Looking Back at Netflix and Marvel’s Superhero/Crime shows
Join Dave Richards for a Marvel-Netflix retrospective as he recalls some of the most notable comic adaptations and looks ahead to next steps for the series.
On June 14th a fun, fascinating, and often frustrating era of television comes to a close with the release of the third and final season of Marvel/Netflix’s Jessica Jones, where Krysten Ritter plays the titular super-powered private eye. That’s because Marvel’s parent company, Disney, has decided to launch their own streaming service which will feature a number of shows about Marvel characters. What will those shows be like? How did the partnership between Marvel and Netflix start to fall apart? And which Marvel-Netflix shows should you go back and watch before they leave the streaming giant forever? I will answer all those questions and more as I take you on one last stroll down the mean streets of what was the Netflix corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
When creators like Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko laid the cornerstones of what would become the Marvel Universe in the comics of the ’60s they were building place where the fantastic and realistic could collide. So the Marvel heroes didn’t just clash with villains out to take over or destroy the world. They took on all manner of criminals from homicidal maniacs to powerful mobsters who held the inner workings of New York City in their iron grip.
As a fan of both superhero comics and crime fiction, those tales of street-level action that were primarily told in books like Daredevil, Punisher, Spider-Man, and Power-Man & Iron Fist were some of my favorite comics. So I was super excited back in 2013 when Marvel and Netflix announced a partnership for four shows starring three of their classic street-level heroes Daredevil, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist, and one starring their newest crime fiction hero, Jessica Jones. On top of that, fans of those individual shows would get some Avengers style payout with a television mini-series, The Defenders, where the four heroes would combine into the titular supergroup.
Daredevil / Courtesy of Marvel ComicsTwo years later, the Marvel-Netflix partnership would explode right out of the starting blocks with the debut of Daredevil Season One. That first season showed off what the Marvel-Netflix shows could be when they were firing all cylinders. You had great casting in the season’s lead roles like Boardwalk Empire‘s Charlie Cox as the titular blind vigilante and his alter ego lawyer Matt Murdock, and Vincent D’Onofrio’s whose powerful crime boss Wilson Fisk (AKA the Kingpin) is one of the best portrayals of any comic book villain. The show also featured a solid supporting cast in Eldon Henson’s Foggy Nelson and Deborah Ann Woll’s Karen Page. Plus, you had some great writing and some of the best action scenes ever to grace the small screen. This is definitely a season you should revisit in its entirety.
That same year would see the release of another stellar Marvel-Netflix show with the premiere season of Jessica Jones, which was the perfect mix of the P.I. genre and superhero comics. At the heart of the series was Ritter’s expertly portrayed titular P.I. and David Tennant’s frightening, fascinating, mind controlling, narcissistic madman, Killgrave. The series had added emotional heft because of the way it tackled the trauma that Killgrave had previously visited on Jessica. Plus, it was the debut of Mike Colter’s incredibly charismatic portrayal of Luke Cage. So, I would definitely recommend watching this season before it’s pulled off of Netflix.
One year later, Daredevil returned with a second season with a problem that would go on to plague most of the Marvel-Netflix shows; the front half of the season is way stronger than the back half. For some reason, the Marvel-Netflix shows had been locked into a 13 episodes per season formula regardless of the story they were telling. That often meant that as the season went on it could feel like the writers were padding out their story with episodes and plot ideas that were underwhelming or insignificant. That’s especially clear in the sophomore season of Daredevil where they spend the first half developing the back story of Marvel’s premier gun-toting vigilante, the Punisher (portrayed by Jon Bernthal) and the second half focusing on Daredevil’s ex-lover, Elektra, and the undead ninja armies of the Hand (which should have been cool, but sadly were not). So I recommend watching the first half of Daredevil Season Two, but skip the second.
Front loading the good stuff was a problem that also plagued the debut season of Luke Cage, which premiered in November of 2016. The initial episodes of the season, which followed the titular exploits of Harlem’s bulletproof hero featured some great supporting characters like Mahershala Ali’s crime boss, Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, and Alfre Woodard’s power-hungry councilwoman, Mariah Dillard. Midway through the season though Ali’s character is killed and replaced by a one-dimensional scene-chewing villain. So, I would say watch Season One up until Cottonmouth dies.
2017 is really the year when things started to go off the rails for Netflix’s Marvel shows. Because that was the year it’s worst show premiered, Iron Fist. In many ways, it was the exact opposite of the best Marvel-Netflix shows. It had an unlikable lead, no real intriguing villains, terrible action, and a very weak story built on the foundations of the second half of Daredevil Season Two. Looking back, Iron Fist should probably have never gotten his own solo show. He should have been a guest star that could have spun-off into his own program if done right. It’s Kung Fu mysticism was too far away from the street level vibe of the other Netflix shows. I’d say skip Iron Fist Season One and 2018’s Season Two entirely.
The team at Marvel television would probably have been best served giving Punisher his own show and making him part of the team up series instead of Iron Fist. Then the villain could have been someone like Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk. Because, ultimately, Iron Fist’s presence and the story about the Hand, that continued from his show and Daredevil Season Two, is what made the August 2017 mini-series, The Defenders, so painful to watch at times. Also, many people didn’t watch it because they heard the bad buzz about Iron Fist and chose not to watch it or The Defenders. Still, the series isn’t completely terrible. I’d recommend rewatching the last two episodes because Iron Fist plays a minimal role in those and you get the ridiculous fun of seeing grounded characters like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage battling ninjas in a dragon graveyard. Yes, you read that sentence right.
Jon Bernthal proved that his Punisher could be more than just a guest star in the fall of 2017 with the launch of the first Marvel-Netflix spin-off, The Punisher. The debut of the show featured a strong story about a drug-running conspiracy between the military and a mercenary group, a great friendship between Bernthal’s title character and Ebon Moss-Bachrach’s hacker, Microchip, and a slimy villain you love to hate in Ben Barnes portrayal of Frank Castle’s traitorous army buddy. Plus the story has some compelling things to say about trauma and PTSD. Definitely revisit this season in its entirety.
2018 kicked off with the return of Jessica Jones. The highlight of the series’ second season was once again Ritter’s emotionally scarred private eye, and the series featured several great character arcs and one terrible one. It’s not as strong as season one, but I’d say it’s worth your time revisiting, especially since it ends with a pretty compelling set up for Season Three.
The damage done by Iron Fist continued in the summer of 2018 with the premiere of a low rated Luke Cage Season Two that improved on some of the first season’s flaws but still was not that great in hindsight. I’d advise you skip it. Several months after it’s debut Netflix announced the show’s cancellation. That was quickly followed by the cancellation of Iron Fist which also had a somewhat improved but still lackluster second season. So, at this point, the writing was on the wall that the Marvel-Netflix era was coming to an end. Disney had announced they were developing their own streaming service, and Netflix appeared to be on a purge of any television series that were owned by parent companies with rival streaming services. It’s speculated that this is also why the excellent true crime spoof series American Vandal was canceled. That show is owned by CBS and 2018 was when their streaming network, CBS All Access, finally took off thanks to the launch of a new Star Trek series.
All hope was not lost though. In October 2018 Daredevil returned for its best season ever. D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk was back and the season featured another fantastic villain in Wilson Bethel’s tragically homicidal character Bullseye. Plus, the action scenes were epic and insane. There’s a prison riot/fight that has to be seen to be believed. If you were to only pick one season of any Marvel-Netflix show to revisit this is my choice. Daredevil Season Three is the cast and crew firing on all cylinders and making a grand statement to Netflix that their show is worth saving.
Sadly, Netflix chose not to save Daredevil. It soon announced that the remaining seasons of The Punisher (Season Two) and Jessica Jones (Season Three), which had already filmed would be their last. Knowing this made it especially easy to give up on Punisher Season Two, which debuted in January of this year. That season featured two stories; one interesting one that pitted Frank Castle against a hitman who was sort of his mirror image, and one that tried to transform Ben Barnes’ Jigsaw into a somewhat sympathetic and sexy villain. The latter was so frustrating it made the show almost unwatchable, and when it came to the forefront I did stop watching. I hope the final season of Jessica Jones is better. I still have an emotional attachment to Ritter’s portrayal of the character and would love to see that series give us some closure.
So, with the Marvel-Netflix era coming to an end the question becomes where do fans of the potent cocktail of superheroics and crime fiction go next? As I mentioned, there is Disney’s streaming platform, Disney+, which launches in the fall of this year. Unfortunately, most of the Marvel shows on that platform will be on brand. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the Marvel-Netflix shows were allowed to be a little darker and grittier, and that made for some compelling crime shows.
There are two shows at Disney+ that crime fans may want to keep on their radar though. The first is The Falcon and the Winter Soldier; a buddy action series, set to premiere next year, where Steve Rogers’ two best friends team up. It’s believed that the series will feature the return of Daniel Brühl’s villainous Zemo from Captain America: Civil War. So expect a series with the action-conspiracy vibes of the second and third Captain America movies.
The other series that might be of interest is the Jeremy Renner starring Hawkeye, which is currently in development. The reason I’m excited for that is it looks to be taking some cues from Marvel’s recent Hawkeye comics, which partnered Clint Barton with a younger female version of Hawkeye named Kate Bishop. Crime fans should be excited about that because the Clint and Kate Hawkeye comics were heavily inspired by West Coast private eye shows like The Rockford Files and Veronica Mars. So the Hawkeye TV series could feature similar inspirations.