Movies & TVOpinion

The Netflix MCU Is Worth Saving

Marvel's Jessica Jones

Marvel and Netflix began an ambitious collaboration in 2015, premiering the first of what would grow to five shows and a crossover mini-series set in the MCU. Taking lessons from DC’s highly successful Arrowverse television franchise, the Netflix shows intertwined stories and characters to encourage viewers to watch all of them. Now with the cancellation of both Iron Fist and Luke Cage, that shared world is unraveling and may be nearing its end.

Iron Fist arguably deserved to die. While it made some moves to fix the problems that made its first season so reviled, the second season was still an inconsistent mess. Luke Cage, on the other hand, recovered from a rocky debut that was marred by a mid-season villain swap. The very strong second season delved deep into how its characters are all defined by the families they’re born into or choose.  Reports say that negotiations for the third season broke down due to creative differences, which may have been caused by the darker path showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker seemed to be plotting for the character. By having Cage inherit the keys to Mariah Dillard’s kingdom at the end of season 2, the writers looked like they were setting up a conflict similar to the final season of Angel, where a hero looking to do good accepts tainted power that could turn him into a villain. It’s a huge shame we’re not going to get to see that play out.

So where does that leave the rest of Marvel’s Netflix shows? Jessica Jones and The Punisher are still set to get new seasons in 2019. Jessica Jones could be another easy candidate for the chopping block after its lackluster second season, which just couldn’t manage to fill the hole left by Killgrave, the villainous physical embodiment of rape culture played expertly by David Tennant. Krysten Ritter has consistently delivered fantastic performances as her titular hard-drinking, sarcastic PI, but the show suffers from a weak supporting cast and storylines that feel padded to fill the episode count.

Jon Bernthal’s Punisher was the best part of Daredevil season 2, and he continues to deliver in the first season of his show. Moving beyond the gritty heroes of The Defenders to a world of more spectacular violence, The Punisher avoids being too gratuitous and testosterone-driven through its earnest critique of the treatment of veterans. It’s also got a well-developed supporting cast whose plots are tightly intertwined, with Homeland Security agent Dinah Madani and NSA super hacker David Lieberman alternately working and fighting with Frank Castle as they each try to use their own methods to uncover the CIA’s role in the murder of an Afghan security officer. Given the current paranoid political climate, a show about a man fighting complicated conspiracies outside the law remains topical. The question is if the show can avoid the sophomore slump that plagued Jessica Jones and Daredevil.

Daredevil recovered from its season 2 missteps with an excellent season 3. The show that launched the Netflix MCU returned to its roots by bringing back Wilson Fisk as the primary villain, showing off its often imitated fight choreography and flashback-driven narratives, and further developing its supporting cast. The season ends with a cliffhanger that showrunner Erik Oleson hopes he can complete once the X-Men rights have returned to Marvel following the Fox and Disney merger. But if you ignore the final scene, season 3 could serve as a nice swan song for the series. The characters that started everything come together buoyed by friendship and hope and pledge to continue fighting for justice both inside the courtroom and on the streets.

Netflix would probably love to host more Daredevil, but that might not be possible. Disney is launching its own streaming service next year, and may want to bring its entire portfolio home to encourage subscriptions. This would mean trouble not just for Netflix, but for Hulu, which is releasing the second season of Marvel’s Runaways on Dec. 21. Marvel shows also air on Freeform and ABC, though the fact that Disney owns both might make it easier to just transfer the shows to the streaming service. DC has been satisfied to leave the Arrowverse alone while launching its own host of shows on its new DC Universe streaming series, so it’s possible Marvel could come to some form of agreement with Netflix and Hulu. But fans should prepare themselves for the possibility that they’ll need to subscribe to another service to get their Marvel television fix.

Netflix has been the dominant player for streaming television for years and is facing an increasingly crowded competitive market that forces people to use multiple services of uneven quality to get the entertainment they want. Some people aren’t willing to accept that, and the market fragmentation is leading to a resurgence in video piracy. Studios hoping to chip away at Netflix might wind up losing money by alienating fans that find it too difficult or expensive to watch their shows.

The Netflix MCU is far from perfect, but Disney and Marvel are likely to make a host of new mistakes with the shows they develop on their own. Disney’s greed led to an oversaturation of Star Wars content. That greed also broke Joss Whedon’s post-Avengers rhythm by forcing him to use Age of Ultron to prioritize setting up future films over a strong, self-contained story. A pruning of the Netflix MCU’s titles to allow for new ones or bigger budgets for the existing lineup could be a good thing. Characters and plots could live on by being worked into the shows that survive. Ending the entire ambitious experiment just to consolidate power and profits would be a disservice to the shows and their viewers. Netflix’s heroes have had some epic battles trying to save New York, but it might be Disney that destroys their world.

All shows must end, and many that aren’t canceled go on too long. But the Marvel shows don’t feel like they’ve reached that point yet. The Arrowverse provides a model for the Netflix MCU’s vitality. Arrow is in its seventh season, and some of them have been just as bad and ninja-filled as Daredevil season 2. Yet both shows have kept fans coming back with their loveable heroes and cleverly reimagined villains. Jessica Jones could embrace Supergirl’s overtly political themes and find more to say about the #MeToo movement. The Flash learned to stop basing seasons around evil speedsters, and maybe Luke Cage could finally deliver a consistently captivating foil for Luke to struggle with. Even Iron Fist could be redeemed by embracing the weirdness of its plot and becoming more like the self-aware and zany Legends of Tomorrow. The Defenders didn’t really work, but huge crossover events have become a trademark of the Arrowverse so maybe Marvel just needs to get the formula right, using the events to expand their cast and find fun ways for characters like The Punisher and Jessica Jones to pal around.

While Netflix doesn’t reveal viewership numbers, all of the Arrowverse shows are still going strong despite having significantly more episodes than their MCU counterparts. There are still plenty of stories to be told with the Netflix-born characters and Marvel shouldn’t give up on them yet.

About the author

Samantha Nelson
Contributor at The A.V. Club, Polygon and the Chicago Tribune. Member of the Critical Hit podcast.