Last week's announcement of a Netflix/Marvel deal was huge for fans of Marvel's superhero universe. The subscription-based streaming media service will air four 13-episode series starring Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist and Luke Cage, plus a Defenders miniseries that brings the characters together, starting in 2015.
It's big news for Netflix, which while having earned surprising success in original programming has never made such a big gamble in that realm. It's also big news for Marvel, substantially increasing the number of hours of live action film set in their cinematic universe in one swoop. But what does it mean for the audience?
The Daredevil series will apparently be the first to air, followed by Jessica Jones, Iron Fist and Luke Cage. At thirteen episodes each, that's a full year of weekly programming -- a new 52, if you will.
Presumably each show will be released all at once, as is the standard for Netflix original programming (Arrested Development, House Of Cards, etc.). That also means the shows will be made all at once, or close to it, which means a lot of advance planning and hopefully some very cohesive storytelling. But what else might it mean?
We know the four series will share a universe with each other; presumably they'll share a universe with Marvel's other movie and TV output as well. It's in Netflix's interest to share that continuity, and there's no potential conflict; all Marvel's other major partners are owned by parent company Disney.
Does this undercut Marvel's other live action TV deals, such as the Agents of SHIELD show, the planned Agent Carter show, and the proposed Mockingbird and Cloak And Dagger shows? I doubt it. Marvel has always been profligate with its licensing. Now that it's part of a family of businesses that includes movie studios, distributors, and network and cable television stations, it can be profligate in relative safety. Backed by Disney, Marvel is in a position to continue as a licensing juggernaut for a good while yet, and if they could turn Iron Man into a costume every kid wants to wear at Halloween, they can do the same for a hundred other characters in their catalog.
A couple of weeks ago I'd have said Agents of SHIELD's slipping ratings and critical failures were a bigger threat to Marvel's TV ambitions, and still not much of a threat at that -- Agents of SHIELD is comfortably one of ABC's best performing shows.
The Netflix deal wipes away any lingering doubts. Even if Agents of SHIELD disappeared overnight, Marvel TV shows would still look like a strong prospect based on Netflix's backing alone.
One of the major criticisms of Agents of SHIELD -- from myself as much as anyone -- is that it hasn't taken advantage of the world-building established by Marvel's comic universe. It's barely even grazed the edge of what's been established in the movies. Can we expect to see a more fleshed-out Marvel universe in the Netflix shows?
I think we will. Indeed, I wonder if part of the reason Marvel has held back on SHIELD is because they didn't want to limit their other deals. The characters covered by this Netflix initiative (typically referred to by fans as "street-level" characters) are exactly the sort of heroes many expected Agents of SHIELD to deal with. Netflix presumably wants these characters to debut with them, not with ABC. There's no shortage of other characters tied to these four lead characters that one would logically expect to see in the show, from Foggy Nelson to the Daughters of the Dragon.
Marvel's first movie success was the Blade franchise. It hasn't given us a black leading man since. It has given us Nick Fury, James Rhodes, Heimdal and now Falcon (in next year's Captain America: The Winter Soldier), but across the dozen movies in Phase One and Phase Two that doesn't amount to a lot of screen time. Female heroes have fared even worse. Only one female Avenger in the first movie? That's shameful.
The Netflix deal goes a little way to addressing that shortfall, giving us one black hero and one female hero (or former hero, as is Jessica Jones' backstory in Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos' Alias comic book, where she first appeared). There's potential here to go much further in the supporting casts.
One of the great success stories at Netfix is Orange Is The New Black, a show set in a women's prison with a largely female, largely non-white cast. There's a perception that a show like that would never attract advertisers on network TV because advertisers are a superstitious and cowardly lot. The Netflix model doesn't need advertisers.
That's why I expect to see Misty Knight all over these shows, and she's the tip of the iceberg. This is where Marvel gets to show the audience that it has heroes for everyone. (PS. Marvel, make sure you have the comics to back this up.)
Daredevil is the only one of the four shows that has any pre-existing public profile, thanks to the 2003 movie starring Ben Affleck in the title role. The movie is not well remembered.
Yet Marvel has never shied away from trying and trying again. I suspect the characters we saw in the movie will return, including Kingpin, Bullseye and Elektra. I hope the plot will go another way. The show might adapt Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev's run on the Daredevil comic book, in which Matt Murdock's secret identity was exposed to the world. The other obvious contender is Frank Miller's Daredevil: Born Again, in which Kingpin takes Daredevil's life apart piece by piece.
They're both deconstructive stories, so neither feels like the arc that a series should open with, but the advantage of the Netflix model is that the showrunners can plan and execute with total confidence that they have thirteen episodes to tell their story. They can set Daredevil up in seven episodes; knock him down in six.
Jessica Jones is another character with a deconstructive story. If the show stays true to the comic Alias, it'll be about a former superhero turned private eye. That's the high concept that was on the table when writer Melissa Rosenberg was attached to the previous incarnation of the show, AKA Jessica Jones, which was developed for network television, and she's the writer this time as well. Hopefully Jessica Jones won't be presented as a former Avenger -- it didn't work in the comics, and the movie and TV audience would be even less receptive to the idea that there are Avengers stories they didn't get to see. It might make more sense to present her superhero career in the background of the Daredevil show, if the tone fits.
The bigger question for some fans will be whether her comic book husband Luke Cage will make an appearance in Jessica's show. And that's not the only place one might expect Luke to show up.
Luke's old partner Iron Fist is perhaps the most awkward of the four characters. First, the story of a rich white guy going to a mysterious Asian sanctuary and becoming their "chosen one" has all kinds of ugly white messiah connotations. Second, mystic powers are an odd fit for the current Marvel cinematic universe. Even the magic in Asgard is presented as advanced science. Third, kung-fu mysticism is an odd fit even alongside the other three shows.
All that said, I have a soft spot for all that mystic-city-of-K'un-Lun stuff, the source of Iron Fist's power, and I'd love to see a recreation of the Ed Brubaker/Matt Fraction/David Aja comics. It's very old school pulp, very Shadow, very Phantom -- and perhaps the toughest type of comics adaptation to pull off with a straight face. Is there a way to make it work, or will the showrunner take Iron Fist in a different direction?
Keeping Luke Cage and Iron Fist apart for their solo series makes sense. They work well together, but their roots and origins are separate. What's baffling is that the miniseries that brings them together is called The Defenders and not Heroes For Hire. Yes, Cage, Iron Fist and Daredevil have all been Defenders, but Heroes For Hire is the true Luke Cage/Iron Fist team.
My suspicion is that "Hero For Hire" will be used as the title for the Luke Cage show (though "Cage" is not a bad title either). The complication is that the mercenary hero idea has always seemed a little shaky, and associating it with the first African-American leading man in the Marvel cinematic universe is especially dubious. Also, given that the Jessica Jones show is likely to be a P.I. show, will they want to do something different with Luke Cage?
If the Netflix shows are successful, should we expect these shows to get second seasons -- or will Marvel and Netflix use the same approach to launch other characters? Might some of these heroes transition to the screen? Might they end up joining the Avengers? Could Netflix original TV movies be the next step?
First we have to see if these shows are successful at all. I'd be astonished if they're not. But we have over a year to wait and find out.
And once we know for sure, we have some ideas for Netflix Phase Two...