With Disney+ looming over all other streaming services, it was only inevitable that the Marvel/Netflix shows would meet their end. With the slow but steady cancellation of all of the Marvel shows starting in October of last year, it was less of a surprise and more of an inevitability. Of course Disney wouldn’t share their toys with Netflix anymore now that they have their own streaming service. When it was announced over five years ago that Netflix would be making their own Marvel shows and have their own MCU inspired crossover series that would tie them all together, fans were interested in it and couldn’t wait to get more MCU goodness. This was at a time where the MCU was gaining more popularity in Hollywood, but haven’t yet completely taken over reality as we know it, so having shows debut on Netflix that took place in the same universe seemed like a great idea. Expand on the cinematic universe by launching several smaller TV shows that took place in their own little corner of the MCU, unlike Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. which tied in more directly to the events of the films.
But after Jessica Jones Season 3 left us with a wet fart of an ending, some people have been fondly looking back at this chapter of Netflix’s life, a time where Netflix and Marvel got cozy for a couple of sweet years. Whatever you may think of Netflix’s output of Marvel shows, these series came along at just the right time in the company’s life. In 2015, Netflix was slowly becoming an industry staple and were consistently creating new original shows like Stranger Things, House of Cards, and Orange is the New Black. You better believe that having multiple MCU connected series was important to them. Now, these shows are barely a blip on the company’s radar.
So let’s take a step back and examine where the Marvel/Netflix shows went right and went wrong. Was this experiment a worthy success, or was it a flash in the pan that left viewers unsatisfied?
If there was one aspect of the Marvel/Netflix shows that was dead on amazing, it would be the outstanding cast that was assembled for each show. Mike Colter as Luke Cage, Charlie Cox as Matt Murdoch/Daredevil, and Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones were great choices to lead their respective shows. Plus unlike the main MCU, the Netflix series actually excelled with their antagonists, creating some of the most complex Marvel villains of the last decade. Vincent D’Onofrio as The Kingpin, David Tenant as Kilgrave/The Purple Man, Mahershala Ali as Cottonmouth, and even Sigourney Weaver all delivered solid performances, and in the case of Tenant, arguably career highs. These shows were interested in developing clear antagonists for the heroes to fight, though sometimes not in a physical sense. Rarely did actual fight scenes break out, but when they did they were always something special.
As much of a trope as it is, the Marvel/Netflix shows all had their take on “the hallway fight.” In each season, there was at least one fight scene that was leagues above every other fight in the show and were technical marvels to behold. Any of the hallway fights from Daredevil are outstanding to watch, with my personal favorite being the hallway fight from Season 2. Just watching the choreography and stunt work is like an art form that I would easily use as a reference for how to direct and shoot and action scene for television.
But “the hallway fight” only accounted for about 1% of the show. The other 99% of each show rested on the plot and the very large cast of characters inhabiting each show. And this is the point where the Marvel/Netflix shows started to show signs of weakness. Most of the shows struggled to justify their full season, usually lasting 13 episodes but only having a plot that would last maybe 10. The plot would either spin its wheels for several episodes in order to get to a full 13 episode season, or would quickly resolve a plotline in order to introduce a new one without any regard for what came before.
Luke Cage Season 1 is the perfect example of the pacing problems with these shows. The show’s first half is stellar, with solid character drama, fantastic acting, strong themes, and even better imagery. The shot of Mahershala Ali delivering a speech while standing in front of a picture of Biggie Smalls is delicious. But then the show kills him off by episode 7 only for a new, less interesting and less compelling villain to rise from the ashes and pad out the rest of the show. If Luke Cage Season 1 was just those seven episodes, I wouldn’t hesitate to call it one of the best miniseries Netflix ever made. But it isn’t.
Netflix Bloat isn’t a problem that is inherently unique to the Marvel/Netflix shows, but more a systemic issue that Netflix frequently has to deal with. What is a unique problem to the Marvel/Netflix shows is how they were initially presented. From the beginning of the project, the end goal was pretty clear. Netflix wanted their own team of Avengers, but for street level crimes. It was set to take place in a world where the Avengers were active in a post Battle of New York society and how average people reacted to heroes that weren’t gods but rather real New Yorkers. So with the endgame being a miniseries that combined their four main shows Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist, Netflix needed to give people a reason to watch it.
Unfortunately, when you look back at the pitch, it should be clear where the cracks would form and why the eventual series that came from this, The Defenders, was a mess. It’s one thing to keep track of a movie franchise that releases two to three movies every year and releasing two-three seasons a year with 13 episode each and expecting to keep track of all of them for the miniseries. Plus when all of the shows were centered around internal character conflict, especially Jessica Jones, trying to create a large conflict to bring these heroes together needed to be handled delicately and given the care that it deserved. There needed to be solid motivation for these characters to meet and not be contrived in the slightest.
Of course, the punchline of this joke is Iron Fist.
Iron Fist is a bad show. It is a very bad show. Danny Rand is an unlikeable protagonist that whines for the entire show who believes he’s amazing because he has powers without realizing what that actually means. The Hand were introduced as being the big antagonists of the show and were horribly handled. Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong, leading to a show that left even hardcore MCU fans let down. And this was meant to be the founding blocks for The Defenders. When the miniseries is going to be fundamentally built on the worst show in the series and be led by the most hated character in the entire MCU, the reaction that most people felt was disappointment.
So when The Defenders released, it was met with lukewarm reactions. Some critics liked it, some didn’t, but it was pretty clear that this wasn’t the TV version of The Avengers. The Avengers worked so well because it took all of the pre-established heroes and put them into an action movie with a relatively simple plot. The Defenders, by contrast, had a rather complicated plot that offered simplified versions of each of the characters we got to know so well over their respective shows. Seeing Jessica Jones portrayed as the drinker of the group without much of her character development left fans deflated unless they were fans of Danny Rand, which I can confirm don’t exist.
It was after The Defenders underwhelmed that everything began to fall apart. While it was clear that everything was building up to that miniseries, it wasn’t exactly clear where each show would go from there. A second season of The Defenders was planned, but not much else was known about what it could have been about, especially given the huge drop off of viewers after the first week of release. We got a spin-off based on the Punisher, who appeared in Daredevil Season 2, but most of the shows after The Defenders had a huge drop in quality. With the exception of Iron Fist Season 2, all of the Marvel/Netflix shows were less watched, less relevant, with fewer people talking about them, with Iron Fist only being talked about because it was moderately less crap than the first season. No one cared about Luke Cage Season 2, especially when it premiered less than two months after Infinity War drove all focus to the mainline MCU. Rosario Dawson originally appeared in every Marvel/Netflix show pre-Defenders, but her absence in all nearly every show since then gave off the impression that everything post-Defenders didn’t matter.
As the mainline MCU began to firmly dominate pop-culture, the Marvel/Netflix shows appeared more like an afterthought. Marvel wasn’t interested in dealing with street-level heroes anymore, not when the world was salivating at the mouth for most time traveling, universe shattering events. Why bother going back to the smaller, personal drama when the massive blockbuster successes were so profitable? On that note, why invest in a small sector of your shared universe that was slowly becoming more dated as time went on. Marvel didn’t need to solidify their brand with Netflix any longer.
So when it was announced that both Luke Cage and Iron Fist were cancelled, my first thought was that Netflix and Disney were planning a Heroes For Hire series to help out both struggling shows. But when Daredevil was cancelled, I knew it was the end. Marvel’s announcement that they were going to create new TV shows based on well known side-characters in the MCU all but confirmed that we wouldn’t see new shows about Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, or Iron Fist. What once started as a solid idea the expand the MCU quickly became an afterthought, especially after the failure of The Defenders. If The Defenders was as big of a hit as The Avengers, then maybe, and that’s a big maybe, these shows would have continued. Granted, like any good monopoly, Disney doesn’t like to share their properties, but there’s a chance that a deal could have worked out where the shows would at least continue on Disney+.
But why bother? It’s clear that the reception, or lack thereof, to these shows in recent years means there would be virtually no gain from doing so. It would just be pouring money into a pit with no chance of getting it back. It’s a shame too, because I remember how good those first few seasons of the various Marvel/Netflix shows were. They were quality entertainment, but that goodwill was quickly whittled away due to formatting the shows to fit Netflix’s model, the devastatingly poor reception of Iron Fist and how reliant The Defenders was on Iron Fist. With a few poor decisions, the Marvel/Netflix shows faded away from the public consciousness, leaving some outstanding performances and a handful of great action set-pieces and plots behind. That will be the legacy of the Marvel/Netflix shows; potential wasted, only to be discarded when bored.