When the first season of Daredevil launched in April 2015, it seemed to signal a fresh beginning for superheroes on television. Following the explosive success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, various shows had attempted to cash in on the superhero craze. The CW was laying the groundwork for its own interconnected universe with shows such as Arrow and The Flash; Gotham, Fox’s Batman prequel, had debuted the previous September; and even Marvel were getting involved, expanding their universe to the small screen with Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter on ABC.
But Netflix’s Daredevil was the first show to truly capture the magic of the superhero genre and bring it to life on television. It was an uncompromising take on one of Marvel’s most famous heroes, brutal, violent, and unrelenting. This was a superhero show for the Golden Age of Television, marrying an exciting premise to killer visuals and consistently impressive writing, respecting its source material while creating something accessible for a wider audience. It was far from flawless: it was slightly too long, and its writing could be too obvious at times. Nonetheless, there was real potential there, and the prospect of an interconnected set of Netflix productions running alongside Marvel’s big screen offerings seemed tantalising.
And now we are here. Iron Fist, the latest instalment in the Netflix Marvel saga, sits at an abject, dismal 17% on Rotten Tomatoes while Luke Cage – last September’s offering – attracted a torrent of criticism despite its promising start. How has the Netflixverse – an endeavour with so much promise – ended up in such a sorry state?
The problems afflicting Marvel’s Netflix Universe are manifold, but some issues seem to recur across its catalogue of shows. Most notably, each series seems significantly too long, incapable of sustaining its thirteen episode run. Designed for binge-watching, this bloat undermines the fundamental appeal of the show, stretching out what should be high-octane superhero action to unnecessary lengths. No show seems to have escaped this problem entirely: even Jessica Jones and Daredevil’s first season fall into a rut in the middle before regaining momentum in the last couple of episodes.
Both Daredevil and Luke Cage attempt to resolve this issue through a mid-season shift of plotline: in each series, the arc of the first half is put on the backburner in order to make room for a new, greater threat; in each series, this device results in a catastrophic failure. Daredevil’s four-episode Punisher arc, replete as it is with violence and difficult questions about the role of the vigilante, stands head and tails above the first season. However, as soon as the Punisher has been dispatched, the show deflates, desperately piling on new plotlines and threats and twists in an attempt to regain some semblance of the magic it previously had. The result? An exhausting, limp, borderline nonsensical run of episodes concluding in a finale which inspires nothing but a sense of relief at having made it to the end.
Luke Cage, meanwhile, descends into an even larger mess: its introductory episodes position the show as one which wants to discuss the black experience in modern America, linking Luke’s struggles to those faced by young black men in general, and connecting the battle between Luke and Cottonmouth to the battle for the soul of Harlem. This novel take on the superhero genre – enriched by an amazing soundtrack and by stunning performances from Mahershala Ali and Alfre Woodard – is promptly discarded in favour of an increasingly ridiculous, generic superhero story.
Instead of the unpredictable, challenging villain Cottonmouth, the viewer is saddled with the ludicrous Diamondback, Luke’s Bible-quoting, rage-filled half-brother. This change in direction did not have to be such a failure: the discussions of Diamondback in the first few episodes paint him as a powerful, successful, merciless crime lord. Such a villain would have been a brilliant foil for Luke and a welcome change from Cottonmouth’s visceral emotionality. Instead, he turns out to be a man driven by inexplicably petty emotions, whose conflict with Luke can be linked to the black experience in only the most agonisingly contrived ways. When, in its finale, the show attempts to backtrack and claim that the second storyline has maintained a profound discussion of Harlem’s role in black culture, it is difficult to do anything but laugh.
Setting aside the failures of the individual shows, one might hope that they at least contribute to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, expanding its horizons while introducing new characters of which the movies can make use. Damningly, the shows do not even work as complements to the wider project. Rather, the movies seem to want to ignore them, to shrug them off: the Netflix series are not a meaningful expansion of this beloved franchise, but parasitical entities leeching off its popularity to plaster over their own increasingly apparent flaws.
These devastating problems hint at the fundamental flaw of these productions: the more content that Netflix produces, the more it seems utterly inessential. The shows run thirteen episodes because they have to, not because they have thirteen episodes of story to tell; the shows exist not because they ought to, but because Netflix’s plan demands it; this section of the MCU keeps going because it has started, and not because it has anywhere to head. Four seasons in, it is hard to see how this Netflix Universe is shaping into anything cohesive, or how The Defenders – the upcoming crossover series – can be anything other than a mechanical conclusion to an inessential story. Each series feels increasingly disposable, one piece of a story which seems to perpetually defer gratification without ever delivering it. This criticism – often unfairly levelled at the filmic components of the MCU – is utterly justified when it comes to these shows.
This is not to say that the Netflixverse is unsalvageable or without redeeming qualities. Both Daredevil Season 2 and Luke Cage have incredibly good beginnings, beginnings which demonstrate that their showrunners are capable of producing excellent television.
Jessica Jones has been largely absent from this discussion because it largely manages to sidestep these pitfalls. Despite being a couple of episodes too long, the show is an impressive example of quite how good female-led superhero shows can be, with Krysten Ritter’s sensitive portrayal of Jessica as a hardened, damaged rape survivor making for powerful viewing. David Tennant’s Purple Man, meanwhile, is simultaneously despicable and compelling, a repulsive, captivating presence onscreen. Unlike the series which followed it, Jessica Jones feels unmissable, feels essential, not just in order to keep up with a rapidly expanding universe, but on its own merits as a television show.
The Defenders may very well succeed, imbued with new energy by having such a diverse set of characters interact for the first time. I truly hope that it does. I write this not as someone revelling in the Netflix Universe’s failures, but as a huge fan and lover of superhero stories. If the creative teams manage to get their series back on track, they have the opportunity to create an essential bastion of superhero shows, the prime example of how to create an interconnected universe on television. All they have to do is not squander such a golden opportunity.