thinking out loud

5 Questions About the New Netflix-Marvel Superhero Shows

Photo: Linsey Fields

This morning, Marvel Studios announced an ambitious partnership with Netflix to bring four of its lesser-known characters — Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist, and Luke Cage — to the small screen. For the popular streaming service, which already hosts movies like Thor, Captain America, and The Avengers thanks to an output deal with Disney that runs through 2016, the team-up with Marvel TV adds a huge dose of geek cred to its original content lineup. For Marvel, Netflix’s penchant for riskier programming becomes the perfect home for characters who couldn’t carry their own $200 million blockbuster.

On paper, it sounds like the perfect team-up event, though in Marvel tradition, all we know is the grand plan. Let’s recall that when Marvel Studios announced its first slate of movies in 2006, the vague agenda included a Nick Fury stand-alone film and an Ant-Man movie that will celebrate its 9th birthday when it finally hits theaters in late 2015. The Marvel-Netflix announcement makes even fewer promises — what we’ll see in two years depends on the ever-shifting paths of both companies.

For now, all we have are broad strokes, speculation, wishful thinking, and tons of questions. Here is what we want to know ASAP:

1. Will the shows be creator-driven or brand-driven?
The major selling point for Netflix’s original programming has been the talent wrangled for each show. House of Cards came from David Fincher, Kevin Spacey, and the writer of Farragut North; Orange Is the New Black was an offbeat comedy from Jenji Kohan, the creator of Weeds; modern horror personality Eli Roth oversaw Hemlock Grove. And down the line, we’re getting a sci-fi show from the Wachowskis. Netflix has branded itself as a safe haven for creatives — could it do the same for Marvel?

That’s not what the studio does on the film side. Marvel characters are the stars of the show, and the roles of writer and director are secondary. Take Joss Whedon, who acts more like a mastermind to the Marvel Cinematic Universe “series” than he does the Avengers franchise director (he’s reportedly rewritten many of the MCU’s films to help them fit Marvel’s unified vision). So while the world of comic books is full of artists and writers who have become Finchers and Kohans and Wachowskis in their own rights, it’s hard to picture Marvel handing their properties to someone who would put their own particular stamp on it. Assigning the showrunner job to names like Brian Michael Bendis (creator of Jessica Jones) or Mark Waid (currently penning Daredevil) could give the shows a specific tone, but one that might not fit in the “big picture” that encapsulates Marvel’s M.O. With each show leading up to a big crossover miniseries, as planned, allowing each to have its own unique voice, one of the marks of great TV, isn’t really an option.

Last year, director Joe Carnahan posted a sizzle reel he cut together for a moody, seventies thriller-inspired version of Daredevil. Can anyone really imagine a Marvel property being this malleable?

2. How will they differentiate themselves from one another?
I’d argue that each show should bring something unique to the table — not just have different costumes and different villains — otherwise what’s the point? In their films, Marvel toys with genre to give a movie like Thor: The Dark World (fantasy epic meets space adventure) a slightly different feel than Iron Man 3 (tech thriller meets nineties action movie).

The Netflix announcement hints at a similar approach. All the shows will take place in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, leading up to the team-up miniseries event, The Defenders. The characters — Jones is a spy, Iron Fist riffs on the Kung-fu genre, and versions of Luke Cage depict him as a super solider who escaped from prison — would seem to indicate room for differentiation, but will the demands of the limited location and the needs of the miniseries allow them to be anything more than procedural variations?

3. Can they live up to the quality of Netflix’s prior original programs?
When ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was announced, there was a worry that the show wouldn’t be able to live up the spectacle of the Marvel movies. So far, it hasn’t. And it doesn’t require it, as its main story line has its cast of powerless characters only occasionally interacting with larger-than-life situations (a.k.a. one or two special effect set pieces per episode). Daredevil and the rest of the Netflix shows may not be so fortunate. There are examples of TV shows that have dealt with the special effects problem to varying degrees of success — see: Arrow, Heroes, The Cape, M.A.N.T.I.S. — but Netflix has set a high bar when it comes to original programming. (Lillyhammer aside. Sorry, Silvio.) With House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black, the company has displayed its desire to be the new HBO. These Marvel shows need to have visual ambition. It will have failed if this quartet of winds up looking like the Mortal Kombat webseries.

4. Is this the first step toward a more mainstream-minded Netflix?
Thus far, Netflix’s original shows have been decidedly mature, full of adult themes, R-rated language, sex, and occasional violence. Looping Marvel into the fold sounds like geek bliss, but the inevitable success could prove intoxicating for the wannabe network. Disney has seen tremendous returns from its acquisition of Marvel, so much so it was inclined to bolster it with the purchase of Lucasfilm. Now the studio is a blockbuster factory. Netflix may remain in the highbrow business for the sake of collecting Emmys, but subscriptions are what it’s after, and attracting and keeping younger Marvel-obsessed viewers might be too hard to resist. Just wait until Netflix gets its Star Wars show.

5. Will these shows be for typical Netflix viewers or hardcore fans?
Still, it’s hard to imagine Regular Joe Netflix user amping up for a Jessica Jones series, or even a Daredevil redux. None of the characters are quite Squirrel Girl obscurity, but, Daredevil aside, they are undoubtedly less accessible and less marketable characters. If Marvel broadens these more unique characters, it stands to ruin what comic fans love about them in the first place. But if Marvel feels beholden to the source material, it could alienate a majority of Netflix users.

But despite not being big name characters, the Jessica Jones, Iron Fist, and Luke Cage adaptations will mark a huge step for Marvel. They’ll finally display some of the diversity seen on the pages of comic books for audiences interested in something more than lily-white male superheroes.

Bonus Question: Seriously, though, why do they all take place in Hell’s Kitchen?
Unless the shows are set in the eighties, the most difficult challenge our heroes will face in 2013 Hell’s Kitchen will be making dinner reservations.

5 Questions About the Netflix-Marvel TV Shows