Charlie Cox in Netflix's Daredevil

Why Marvel's Netflix Series Never Soared

'Daredevil' and its canceled brethren followed an approach that is clearly flawed

Courtesy: Netflix

The latest trailer for the upcoming Captain Marvel film is out, and it looks as you'd expect a Marvel Cinematic Universe trailer to look. There are super-feats and cool energy blasts. There are inventive fight sequences (in a bus). There are cute jokes (courtesy of a cat reaction shot). It's not a small masterpiece on the scale of the Thor: Ragnarok trailer, but it promises what you expect from an MCU film: humor, action, special effects, empowerment.

The MCU has figured out a winning formula for its movies. They aren't all great by any means: This year's Avengers: Infinity War was an overstuffed mess. But they all know what their audiences want, and they all pretty much deliver it. As such, they stand in sharp contrast to the confused, lackluster approach of Marvel's Netflix series.

With Daredevil, the flagship property, recently joining Iron Fist and Luke Cage in cancellation, it looks like the Marvel Netflix venture is coming to an end. Only Jessica Jones and The Punisher are left, and their days seem numbered. The immediate cause is probably the coming Disney streaming service—Netflix and Disney are going to become direct competitors, and so their collaboration is winding down. Given how mediocre the series were, though, it's hard to mourn their passing.
The Marvel Netflix properties were intended to be a street-level, grim and gritty alternative to the MCU's cheerier, bigger, shinier aliens/magic/anything-goes CGI extravaganza. Heroes like Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist, Luke Cage and the Punisher had only moderately super powers. The characters could break down a door or beat up some bad guys, or, in Luke Cage's case, survive a hail of bullets. But they couldn't level a city or a planet.

This not-all-that-super approach allowed for some great fight-scene choreography. Daredevil's famous hallway battles, in which you can feel every jaw break and rib crack as antagonists stagger and weave and gasp for breath, were especially effective. The effortful approach was a welcome change from the computer-slick fights of the MCU.

Unfortunately, the rest of the Marvel Netflix narratives didn't live up to those visceral slugfests. Netflix Marvel had bleak, downbeat visuals, but for the most part, it lacked really weighty or powerful material to go with them. Like Man of Steel and other DC Universe films, the result was a lot of determined, tedious, low-stakes moping. Characters in Marvel Netflix were always trying, unsuccessfully, to get you to care about their angst.
The exception that proved the rule was the first season of Jessica Jones—an extended, painful exploration of sexual violence and domestic abuse. The villain, Killgrave (David Tenant), had the ability to make anyone do what he said, and used that to terrorize Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) and everyone around her. Every scene with Killgrave involved torture and grotesque violations of consent; the series was very difficult to watch. But that was because it was about the real evils of rape and patriarchal violence. When Jessica finds sisterhood and hope, the victory feels hard-fought and well-earned.

The rest of the Netflix series, though, were more conventional stories about organized crime, and mostly felt like dated pulp throwbacks. Luke Cage made fitful efforts to address racism; Iron Fist vaguely gestured at issues of wealth and inequality; Daredevil and Punisher did some half-hearted handwringing about the moral consequences of violence. But none of it was especially committed or insightful enough to justify sitting through 13-odd dour hours of content.

It didn't help that Marvel Netflix never managed to get a handle on how to tell a taut, engaging narrative in those 13 episodes. Shows like Stranger Things or Westworld or the less renowned Penny Dreadful keep things moving in part by functioning as ensemble dramas; you fill all the time by throwing in more and more story arcs. The Netflix Marvel shows were always more bound to their central characters. Secondary stories remained solidly secondary—so much so that important figures, like Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), would often walk out of the narrative after a couple episodes, their contracts finished.
It didn't help that Marvel Netflix never managed to get a handle on how to tell a taut, engaging narrative in those 13 episodes.
The result was that most series had two or three hours of plot stretched over a dozen hours of programming. The first season of Luke Cage killed off its most interesting villain halfway through, and then thrashed around trying to convince audiences there was still a reason to watch. Iron Fist took two whole seasons to come to the realization that lead actor Finn Jones was egregiously miscast. It figured out its main character should be someone else just in time for the series to be canceled. Daredevil, at the beginning of season three, decides to treat his friends like crap in order to spin out the run time. The crossover team event The Defenders was even worse; it was only eight episodes, but managed to make every second of that seem like filler.

There are other superhero television models that have been more successful. Lighthearted DC series like Flash and Supergirl aren't a burden to watch. Marvel's Runaways on Hulu manages to mix teen melodrama with superheroics in a way that doesn't make the hours drag. FX's Legion is formally ambitious enough to justify its prestige-television pretensions. Presumably the new Disney series centered on Loki and Scarlet Witch will follow one of these blueprints, or will try to more closely imitate the spirit of the MCU films, complete with explosions, humor and empowerment, just like that Captain Marvel trailer.

Hopefully, though, the Marvel Netflix approach will be abandoned. There are certainly parts of the shows I'll miss: the funky, teasing friendship between Misty Knight (Simone Missick) and Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick); some fight choreography; everything about Alfre Woodard's explosively vulnerable villain, Black Mariah. But overall, the experiment with grim and gritty, extended street-level, serialized Marvel was a tedious, joyless failure. It's past time to end it.

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