Marvel's Netflix Universe Following Same Patterns as MCU

Photo Credit: Marvel Studios
October 13th, 2016

The Marvel/Netflix television universe is now nearing its climax, with the release of Luke Cage, the beginning of the build up to Iron Fist and eyes now on the super team-up The Defenders. Now that Daredevil has two seasons and that Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist will each have one origin season under their belts by March 2017, The Defenders will then be poised to bring it all together in the summer.

Any similarities between this strategy for Marvel's new Netflix TV empire, and that of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, hardly seems coincidental. In fact, the parallels go even further than that, in ways that are both promising and a bit troubling for the long term future.

The MCU spent four years launching origin stories/movies for Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor and Captain America before they all met for the first time in The Avengers. Yet since Iron Man got to go first, and had a rather acclaimed opening for his franchise and for the whole MCU, he got two films while everyone else was only given one before they joined forces. It hardly mattered that the sequel was far less acclaimed and spent half its time setting up The Avengers and other characters, in a mistake that would be forgotten when The Avengers paid it off anyway.

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As for Marvel's Netflix universe, it will have taken about three years to launch Daredevil, Jessica, Luke and Iron Fist into their own pre-Defenders series, and that doesn't even count the future series for The Punisher. But since Daredevil got to go first, and had a rather acclaimed opening for his franchise and for the whole Marvel/Netflix brand, he has two seasons already while everyone else will only have one before they team up. It hardly mattered that Daredevil Season 2 was far less acclaimed and spent half its time setting up other characters, in a mistake that will hopefully be forgotten by this time next year.

Before The Avengers, the MCU had its share of hits, but hadn't really taken off creatively. The blazing start of Iron Man was not only hardly matched by Iron Man 2, it couldn't be matched by The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger either. While they all had their fans and none of them was a creative or commercial bomb, the MCU was really just biding time until it really got going.

Until then, no one could have really seen what was coming, as the MCU was just a loose collection of set ups and only good enough origin stories. It took The Avengers to turn Marvel into a big screen juggernaut, and future Phase 2 and Phase 3 movies to really open up the universe and expand its creative possibility.

Now the Marvel/Netflix universe has to hope The Defenders will open similar doors, and tie its own universe together into something even better than it is now.

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At this point, the Marvel/Netflix world could argue that it has hit greater creative heights than the pre-Avengers Stage 1 part of the MCU. Daredevil got the ball rolling for it like Iron Man did for the MCU, but unlike Iron Man, Daredevil was arguably surpassed right away by Jessica Jones Season 1. Yet perhaps Daredevil Season 2 and Luke Cage Season 1 are a bit of a step backwards this year, like the first few post Iron Man MCU movies were by comparison to the original.

Marvel's Netflix shows can't really be compared in the strictest terms to the MCU, and not just because they are 10+ hours longer. For one thing, while the MCU is still mired in backlash over a lack of diverse leading heroes, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage immediately settled that problem on Netflix. To those still pushing the MCU to do more with female and minority characters, Marvel is choosing to answer their calls on Netflix instead of the big screen, whether or not it is really the best possible answer.

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Of course, casting a white man as the Asian martial arts expert Iron Fist has raised some red flags, just as it did for the MCU when it cast Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange. Still, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage have done far more to comment on issues like sexism, racism, rape culture and standing up for minorities than the likes of Thor and The Incredible Hulk, or at least have attempted to.

In these areas and more, the Marvel/Netflix world is already further ahead in its Phase 1 than the MCU was before The Avengers. Nevertheless, just as the MCU had its issues from back them that still linger today, the Marvel streaming universe is starting to face its own recurring problems, and ones that could grow much bigger later.

From the looks of it, the biggest issue right now is time, with recurring complaints that the Netflix shows really don't have enough story to justify 13 episodes a season. It became especially glaring with Luke Cage, as it had to go a long way to stretch out the central conflict of its first seven episodes, then a longer way to stretch out the new war in its final six. In a season that was really two seasons in one, both of them were considered too long anyway.

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But Marvel may have heard those critics loud and clear, at least when it comes to The Defenders, since it will only be eight episodes long in its opening season. However, while eight episodes may well have been enough for one individual season with each hero, perhaps it might be too short to do justice to all of them in one big show. Then again, the Avengers films and Captain America: Civil War have found a way to balance even bigger casts out in just two-and-a-half hours.

Then and now, the big issue with the MCU for some is repetition, as its story structure, formula and save-the-world final battles keep being labeled as the same old, same old in every movie, regardless of the hero. Even Marvel is aware of that at this point, or at least the Russo Brothers are, since they set up the big final battle formula in Civil War as a Trojan Horse before unveiling the real villain-free final fight.

After four seasons of Marvel/Netflix programming, formulas are starting to emerge there as well, from the showdowns to save a neighborhood to the more graphic violence and slightly more graphic sex than in the MCU, and at least one big hallway fight. And while being more dark, serious and brooding has set the Netflix shows apart from the MCU, and has somehow worn less thin than it has over at the DCEU, at some point this tone will become cliché and worn out onto itself, like it started to in Daredevil Season 2.

With The Defenders, it looks like the heroes have more to save than just a neighborhood if they can’t do it alone, although it likely depends on who newly unveiled villain Sigourney Weaver is really playing. This may provide more epic battles than the average street/hallway fight, yet they surely don’t have the budget for a Civil War airport scene kind of battle, and certainly not for anything like the battle of New York in The Avengers.

For those fatigued by big budget explosions and non-stop CGI, in both the MCU and blockbusters in general, the smaller scale and less PG-13 restricted fights on Netflix may be a relief. Yet at this point, they need their own newfound innovation before they seem like more of the same too, as something like The Defenders demands fights and showdowns never before seen in the Netflix world.

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While one could say the showdowns in The Avengers were technically like any other alien invasion film, only with superheroes, it was the kind of epic scale spectacle that previous MCU films had only teased at. From then on in, Marvel had a mandate to go even bigger, and in some cases even better, as they turned the MCU from an unlikely gamble to the godfather of modern cinematic universes.

There were no real blueprints or models for the MCU in its early days. In contrast, the Marvel/Netflix world has the example of that very same MCU, which it is following unconsciously if not intentionally.

It has its Iron Man in Daredevil, its three perhaps less successful other lead heroes in Jessica, Luke and Iron Fist instead of the Hulk, Thor and Captain America, and an oncoming super team-up ready to justify all of it and paper over some early flaws.

Now all it needs is for The Defenders to truly be the next Avengers, and for a Phase 2 of sequel seasons and new heroes to secure this world’s domination over streaming media. There’s no way it could be Avengers big, just like the Netflix world will never be MCU-level big, yet using its same pattern of success has largely worked well so far.

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