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Looking Back At Marvel on Netflix

I was planning on writing about how I went back and watched Daredevil season 3. To properly share how I felt about this season, I wanted to establish context. 1000 words of context later, my feelings on the Netflix Marvel series became a blog post of their own.

The parallels to the development of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The reality of how the entertainment industry evolved and how that evolution impacted the entertainment we enjoy. The Marvel Netflix deal took us on a wild ride.

Marvel Netflix Team-Up

In November 2013, Marvel and Netflix announced the Defenders initiative. Four street level Marvel heroes of varying name recognition would be introduced and developed in their own series. Shared universe teased throughout would lead to them teaming up in a crossover for the ages. It was the Avengers model. Daredevil filled the Iron Man role of having name recognition to comic fans but only vague mainstream familiarity.

Believe it or not, the MCU was in weird place between the announcement and release of the Netflix series. In 2013, we were a few months into Marvel’s other attempt at a series, Agents of SHIELD. This was right around when a lot of viewers’ hope for that series drained and ratings trended downwards. Daredevil debuted days before Age of Ultron, the lowest regarded of the four Avengers movies and in the bottom 5 of MCU releases according to Rotten Tomatoes.

The Build to The Defenders

Unlike with Iron Man and The Avengers, we knew going into Daredevil about the build to The Defenders crossover. No surprise or early rumours about Nick Fury saying “Stay tuned for The Avengers (2012).” We went into each series expecting setups and overlaps.

Daredevil Season 1

Like Iron Man before it, Daredevil successfully set the bar and expectations for the Netflix series. The acting was engaging, the action visceral, the humour subtle but memorable (avocados at law!), and the characterization plentiful. As a fan ever since Trial of the Incredible Hulk made me pick up a Daredevil comic, I never expected to see Matt Murdoch so perfectly adapted, let alone Foggy Nelson and Karen Page! And then Vincent D’Onofrio shows up as Wilson Fisk, and we have the MCU’s greatest villain.

Jessica Jones Season 1

Jessica Jones, the most obscure of the four characters, came out next, and it was comparable to Daredevil in quality. I had issues with the inconsistent way in which her powers were presented (she’s lifting a car in the first episode, but gets pulled to the ground and held in place by an injured older man halfway through the series?) but I love the psychology of the series. David Tennant as Purple Man managed to top D’Onofrio as Kingpin, and bringing in Patsy Walker to replace the not-yet introduced (and slated for a much different role) Carole Danvers in the more-successful-best-friend part turned out to be extremely effective.

Daredevil Season 2

The first season 2 continued to follow in the Iron Man footsteps. Like Iron Man 2, Daredevil season 2 suffers from trying to balance too much. There’s a lot of good, maybe even more than there is bad, but overshadowing both the good and the bad is the weight of it all. The Punisher subplot and the Elektra subplot split the cast. Instead of the season 1 chemistry between our main characters, Foggy and Karen keep asking Matt “Why are you dealing with Elektra, Punisher’s more interesting.” And they’re right. Along the way, there’s Defenders metaplot. This would be fine and even appreciated in a tighter season. Instead, we get a season where the two new characters share only one scene together. It’s not a convergence of the two plots into one, it’s a coincidental crossing point that doesn’t matter to anyone involved.

Luke Cage Season 1

Luke Cage was next. While I had a lot of issues with it, those issues stem from how much I loved the first half of the season and how disappointing I found the mid-season 180. Luke Cage and initial villain Cottonmouth had a Superman/Lex Luthor dynamic. The one who should have the advantage in a fair fight doesn’t, because the other makes the fight as unfair as possible. The checks and balances of Cottonmouth’s empire and its incendiary rivalry with the other criminal organizations fascinated me, and Luke Cage’s attempts to navigate it was compelling. Then Cottonmouth dies at the hands of the least interesting of the MCU’s overused evil doppelganger villain trope, Diamondback. He brings the MCU’s worst costume and one of the most boring fight scenes with him.

Luke Cage is getting extra paragraphs because it’s not fair to leave out the amazing supporting characters. Simone Missick as Misty Knight completes the Superman formula as the Lois Lane who is on Luke Cage’s side even as she investigates him. Theo Rossi’s Shades as a mysterious hatchet man gets more interesting as the series goers on. One of Marvel Netflix’s biggest gets, Alfre Woodard as Mariah Dillard helps make the Cottonmouth half of the season so good.

Finally, there’s Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple. I haven’t mentioned her yet, but she played a key role in the Defenders setup. What started as a reluctant and more subtle version of Nick Fury evolved in Luke Cage. When Luke Cage in unconscious for a couple of episodes, she and Misty become our protagonists.

Iron Fist Season 1

And then there’s Iron Fist. Everything about Iron Fist felt redundant and rushed. Daredevil already used the iconic Iron Fist mask, so they replaced it with… nothing. Arrow told the story of a mission millionaire lost, alone, and without resources, so Iron Fist’s backstory became… that, anyway. He does punch out a dragon’s heart! Or so someone says. He punched like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, but glowier. His martial arts paled in comparison to Daredevil.

Defenders vs Avengers

The Marvel Netflix series parallel the pre-Avengers MCU films in a lot of ways. Daredevil seasons 1 and 2 are similar to the first two Iron Man films.

Jessica Jones and Captain America are both pretty good and comparable to the best of the phase.

Luke Cage is a bit like Thor, in that it starts stronger than it ends. Although Luke Cage made the mistake of killing off its Loki parallel halfway through.

The Incredible Hulk and Iron Fist are both considered subpar and the worst of their batch. I would argue that The Incredible Hulk is at least the movie they intended it to be, or at least as close to that intention as they could afford (it being only the second MCU movie, and without the advantage of John Faveau’s ability to cleverly stretch a budget). I strongly believe that Iron Fist suffered from overextension, probably caused by Daredevil season 1 being so successful, Daredevil season 2 plans moved up.

One key difference is that the weakest MCU movie was followed by better movies. The Defender’s lead in was also the first reminder that just because the best of these series were amazing, they still had the potential to be bad.

Defenders Was Bad

The Defenders was bad because it was a chore. Even at 8 episodes instead of 13, it felt padded and drawn out. The heroes never got along. They didn’t do or say anything cool. Most of the dialog between our main characters was either asking for an explanation or one telling the other to shut up.

We didn’t get nods to the comic, like Matt Murdoch representing Jessica Jones in court. Not only didn’t we get the Power Man and Iron Fist team-up that the series seemed predestined for, they barely acknowledge one another even when they share scenes. No revelation that Jessica Jones was pregnant with Luke Cage’s baby. Any reason you can think of to have these four characters as the focus of a crossover never happened.

Despite the villains being the highlight of three of the four series, the villains in The Defenders weren’t great. The Hand was setup subtly as a threat in the background of multiple series (all except Jessica Jones for some reason), only for the final member, Signourney Weaver’s Alexandra, to be introduced in The Defenders, be the only one to get characterization, and then to get killed off in another villain bait and switch. The four other members of The Hand never became more than background players.

If you ever wondered what it would feel like if The Avengers missed the mark, The Defenders is the closest we’ll get to a window into that world.

Putting The End In Defenders?

The year and a half stretch of progressively worse series was not the end of Marvel on Netflix. In fact, the first series after The Defenders -season 1 of The Punish (and there is a season 2)- was one of the best. Jessica Jones season 2 followed it, which was a bit rougher than season 1 but generally well received. In fact, a total of seven seasons of Marvel Netflix series released after The Defenders. Every series (other than The Defenders) got a second season, and Daredevil and Jessica Jones both got a third.

Marvel – Netflix = Disney+

I don’t think it takes a conspiracy theorist to assume that Marvel owners Disney entered into this agreement with Netflix to get intel on how the streaming service works. The series going on long after The Defenders was probably a skin-in-the-game agreement on Disney’s behalf to build Netflix’s confidence in the partnership.

The Disney+ announcement came shortly after The Defenders debuted. The closer the date came to Disney+’s launch, the less Netflix invested into bringing attention to the Marvel Netflix series. If Punisher season 1 and Daredevil season 3 are any indication, the quality of the series didn’t suffer despite the parents breaking up. It’s a shame when the quality of a series is not the deciding factor of that series’ future.

At least that leaves us with a half dozen series that are worth revisiting when the dry spell of new content caused by quarantine hits. I’ll get into this more when I share my thoughts on Daredevil season 3, but as soon as I finished it, I asked myself which Marvel Netflix series I should revisit next.