While most of the spring and summer’s movie releases fell prey to covid-related rescheduling, the MCU’s reshuffling had an especially frustrating domino effect: Black Widow, the long-awaited Natasha Romanoff standalone film, got moved from May to November—taking over The Eternals’ spot, which displaced Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which pushed back Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, which put several extra months between us and Thor: Love and Thunder.
But while the kickoff of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Phase 4 has been delayed by six months, that doesn’t mean there’s a complete dearth of Marvel-related entertainment. In fact, now is arguably the best time to catch up on the five Marvel fiction podcasts and audiobooks that exist via Stitcher and Serial Box.
To wit, the latter moved up their release of the serial Marvel’s Black Widow: Bad Blood in order to give fans their Widow fix. And Stitcher recently took down the paywalls for their completed series Wolverine: The Long Night and Marvels, freeing up access for a wider audience of listeners curious how you adapt famously visual stories for an aural medium.
To start with, you ditch the constraints of a single movie and return to comics’ serialized roots: weekly episodes, clocking in at under a half hour, each season averaging 10-15 episodes. Like comics, these exist within their own continuities independent of the MCU or other superhero movies/TV series, so that you get to see Jessica Jones pitting wits against Sebastian Shaw, or Thor and Loki reunited without the Infinity Saga’s time travel complications. Approaching their stories from drastically different angles and tones, some of these serials are more successful than others—but all are ambitious adaptations, and you’re bound to find at least one that will fit your superhero story needs.
A necessary distinction: Wolverine: The Long Night and Marvels are actually full-cast audio dramas, while Marvel’s Black Widow: Bad Blood, Marvel’s Thor: Metal Gods, and Marvel’s Jessica Jones: Playing with Fire are serials presented in both written and single-narrator audio form. For the purposes of this piece, I listened to and analyzed all of them as audio narratives that utilized soundscapes and/or a single voice to transport listeners into action-packed set pieces or a single superhero’s psyche.
Most Atmospheric: Wolverine: The Long Night (Stitcher)
When Stitcher first announced the project in 2017, Marvel New Media vice president Dan Silver described their approach as “an audio experience that feels very much like if you just turned off your television screen, but left the sound on.” That’s a very telling way to look at the medium, as a matter of removing one aspect rather than writing solely for audio. Regardless, Wolverine doesn’t sound as if it’s missing a visual aspect, and the end result lives up to Silver’s intention of “very dynamic, very real, very raw.”
Comic book author Ben Percy smartly frames this mystery from the perspective of two FBI special agents, Sally Pierce (Celia Keenan-Bolger) and Tad Marshall (Ato Essandoh), who arrive in Burns, Alaska to investigate a fishing boast massacre—grisly deaths via slashing claws. It’s a hell of a smoking gun that seems to point directly to gruff hermit Logan (Richard Armitage); yet as Pierce and Marshall dig into the workings of this remote town of perennial twilight, they discover plenty of suspicious activity beneath the surface. Sound designers Brendan Baker and Chloe Prasinos deftly build Burns in listeners’ ears, from the sloshing of boats on the water to gossip at the local watering hole to adrenaline-fueled chase scenes through the woods.
What makes this experiment in the outsiders’ viewpoint work is the dramatic irony that we listeners know that Wolverine didn’t do it, even as every local fisherman and visiting agent is suspicious of him. Unfortunately, the narrative often dips into the melodramatic, especially as a handful of competing agendas begin to clash as the serial builds to its finale. I would have preferred more quiet moments, like Logan’s incredible monologue partway through the season in which he lays bare the vulnerability of his mind-wiped brain, how he wrestles with the knowledge that he is responsible for the loss of so many lives even if he can’t remember their faces.
Note: Stitcher released a second season, Wolverine: The Long Trail, that I haven’t had the chance to listen to yet. I look forward to seeing how it builds on the twists of the first season and hope that Logan gets more opportunity for self-reflection in the Louisiana bayou.
Most Approachable: Marvel’s Black Widow: Bad Blood (Serial Box)
I’ve only gotten to listen to about two-thirds of Serial Box’s Black Widow adventure, but it feels like a fanfic—and I mean that as the highest of compliments. Though it bears no relation to the forthcoming MCU film, it nonetheless possesses the careful, considered interiority of a character study. In contrast to the other podcasts that jump between perspectives or simply feature lots of ensemble scenes, Marvel’s Black Widow: Bad Blood keeps us inside Natasha Romanoff’s head—whether she’s fighting for her life against a genetically-engineered baddie or maintaining her cover as pleasant, forgettable, cardigan-wearing IT girl Melanie while undercover at a pharmaceutical company. This closeness makes the reader even more sympathetic when Nat discovers that someone has stolen a vial of the Black Widow’s blood.
The sense of violation, and Natasha’s furious struggle to track down who is using her superpowered cells for undoubtedly evil ends, is crafted sensitively by an all-female writing team: Lindsay Smith, Margaret Dunlap, Mikki Kendall, L.L. McKinney, and Taylor Stevens. This Black Widow contains multitudes, moving between her crowd of female work friends to solo adventures with such ease that it keeps the listener wondering which facet of her personality is genuine and which is the spy’s careful manipulation. Sarah Natochenny wonderfully embodies Natasha’s coolness and especially the moments when the facade cracks.
My only quibble is that Natasha, who had been in the process of ditching her Melanie persona before the blood incident, still quickly drops her cover in Chicago in favor of strapping on the spandex suit and catching a flight out of the country. It could have been interesting to see the Widow stuck in one location with a bunch of well-meaning but useless civilians instead of her usual globe-hopping. Then again, if the trade-off is her faux-friends for her real colleagues like Bruce Banner and Bucky Barnes—who, from the Red Room to his own blood issues, knows exactly what she’s going through—then by all means.
A tight, emotionally resonant plot and impressive narration makes this my personal favorite of the Marvel serials.
Best Social Commentary: Marvels (Stitcher)
Both Stitcher audio dramas benefit from similar frame stories: an investigation into superheroes—or, as they’re called here, “marvels”—from the perspective of the mundane folks whose lives they impact. Instead of a murder and interrogation tapes, Marvels uses 1960s photography and the developing field of documentary film to examine a potential hoax created by the Fantastic Four. This is one of several plotlines from Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’ four-issue miniseries Marvels, which provided the source material for the adaptation written by Lauren Shippen (The Bright Sessions, The Infinite Noise), directed by Paul Bae (The Black Tapes, The Big Loop), and sound-designed by Mischa Stanton (The Bright Sessions, ars PARADOXICA).
Instead of spanning from the 1930s to the 1970s like the comics, Marvels focuses on just the ’60s story and infuses it with a modern sensibility: After the Fantastic Four seemingly beat Galactus in an epically dangerous New York City battle, Reed Richards (Ethan Peck) gets accused of fabricating a hoax… but to what end? Photographer Phil Sheldon (Seth Barrish) and journalist Ben Urich (Method Man) collaborate and clash with college student Marcia Hardesty (AnnaSophia Robb) as each tries to find not the truth, but the evidence to support the story each is trying to tell.
A similar utilization of dramatic irony to Wolverine isn’t quite as effective here: Despite the ordinary folks questioning whether extraordinary figures should have so much power, there’s never much actual threat of the Fantastic Four corrupting their influence. Yet the series still poses provocative questions about all things relative: truth, power, and feeling insignificant in the face of other intelligent life in the universe. And with J. Jonah Jameson screaming about conspiracy theories, one can’t help but think of the Spider-Man: Far From Home post-credits scene and vicariously live out a version of what the next Spider-Man film might hold.
Best Quasi-Continuation: Marvel’s Jessica Jones: Playing with Fire (Serial Box)
While these are all standalone stories, Marvel’s Jessica Jones: Playing with Fire feels like it could reasonably follow the cancelled Netflix series’ third and final season—mostly because Jessica’s latest case is her own self-care. Yes, technically, Alias Investigations is being paid to follow up on the apparent overdose death of a young superpowered individual, but that mystery is not nearly as compelling as Jessica going to therapy, resisting the siren call of her desk whiskey, and opening herself up?… to positive changes?… in her life??
Not surprisingly, Jessica’s story shares the quiet interiority of Natasha’s as she reluctantly examines her unhealthy coping mechanisms for all of the death and grief that her powers have brought her. Fryda Wolff captures Jessica’s wry world-weariness, from strong scripts by the nonbinary and female writing team of Vita Ayala, Zoe Quinn, Lauren Beukes, Elsa Sjunneson, and Sam Beckbessinger.
What’s difficult about all of these mysteries is that clearly every new character introduced has some nefarious agenda. To be fair, we already know to be wary of Sebastian Shaw from X-Men: First Class, but Serial Box has transplanted him into the present day yet with the same shady agenda: to employ and train mutant misfits in his Hellfire Club, except here they’re called “flares” for their performative tricks for clients. It’s no coincidence that these young, superpowered coworkers all live in the insular Nova Naledi commune, with a rich benefactor who seems to have strings attached to her funding their little utopia.
That these figures don’t have the kids’ best interests in mind is a given, but the Nova Naledi subplot does provide one of the most poignant moments in any of these serials: Watching these kids, who apply their superpowers to making art for themselves instead of the responsibility of fighting crime, Jessica is struck by an odd mix of tenderness and envy. Her reaction is not unlike that of older queer people, delighting in younger queer folks growing up in a world with more freedoms yet mourning the fact that they never got to do the same.
Like the Netflix series following its phenomenal first season, the appeal of Marvel’s Jessica Jones: Playing with Fire is less in what crime she’s solving and more in what that unlocks within herself.
Most Ambitious Expansion of the Universe: Marvel’s Thor: Metal Gods (Serial Box)
While the other fiction podcasts utilize familiar Marvel characters and settings, Serial Box’s Marvel’s Thor: Metal Gods blasts off into space thanks to the writing talents of Yoon Ha Lee, Brian Keene, Aaron Stewart-Ahn, and Jay Edidin for what is accurately described as a “cosmic odyssey.” It’s also a reckoning for our favorite dysfunctional Asgardian brothers, as they chase a magical crown and Nihilator, the very metal villain who wears it, from the Odeon to a dead planet; and confront both of their complicity in destroying worlds. In rollicking space opera fashion, they cross paths with a variety of new characters, from a Korean tiger-goddess to Loki’s genderfluid space pirate ex.
Not that I was necessarily ranking these, but when comparing five different serials I was bound to find one that just missed the mark for me personally. It boiled down to a combination of various factors used to slightly greater effect in the other stories:
(1) Because the adventure was on a more epic scale, the perspective jumped between multiple characters, plus there were enough sound effects to signify space battles and metal concerts. The mix of interiority and soundscape didn’t gel for me.
(2) As much as I tried not to cling to any one interpretation of these characters, this Thor was a bit too stiff for my tastes, lacking Chris Hemsworth’s goofiness—or rather, feeling like Hemsworth’s performance in the opening of Thor without any of that character’s levity gained in a half-dozen subsequent films. Though this Thor does have some much-needed introspection about his past as a conqueror of worlds, so it’s not as if he doesn’t have an important emotional arc. And this Loki was as sly as ever, yet I missed Tom Hiddleston’s pathos. Though it should be noted that narrator Daniel Gillies does an excellent job evoking the signature aspects of each character, so that it was never unclear who was speaking.
(3) There were so many original characters, from tiger-goddess Horangi to Captain Zia, not to mention cameos from Frost Giants and a K-pop band, that I didn’t have any sort of visual frame of reference for keeping track of everyone. Obviously plenty of audio dramas introduce characters with no accompanying concept art, but for some reason my brain had trouble parsing everyone.
That said, I am so glad that the writers incorporated Korean deities and celebrities into a story about Asgardians, and that Zia was both one of Loki’s old flames and their own badass person. While it wasn’t my particular cup of tea, Marvel’s Thor: Metal Gods is the best example of taking familiar comic book characters and pushing the physical and figurative boundaries of what their “usual” stories are.
Just like with the MCU, my faves may not be yours—so I’d love to hear your experiences with these five Marvel stories, your turn-ons and turn-offs, and which serial most approximated for you the joy of reading comic books.