There was an idea. What if, while the Avengers dominated the big screen, Marvel assembled a different set of street-level heroes on the biggest streaming service in the world? Four series were announced based on the comic book characters Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist, with a miniseries called The Defenders where they'd team up.
Then, just over four years after its debut, with five series that each ran for multiple seasons, it was all over.
Netflix's Marvel shows once seemed like a huge deal, but they didn't end well. The shows were seemingly the victim of politics over the creation of Disney Plus, and while their time might have always been limited anyway, given that Marvel's TV division was eventually shuttered and brought under the watch of CCO Kevin Feige.
Still, there are a lot of episodes of these shows that remain watchable on Netflix, and there's a dearth of new superhero entertainment coming our way for the foreseeable future. With Marvel's movies now delayed due to the current health crisis, are these now-defunct shows worth a look?
They are, to some extent. But they never quite fulfilled their potential. I'm much more excited by Marvel's new series on Disney Plus, which will actually connect to the wider MCU story. Netflix's Marvel shows acted like they were part of the movie universe, but over time it became clear they weren't.
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Marvel's Netflix shows started strong, then faded out
My opinion on Marvel's Netflix shows changed a lot over time. In 2015, when Daredevil debuted, I'd recently given up on The CW's Arrow and The Flash, which followed a few years after Smallville, the series that spearheaded modern versions of small-screen superhero shows. I'm a huge DC Comics reader, and I particularly love The Flash, but as much as I liked the casting in these shows, I found them too campy and low-budget compared to their source material.
These Marvel shows, though, sounded like the thing I wanted: 'prestige' superhero series about characters I loved.
Netflix were still getting started with original programming in 2015, when Daredevil began. Then-new series like House of Cards had set big expectations in terms of budget and quality. And Daredevil looked perfect: it was a gloomy, street-level show from the Buffy/Angel lineage of creators, Drew Goddard and Steven S DeKnight. The first season of Daredevil released in April 2015, which also marked the arrival of The Avengers sequel Age of Ultron in theaters.
I watched all 13 episodes in one day, and loved it. The casting was great: you could plausibly see Daredevil's characters popping up on the big screen, especially with a villain as good Vincent D'Onofrio's Wilson Fisk. At one point (opens in new tab), Kevin Feige even floated the idea of the movies and shows connecting, though it never quite materialized. Indeed, Daredevil's entire premise is built around the events of The Avengers, as Fisk built up his empire in the wake of Loki's attack on New York.
Following that was another great series in Jessica Jones, an adaptation from writer Melissa Rosenberg that had a perfect star in Krysten Ritter, and a fantastic villain very much drawn from the present day in David Tennant's Kilgrave.
Then came a less consistent (but still great) second season of Daredevil, which introduced Jon Bernthal's Punisher. After that followed Luke Cage, based on a character that debuted in Jessica Jones. This show had a strong first half and a great villain in Mahershala Ali's Cottonmouth, even if the second half couldn't keep up that momentum.
There was a common creative problem with these shows that became noticeable very early on, though: their pacing was so slow. These Marvel shows seemed to stretch out about six episodes' worth of plot into 13 flabby hours, and it was such a glaring weakness.
Iron Fist is where the Marvel shows started to really go wrong. Putting aside debates over casting choices, this was just a boring TV show. with no fun superheroics, no interesting villains and not a single character worth caring about. It was a total waste of the mystically-themed source material, explored so well in contemporary comics like The Immortal Iron Fist by Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction and David Aja. This show blew all of that potential, and I resented sitting through it just to feel like I'd seen the whole story.
The big reward at the end of it was The Defenders, a miniseries that would bring all the heroes together. This team-up show represented a real anticlimax, though, despite landing a significant casting coup in Sigourney Weaver as the show's villain. The interplay between the various heroes was a highlight, but too much of the plot hung off of the character Elektra, Daredevil season 2's weakest element.
It also felt like they didn't have the budget for a big finale, with every set piece feeling a little too small-scale. To me, this just wasn't the Avengers-quality TV event it seemed like they were building up to back in 2015.
That said, it did have one fantastic fight sequence.
After that, my interest in the shows faded quickly. I think my expectations were too high from The Defenders. I got through half of The Punisher season 1, but that show was plagued with the same issue of too much talking and not enough action, despite having an amazing lead actor.
With all of that said, I think these shows are still worth watching in 2020, if you keep your expectations in check and give Iron Fist a miss. Don't consider these part of the MCU. Think of this as a little sub-universe of genre shows, that connect to each other, but nothing else. Then you might be surprised by how much you can enjoy them.
I ended up revisiting Luke Cage a while later for its second season, and it's pretty decent. I do miss actor Mike Colter's version of that character, and Luke has been such a big part of the Avengers universe in the last few decades of comics, it's a shame that the character is on the sidelines for the time being.
While I can't bring myself to ever watch Iron Fist season 2, and I found Daredevil season 3 a noticeable step down from previous years, it's worth having a bit of perspective on the era of superhero entertainment we live in now. In 2004, when Spider-Man 2 came out and I was really getting into comics, Smallville was the only live-action superhero TV show around. Now we're so spoiled for choice. If these Netflix shows were around when I was a teenager, I'd have watched every episode of each one at least three times.
The Marvel Netflix shows were hurt by their fuzzy connections to the movies, but they're a perfectly fine way to pass the time until Black Widow arrives on the big screen in November.