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Why Marvel's Netflix Universe Failed

VO: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Michael Wynands
All good things must come to end, but sometimes… we really wish they wouldn’t. Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re looking at the life and death of the Netflix-Marvel television universe. This collection of interconnected series, much like its big screen counterpart, did something unprecedented in its own medium. Whereas the core MCU continues to dominate the box office, this remarkable chapter in streaming service history has seemingly come to an end. With the entire slate of shows now officially canceled, we wanted to take this opportunity to review and celebrate its successes, while also taking a deeper look into where it all went wrong, as well as its ultimate cause of death.
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Why Marvel's Netflix Universe Failed

All good things must come to end, but sometimes… we really wish they wouldn’t. Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re looking at the life and death of the Netflix-Marvel television universe. This collection of interconnected series, much like its big screen counterpart, did something unprecedented in its own medium. Whereas the core MCU continues to dominate the box office, this remarkable chapter in streaming service history has seemingly come to an end. With the entire slate of shows now officially canceled, we wanted to take this opportunity to review and celebrate its successes, while also taking a deeper look into where it all went wrong, as well as its ultimate cause of death.

“Jessica Jones” season 3, scheduled for release in 2019, is the last offering of Netflix’s gritty corner of the MCU. Depending on its exact release date, that means that from birth to death, the Netflix Marvel television universe lasted just five years. In that time, Netflix subscribers were treated to a staggering 13 seasons worth of television, consisting of 161 1-hour episodes of gritty, grounded and relatable superheroics. Despite its short lifespan, all those involved should be incredibly proud of what they collectively accomplished.

And yet, almost as impressive as the superheroic feat of putting the Marvel Netflix television universe together, is the speed at which it declined. Apparently, a system that can pump out high-quality television at an unprecedented rate and volume can implode just as quickly. As recently as summer 2018, people were still talking about the possibility of a Moon Knight series, among other potential candidates for the Netflix model. Just a few months later in October, Iron Fist was canceled, followed by Luke Cage just a few days later. This was the beginning of the end, but how did it all go so wrong, so quickly?

Let’s go back to the beginning. Netflix’s first offering of Marvel original content was “Daredevil” season 1, released on April 10th, 2015. There was little doubt that the character had fans, but considering the bad taste left in the mouth of the general public by the Ben Affleck version of Matt Murdock, it was also risky. Thankfully, with showrunner Steven S. DeKnight at the helm, the series succeeded in redeeming the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. “Daredevil” was more than a solid showing, it was a bold declaration that Marvel characters could equally thrive on the small screen. Perhaps, even more importantly, it showed that Marvel was willing to deviate from the established tone of their films by doing something more grounded, gritty and dramatic - thus expanding their demographic while capitalizing on their existing fanbase. With nearly perfect scores on Rotten Tomatoes, ‘Daredevil” season 1 resonated with critics and viewers alike.

“Daredevil” was excellent, but a single property does not a shared universe make. In this regard, much rested on the shoulders of Marvel’s second series, Jessica Jones. Its performance and reception would decide whether “Daredevil” was a one-off success, or if Netflix and Marvel had a clear vision and replicable model on their hands. “Jessica Jones” landed on November 20th, 2015 to rave reviews. The series did more than compliment “Daredevil”, it broke new ground in terms of both its treatment of a female heroine and in tackling difficult social issues. It was a game changer, and with its release, Marvel and Netflix earned a newfound level of respect from viewers and critics alike. The fledgling Marvel television universe had officially arrived. 2016’s second season of “Daredevil” was a slight decline in quality, but it was still well-received and successfully laid the groundwork for the Punisher to carry his own series. With the release of “Luke Cage” later that year, the universe achieved yet another big win with its socially conscious and engaging narrative, rock-solid cast, and the way it embraced and celebrated its Harlem setting.

Sadly, this narrative of constant forward momentum was bound to falter eventually. Much like the first phase of MCU movies built towards a massive event film in the form of “The Avengers”, the Marvel-Netflix universe was similarly laying the groundwork for an epic crossover of its own, “The Defenders”. After introducing Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, only one key player remained Iron Fist. He was the piece of the puzzle that had people most concerned from the outset, and unfortunately, as predicted, the creative team struggled to bring him to the small screen in a satisfying way. Iron Fist was the universe’s first real misstep - cracks in a universe that, until then, seemed invincible. Iron Fist as a white martial artist espousing eastern mysticism wasn’t a good fit for 2017, generating a lot negative conversation even before the show debuted. When it was released, things only got worse. Hero Danny Rand was deemed bland and the overarching story failed to really draw viewers in. Perhaps most egregious for a series centered around martial arts, the fight scenes were notably lackluster.

Missteps are inevitable for any franchise. You learn from the mistake and adjust. It would seem, however, that for Marvel and Netflix, the failure of “Iron Fist” had a far more insidious impact than anyone could have predicted or foreseen. Netflix remains relatively tight-lipped about exact viewing numbers, but the general consensus seems to be that viewership lagged for all series from that point on. Following the logic of “The Avengers”, “The Defenders” should have been a huge draw, but it arrived to surprisingly little fanfare. It did well with binge watchers, but Variety reported that, at the time of release, it was the least viewed Netflix Marvel series within its first month. In terms of reviews, it was generally well-received, but most were quick to point out its flaws and call it less than the sum of its parts.

The Netflix Marvel universe was losing steam, and at the most unlikely of times. Subsequent seasons of Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage were all performed well critically-speaking - even Iron First season 2 showed improvement - but the buzz around all of the above notably declined. In the absence of clear viewership numbers, journalists turned to social media to gauge subscriber engagement, and the numbers paint a picture of diminishing returns. A definitive cause for this is hard to pin down. Perhaps the novelty of these heroes simply wore off. Maybe people prefer their superheroes more lighthearted like in the Marvel films. Others have suggested that the television universe self-destructed by oversaturating the market, literally giving people too much-interconnected content to watch. Whatever the case, Iron Fist and the Defenders stand out, together, as a notable turning point.

Though interconnected universes can create a rabid and engaged fanbase, by the same token, a misstep within one arguably carries greater stakes. Fans invest far more time in a shared universe than a contained franchise. You naturally want to see the whole picture, but if that necessitates sitting through 10 to 13 hours of content you don’t care about, well... maybe the universe isn’t worth the effort anymore. When one piece of an interconnected universe disappoints, you risk turning people off of the whole thing, including the elements they previously enjoyed.

Even with diminished viewership, you’d think that Netflix and Marvel would endeavor to save this once-great project, be it through the introduction of new series, or by doubling down on the ones that did work. The thing is…Marvel and Netflix are not one and the same. They collaborated on this venture, yes, but their overall goals don’t always align. And while the Marvel Netflix universe was already on the decline in terms of viewership, there are two developments that truly sealed its fate: a changing approach to content at Netflix, and the development of Disney’s very own streaming service, Disney+.

Netflix has long been seen as the champion of canceled shows, giving many a popular series an extended lease on life after their networks gave them the ax. But of late… Netflix has been the one swinging the hatchet. It all comes down to numbers. Shows that Netflix produces in-house are more lucrative for the streaming service. Those that are produced by outside studios and only distributed by Netflix come with more strings attached and limited profits. Now that it’s an entertainment juggernaut in its own right, one that more and more creators are interested in working with directly, Netflix appears to be prioritizing in-house programming. The result? Shows produced by other studios like “American Vandal”, “Seven Seconds” and the various Marvel shows become more vulnerable to cancelation. Considering the cost of Marvel shows, the declining viewership, and the steep licensing fees that Netflix pays for them, the numbers no longer add up.

Of course, even if Netflix wasn’t changing its priorities, the announcement of Disney+ throws a serious wrench into things. To be clear, Disney didn’t pull the plug on the Netflix Marvel shows. As Netflix's Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos has stated, it’s Netflix who controls if these series get renewed or canceled. Be that as it may… when your partner announces its intention to become one of your biggest competitors, it forces you to re-evaluate your strategy. The Netflix Marvel universe, in its own time, was arguably the best live-action Marvel television being made. With Disney+ producing direct tie-ins to their movie universe - using their substantial means, massive cast of characters, and big names stars - the Netflix Marvel series get severely overshadowed. Disney+ didn’t need to actively kill the Marvel Netflix series, it guaranteed the demise of the latter simply by existing.

So… here’s to the Marvel Netflix universe. We wish it had lasted longer, and we would have loved to see adapt even more of Marvel’s lesser known characters - similarly giving them an opportunity to shine. Sadly, while streaming services have created new and exciting opportunities to experiment with content, it’s still a young, fast-paced and ever-changing environment. An innovation like the Marvel Netflix television universe can help change the industry and then, in just a few short years, cease to exist. Though our small screen heroes may be gone, they won’t soon be forgotten, having left their mark on the superhero genre and television history.

Then again… the competition could always step in to save the day.
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