As of this week, the Marvel Netflix project is just about dead. Although JESSICA JONES will release its third season later this year, Netflix has announced its and THE PUNISHER’s cancelation. The DEFENDERS franchise, a once bold and adult take on Marvel comic adaptations, has concluded its four-year run.

Marvel Netflix
DAREDEVIL Changes Everything, Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

I don’t think anyone thought this franchise would actually be canceled, despite the announcements last October. This is Marvel we’re talking about: a business that, against all odds, continuously produces amazing comic book films each year. Sometimes two or three at a time. And they began their first foray into streaming television with a bang, rebooting Daredevil in one of the best seasons of superhero television ever made. So good, in fact, that it instantly made us forgive them for that 2003 Ben Affleck debacle. There’s an amalgamation of reasons for this sudden mass cancelation. One part low ratings, one part noticeable pacing issues and one part inevitable Marvel-Netflix falling out. We’ve come a long way since 2015, but it’s finally time for a post-mortem (almost) retrospective on how Marvel Netflix went astray.

Marvel’s Great, Gritty Origins

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JESSICA JONES ups the Ante on Superhero Television, Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

Marvel’s early Netflix entries raised the bar for superhero television. They featured cinematic camerawork, ambitious procedural narratives and brutal fight choreography on par with film entries. DAREDEVIL was like a televised Nolan Batman film, adapting the Frank Miller-era source material with raw gritty aesthetics. JESSICA JONES was a neo-noir crime drama that covered dark topics like rape, toxic masculinity, and PTSD. LUKE CAGE embraced the historical racial legacy of Harlem with blaxploitation-esque swagger and style.

Quite simply, these first three shows were dark and deep. Each occupied a separate corner of Manhattan but still felt like part of an ever-expanding Marvel world. Its characters were deeply flawed, constantly getting knocked down physically or emotionally due to past traumas. Thus, superpowers became the action-driven supplement to Matt Murdock, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage’s arcs.

Marvel Netflix
Kilgrave: He’s F***ing Terrifying, Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

But while the heroes were great, the villains stole the show. Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk, David Tennant’s Killgrave, Mahershala Ali’s Cottonmouth and Alfre Woodard’s Mariah Dillard were just as well written as their heroic counterparts and quite terrifying. Ok, extremely terrifying in the case of Fisk and Killgrave. These various power dynamics became the heart of the show, investing us further in the hero’s quest against insurmountable odds.

However, these early successes blinded us to the franchises’ noticeable flaws. DAREDEVIL and JESSICA JONES’ first seasons were, to put it mildly, perfect, DAREDEVIL Season 2 and LUKE CAGE, by comparison, suffered from noticeable pacing issues. In both show’s cases, the momentum burned out during the midway point and never recovered in their respective back halves. Of course, none of us paid much attention to these “minor” issues, especially with a crossover around the corner.

The…. Immortal Iron Fist?

IRON FIST is the worst Marvel Netflix show, hands down. It’s barely a competition. But even still, it’s just how poorly the first season of this show turned out that shocked critics. After mostly highs, this was a low that hadn’t been seen since the early 2000s pre-MCU film entries. Quite simply, IRON FIST was the first major crack in our belief that Marvel’s TV experiment could do no wrong.

Marvel Netflix
IRON FIST: Marvel’s First Flop, Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

There’s a lot to unpack on why this first season was bad. The questionable focus on boardroom discussions over mystical Kung-Fu world building. Sloppy fight scene choreography that literally gave its lead actor little time to train. Finn Jones’ whiney and self-righteous performance as Danny Rand. Making the egregious writing mistake of “telling, not showing” multiple times over. None of it really stood out as memorable or compelling.

IRON FIST’s best moments only heightened viewer awareness of the show’s faults. Jessica Henwick stole the show as Colleen Wing and had a more fulfilling arc than the titular protagonist. The drunken master fight was enjoyable, but only hurt more when you learn his actor auditioned for the part of Rand. And when Rand actually used his Iron Fist powers, they were pretty damn cool. Sadly, they were few and far between.

Wrong Crossover Priorities

Had THE DEFENDERS been a critical success, it could have given Marvel enough goodwill from fans to overlook IRON FIST. Unfortunately, IRON FIST’ unearned larger than life status became central to DEFENDERS’ storyline. Not to say the character was as bad as last time. Jones’ fighting style definitely approved and his relationship with Luke Cage was actually quite enjoyable.

Marvel Netflix
The DEFENDERS Unite, Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

However, no one bought into the script’s prioritization of Rand over Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. Not even his motive for revenge- the Hand’s destruction of K’un L’un- worked because we barely saw much of that setting in Iron Fist’s own show. Truthfully, it was more fun to watch Matt, Luke and Jessica dunk on Danny each time he brought up his fist powers for the umpteenth time.

It didn’t help that the Hand- a secret supernatural Ninja cult and the central threat connecting these shows together — were boring antagonists. Despite hinting at their existence since DAREDEVIL, the Hand’s motivations were murky at best and confusing at worst. This extended to the various “fingers” leading the organization, who acted more like ciphers than characters. And yes, that sadly includes Sigourney Weaver as Hand leader Alexandra, despite giving a solid performance. They even carried over DAREDEVIL Season 2’s weakest storyline- the death and revival of Elektra- without clearly explaining why the Hand needed her in the first place.

Thus, the Hand’s master scheme to “use Danny’s fist to open a subterranean portal where they can make eternal life potions from dragon bones” barely registers emotionally. Even if it meant the destruction of Manhattan. A poor and disappointing adaption for one of Marvel Comics’ most feared crime syndicates.

Marvel Netflix Post-DEFENDERS

After THE DEFENDERS, Marvel never garnered that level of media hype again. The shows kept going, but the narrative highs and lows were more noticeable this time. JESSICA JONES Season 2 had strong performances but took too long for events to pick off. LUKE CAGE actually improved its storytelling flaws, got multiple compelling antagonists and even fixed Danny Rand’s characterization within a single episode. Even IRON FIST Season 2 was an improvement over its predecessor, while THE PUNISHER delivered Frank Castle’s best incarnation since the 2004 Thomas Jane movie.

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Best Live Action Punisher, Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

Then there was DAREDEVIL Season 3. A great adaption of Frank Miller’s BORN AGAIN storyline, it sadly came too little too late. And yet there was so much to like about this season. Vincent D’Onofrio triumphantly and menacingly returned as Wilson Fisk, complete with his iconic white suit. Bullseye made his TV debut as a disgraced FBI agent whom Fisk manipulated to join his side, fighting and even besting Daredevil with uncanny projectile-throwing abilities. Even Season 1’s iconic hallway fight was surpassed by a tense, expertly choreographed ten-minute tracking shot escape through a prison complex.

However, putting aside the 13-episode pacing problems, these later seasons pushed the franchise away from its roots as a gritty, street-level extension of the MCU. Names and events from the films were referenced, but the chances of an Avengers/Defenders crossover grew slimmer with each new entry. And if viewers are more interested in Marvel’s continuity than the actual shows, chances are they’ll stop watching. The result: a gradual decline in viewer ratings as far back as DAREDEVIL Season 2.

Partnership No More

But perhaps the biggest cause of Netflix’s shocking cancelation spree is that it and Marvel no longer need each other. When the five show deal was signed back in 2013, the TV landscape was much different. Netflix had just begun streaming original series like HOUSE OF CARDS and ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK to critical acclaim. Meanwhile, Marvel dipped its toe in the TV water with AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D., which took over a season to become truly successful.

Marvel Netflix
Wilson Fisk Returns in his Iconic Suit, Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

So this deal produced a mutually beneficial relationship. Marvel gained a platform and Netflix received a licensed property to market. And that brand recognition, combined with the appeal of binge-watching, allowed their early entries to stand out. But in 2019, everyone is trying to get a piece of the streaming service action. Not just Amazon and Hulu, but HBO, YouTube and even DC (DOOM PATROL, TITANS) have their own “original series” platforms. So naturally Disney- the juggernaut owner of nearly every media company available- would want to join in.

With the upcoming Disney streaming service underway, Marvel has no reason to maintain this partnership anymore. They already have plans for a Loki, Vision and Scarlet Witch series, amongst other things. And Netflix doesn’t need to limit their comic book adaptations to just Marvel. Titles like THE UMBRELLA CLUB and THE CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA are now at the forefront of their line-up. But people don’t watch these shows for the source material- they do so because they are NETFLIX shows.

In other words, Netflix is now just as big a brand as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The landscape has changed, and both sides want to establish their moneymaking dominance. 

Remembering Marvel Netflix

Will the Defenders survive? Maybe, but I doubt it. All the show writers are moving on to different projects and I suspect the lead actors will be doing the same. And this doesn’t mean the end of Marvel Television as we know it. We still have AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D., CLOAK AND DAGGER, THE GIFTED, LEGION and RUNAWAYS to keep long-time fans entertained. However, compared to DC’s small screen success, Marvel will likely fall back on its never-ending film roster for revenue.

The Marvel Netflix universe is just about dead, but don’t for a second look at these shows as failures. On the contrary, they produced two of the best seasons of superhero television, amazing fight choreography and award-winning performances from most of the cast. It’s just that these individual stories never gelled together when combined into a crossover. And, for all THE DEFENDERS’ problems, its character dynamics- be they Jessica Jones and Matt Murdock or Luke Cage and Danny Rand- were great. I doubt any fan regrets ever spending thirteen hours of their life watching these shows, IRON FIST aside.

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LUKE CAGE: It Made Iron Fist Cool for an Episode, Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

When you really think about it, this cancelation debacle is essentially a show of force between two brand egos. Disney/Marvel and Netflix are network powerhouses, each trying to claim some portion of the entertainment industry as their domain. A couple of years back, Marvel shows were part of Netflix’s selling point. Now, they’re just a few shows amongst dozens of dramas, comedies, documentaries and films sprouting the Netflix logo. In a battle between two entertainment juggernauts like these, compromise just doesn’t make the profit it used to anymore.

RIP Marvel Netflix Universe, 2015-2019. Taken from us Thanos-style by corporate streaming ambition.

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