Netflix’s Marvel Series Were Gritty, but Far From Perfect

The Netflix Marvel shows are leaving Netflix on March 1, since their rights have reverted to Disney. The speculation is that they will end up on Disney+, though that still hasn’t been confirmed.

I blinked at the news, and not only because those shows can no longer be called the Netflix Marvel shows. The interconnected Netflix series only ended in 2019. But they already feel like a superhero moment from an alternate timeline, quaintly irrelevant to where the MCU and mainstream superheroes have gone and are going. To reconsider them now is to be forcibly reminded of a street-level gritty alleyway not traveled—for better and worse.

The Netflix series—Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, The Defenders, and The Punisher—were released in 2015 as a deliberate alternative to the cosmic goings-on in cinemas. The first season of Daredevil was in part about dealing with the real estate fall-out of the alternate dimension invasion shown in The Avengers (2012). The heroes fought low-tech gangs and ninjas. Supercostumes were ignored, except as occasional in-jokes. And though in theory the series was set in the MCU, creative differences and logistical issues meant that—in contrast to the Disney+ Marvel shows—big-name stars from the big screens never appeared.

That really only hints at the differences between MCU in theaters and MCU on Netflix though. Encouraged to go their own way, the Netflix shows chose to explore two vast areas of genre largely sidelined in the rest of the brighter, all-ages MCU: violence and sex.

The MCU of course has superfights and special effects carnage galore. The battles, though, all have a CGI sheen, and frankly underwhelming choreography—yes, even in Shang-Chi.

netflix punisher
Courtesy of Netflix

In comparison, Daredevil especially developed its own brutal fight aesthetic, epitomized by several famous hallway battles, in which Daredevil/ Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) punches, kicks, and just about crawls by his fingernails through an endless stream of scruffy antagonists as the lights flicker and everyone onscreen gets more and more visibly exhausted. The scenes, inspired by the most brutal bits of Hong Kong cinema, are substantially more visceral and inventive than the much-celebrated John Wick fight sequences. As for the rest of the MCU, there’s simply nothing even remotely comparable.

As with the choreography, so with the series more generally. The on-screen MCU showed half the people in the universe dying—but they died by disintegrating into clean, sterile, CGI dust. The Netflix series are much more willing to explore brutality and trauma in all their revolting fleshiness. Battles are bloody, protracted, and ugly. The heroes engage in stomach-churning torture; in one horrific scene, Daredevil gets his friend, nurse Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) to use her medical knowledge to help him insert a sharp object into a villain’s eye socket.

Perhaps most disturbingly, the Netflix series included explicit, protracted examinations of sexual violence. The entire first season of Jessica Jones is a fight against her monstrous sexual abuser Killgrave (David Tennant). Killgrave’s mind-control powers are both a metaphor for sexual abuse and are actually used to sexually abuse Jessica and her friends. Killgrave’s premeditated sadism, and the terror and trauma of his victims, is a sharp contrast to the themes of mind control in WandaVision, which are mostly off to the side of the main action, and never touch on sexual abuse.

The willingness to use themes of sexual violence is of a piece with the Netflix shows’ willingness to deal with themes of sex and sexuality more generally. The MCU is notoriously sexless; flirting is rarely consummated and Tony Stark’s trysts cut quickly to the morning after. The greatest exploration of romance in the MCU is almost completely de-eroticized; there are no sex scenes in WandaVision.

jessica jones kilgrave
Courtesy of Netflix

The films almost always emphasize that sex is not a motivation. Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) for example callously murders his girlfriend with no apparent regret in Black Panther, while the great romance in The Eternals is tragic in part because it doesn’t sway the characters from their ideological positions.

Television’s Agent Carter was something of an exception in playing up its romantic story arcs. But Peggy Carter has nothing on the Netflix shows, which were more like HBO series in their embrace of shirtless sweatiness and lust as a character motivation.

Daredevil, Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), Luke Cage (Mike Colter), and other characters all had messy, complicated, R-rated sex lives, which were supposed to be adult viewer draws. The villainous Kingpin (Vincent D’Onofrio) beats a man to death with his bare hands because the guy embarrassed him in front of his (not at all platonic) true love. Luke Cage enemy Black Mariah (Alfre Woodard) has a passionate December/May romance with hired muscle Shades (Theo Rossi); their alliance is central to her control of her criminal powerbase.

And so on. In the rest of the MCU, sex is an inconvenience to be danced around. In the Netflix shows, it drives plot, forms characters, and is obviously meant to attract viewers. This doesn’t mean that the Netflix shows were always great. They were not always great. Quite frequently, they were terrible.

Finn Jones was ludicrously miscast as Iron Fist, and everything he’s in is painful to watch. The glorification of torture is adamantly not a plus. Even the strongest seasons got bogged down in too many plot complications, and “grim and gritty” often translated into something like, “tortuous ponderous pretension.” I think the first season of Jessica Jones is probably the best thing that’s come out of the MCU (edging out Black Panther, for me). Some of the Daredevil fight scenes are sublime. There are wonderful acting turns. But the highlights are surrounded by a lot of filler and dreck.

But the brighter, cheerier MCU is also incredibly inconsistent—not least because it’s so formulaic. Other superhero narratives, like The Boys and Invincible and to some degree The Joker, have gone in more Netflix MCU-like directions. The MCU itself, though, after a detour through Netflix, has found a Disney, quippy, family-friendly, infinite crossover, CGI-fight groove from which it rarely strays. That’s not a world-ending tragedy of Infinity Stone proportions. But, in a small, street-level way, it’s a loss.

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This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Image Credit: Netflix. 

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.