Heroes Fired: The Legacy of Marvel’s Netflix Series

With Marvel’s Iron Fist, Luke Cage and Daredevil series being cancelled, it is an apt time to reflect on the legacy of the Marvel/Netflix union. The Marvel and Netflix connection seemed like a match made in heaven. Marvel got a chance to show off their more gritty street-level heroes in episodic format, allowing complex story beats, and a more diverse worldview than their silver-screen counterparts. Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist and the Punisher all inhabit nuanced worlds wherein virtually every character they encounter has some sort of impact on their lives simply due to how connected they are to their communities (or disconnected in Iron Fist’s case). The longer run-time of a television provided the writers with opportunities to explore the inner workings of these diverse and complex characters.

Daredevil kickstarted the Marvel Netflix partnership in stunning fashion. With a storyline that was many layers deeper than the movie counterparts, character dynamic that were fleshed out, and themes that went darker and deeper than the franchise has had before, the series was a hallmark of quality. The series boasted strong acting, writing and series direction and pavers the way for all the shows to come. This might have proved to be both the greatest and worst part of the Marvel/Netflix partnership as the shows that followed tried too hard to fit into the Daredevil mold, hindering some seasons to come. Regardless, Daredevil itself was not only a spectacular start to the franchise, but also one of the greatest legacies of the Marvel Netflix partnership.

The first season of Jessica Jones was an excellent journey through the trauma of the titular character, being haunted and hunted by her former lover Kilgrave, who once used her as a murder weapon, makes for compelling television. Over the course of the season, you get to learn about these characters’ pasts, motivations, flaws, and goals. There’s so much tension and build up leading to the final encounter with Kilgrave that the resolution feels gratifying.

However, when they don’t have all of these elements in sync the wheels can start to fall off. Luke Cage’s first season got off to an excellent start thanks largely due to Mahershala Ali’s electrifying performance of Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes and Mike Colter’s Luke Cage being so apt for America’s current socio-political climate. Yet, when they get rid of Cornell midway through the season in favor of Luke’s estranged half-brother Willis “Diamondback” Stryker, the final battle–though epic–lacked the emotional weight of a Luke Cage/Cottonmouth showdown.

Netflix adherence to the hour long, 13 episode season model was holding their shows back from reaching their zenith. These long episodes require a lot of plot points to fill that time and 13 episodes can be difficult to fill with content and even more so when trying to distribute it evenly. The run-time of Marvel’s Netflix library is almost three times as long as the run-time for the big screen MCU. The combined length of the episodes’ run-time and season logically means that more events have to unfold and they can’t all be about your main character.

A lack of a compelling villain and irritatingly slow shifting character dynamics harmed the pacing and progression of Jessica Jones season 2. Without Kilgrave’s presence there’s a lack of character but a whole lot of time to fill and that leads to an extremely uneventful Trish Walker b-plot throughout the season that fails to impact the way Kilgrave did.  No series has it worse than Iron Fist which unfortunately suffers from both a paper thin plot and some of the more boring characters in the franchise. Danny’s season-long naiveté and the Meachum’s drywall personalities are a byproduct of having too much time to fill.

That’s how you get Daredevil episodes with more ligitation than vigilantism, Jessica Jones episodes about Trish’s addiction to her strength-enhancing inhaler, and Iron Fist episodes about the Meachum sibling’s financial dealings. These subplots play out too long and end up hindering the progression and resolution of the shows.

Marvel should have capitalized on one of the best parts about original online content especially on a platform like Netflix. It’s Netflix, these shows don’t have to be shoehorned into some kind of structure where there’s an unnecessary plot twist involved. The series don’t need to have uniform run-times and season lengths, because of Netflix they have the option of producing however many episodes per season they want just look at Voltron and the last season of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

The focus should be crafting the tightest, most compelling story possible not just filling time because of some old premium cable model. Marvel attempted to rectify the misgivings of Iron Fist season one by shortening season 2 down to ten episodes as they did The Defenders and the show’s second season was noticeably improved. Daredevil’s third season managed to reclaim its earlier glory by effectively presenting itself as a reverse of the show’s first season. The return of the nuanced criminal overlord Wilson “Kingpin” Fisk and the addition of Benjamin “Bullseye” Poindexter brought the show to new heights in character development.

This Netflix venture shined a light on a group of characters with a long shared history. Though they might not be as iconic as their silver screen heroes these ragtag Defenders have iconic stories that would have been perfect to see unfold live action. Jessica Jones and Luke Cage are married and have a daughter together in the comics but they have neither seen nor explicitly mentioned one another since The Defenders.

Though they briefly acknowledged it in season 2, a true adaption of Ed Brubaker’s Immortal Iron Fist arc would have been an epic tale as it would not only show the bearers of the mantle throughout time but it would also showcase why the world needs Iron Fist. Danny Rand constantly referred to himself as the “Immortal Iron Fist” so it is unfortunate to know that we’ll never see how that title came to exist.

Luke Cage’s cliffhanger finale leaves a hole now that the show is canceled. Luke Cage gained control of Harlem’s Paradise — the Stokes’ family club where they controlled Harlem’s criminal underworld–finally setting him up to take up the iconic Hero for Hire mantle. With both Luke Cage and Iron Fist coming to a close, it is unlikely we will ever see the formation of the Daughters of the Dragon, the legendary ass-kicking combination of Colleen Wing and Misty Knight.

The opportunity to see some of the most underrated moments in comics on screen makes the legacy of Marvel Netflix special. Both the first season of Freeform’s Cloak and Dagger and Hulu’s Runaways ran a tight ten episodes with practically every moment being valuable to the story and the overall development of the characters, showing the tighter model could have brought the Netflix shows to even greater highs. With Disney’s streaming service on there way, it seems to be the end of the for the Heroes for Hire and the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. The union of Marvel and Netflix has been a great one, even with some staggers along the way. 

With the two giants parting ways, it significantly changes the legacy of their partnership, Daredevil is one of the greatest comic book adaptions across any medium, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage each had strong character moments. Even Punisher and Iron Fist had well written dynamics. Now, instead of watching these shows unfold and come to a natural conclusion, we are left pondering what could have been.

Marvel on Netflix has elements that are simply the epitome of comic book television. While there are some seasons that didn’t have the magic of others dude to a bloated approach, their ultimate legacy is a great one. The highs, Daredevil S1 &3, Jessica Jones S1, the first half of Luke Cage S1 and all of S2, & Punisher were multi-layered, character-driven affairs that transcended the medium. Their lows, The Defenders, second half of Luke Cage S1, Jessica Jones S2, Iron Fist) lack cohesion and purpose of the others. All of the teased MCU connectivity never came to fruition and aside from a handful of throwaway mentions like “the incident” or “the green guy.” There was no real connection to the MCU at the end of the day which didn’t fulfill the promise the shows made at the beginning.

Despite that, there is still a lot to look forward to as fans. Disney’s new streaming service, Disney +, promises to bring a multitude of Marvel characters to the small screen. With the Netflix/Marvel partnership coming to close soon, there seems to be a shift in Marvel television on the way. There are still a couple of shows left, mainly Jessica Jones season 3 and Punisher season 2. Looking back, it was great to experience these street level Marvel heroes for the last few years. While one chapter of their story has ended, it is not out of the question that these characters and stories will make a return on Disney + one day. Hopefully, the book has not fully closed with any of them as the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to expand.