Marvel on Netflix: What Went Wrong?

Krysten Ritter, Finn Jones, Charlie Cox, and Mike Colter in Marvel's The Defenders.
Not exactly the most ambitious crossover event in history. Photo: Sarah Shatz/Netflix

There was a brief, shining moment when it seemed like this whole Marvel–Netflix thing was gonna work out just fine. I can tell you exactly when that moment began: around 7 p.m. on October 11, 2015. Along with hundreds of others, I was crammed into the main auditorium at New York Comic Con, where a standing-room-only crowd had gathered to hear the latest about the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe on the world’s biggest streaming platform. The joint venture had already begun six months prior with the release of the somewhat-acclaimed first season of Daredevil, and the audience that night was amped up about the next outing, Jessica Jones. To our surprise, we were abruptly told that we’d be getting a surprise screening of that show’s very first episode. Squealing and cheering commenced. This was a crowd that expected great things.

And hoo boy, their expectations were met. That inaugural installment of Jessica Jones was a true humdinger. It was distinctive without being flashy, mature without being ponderous, ambitious without being self-satisfied, sexy without being exploitative, and just … good. I can’t tell you how much of a revelation a good superhero show was at that time. We were used to spandex outings that were inane, formulaic, and utterly uninterested in pushing a single envelope. But here was a tale that seemed like it was going to grapple with everything from PTSD to queerness and do it all with style. Showrunner Melissa Rosenberg and star Krysten Ritter genuinely seemed to be elevating the game. As soon as the screening was done, I rushed to the lobby to get reception and email my editor like an old-timey reporter clamoring for a pay phone just after getting a hot scoop. I have seen the future of superheroes, I thought, and it is Marvel Netflix.

If it ever was the future, it is now the past. This week sees the barely ballyhooed release of the third and final season of Jessica Jones, which is itself the final season of Marvel’s four-year Netflix experiment. Its death has been agonizingly and humiliatingly gradual: Over the course of the past few months, each of the five ongoing series that made it up has been given the ax, one after another. Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, The Punisher; their fans saw them all go the way of the dodo — without fanfare. It was all too clear that there wasn’t much advance warning for the creative teams, given that many of the shows ended without resolution. Even though Marvel Television’s corporate overlord, Disney, is launching its own streaming platform, the superhero programming there will be run by the movie folks at Marvel Studios, who don’t particularly get along with the TV crew, so it seems unlikely that any resurrections will be in the cards. The loose ends will probably forever dangle in the wind, reminding diehards to never love anything too much.

So, what the hell happened? As far as I can see, the enterprise was doomed by three factors, two of them creative and one of them entirely corporate.

For one thing, all the shows suffered from an acute case of Netflix bloat. With the exception of the one-off crossover series, The Defenders, and the second season of the widely derided Iron Fist, every season was 13 episodes, with each episode clocking in at about an hour. There was simply no good reason for these stories to run 13-odd hours each. And they were, for the most part, single stories of that length; the shows tended to eschew the idea of self-contained episodes, even in the case of Jessica Jones, where individual private-investigation cases would have been a natural fit to fill out the world and liven up the pace. There were B- and C-plots, but they, too, were stretched out to unreasonable lengths. This is, of course, not a problem unique to Marvel shows, as Netflix and other streamers tend to believe that a drama is only worthwhile if it feels interminable.

But it was especially irritating in the case of the Marvel–Netflix shows, because a viewer was likely comparing them, consciously or not, to other superhero offerings. Superhero movies, though often longer than they should be, have runtimes between two and three hours — more than enough of a span to tell an epic saga of good, evil, duty, and all the other familiar tropes. More important, these stories are all adapted from comic books, which have long been oriented toward brief, dense, punchy individual issues of about 22 pages each, typically ending on some kind of cliffhanger. The sloggy Netflix approach just didn’t sit well with the expectations we have for the genre and our attendant desire for super-heroic action and Manichean suspense. The creators and diehards may argue that these weren’t just superhero shows — they were inspired by neo-noir (Jessica Jones) or blaxploitation (Luke Cage) or kung-fu (Iron Fist) and so on — but come on, these were all stories based on the expectation of climactic action between the forces of light and darkness. Yet, over and over again, we had to see that gratification delayed beyond reason. You were never going to hold eyeballs very long with that kind of lukewarm storytelling.

If the shows struggled with format, so too did they suffer over formula. Quite simply, they rarely did anything audacious or iconoclastic. Sure, there were little exceptions, like the daring explorations of rape and trauma in the first season of Jessica Jones, the occasional interrogation of police violence and black respectability politics in Luke Cage (it’s still amazing that a Marvel property had liberal use of the N-word in it), and the criticism of the War on Terror in the first season of The Punisher. But even in those cases, the general emphasis was more often on boilerplate superhero-fiction tropes like the need for friendship, the question of whether killing is ever okay, and the insistence that one should never give up in the face of even the most impossible odds. We live in an era when we are saturated with such themes thanks to the preponderance of cape-and-cowl mishegoss on the big and small screens, so we were never given a great reason to especially care about these slight variations. To make matters worse, even though these stories were ostensibly set in the same New York City as the one we see in the MCU movies, we never got to spice things up with appearances from any of the film characters — or, conversely, to see the Netflix characters register any importance by appearing in the films. In a word: snore.

Nevertheless, the shows experienced a modicum of success (some more than others; Iron Fist always seemed DOA) and generated enough enthusiasm to justify multiple seasons. Daredevil fan-fiction exploded, critics swore up and down that The Punisher was pretty good, and you’ll be seeing Jessica Jones cosplayers at conventions for many years to come. And yet, perhaps these victories added up to the most fatal factor of them all: The shows became something of a victim of their own success. When the Marvel–Netflix collaboration was announced in November 2013, it was something of a revolutionary idea. The skyrocketing MCU brand had begun its forays into short-form serialization with ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. that September, and Netflix had only just emerged on the scene with its first original series, House of Cards, nine months prior. The notion of these two newly successful firms joining forces was a bold step: Netflix could show off its original-content chops by hitching its wagon to the hottest brand at the box office, while Marvel could demonstrate that it was ready to take a leap into the still-fresh waters of streaming entertainment.

Trouble is, once both of them had won, they no longer needed each other. Netflix has, in just six short years, become one of the primary destinations for serialized original content in the known universe. Disney has seen its Marvel brand become a license to print money. But the ever-wily Disney suits realized they had enough cachet to pull off their own entrant into the streaming game, the soon-to-launch Disney+. Marvel’s Netflix shows had proven that streaming super-people could work as a concept, but why should the House of Mouse tolerate sharing the gains of their IP with a rival streamer? What’s more, Netflix has so much content that they don’t need a boost from anyone else’s brand anymore — and they similarly don’t have any desire to lend a hand to a corporation that’s about to become its biggest rival (a fact made all the more apparent by Disney’s recent decision to take a controlling stake in Hulu). Marvel Netflix was consigned to being the abandoned child from a marriage that fell apart. Future generations may find the very phrase “Marvel Netflix” to be an oxymoron, after the streaming wars really heat up.

Which brings us to Disney’s challenge in its post-Netflix reality. Within a few months, we’ll likely be seeing the inaugural MCU shows of Disney+, such as the untitled Loki solo series, Falcon and Winter Soldier, and the questionably titled WandaVision. (You’ll note that all of those shows star major characters from the film arm of the MCU. That’s because Marvel Studios will be managing all of the Marvel content streaming on Disney+.) Right now, it seems like a done deal that these series will attract subscribers, but it’s worth noting that Disney+ should learn from the collapse of Marvel’s Netflix project. The format has to lend itself to thrills, chills, and density. In a world of streaming-content saturation, even Marvel has to worry about losing people’s attention while they sit on the couch. (To be fair, they seem to be moving in the right direction when they do things like make these series attenuated in length or placed in unlikely settings.) In other words, formula has to take a back seat to innovation. If you can get the same ideas by firing up old MCU movies for a rewatch at the click of a button, why bother with inferior, lower-budget shows, especially if they don’t end up being consequential for the movies and vice versa?

But most importantly, the powers that be should remember that the tectonic plates are still shifting beneath their feet. After all, there was a time, not so long ago, when Marvel Netflix was the most bleeding-edge idea in the game. How quickly the heroes of tomorrow become yesterday’s news.

Marvel on Netflix: What Went Wrong?