Goodbye to Marvel’s Messy, Underappreciated Netflix Universe

The third and final season of Jessica Jones hit Netflix this past weekend, marking not only the conclusion of that show but of the whole Marvel Netflix Universe. The streaming site’s slow cancellation of these shows began last year, when Iron Fist and Luke Cage were unceremoniously taken off the schedule, before we said goodbye to Daredevil after its strong third outing. A second season of The Punisher followed before everyone’s favorite PI came along to bring us into the final stretch.

Over the years, this little corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become something of a black sheep within the franchise—its overlong seasons and repetitive storylines garnered significant criticism, while the rapid-fire release schedule undoubtedly began to daunt casual viewers (four seasons per year is a big ask, even for the most diehard of fans).

And while these were far from unfair criticisms, that even the shows’ biggest defenders (sorry) will likely admit to, the Marvel Netflix Universe hasn’t been a total bust. Over the last four years, we’ve seen fan-favorite characters brought to life, either for the first time or in a way that makes up for previous interpretations. And despite some missteps along the way, it’s been an experience worth celebrating.

To go back a little, the Marvel Netflix universe was originally conceived as a small screen counterpart to the Avengers, wherein each of the Defenders would get their own series leading up to a big crossover that brought them all together. Marvel had recently reclaimed the rights to Daredevil in 2012 and it was felt that the Man Without Fear was best suited to a smaller budget and a platform that allowed for darker stories. Netflix then, seemed to like a perfect match, while the addition of other street-level, New York-based heroes was just a no brainer.

Cut to 2015 and Daredevil is a huge success, coming out strong with a well-cast set of characters and visceral action (the original hallway fight remains a particular highlight), the series opened to critical acclaim and positive fan reaction. Leading man Charlie Cox brought a laid back charm to Matt Murdock, while the Catholic guilt and internalized anger at the core of the character were never too far from the surface. Elsewhere, Deborah Ann Woll shined as Karen Page, the secretary with a dark past, and Vincent D’Onofrio brought terrifying menace and imposing stature to Daredevil’s greatest enemy, Wilson Fisk. The much-derided 2003 movie seemed like a distant memory, and the minor problems, like the slightly bloated story structure, seemed inconsequential enough at the time.

Jessica Jones followed soon after with another dynamite lead performer in Krysten Ritter and a noir-tinged story that dove headfirst into the trauma of its title character. This was a new side of Marvel, one unafraid to discuss difficult topics like PTSD and the psychological impact of rape, and viewers really began to take notice. The whole experiment was beginning to take shape—a distinct tone had been established, while regular players like Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) were firmly established. The pacing problems were still a factor, but just as before, many viewers were too engrossed to care.

Daredevil followed with a second season that tried to shake up the formula—it was split up into two halves, one focussing on Jon Bernthal‘s Punisher and the other on popular Marvel bad guys The Hand. Fan favorite Elektra (Elodie Yung) was also introduced in a season that reached similar heights to the first, while the table was now set for the big crossover event that loomed large over everything.

The introduction of The Hand had huge ramifications for this corner of the universe—the villainous organization would continue as major antagonists through Iron Fist and The Defenders, where the once frightening horde of ninjas was reduced to a handful of upper-level management types. The grand plan mirrored that of the movies, introducing the big villain early and building them up before the big team up. The only problem being that The Hand was no Loki, and the creators of each show struggled to find a consistent voice for what was supposedly their key villain.

Before any of that though, we had Luke Cage. Now, this was the first sign that this whole Marvel Netflix endeavor was capable of failure, despite a strong start. Cage, previously introduced in Jessica Jones, was set to go up against Cottonmouth (Mahershala Ali), a Lex Luthor to his Superman that couldn’t be stopped just by out-punching him. The first half of the season introduced a solid roster of supporting characters and gave us a hero/villain dynamic with a ton of potential, and then they went and killed him off.

This remains a controversial choice among fans (I’ve always felt it was a bold move, despite what came next), especially considering who stepped up as the real villain. Cottonmouth’s replacement Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey) was, well, less of success. His corny one-liners, bafflingly stupid plans, and last minute sibling relationship to Cage soured most everyone on the season, which was unfortunate. Because even the maligned second half had plenty going on—Cage being a symbol for Harlem struck all the right notes, and a surprise cameo from Method Man led to a fun subplot that tied into the character’s core conflict effectively.

But if Luke Cage was a slight misstep, Iron Fist was an unmitigated disaster. Picking up The Hand storyline, but almost nothing that made Daredevil so effective, Iron Fist was a maze of poor decisions and insufficient preparation. This resulted in a doofus hero that didn’t so much subvert the cultural appropriation inherent to the character as much as it did clumsily play up its most problematic elements. And the action, which was so pivotal to Daredevil‘s success, was badly rushed, with actors given limited prep time for stunts and shoddy camera work used to cover it all up.

A miscast Finn Jones didn’t quite sink the show as much as some made out, but the actor was saddled with some truly terrible material that even the best performers would struggle to sell. The once fearsome Hand had all the life sucked out of them which, combined with the central character’s bratty personality, had us all very concerned about what was to come.

It was at this point that the shows gradually began to break away from the MCU timeline, as references to Tony Stark and the Hulk were cut down, and the larger universe-shaking plot developments (such as the Sokovia Accords and Thanos’ snap) went ignored. Any hopes of these characters appearing on the big screen were shot down, while the occasional reference on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. represented their only real connection to the larger universe. By the time we reached the big crossover, the idea that any of this would matter in the grand scheme had mostly withered away—not a great sign for what was supposedly the climactic event of this whole endeavor.

And so we arrived at The Defenders, slated to be Netflix’s answer to the grand spectacle of The Avengers and the culmination of everything up to that point. The stakes were as high as ever, with several years of stories to pay off and expectations to live up to, and then… the show landed with a crushing thud. While far from the abysmal Iron Fist, The Defenders was a major disappointment, carried only by the various character interactions, particularly the genius pairing of Murdock and Jones.

The sluggish pacing meant our heroes were separated for half the season, Sigourney Weaver was woefully underutilized as the main villain, and the big action climax highlighted the budgetary limitations that the shows had mostly worked around thus far. While The Avengers made it all look so easy, The Defenders showed just how difficult it was bringing various characters together like this. And how it takes more than just a group of talented actors occupying the same space to make a satisfying crossover.

So, what next? The big years-in-the-making team-up was a bust, but the show had to go on (at least for the time being). The remaining seasons largely ignored the events of The Defenders, going off in their own directions (with the occasional cameo) and business went on as usual. The Punisher released two seasons that deftly examined that character’s place in the modern world while building off his prior appearance in Daredevil, and Jessica Jones had a mixed second season that dug deeper into the trauma of its lead but fumbled other storylines.

Luke Cage‘s sophomore outing was a dramatic improvement over the first, promising exciting developments that will sadly never be explored, but for many, it was already too late. Four 13-hour seasons per year proved to be too much for viewers to keep up with, as Iron Fist‘s second season came and went with very little fanfare.

Even the flagship show Daredevil couldn’t save these shows from their fate, even after its third season proved to be its finest yet. That one saw Murdock face Bullseye (Wilson Bethel), as well as his newly out of prison nemesis Fisk, in a story that felt particularly resonant in the current political climate. But just weeks later, Daredevil and the remaining shows were all canceled, making room for the new era of Marvel shows on the Disney+ streaming platform.

So here we are, with a new line up of star-studded shows on the way, the Marvel Netflix Universe reaches its end. A third season of Jessica Jones feels like a fitting way to bow out, even if it’s far from the finale likely envisioned in the beginning. This small section of the MCU hasn’t always been perfect, for the many reasons listed above, but it did give fans a taste of what else was out there, tucked away in the dark corners of the big city. A chance to see characters that may never have seen the light of day otherwise, and have them realized with all the complexities fitting of their comic counterparts.

We may never get to see the further adventures of Daredevil and the Punisher, or the Moon Knight show fans had been clamoring for, but these shows did give fans a rewarding, exciting experience while they lasted. The thrill of binging over a long weekend, of seeing what insane set piece the Daredevil team had cooked up next, and of hearing how many creative ways Jones could tell somebody to fuck off will forever stay with the fans who stuck with it.

And while they eventually burned out and fell victim to Disney’s changing business strategies, these shows’ legacy will be one that tackled challenging subject matters and morally ambiguous characters, highlighting the street-level heroes that do the small, but necessary work to make the world a better place.

Hayden Cornmell: @@HaydenCornmell Sometimes knows what he's talking about.