The Defenders are no more. Yesterday Netflix announced that The Punisher and Jessica Jones were cancelled, becoming the final casualties of the Marvel purge on Netflix. Whilst many may be quick to blame Disney’s upcoming streaming service for this as far as I know the Marvel/Netflix deal had nothing to do with Disney and it appears the shows were cancelled due to low viewing figures and lack of interest from even hardcore Marvel fans. So what happened? How did what promised to be the most exciting branch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe become no more?
In 2015 Daredevil launched. It was dark, realistic and not at all like the films with which it shared a universe. In a superlative first season, one of Marvel’s best and most underrated characters explored the ideas of faith, choice, power and corruption in the streets of New York following the Chitauri invasion. It was a huge breath of fresh air and still stands as one of the best first seasons of a show I have ever seen. Later that year Jessica Jones aired, and whilst most of my interest was mainly due to David Tennant’s presence I still thought it was pretty good. The Marvel/Netflix partnership had created one of the most acclaimed and beloved superhero franchises of all time. So far, so good.
A year later, the cracks began to show. First came the news that, despite Charlie Cox’s adamant interest in being in Civil War, the film would not have any Netflix characters. OK, so they were remaining separated. I understand. But then it became clear that there was zero communication between the film and television sides of Marvel. Adding to that, whilst I understand Luke Cage and Iron Fist being popular characters, I personally had no interest in them. It was also around this time fans started giving Marvel ideas for characters to add to the darker Netflix universe which were ignored completely (incidentally, here are five of my picks) in favour of The Defenders, an Avengers style crossover which would be exciting had these heroes had any differences. Think about it for a second- I’m about to describe a Marvel Netflix show and I want you to guess which one it is…
In post-Avengers New York, an ordinary civilian begins a sole crusade against the crime in the city. This hero is plagued by self-doubt and anguish from past events and their supporting cast of friends and co-workers try to help them. Whilst being angsty, a villain slowly reveals themselves through henchmen and reveals themselves to be leading a conspiracy. We’re now at the halfway point and half of the series so far has been flashbacks. The hero and villain eventually meet and the plot actually starts now with a focus on “internal conflict” between the hero and villain. At some point we get a hallway fight (the first Daredevil one? Perfect? It’s just overkill now). My question is- which series am I describing?
If the answer is all of them- well done, you’ve identified the problem with the Netflix shows. Sure there’s some differences but they are ALL the same basic formula and genre.
Now, I know what some might be saying- aren’t the Marvel films all the same too? Sure let’s say that. But whilst Thor Ragnarok and Black Panther both have the same plot, they could not be more difference in regards to tone or handling of their themes. The First Avenger and Guardians of the Galaxy both involve a group hunting down a Macguffin but tell me one similarity beyond that. The films have similarities but feel different with different genres and approaches to storytelling- we have buddy comedies, space operas, political thrillers, heist, coming-of-age, war… every genre barring horror has been tackled. There is something for everyone. The Netflix shows are all gritty, mature dramas about broken characters living horrible lives with the same tone to all of them, barring maybe Jessica Jones which has a more noir tone. We don’t have a comedy series or a space series or an action series or a series about a character living outside of Manhattan- they are all the same tonally and structurally. No wonder the later shows had problems getting attention- Frank Castle is a fascinating character and as Marvel’s premier dark character the Punisher would have been a wonderful fit to begin with. But the audience were burnt out with the darkness at that point and were practically begging for Squirrel-Girl. The fact these shows do nothing to integrate with the wider MCU also hurts- from what I’ve read, Infinity War made no impact on the shows when it should have shifted things considerably.
This was ultimately the downfall of the Netflix shows- refusal to change things up. The television branch really should have looked at the films and why they are so successful. It seems like the Netflix shows were conceived as a response to the criticism that the films were too silly. A valid reasoning but the films have by now proven they can handle mature themes such as in Civil War, Black Panther, Infinity War and Doctor Strange (watch that film and notice how little humour there is) so the Netflix shows seemed to be stuck in the idea that comic books should either be ultra-silly and cheesy or super dark and joyless with no middle ground- the same mentality that led to the initial downfall of the DCEU. A healthy balance of genre and tone is why the MCU works and why the DCEU’s current approach with Aquaman and Shazam is a step in the right direction, as well as why DC’s multiple television universes are so popular -can you imagine Marvel/Netflix doing a show like Doom Patrol? I guess everything’s good when you let Geoff Johns run things.
So what’s the future of the Marvel/Netflix deal? Apparently there are already plans to incorporate some of the Defenders into Hulu shows but as someone in the UK I have no access to it (thank you DC Universe for allowing Netflix to distribute your shows internationally) so it seems this branch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is dead, which is a massive shame as TV should have afforded Marvel more variety and more interesting shows with the gigantic budget Netflix brings. I hope this teaches Marvel to make shows that will appeal to a wider audience as relying on a dedicated MCU fanbase and the fanbase of the characters isn’t going to help in the future.