It's not an exaggeration to say that Marvel Studios is still topping the live-action superhero game right now. The craze that began in 2000 with 20th Century Fox's X-Men is going stronger than ever right now, with six major superhero cinematic releases across Fox, Marvel/Disney and DC/Warner Bros this year alone.
And then there are the TV shows, of which there have been strong outputs from both Marvel and DC. Marvel's Netflix shows win the critically acclaimed, gritty toned game, whilst the shows of DC's "Arrowverse" are often charming delights and strong fan-favorites — except Oliver Queen (sorry).
But Have You Heard About Scarlet?
In amongst the upcoming TV show schedule hides a little project that goes by the name of Scarlet. Scarlet will be an adaptation of the graphic novel by the same name penned by Brian Michael Bendis. You might recognise his name, as he's a pretty big name in Marvel Comics. He also wrote Alias — the Marvel comic series that Marvel-Netflix show Jessica Jones is based upon — and the comics from which the upcoming Marvel/Icon adaptation Powers takes its name.
Like Powers, Scarlet is published by Marvel Comics under their Icon imprint, and it's being adapted into an all-singing all-dancing TV show. The project was first expected to be taken on by HBO, but is actually being outsourced to subsidiary studio Cinemax, as reported by Deadline.
Speaking at June's ATX Television Festival, Bendis made an unofficial declaration about the project, which is yet to be officially announced by Cinemax. Further details about the project, such as cast, crew and release date, won't be clarified for a while yet as — according to Bendis — the production of Scarlet is still "at the earliest stage... the team around it will be announced as soon as all are on the same page."
Who Is Scarlet?
The Scarlet starlet of this story is Scarlet Rue, a young woman from Portland who becomes the epicentre of a new, violent American revolution. Scarlet was a pretty normal person, until she saw her boyfriend Gabriel gunned down in cold blood and framed by corrupt police officer Gary Dunes — using her and her friends as scapegoats to cover up his own drug use and dealings.
She's shot in the head by the cop but survives, awakening in a world that she views with new eyes, seeing the corruption being allowed to fester within the layers of police and government. She asks the question — why? — but then realises that the why doesn't matter. What matters is what she's going to do about it, and how we (the readers) are going to help her so do.
Becoming a rebel with a cause, she starts by taking revenge on the man who shot both her and her boyfriend — kidnapping and murdering him. As her cause begins to bubble and grow out around her, revenge turns to revolution and sweeps ordinary people and FBI Agents alike into the mix as the conflict escalates. There will be revolution, there will be fatalities, and there will be no forgiveness for those who allow the rot to spread.
Scarlet is a wonderfully crafted series, written by Bendis and beautifully illustrated in punk shades of watercolour by illustrator and co-creator Alex Maleev. There's only been 10 issues published, and the irregular publishing schedule means they span across six years. The recent 10th issue left us on a bit of a cliffhanger, promising that the story will be picked up next year, likely weaving into the upcoming TV adaptation.
How Similar Will The Show Be To The Comics?
Scarlet is punctuated by the use of fourth-wall breaking, especially in the introductory issue where Scarlet explains her backstory and her plans for the revolution. Bendis told HitFix that the TV series will follow a similar structure, incorporating her direct address as a stylistic aspect.
HitFix: "Are you even allowed to tell me anything about the TV version of Scarlet? Like, how structurally similar it will be?"
Bendis: "At the moment, it looks like it’s going to be very similar."
HitFix: "Even her direct address to the audience?"
Bendis: "It looks like it. That’s what they liked, and that’s what they bought: the dangerous of it, and the not compromising of it. It was a very excellent day over there at HBO/Cinemax when they bought it. I felt like I graduated television college, because they make amazing television. The person who said yes to 'Veep' said yes to us, which made me feel very good about myself for five seconds. Which my self-loathing doesn’t usually allow me to feel. Even I could not say that that wasn’t a fun day."
Fourth-wall breaking by characters hasn't traditionally been a staple of mainstream comics, when it is employed it's typically used for comedic effect. The feature was popularised in the 1990s by Marvel's Deadpool/Wade Wilson, well known for his fourth wall breaking — again used to prop up the humorous side of his character. There's very little comedy in Scarlet's dry narration though, the stakes are much higher and far more grounded in reality here.
Direct address is usually employed by an unseen narrator like the Watcher in order to fill in narrative details without having to explicitly present them on panel. Rather than just guiding us through the story, Scarlet uses fourth wall breaking as exposition, explaining her thoughts, actions and plans to us.
We may not agree with her actions, but we become drawn into them. As we read, we too become accomplices to the revolution.
Picking Up The Jessica Jones Mantle
Like Bendis's previously adapted series Jessica Jones, Scarlet could be a landmark for the comic book adaptation. Netflix's Jessica Jones — as well as being the first major female superhero fronted Marvel show (not counting Agent Carter, of course) — quickly became a critical darling, and Season 2 is set for release sometime in 2018.
Whilst Jessica Jones wasn't entirely faithful to the Alias comics from which it took its inspiration, its noir tone and the way it handled portrayals of PTSD, sexuality, and the abusive dynamic between Jessica and Zebediah Kilgrave/Purple Man was highly praised.
Rather than falling into any sexist trope regarding the portrayal of sexual abuse — something which Game of Thrones has been accused of — Jessica Jones focused heavily on the titular character working through the aftermath of such events. Whilst the abuse was arguably central to Jessica's character development, it's never played for gratuity.
Scarlet deals with abuses of power too. Though the central focus is on corruption in the systems of police and government, everyday issues which are still the focus of much debate in reality are brought under the microscope also. Over a very short run, Scarlet manages to reflects many aspects of social unrest in contemporary discourse.
Why Is Scarlet Important?
The unjustified police shooting which kicks everything off in Scarlet is a problem that has been at the forefront of dialogue more than ever as of late, with multiple unjustified police killings of people of color. Additionally there's also a brief backstory section for several of Scarlet's followers, which deal with the ramifications of racism, sexism, homophobia, online harassment and rape culture.
One of Scarlet's lieutenants, Isis, joins the crusade because she watched her father shot to death — a black man harassed by the police and wrongfully killed right in front of her when she was a child. Buddy — another of Scarlet's followers — joins her crusade against the "corrupt fucks" after her girlfriend Amy committed suicide following a targeted campaign of online harassment and rape threats from a group of college athletes.
The football players in question never had charges brought against them because — in the words of Buddy's father — they were "good boys and they just did something stupid". For Buddy's father, who was the team coach, getting his boys to the championship match was more important than justice for a dead girl.
These stories may be extremes, but they cut close to the bone of recent news reports. From the unjustified deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, to the heavily criticized Stanford Case, where former student Brock Turner was handed down a reduced sentence for raping an unconscious girl, largely based upon his championship swimming record — it's easy to see parallels there.
And these are only two of many stories of their kind. But then there's the other side of the coin, such as the deaths of five people officers in Dallas this July during a peaceful protest related to the deaths of Sterling and Castile.
Striking back against the police force for the sake of it is also addressed in Scarlet. It's worth noting that Scarlet never thinks of herself as a "cop killer" — indeed she has people in uniform on her side — she only seeks to take down those individuals who would abuse the power a badge gives them, as the police force do by consistently trying to kill her without trial.
Angry Broken People
Scarlet is about "angry broken people" finally pushing back and — whilst we can sympathise with the anger of these people — the methods Scarlet and her revolution eventually stoop to are also made out to be too far.
Scarlet herself says that she doesn't want to kill, and much of the violence of the comics comes from others reacting around her. Especially when it comes to the police force, who throw a grenade into one of her followers rallies in an attempt to kill her.
Despite the fact that Scarlet began life just over six years ago (with the first issue published July 2010) the events that play out in its pages chime heavily with much recent discourse and social unrest. Is it a coincidence then that the series was announced this summer?
Scarlet is a song for the disenfranchised, a story which will soon become a TV show — hardly the traditional vehicle of revolution. Though the central story can be read as a warning for violence begetting violence — with the actions of the revolution and the police locked in a downward spiral into chaos — it's also a reminder that you can only push the disenfranchised so far before they start pushing back.
With Jessica Jones, Jessica pushed back against her oppressor, in this case a single individual. In Scarlet we'll be seeing a similar movement on a larger scale. Where it will end though, as Scarlet says, that's up to us.