How Netflix’s Superhero Shows Distinguish Themselves From the Repetitive Marvel Cinematic Universe

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The lineup. Photo: Netflix

Let’s play a game, shall we? Tell me which Marvel flick I’m thinking of with the following description: Charming misfit whose speech is designed to either induce chuckles or sighs of empathy becomes a reluctant, flashily dressed hero; he works alongside a motley crew of companions, some of them sticks-in-the-mud and others wacky jokesters; misfit learns what it means to be an effective hero and saves the day after a battle involving copious blasts of brightly lit energy beams; final scene teases a new installment in the franchise. Pencils down.

The answer, of course, is nearly all of them. We’re 13 movies deep into the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe and, all too often, they blend into one another. The visuals, the tone, the dialogue, the hero’s journeys — even when they’re recycled well (as they often are), they’re still recycled. The initial forays into television spin-offs, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter, fit comfortably into that mold, as well. But last year, a risky new initiative finally spun out somewhere new. Marvel Entertainment’s original programming on Netflix — the newest series being this weekend’s Marvel’s Luke Cage — is commendable for its ability to not only differentiate itself from the rest of the brand, but also to create distinct feels for each of its individual shows.

Marvel’s Daredevil, Marvel’s Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage do share a few commonalities. All of them star characters whose stories play out at street level in Manhattan. All of them feature a healthy number of sodium-lit nighttime set pieces. All of them are linked by what they don’t have — they lack many of the superhero tropes of the MCU’s film outings, like laser beams, flight, and cosmic MacGuffins. (You could also argue that all of the shows could benefit from being trimmed to, say, seven episodes instead of 13.) But that’s about where the broad similarities end.

The core of any superhero story is, of course, the protagonist. Here’s where we see the most pronounced and refreshing set of distinctions. The first of the crew to pop up was Charlie Cox’s Matt Murdock, who eventually adopted the Daredevil moniker. His is the closest thing the Netflix MCU has to a traditional superhero: He dashes across rooftops, making it his business to topple the wicked and protect the innocent. He’s roguish by day and tortured by night, forever struggling to live up to the ideals he’s adopted. He even dons a colored costume by the end of the first season.

That puts him in stark contrast with the next Netflixer to debut, Krysten Ritter’s Jessica Jones. Here’s a black-humored cynic who has absolutely no interest in being a hero and, indeed, never really becomes one. She’s on a mission of personal vengeance against the man who raped and emotionally abused her, combatting her troubles with booze and never really finding out anything about what it means to be virtuous. She contemplates a costume for about four seconds before deciding it’s not for her. And Mike Colter’s Luke Cage is a third breed of lead: a strong, silent type in the samurai or cowboy mode who must be pushed into heroism and wears it like an ill-fitting hoodie. Their destiny of banding together in next year’s Marvel’s The Defenders seems increasingly intriguing as a concept, given that they have far less in common than their filmic peers in The Avengers did.

Speaking of peers: The supporting casts are also effectively distinguished from one another. Here, again, Daredevil is the program with the closest ties to the MCU’s film outings in that he’s surrounded by a trusty sidekick (Elden Henson’s Foggy Nelson), a spunky love interest (Deborah Ann Woll’s Karen Page), and a femme fatale (Élodie Yung’s Elektra Natchios). But that puts the show miles away from Jessica Jones, where the crew consists of an estranged BFF who nests as the yin to Jessica's yang (Rachael Taylor’s Trish Walker), a hard-ass HBIC lawyer (Carrie-Anne Moss’s Jeri Hogarth), and a gentle giant — Luke Cage. That latter dude’s solo show is even farther off in its conception of the hero’s social circle: His orbit contains an aging mentor (Frankie Faison’s Pop) and a no-nonsense cop (Simone Missick’s Misty Knight). Put these ensembles into one mega-ensemble and you’ll find very few redundancies.

But if friends and lovers are important adornments, villains are foundational. To be honest, this is one area where the shows could afford some greater differentiation, as Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk, David Tennant’s Kilgrave, and Mahershala Ali’s Cottonmouth are all variations on the concept of the self-obsessed and cavalierly violent alpha male. That said, the secondary villains show interesting divergence: Daredevil’s hordes of undead ninjas are a kung-fu-movie holdover (and, it should be said, a racially problematic one); Jessica’s pill-popping super-soldier (Wil Traval’s Will Simpson) is a toxic-masculinity horror show, and Luke’s Mariah (Alfre Woodard) is a riff on the post-Chinatown construction of a civic-minded but amoral politician.

These players appear in front of sensory backdrops that distinguish themselves deftly from one another. Close your eyes after watching the three series and picture the color schemes: Daredevil’s is all moonlight blacks, bruised reds, and fluorescent greens; Jessica traffics in royal purple, textured and dark leather, and the cold sunlight of wintertime; Luke is the gold of nostalgia, the crimson of a velvet rope. Keep your eyes closed and hear the echoes of the music in your head: That of the first show is the electronic thump of a video game; the second is the jazz of neo-noir; the exquisitely soundtracked third is an ecstatic symphony of soul, hip-hop, and live performances from living paragons of black excellence. Played at once, they would be a cacophony; individually, they find harmony with their thematic goals.

Perhaps most important, the Netflix stable has a diverse array of thematic aims. Daredevil’s is the least ambitious, focusing on angsty man-pain and the struggle to suss out what heroism means. That couldn’t be farther from Jessica’s remarkable goal of dealing frankly and brutally with the consequences of rape and misogyny. Luke’s is just as socially provocative, though in a different vein entirely: It’s the first Marvel property to take as its primary subject the questions that black Americans in urban environments face, from the demonization of black men to colorism and linguistic respectability politics. It’s remarkable in and of itself, but also for the degree to which it goes places its peers never did.

Of course, this all raises a question: Where will the next tale go? It comes in the form of next year’s Marvel’s Iron Fist, and though it’s the last part of the Netflix initiative’s opening phase, it threatens to over-resemble the first one, Daredevil. Like Matt Murdock, Iron Fist’s Danny Rand is another white guy trained in the fighting arts of the Far East, one who duels with high kicks and clenched fists. It’s entirely possible that there will be a redundant overlap in the two shows’ Venn diagrams. But given the track record that the other players in the Netflix quartet have established for themselves, one can plausibly hope for yet another take on the superhero genre that stands distinctively alone.