The Marvel Netflix Universe – A Review in Hindsight
This weekend we all got to chill out and watch The Defenders, the culmination of 5 seasons of television. Bringing together four heroes, a multitude of support characters and a couple of hanging plot threads. Sounds like the perfect time to look at the franchise to date and consider what may happen in the future.
A SPOILER WARNING is in effect for all the shows up to and including The Defenders.
PART I: HITTING THE GROUND RUNNING
We have Drew Goddard to thank for kicking things off in such a spectacular fashion. Goddard cut his teeth on cult genre shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lost and Alias before penning the films Cabin in the Woods, Cloverfield and The Martian. Regardless of your thoughts on those individual properties nobody can deny that Goddard knows how to write and experiment with genre. When we needed someone to give the successful Marvel Cinematic Universe a darker street level feel while keeping the fans of the films and comics happy he was an excellent choice to run the show. Charlie Cox, a talented but largely unrecognised actor, brought his experience and charm to the lead role of Matt Murdock. Like his supporting cast the producers have sought out talent rather than big names to fill the roles, a tactic that has proven successful in casting heroes and hiring directors on the big screen.
‘Daredevil’ is one of the darker characters of the Marvel universe, and with writers such as Frank Miller and Brian Michael Bendis solidifying his mythology and tone, a fan favourite. Daredevil is a more complex and contradictory hero than most of the Marvel superfolk, being a blind defence lawyer by day and a violent vigilante by night. He deals with gangsters and those who exploit the weak rather than world threatening super villains, and struggles with his Catholicism as well as the consequences of dealing with such vicious enemies.
Rather than picking and choosing the aspects of the character to focus on for the show Goddard and his team took advantage of the longer running time of a thirteen episode series to explore every facet of the character, his story, his world and his cast of supporting characters. They’ve built a grim neo-noir tale bathed in reds and orange where heroes get hurt and the villains have stories. Daredevil has his share of cartoonish villains such as Stiltman, Bushwacker and the psychotic Bullseye (although we absolutely want to see him in season 3), but in order to help keep things grounded and not delve to heavily into character backstories we get Vincent D’Onofrio putting in a brilliant performance as The Kingpin.
Daredevil was incredibly well received both by the fans of the comics, who were delighted at how well the show captured the atmosphere and complexity of the books, and by television critics. It’s little wonder that Marvel and Netflix launched an ambitious plan that mirrors Phase 1 of the MCU, giving each major player their own series before bringing them together to fight an evil to big for any one of them to face. Thus was born the Marvel Netflix Universe – a term I don’t think I’ve seen before but I am now going to use.
PART II: CHALLENGING THE VIEWER – SEXUALITY, VIOLENCE AND RACE
The MNU (I want to make this a thing) did something slightly unexpected next by introducing us to Jessica Jones. The character started as a somewhat generic superhero named ‘Jewel’ who was later reimagined as a private detective in a noir setting. This made the character a perfect companion piece to Daredevil, and also addressed one of the major criticisms levelled at the MCU. In the 20 released and produced titles to date Marvel have completely neglected to give us a female character in a leading role. Not only does Jessica Jones give us a female lead with Kristen Ritter as the hard drinking, inhumanly strong detective but it’s well written enough to simultaneously address themes and stories best suited to a female lead without making it a token effort at including a female hero.
The arch-villain of the season is a rapist, manipulator and abuser (a brilliant and terrifying David Tennant). As domestic violence, abusive relationships and sexual abuse are being brought more into the public eye and people are striving to change the perception of both victims and perpetrators this was an immensely challenging topic to bring into a world populated by Thor and Ant-Man. Showrunner Melissa Rosenberg and her team of writers did an amazing and considered job of telling Jessica’s story.
After showing us that Daredevil wasn’t a fluke the MNU returned to Hell’s Kitchen and upped the stakes considerably. The second season of the blind vigilante delved more into the character and his values with the introduction of two new major players – Elektra (Élodie Yung) and The Punisher (Jon Bernthal). The former is a keystone in Daredevil’s mythology, having been a former lover who now occupies an uncertain position in his life as a crime-fighter. Elektra is similar to DC favourite Catwoman in that she toes the line between hero and villain with her relationship to the title character determining her alliance. As in the comics the television version gives Matt Murdock an emotional angle to supplement his character.
Like Daredevil and Elektra, The Punisher is a character who has been given the big screen treatment in the past with…dubious results. Mark Steven Johnson’s film adaptation of Daredevil was awful and the spin-off Elektra was somehow worse. Three different Punisher’s have graced our cinemas with results ranging from nonsense to tolerable. The smart move here was pairing Frank Castle with a morally stronger crime fighter like Daredevil. The Punisher is a former cop whose family was killed by corrupt colleagues and criminals, and he responded with many, many bullets. Some of the best writing in the series was between Daredevil and Punisher arguing their approaches. Rather than cast The Punisher as a stock psycho villain they make him a counter-point to Daredevil’s tactics, and he actually makes some good (if demented) points.
Whilst the second season brought in some great new talent while continuing the writing and imaginative direction of the first season it did feel a bit muddled. The swing between the brutal violence of The Punisher and the mystical ninja hijinks of Elektra and The Hand was a wide one. They did not mesh well and at times it felt like two different shows. Amid all that the show started to feel padded. This makes sense from a production standpoint as they had a tight schedule, leaving less time than before for refinement. It was still a blast, though.
Following this was Luke Cage, bringing a character who’d been introduced to viewers during Jessica Jones to the fore. Luke Cage, aka ‘Power Man’, brought with him some history which added to the expectations for the show. He was the first African American super hero to feature in his own title, and was created out of the popularity of Blaxploitation cinema. His original incarnation would feel dated for today’s audience, but that cultural tie could not be ignored. As such the unbreakable Luke Cage (Mike Colter) was depicted in the show as being a defender of Harlem, protecting residents from corrupt politicians and exploitative gangs who keep people living in fear. Luke Cage drew heavily from current issues of race relations in the USA, focusing on Cage’s backstory as a wrongly imprisoned black man, and cultural depictions in the media.
Colter was born for the role of Luke Cage, and it felt like he’d walked off the pages. Rounding out the cast was Simone Missick as popular character Det. Misty Knight, who was also derived from Blaxploitation cinema, and recent Oscar winner Mahershala Ali as the villainous Cottonmouth. What held the series back was the increasing sense that the story was being padded out to fill the 13 episode order and the bait-and-switch where Cottonmouth was bumped off partway through the series and replaced with a much less interesting villain. In spite of these minor speed bumps the show was brilliant. Great performances, cool story and plenty for viewers to consider.
At this point the MNU had delivered three different shows – one challenging the justice system, another looking at gender and sexual abuse and a third concerned with race relations. All delivered on superhero action, oozed atmosphere and was packed with memorable characters.
At this point they were sprinting for the finish line and nothing could make them stumble.
PART III: THE STUMBLE
Oh, Iron Fist. You let the team down.
We were pretty hyped for this show. It was coming from a great pedigree and the promise of kung-fu action in the neo-noir world of Marvel’s underbelly was promising. We’ve chatted with Finn Jones in the past and found him to be likeable and a quite chill character. Based on this encounter we thought he was a great pick for the character as we knew him from the comics. Sadly the angle taken on the role in the show was not suited to Jones, nor was he a particularly nice character to be spending time with. Danny Rand, the Iron Fist, felt more like a petulant child than a zen martial arts master being reintroduced to the West. He was neither sympathetic or fun.
The entire season felt rushed, something backed up by reports of the show being pushed into production as quickly as possible to bring forward the deadline for The Defenders. The story was a muddled first draft and it was nearly impossible to work out which characters we were supposed to support or even like. The choreography in the fight scenes, what should have been the biggest selling point for the show, was dull and the Iron Fist ability never felt like it had much strength behind it. Iron Fist felt like the showrunner was pretending they knew what they were doing for 13 episodes, desperately trying not to reveal to viewers that they were making it up as they went along.
Getting through it was a chore, and we just watched it so we were up to speed for the next chapter.
PART IV: THE MAIN EVENT
So here we arrive at the big crossover: The Defenders. Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and the Iron Fist will team up to battle the powerful and evil organisation of The Hand, led by Alexandra Reid (Sigourney Weaver). We’ve just smashed the whole season and, well…it’s pretty good.
It’s not the franchise at it’s peak, like the first two shows, but it does a great job of tying all the threads together and the four leads (Cox, Ritter, Colter and Jones) have excellent chemistry together. It’s worth a watch for these four working and fighting together. The story, in spite of being five episodes shorter than the usual 13 episode run, still feels a bit padded and they pull another bait and switch on us with the villain. It’s not a grand, entertainment-world changing event like The Avengers but it still makes damn good television.
Whilst Daredevil, Jessica and Luke arrived ready for action, the character of Iron Fist caused some concerns. He wasn’t well handled previously and we definitely didn’t want him dragging the film down. It seems that the showrunners have listened to criticism and Danny is given a clear character development arc, something he sorely lacked in his own show, and fulfils the role of the MacGuffin for this adventure. By the end he has found a purpose and, moving forward, could be a much more interesting character. That said he is still the weakest of the bunch and this is reflected in a character taking the piss out of him in what felt like every episode. The message was pretty clear – the audience didn’t like him, so we’re repositioning him as unlikable. But he’ll get better. Honestly, they should have done a 3-episode mini-series to introduce him back into New York and save his character work for The Defenders.
Some of the supporting cast have also gotten extra screen time for this mini-series. Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) has long been the thread to hold the different shows together, appearing in all four previous shows and plays a pivotal role in bringing the team together. Misty Knight gets some screen time with Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), undoubtably the high point of Iron Fist and well deserving of her own series. This is something we’ll get back to in the next section.
Amid the amazing actors and kick-ass fight choreography the flaws of The Defenders are easily looked past. It also gets us excited for the future of the MNU. Which brings us to…
PART V: LOOKING AHEAD
We’ve already got Daredevil season 3 and Jessica Jones season 2 on the cards. The fake-out ending of The Defenders puts Matt Murdock in an unusual position. It looks like he’ll need to redefine himself before moving forward. As we said before, we’re hoping for a showdown with arch-villain Bullseye this time around. Jessica Jones also promises good things, with the decision being made to hire exclusively female directors to guide to the show. The Punisher as already been discussed and those who waited out the credits at the end of The Defenders got their first look at his upcoming solo run.
But what else do we want to see? Well, we have a few ideas…
HEROES FOR HIRE
With Luke Cage feeling padded and Iron Fist being lost in the wilderness, the best bet for both characters is to throw them together. Luke and Danny are a long time duo in the world of the comics, and given the drastically different worlds they come from there’s potential for some great banter. Let’s get these two together and in business.
DAUGHTERS OF THE DRAGON
We said we’d get back to Misty and Colleen. These characters have often been paired up in the comics under the name ‘Daughters of the Dragon’, but always regulated to supporting roles in ‘Power Man and Iron Fist’ or limited runs. Misty was a strong point of Luke Cage and Colleen was easily the best part of Iron Fist. We want to see these two women headlining their own show. Jessica Jones and Wonder Woman have proven that people want more female superheroes, these two are ready to go. There’s just one problem…Misty caught the wrong end of a katana in The Defenders and might be feeling lopsided.
Wait, did we mention that in the comics Misty Knight has a robot arm?
The following are a couple who are not officially part of the series…but they should be!
Easily the top of every list about characters they should be adapting for the screen. This superhero is…not orthodox. Marc Spector as Moon Knight is essentially Batman, but moon themed rather than bat themed with a white hood and crescent shaped throwing blades. There’s just one major difference: Marc Spector is insane. He suffers from disassociated personality disorder and has a small group of personalities sharing space in his head, one being the avatar of an Egyptian spirit of vengeance called Moon Knight. Exploring this character in the MNU, seeing him interact with the rest of the established characters, would be amazing.
Let’s really mix things up…give us a villain as a protaganist. Felicia Hardy, the Black Cat, has been described as a ‘villain, love interest and ally’ to Spider-Man, but she’s much better suited to the MNU world. With the right writers we could have a great show about a criminal who walks the line between good and bad. She could even be a Robin Hood style character, doing the wrong things for the right reason.
Budget would certainly be a concern, but She-Hulk is fucking awesome and they should do it. She was the last character Stan Lee created during his original time as a writer for Marvel, and was actually introduced to prevent the producers of The Incredible Hulk from creating her for the show and retaining the rights (which had happen with The Six Million Dollar Man). Jennifer Walters is the cousin of Bruce Banner, and received a blood transfer from him after she was shoot. This, by the way, was insanely irresponsible of Banner – you’re supposed to be a scientist, man. The radioactive blood turned her into She-Hulk, a huge green Amazon figure who retained Jennifer’s personality and intelligence.
What makes She-Hulk fun is that in spite of her size, green complexion and immense strength she still works as an attorney. This would be amazing if they introduced her in Daredevil, with Matt walking into a courtroom unaware that his legal opponent is a green giant.
There are plenty of other characters and villains who could add to this world. Who would you want to see?