We don’t know, nor are we likely ever to know, the full story behind why Netflix chose to cancel Marvel’s Iron Fist and Luke Cage. The streamer is an infamously opaque mystery box that releases no data on viewership and is astoundingly tight-lipped with reporters. The Hollywood Reporter has a source who said the Luke Cage axing was the result of “creative differences and the inability to agree to terms for a third season of the show,” but that’s one anonymous person, so who knows? With Iron Fist, we have an even more glaring paucity of information. That show got ripped apart by critics and never shook the early bad buzz about its casting of a white dude as a martial-arts master, so one assumes that the ratings just weren’t there for season two, but who can really say? It’s astoundingly hard to get anyone involved to talk, even off the record, because the NDAs and surveillance involved in working on a Marvel project are nigh totalitarian.
But even if we can’t figure out the reasoning behind these abrupt disappearances (both within a few days of the unveiling of a new Marvel Netflix season, Daredevil’s third — the Cage news came on release day!), we can still survey the landscape that they leave behind. The cancellations leave us with a Marvel Netflix slate devoid of clean-living, respectable protagonists. What remains, for better or worse, are the bastards.
Here are the Marvel Netflix shows that are still on the docket: Jessica Jones, The Punisher, and Daredevil. (Crossover team-up series The Defenders has also gone the way of the dodo, but as Krysten Ritter told me last year, there might never have been a plan for more than one season of it.) Let’s go through their respective lead heroes, shall we? Jessica, God bless her, is an asshole and a drunk, congenitally incapable of getting her act together or not alienating everyone around her. The Punisher is, well, the freaking Punisher: Whatever the righteousness of his cause might be, his bloodlust and amoral leanings make him the image you put next to the dictionary definition of “anti-hero.” Even Daredevil, devoted Catholic that he may be, is a prideful nightmare of a friend who has way too much fun beating the hell out of people.
By contrast, Luke was a fundamentally respectable gent — perhaps to a fault, in terms of the racial vector of his respectability politics. Although the second season of his show tried to present him as a guy struggling with anger management and left him off having made a devil’s bargain to become a crime lord, there was something that always rang false whenever showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker tried to make him seem morally questionable. Perhaps it’s just the way actor Mike Colter oozes decency, but one always felt that the Hero for Hire was an honest man doing the best he could. And as for Danny Rand, the Immortal Iron Fist: Holy schnikes was that guy a goody two-shoes or what? His whole deal was his status as a naïf, raised on a steady diet of monastic lessons about virtue and separated from the corrupting influences of the outside world. Sure, he could be irritating, but part of the irritation was his constant effort to do right by the world and be a nice guy while doing it.
Now, both of those figures are bereft of their own shows. Marvel has emphasized that their stories can still go on in other forms, which makes cameos in future seasons of the surviving Netflix shows a probability. But the stories they’d be intruding upon are ones that err on the grim-and-gritty side. It’s somewhat disheartening, to be honest. Even if you were never that much of a fan of Cage or Fist, their loss means that Marvel’s Netflix projects will, for the time being, probably be an enterprise where “maturity” is defined by how dark you can go and how far you can push your characters toward unforgivable acts of violence. It’s a problem that superhero comics have periodically run into, and it’s always frustrating to see that sludginess become predominant.
It’s also a problem that Marvel’s eternal rival, DC, has faced in the construction of its movie universe. Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Suicide Squad were all lambasted for being excessively cynical about (super)human nature and left the DC brand with a reputation for going too hard on the brooding and not hard enough on the laughs. Ironically, Marvel has been the alternative to that approach when it comes to the Cineplex, offering up Marvel Cinematic Universe movies that shine with a sometimes-cloying optimism and protagonists to whom you want to give a big ol’ hug. Are we now looking at a fully DC-ified Marvel operation on Netflix?
If so, that would make the TV situation a bizarre counterpoint to the film one, in that DC has generally been sunny in its offerings on the CW: Supergirl, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, and the like. Arrow can get a bit broody, but the schmaltz and quirk quotients are still high; same goes for Black Lightning. The one big exception to that rule is Titans, the new DC series available only on a branded DC app, which is bleak and horrifying enough to make The Punisher look like The Great British Baking Show. But for now, its relegation to the walled garden of a streaming platform makes it a minor factor in the overall DC brand.
Speaking of streaming: The elephant in the room is the fact that Disney plans to roll out its own service to compete with Netflix in the not-too-distant future. One has to imagine that was a factor in Netflix’s decisions to part ways with Marvel on Cage and Fist. Viewership may have been low, creative differences may have been had, but if Netflix felt true ownership over the shows, it might have had a higher tolerance for such hiccups. As it stands, however, Marvel has a foot out the door already. I have no idea if that fact has caused strains in the Marvel/Netflix relationship, but I can’t imagine that it helped make the case for keeping the shows on the digital air.
The real question is what happens once this much-discussed Disney video platform launches. Presumably, the House of Mouse will want to cram as much original Marvel content into it as is feasible, what with that being one of its primary cash cows and all. That could lead to an interesting situation, in that the platform will reportedly host shows featuring MCU movie talent and that are helmed by Marvel Studios — the movie division — rather than Marvel Television, which handles the Netflix offerings (as well as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Runaways, and Cloak & Dagger). Could Cage or Fist be rebooted there? Or maybe refashioned along the lines of the comics adventures of their protagonists, thus giving way to a Luke/Danny Power Man and Iron Fist show or a team-up between Cage’s Misty Knight and Fist’s Colleen Wing in the form of Daughters of the Dragon? One hopes so, in the name of diversity. There’s the diversity of ethnicity, of course: Everyone except Danny in that quadruplet is a person of color, while the prime players in the remaining Marvel Netflix shows are almost entirely white. But there’s also the diversity of tone. Until this mythical digital beast launches, Marvel’s streaming offerings will be a pouty lot, indeed.