Moon Knight‘s fifth episode has been quite loved due to the way it continues a trend of Marvel Studios’ series having a penultimate episode that takes its time to explore our protagonist’s psyche or the underlying theme of the series. Still, there is a current trend that the Disney+ series are facing that could backfire with each new release. While not a fan of the overused buzzword “Marvel formula,” there is a certain danger with their reliance on the three-act structure to construct their series. There are still distinctions in their approach, but a six-episode benchmark muddles that vision. In a way, they are suffering from something that was started in Netflix’s early days and have yet to fully embrace the diversity of TV’s storytelling possibilities.
Marvel Studios has always been flagged for having a “formula” behind each film. Even as they broke away from their more streamlined films due to the infamous Ike Perlmutter era, the genre has an inherent expectation that creates that very issue. One could argue that certain expectations and perceptions play a key influence due to the brand and its heroic genre; something we’ve seen in comics over and over again. It’s not a Marvel Studios-specific issue, they just so happened to be the one to stick out the most. While saying that, their TV offerings are suffering from a different yet similar issue that is more inherent to the long-form storytelling format.
Yet, with a strict six- or ten-episode structure, you are setting a certain tempo for your series. If you adhere to the three-act structure, it becomes even more restrictive, as most of the “action” or meat of the story happens within the final two episodes. We’ve seen it a few times, such as with Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Hawkeye, and even potentially Moon Knight. They end up exploring important themes in Episode 5 but have to quickly wrap up the story in its finale, sometimes not as effective as it hopes to. Knowing that there are “only” six episodes available, also creates the before-mentioned perception issue that not everything will be wrapped up.
Ironically, Netflix’s issue was that thirteen episodes were at times too many. It’s a funny contrast to Marvel Studios’ six facing the opposite criticism. For the sake of comparison, Peacemaker‘s used an eight-episode structure and was less a “film” but more traditional TV in its storytelling. While it did have some minor pacing issues like any other show nowadays does, it built its story per episode with an overarching narrative. Plus, a character like Peacemaker has fewer expectations because the story can explore whatever it wants due to the character being a blank slate. This is in stark contrast to Netflix’s Daredevil series back in the day or even now with Moon Knight, they both have very set expectations that restrict just how much a story can tell.
Speaking of Netflix, the issues Marvel Studios is currently facing have their roots in that era. The promise of “a 13-episode film” created this illusion of having a film being told with more time. Yet, even the much-loved Daredevil had pacing issues with many at the time pointing out that elements dragged a bit. Similar to what we’re seeing now, as more shows were released they faced the same issue but became more apparent. By the time The Punisher rolled around, they fell victim to having the episode count set the pacing and certain story beats were expected.
Was it formulaic? To a certain degree, yes and it was and Marvel Studios is going to fall victim to the same issue if they strictly remain on this course. Throw on top of the issue of a rather short episode count, they potentially will keep facing the issue of their final episode ending up rushed as the internet will repeat. “How will they wrap it all up after that?” That issue becomes even more apparent if you realize they are moving away from one monumental aspect that defines TV storytelling, multiple seasonal arcs for their characters.
So far, only Loki got a second season and it’s hard to say if any of these series will actually continue moving forward. Marvel Studios’ reluctance to even communicate multi-seasonal plans creates a new issue with expectation. It creates the illusion that this specified six-episode season needs to wrap up everything. Technically speaking, their “second season” commonly are film appearances such as The Falcon and Winter Soldier setting up Captain America 4. Yes, it’s great to see this expansion from TV to film and potentially back, but it creates a whole new issue that they seemingly are struggling with.
We have no idea where and when Moon Knight might show up next. Lots of coverage is hinting at his series is a limited run, which adds to the issue that the titular hero is not very present in his project. Yet, they are setting up a lot of elements that affect its pacing within the six episodes. While I don’t agree with everything, a discussion on the show’s quality from ScreenCrush made a good point that the penultimate episode feels a bit late and may hit harder if it was earlier in the series. We won’t have much time to actually spend with Marc now that he had his revelation and the loss of the alter that helped him through his trauma.
To give an example, Loki had his mental revelation at the beginning of the series, and it worked because we already knew his character. So, we got to explore that storyline which we won’t really get to with Moon Knight, as we have to wrap up the plot, character development, and set up for whatever is next. It’s great they aren’t restricting themselves to old-fashioned origin tales, but their current model restricts exploring it fully. While it’s great that we might get Oscar Isaac‘s Moon Knight in a future movie, the fact we never know when or how–a Marvel staple–may see the company’s usual secrecy backfire on them. WandaVision with 10 episodes waited until the end for the big emotional story arc but at least a mystery to keep us wondering.
Speaking of mystery, Wanda’s town-altering storyline and Hawkeye‘s big bad added an additional issue to what was mentioned previously. They keep the “big reveal” until the very last episode. While it makes sense to build up suspense on whatever the mystery is, especially the excitement of Vincent D’Onofrio‘s return as Kingpin and its implications, it creates the issue of having to bring everything together at the last moment. Even Moon Knight‘s Episode 4 revelation has now been limited due to the time available afterward. Loki‘s second season is following a year after its premiere and we don’t know when we’ll get it or how it fits in the overarching story.
So, the ever-expanding universe is showing its fangs a bit. Even if comedy series are teased to have ten episodes, the fact they are restricting the episode count to specific formats is surprising given the freedom they should have. TV storytelling is diverse, may it be planning multiple seasons in mind, structuring the episode count to abide by the story, or even having each episode work as a standalone storyline. Even with that potential, modern streaming offerings tend to share similar issues due to the formatting. Even Peacemaker and The Boys rely on shock value at times to keep you watching from week to week.
Moon Knight‘s been said to “fit better as a film” because that’s what it is. It’s a six-hour film just like how Netflix promised its series and many other streamers are copying. While it does have cliffhangers to keep you watching, they are more character-driven than story-driven. It’s something that makes this storyline a personal favorite among the Disney+ shows, but it does face the issue that also expectations play a massive role when exploring a potentially one-time project based on 70 years of comic history. Expectations on what makes a “Moon Knight” show become a crux for viewers and those creating the series. We have no idea if there’s going to be a second season, ironically unlike how most films get sequels.
So, the weekly wait for episode 6 with a slower start ends up creating a pacing issue that is very perceptive due to the uncertainty moving forward. WandaVision probably worked the best as a weekly release due to the formatting of the actual show as different eras of sitcoms. The later episodes that broke away from it are much closer to what we see with its six-episode offerings. Each Marvel Studios show has its strengths, and, like everything else out there, weaknesses, but one can see the roots of the issue from the Netflix era. It has affected many series within the market, especially now that we’re moving away from the binge model. In a way, the distribution model is changing but not the expected storytelling element.
Marvel Studios has a lot of opportunities with their Disney+ series. Yet, their venture into cross-media storytelling has been showing its fangs, as it restricts them from truly embracing the TV model. That is on top of long-term trends within the industry, and we can’t forget this is a completely new venture for this film-focused production studio even if they took in employees from the former Marvel TV subsidiary. Moving forward, if they want this concept to stick out more it might be time to embrace the TV model.
Give us a series that was built with multiple seasons in mind, something we’re seeing already with Lucasfilm’s Andor. Allow a character to grow over a few years before integrating into the bigger picture, or have their appearances be independent of what’s happening. Ms. Marvel is the perfect opportunity. Yes, she will appear in The Marvels but her “usual” world is the one we’ll see in the June release. Let her character grow over multiple seasons with that experience adding to her character but not redefining her story. It’s what happened in Spider-Man: Far From Home, as it was a sequel to Avengers: Endgame rather than Homecoming.
A lot of inspiration for the Marvel Cinematic Universe lies in comics, and the Disney+ series is becoming an opportunity for ongoing storylines with the films acting as “detours” for some of the characters. Their stories still should remain ongoing rather than one-time moving forward. Plus, let the show breathe and move away from a strict episode count. Not every story needs to follow a third act structure or something related to it. You can see they are still trying to find their footing with these new ventures on Disney+, and they have an opportunity to truly embrace the diversity of TV storytelling.