Superheroes & Social Justice: How Megafranchises Diversified the Blockbuster

On Friday November 20th, Netflix released the entire first series of a new TV show, Jessica Jones. The main character of Jessica Jones is naturally a woman named Jessica Jones, a private detective with superhero powers who is coming to terms with a stressful ordeal she experienced shortly before we meet her. Her nemesis is an abusive former lover who can control the minds of others to make them do anything he wants, which is how he managed to form a relationship with her in the first place. She is therefore a rape victim, and sees it as her duty to stop the man from doing the same to anyone else. Since the man can control minds, she has trouble with society actually believing that he exists or did anything wrong, so the rape metaphor continues, and the main plot of the series is how Jessica can prove his existence and somehow stop him. Jessica is helped by her foster-sister, her black lover Luke Cage, and her lesbian lawyer (Trinity from the Matrix). Jessica Jones therefore is a superhero story covering a very female storyline, led by women, and featuring further social minorities in the supporting cast. Further to the point, things do not go well for any white man that appears in the show. This makes Jessica Jones sound like the fan fiction of a Tumblr Social Justice Warrior, but it is important to remember that the show is actually a big budget, highly glossed superhero story. What is more important is that it is the TV expansion of a megafranchise,.

Yes, Jessica Jones is part of the megafranchise known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which includes all of the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, as well the individual movies of Thor, Captain America, Iron Man and the like. Jessica exists in the same world as all those guys, and rumour has it she may meet them at some stage in the future (to talk about diversity in the Avengers, I guess). More specifically, Jessica Jones is part of a side project of the Marvel Megafranchise which focuses on street level crime in New York City. It started in April this year with Daredevil, followed by the recent Jessica Jones, next spring it continues with a Luke Cage series, then a few months later another hero (Iron Fist) gets a series. Once these four series have concluded, all four of these protagonists join together for a miniseries called The Defenders, and these guys will probably then move from TV to the movies to join up with the Avengers. So while the Jessica Jones series that was just released in November does tell a single story, the show itself is merely a cog in a giant machine that will be spewing out similar interlinked content for years to come, with little risk, as it is just part of a massively diversified Marvel portfolio. Therefore Jessica Jones could afford to take chances in its storytelling and character diversification that not many similar standalone big budget TV show possibly could. While Jessica Jones is not a movie blockbuster, it is blockbuster TV, and exists solely because of the acquired and future capital of the Marvel Megafranchise, and it is worth looking at how it and the other megafranchises are using their considerable power to promote diversity in mainstream media.


I started thinking about this while one eye was on the TV, where Jessica Jones and Luke Cage shared a lover’s embrace, and my other eye was on my laptop, as I watched the newly released trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I risk accusations of both racism and sexism, but the fact is that they both feature love stories between a white woman and a black man. The Star Wars Megafranchise kicks off in a few weeks, and it has diversity written all over it. While characters from the old movies do appear, the main storyline focuses on new characters, Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (David Boyega). Star Wars is therefore showing it has moved on from the original trilogy, which featured two women (in fairness, both held leadership positions), and one black man (again, in fairness it was Billy Dee Williams, the coolest black man around at the time) in the course of three movies. The prequel trilogy had more women (although most seemed to be pretending to be Natalie Portman), and one more black man (again, they went for the coolest black man around at the time: Samuel L. Jackson). It is commendable that the makers of the new Star Wars movies decided to correct these perceived wrongs, and they will go further next year when they release their first spinoff, Star Wars: Rogue One, which has a woman as the main character.

The Star Wars Megafranchise therefore has not even started yet, and is already shunning the traditional route of casting young handsome white men as the lead characters in the movies. The same cannot be said of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), despite its recent Jessica Jones social justice crusade. The MCU started in 2008, and still, after 12 movies, has yet to have a single movie about anything other than a white man (or superhero teams led by white men). Scarlett Johanssen has been in the background of a number of these films, as has the coolest black man available at the time (yep, Samuel L. Jackson again), but these characters merely served as bridges through the multiple movies rather than having real stories of their own. This is about to change when Marvel get around to releasing a Black Panther movie in 2018, about an African king who can harness the power of nature. In 2017 they will release a movie about a female superhero, Captain Marvel. So it will have taken them almost a decade to release a movie about about anything other than a super-powered white man. Jessica Jones can be seen as a way to achieve forgiveness for this, as well as a testing ground for what kind of female-centric stories that audiences will tolerate.

Finally, the last of the three main megafranchises, the DC Extended Universe, kicks off next year with Batman v Superman and was envisaged from the outset to produce a Wonder Woman movie as quickly as possible. This turns out to be in summer 2017, and they have already started producing their black superhero movie, Cyborg, which is released in 2020.

So, taking the output of all three megafranchises into account, there are five blockbuster movies coming out in the next five years that focus on superheroes other than white men. Add to this the Netflix TV shows, and you can see that there is definitely a trend emerging. While social equality has always been around in some shape or form, the past two years have seen a palpable change in attitudes towards such things as the gender pay gap, as there has been a persistent effort to keep this inequality in the limelight, to entrench it in the imagination to the extent that it becomes more than just a fleeting “cause of the day”. Hollywood blockbusters are not known for their diversity, and the Hollywood system of movie making is extremely conservative: spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a movie means that movie studios rarely will take chances, and stick instead to formulas, and characters, that have worked in the past.

The emergence of megafranchises within the studio system has changed this game a little, and there is room to take chances. Since the megafranchises entail a large series of interconnected but independent parts, no longer can the future of a franchise be put in jeopardy by a single bad movie in the series. If the next Captain America movie is terrible, this is irrelevant to the future of the other Avengers movies. Therefore in the individual movies that appear in-between the big group movies, it is definitely possible to tell stories that would be deemed financially risky by conservative investors if the movies were not part of such a grand, diversified portfolio that the megafranchises consist of. I am not implying that movies about black superheroes are funded due to Hollywood movie studios promoting diversity, but that they are far less risky under the protection of the megafranchise umbrella, and that the movie studios can therefore fund a $200m Wonder Woman movie and be impressed if it succeeds, but not too worried if it fails. In my least cynical terms: the megafranchises are giving diversity a chance, in as risk-averse a setting as possible in Hollywood. In my most cynical terms: the megafranchises don’t care about diversity, they just want to see if they can make money from it.


They will definitely make money from all of the movies I have mentioned, but the real issue is what happens next: when the megafranchise umbrella is removed, will we be seeing anything other than white men leading other big movies? Well, I’ve told you already: Hollywood sees these superhero movies about women and black men as tests to see if such movies can make money, so it really depends on how successful movies like Captain Marvel and Black Panther are at the box office. Hollywood is not a social justice warrior, it’s a business: it knows that movies with handsome white men can make money, and therefore it favours these movies. In turn, movie writers know that movie studios like movies about white men, and therefore their screenplays will start from this building block. It’s a circle that can only be broken if a viable alternative is demonstrated to be successful, and the focus of any pro-diversity criticism of Hollywood should be on this aspect rather than current or recent output. Decent roles for women and minorities will not be found by simply criticising them with things such as the Bechdel Test, they must come from producing quality characters and storylines that revolve around those people, and this emanates from the screenwriting process.

If the diversity-infused megafranchise movies make money, the acceptance of a screenplay about women and minorities will be much easier in the Hollywood system, and therefore the future of diversity in Hollywood blockbusters has been democratised. The studios have found a way to make massive movies about something other than white men, with little financial risk, and are pumping these movies with every marketing resource used for traditional blockbusters. The question of whether this continues or not is solely down to the success of these films, and of shows such as Jessica Jones, and not in analysing and complaining about what went before. If you want diversity in big movies, go see Captain Marvel, Black Panther, Cyborg, Wonder Woman and Rogue One when they are released, and hope that they are all good. Hollywood is a business that has no obligation but to make passable movies that they hope will make money, so there is absolutely no point in complaining about them in the hope they will one day see sense and enforce equal opportunities and affirmative action. They owe us nothing, but at least with the megafranchises they can explore whether or not they should listen to what the pro-diversity critics are saying. They have found a way to do it that suits everybody, and what happens next is up to the viewing public.


The Power of the Binge

Binging is rarely looked upon as something to be proud of, but every time 13 hours of a show like House of Cards is dumped onto our Netflix playlists, suddenly all anyone can talk about online is how fast they got through the whole series. This of course happened in the last weekend of February, where Netflix ejaculated the whole third series adventures of Kevin Spaceys manoeuvring, conniving, murdering and most of all monologue-ing politician (now President) Frank Underwood into the peaceful living-room based habitat of their passive subscribers. The third series of House of Cards had been online a mere 9 hours before I got home from work that Friday, February 27th, yet already there were reviews online about “mid-season” shenanigans and even reviews of the shows final episode, and subsequently the series as a whole.

I had nothing to do that Friday night, so I decided that if I was to achieve nothing else that weekend, it would be the passive consumption of an entire season of high quality (production values anyway) TV. Resigned to the decision, I slipped off my work clothes, laid down on the couch in my underpants and did what Netflix told me to do: I checked out the new series of House of Cards. I’m not proud of it, but I shall boast about it anyway: I watched the entire season over that weekend. Season 3 of House of Cards is much like Seasons 1 and 2: slightly above average TV, but extremely well made. The series as a whole was interesting, but by far the most interesting aspect for me came right in the first episode, and had absolutely nothing to do with Kevin Spacey, or politics, or Washington skulduggery. What was interesting in that first episode is that after a brief check-in with President Underwood and his wife, the story then shifts to a supporting character, Doug Stamper, who had been Underwoods right hand man in Seasons 1 and 2. Injured at the end of the previous season, the first episode is spent mostly dealing with his isolated recovery from injury, and apart from the beginning and end of the hour long episode, the President barely gets a look-in. What is so interesting about it is that this structure of the opening episode of House of Cards Season 3 is only possible because every single person who is watching that episode has the ability to watch all subsequent episodes immediately afterwards.


Traditional TV

Traditional, conventional TV shows are defined by their constraints. Television networks operate in a two-sided market where TV shows are used to attract eyeballs, and the precise details of the number and demographic make-up of these eyeballs are used to attract advertising money from anyone who wants to advertise during the commercial break of a TV show. In the US, which is where most of the shows anyone watches are produced, a TV drama such as a procedural cop show like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation will be reported as lasting for one hour, yet when you watch an episode on DVD or online, you will see that it actually barely lasts 45 minutes, meaning that if you watched this episode when you were supposed to, during its debut on TV where advertising revenue is greatest, more than 25% of what you were watching would have been commercials.

Writers, producers and directors of hour-long TV shows in the US know this of course, and therefore build the enforced pauses caused by ad breaks into the episodes. If you watch an episode of a 45 minute American TV show online, you can easily spot where the ad breaks would have been. In something like CSI, an interesting clue may be revealed, causing everyone to look at each other, and then the screen fades to black. After a few seconds, the show returns, showing the exterior of a different location, and we are back in business. In a show like CSI, which doesn’t require a massive IQ to enjoy, what will often happen then is a character will casually re-explain the plot thus far to someone else, just in case you forgot who you were while watching ads for Fast and the Furious 10 (or whatever godawful crap is advertised to people who watch CSI). This is done far more subtly in many shows, but the main point is that the revenue model behind the TV industry has always affected the plot and narrative structure of television shows.

I mentioned previously that the highest advertising revenue potential for a TV show exists during its premiere. This is a highly outdated metric, and has led to the death of many a fine TV show, but in any case it still exists to this day and is how the success or failure of a show is measured by TV Networks and advertisers. While many problems exist with this model, I find the main one is that due to the necessity of making sure an entire targeted audience is in the same place at the same time (in front of their TV’s) it requires the show to be played on a weekly basis, therefore staggering the entire series of up to 24 episodes over the course of many months. We are accustomed to the idea of waiting a week to watch the next episode of a TV show, but this too effects how an individual episode progresses, from a narrative point of view. Each individual episode works towards capturing the viewer within its world, and immersing him/her in its atmosphere. Even if the viewer can stay within this world through multiple ad breaks, the effect will certainly not last until the next week, where the viewer continues the series. This therefore means that every TV show under this revenue model has to designate a few minutes of its already constrained running time (<45 minutes) on building up this atmosphere again. This is the origin of pre-opening credits opening scenes which exist simply to re-acclimatise the viewer to the atmosphere of the show they are watching. Those cheesy CSI:Miami opening scenes with David Caruso arriving at a murder scene and delivering a terrible pun exist simply because anyone watching his show hasn’t seen him for a week and needs a reminder of who the hell he is.

It’s obviously difficult to tell a grand, overarching, nuanced narrative over several weeks in this set-up, and this also has an effect on the type of stories that can be told in traditional TV shows. If you ever wondered why a story can be introduced, explored, and resolved in the space of 43 minutes in a procedural American cop show, this is it: same characters, new disposable plot every week. All that is necessary to remember is a vague recollection of the characters, but they will reintroduce themselves at the beginning anyway.

 The Future

This, by and large, is how TV shows have been formulated since their inception in the middle of the 20th Century. The revenue model of the TV industry was a boon on creativity and innovation in storytelling (Twin Peaks being the obvious outlier), and only the eventual realisation by the industry that revenue could be obtained elsewhere, through pay TV channels, DVD sales and subsequently online streaming subscriptions did the makers of TV shows consider that the way things were always done was not the way that they always had to be. House of Cards is produced by Netflix, and will never be serialised on a TV network in any large advertising market, and this removes a lot of constraints to what its creators can do. Further constraints are alleviated by having all episodes available to viewers instantaneously. I mentioned earlier on that I was interested in the fact that so much of the opening episode of House of Cards Season 3 was spent on a supporting character, Doug Stamper. Just imagine this occurring in a highly anticipated traditional season opener, where little was learned about the main characters, and viewers would have to wait an entire week for the next episode. It simply wouldn’t happen, as advertisers and viewers alike wouldn’t be satisfied, and the only reason the people who make House of Cards can do it is purely because of the distribution and revenue structure of their show/product.

Any decent TV show presented to us in the past should be commended, as the makers had to deal with great constraints in order to deliver a quality finished product, but the success of House of Cards and its new online revenue model means that all of the traditional constraints of television storytelling will now be lifted, and the potential of television as a narrative device can truly be explored. An early mover in this department was the most recent series of Arrested Development, released entirely on Netflix in May 2013. The series was much maligned by fans of the show, yet in the near-future it will be viewed as a template for how to produce a binge-watchable show. Its creators knew their hardcore viewers would be finished watching the entire series mere hours after it would be uploaded onto Netflix, and therefore created a series that shifted the boundaries of what to expect from a show: each episode showed the same events of the overarching narrative from different perspectives, meaning events from episode 5 could replay in episode 7, from a different perspective, and change the viewers mind on what was actually occurring in the earlier episode. One binge-watch of the fourth season of Arrested Development is not enough to appreciate the scope of its creators accomplishments. The entire series is a very flawed successful circular reference, but must be applauded for its early attempts to play with the narrative potential made possible by its new distribution method. Interrupted constantly by ads, and subsequent episodes delayed by a week, such storytelling would be possible, and the same goes for much of the latest season of House of Cards. The possibility of binge-watching new TV shows through online streaming may have changed how we expect to watch TV, but also it will increasingly change the nature of the entertainment product we are consuming. That’s right, must-binge TV just became self aware.

A Giant Copying Machine

Today (yes, Valentine’s Day) I attended #Internet2013, a conference organised by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on the regulatory and policy landscape of the Internet: present and future. For those not familiar with large conferences like this, they consist of large general meetings, punctuated by smaller, more intimate panel sessions that focus on a specific topic or theme. I went to a few of those panel discussions and was impressed with all of them. The one that stuck in my mind however was the one entitled ‘The Future of Copyright Online’. The panel consisted of a disparate group of lobbyists, academics, politicians and lawyers who all had their own point of view on the topic to get across. I learned of France’s Draconian HADOPI law, of Dmitri Medvedev’s personal contributions to Russian file sharing and also how Jesus was actually the first content pirate when he divided the loaves and the fishes. He fed so many, yet he only paid for a few fish and a few pieces of bread. Piracy.

Then came questions from the floor. Continue reading