Even at its best, thirteen episodes seems to drag out the action.
I have a confession to make: I still haven’t finished Iron Fist. In fact, I haven’t even progressed past the second episode. Sure, life got complicated for me and I haven’t had much time to spare for a show that I’m not completely in love with but the problem goes beyond four episodes of “But I’m Danny Rand!” or hectic schedules and instead has everything to do with Netflix’s thirteen episode order for its Marvel series. The truth is it’s too much and every single series, even the stronger ones, have been strained by too many episodes.
Now, let’s get something out in the open. I love The Defenders but they’ve always been sort of the B-league of the comics. Hear me out, here. Prior to the onslaught of successful (and even less successful) Marvel/Sony/Fox films, if you had asked someone unfamiliar with comics to name some Marvel characters, who would they have listed? The Hulk, Captain America and the X-Men seem likely. Iron Fist and Power Man? I doubt it. Did Frank Miller have an incredible run with Daredevil? Fuck yes. Would non-comic book fans even know who he was prior to Ben Affleck donning the suit? Eh.
The Netflix series have truly transformed these characters for non-comic book fans. They’ve done a great job of introducing and establishing The Defenders, both individually as well as small teases of what will come collectively, their New York City and the many allies and villains that inhabit that world. Overall, the shows have done their job by expanding the fan base, getting fans to carry over to other shows and even breaking the internet where Luke Cage is concerned. But there are moments in each series, from the strongest to the weakest, where it becomes evident that thirteen episodes hampers the storytelling and the overall impact of each show.
Arguably, Daredevil is the most “A-list” of these Marvel Netflix series and as a result the thirteen episodes arc just barely works for the character. In Season One, there was enough world and character building, plus set up for the second season and shows still to come to make it work. We’re given flashback that fill us in on Matt’s childhood accident and his relationship with his father and mid-way through the season we meet his former mentor, Stick and get a little tease of their past relationship. It’s a lot of establishment but for the first show out of the gates, it’s necessary if not tedious at times. When we finally get filled in on Wilson Fisk’s past, it’s only the strength of the character and a phenomenal performance by Vincent D’Onofrio that keep us grounded in yet another flashback.
In Season Two, with the series already established, we really dive into the complexities of Matt’s life as Daredevil and how this intersects with his job, his relationships and his city. The past comes back in the form of Elektra, things get complicated with Karen and Foggy and then there’s Frank Castle blasting his way through Hell’s Kitchen. And Kingpin returns and Madame Gao and Stick and The Hand…it’s a lot. I can’t really complain about Season Two because I did love it but I also recognize that I wouldn’t have been mad about this being split into two mini-seasons. Yes, the binge watcher in me would’ve hated to wait but I also feel like there’s so much that I missed the first time around because I had to binge through thirteen hour-long episodes.
Still, as far as the Marvel series go, Daredevil is the strongest series and the one least hampered by the series length. Sure, a lot gets crammed in and there’s still plenty of flashbacks to go around but the narrative never feels thin or drawn out for the sake of extending a plot line across two episodes. It’s when we wade into the remaining Defenders that things get dicey.
Now, I loved Jessica Jones and I do count it as one of the strongest of the Marvel shows but I do think we see the plot stretch itself thin, particularly leading up to Jessica’s final showdown with Kilgrave. This isn’t to say Jessica Jones was bad, in fact did a lot of things really well, particularly diving into the PTSD that comes from sexual assault and making social commentary on men asking women to smile. But there’s still a sense that things could have been wrapped up sooner; Jessica imprisoning Kilgrave seems a bit pointless and futile, Trish’s bad romance with Simpson drags out the hint that he’s Nuke and it shouldn’t take ten episodes to reveal that Jessica’s blood could be used as immunization against Kilgrave’s powers — especially when it winds up being another dead end. Sure, I’m nitpicking and the series is pretty kickass but trimming it down to eight episodes probably wouldn’t have erased much except some of the less compelling subplots that don’t serve much of a purpose outside of filling time.
And Jessica’s complicated paramour? One of the ways Luke Cage was able to outshine Daredevil was by establishing Luke’s Harlem as a very real place with a strong sense of community and a storied and important history. It’s something we never quite feel with Hell’s Kitchen, even though we’re told how important it is to save from Kingpin. It’s also what helps us, perhaps unknowingly at first, become truly invested in the dealings of Black Mariah and Cottonmouth. But — and credit is surely due here to the Academy Award winning Mahershala Ali — Luke Cage faltered by killing off it’s best villain midway through the season. It was hard to get invested in Diamondback, who literally shows up with a bang, because he’s such a stark difference from Cottonmouth, who seemed like a true threat and danger to Luke.
Sure, multiple villains in a single season feels like a proper comic book arc but if a single season can be mentally split into two halves (Daredevil Season Two, Luke Cage) then perhaps two different seasons is the better route. I won’t speak on Iron Fist without finishing it but perhaps not all Marvel series are made equal. If Danny Rand is really reliant on the source material that pairs him with Luke Cage, perhaps the character would do better with a tight eight episode season instead of thirteen episodes of a solo series. As much as I love binging a new Marvel show in a single weekend, most of the series would be better served by less episodes, which allow for tighter stories, less filler and dead end plotlines and a hell of a lot less time wasted watching Danny Rand lethargically convince people he’s still alive.