of zero change, a plotless space in which she can enjoy her family apart from the historical movements of the outside world
    • in an ideal sitcom, as so ably demonstrated again and again by the Simpsons and other shows, the end of each episode inaugurates a reset set (not unlike Loki’s reset charges) which nip off any potential contradictions that a given plot would introduce ito the larger world
    • such resets are not available to Wanda who, despite all of her power, cannot (or not yet) fully control the larger MCU and the direction it takes or the events that it involves

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