In episode 7 of the first season of the Netflix program Luke Cage, the villainous gangster, Cottonmouth (played with sinister delight by Mahershala Ali), is killed off to make way for Diamondback to emerge as the true Big Bad of that season.
In that episode, more than Cottonmouth died, however. With him seemingly went Marvel and Netflix’s ability to put on the great shows we had been getting used to.
(For clarity’s sake, I have not yet finished Jessica Jones season 2 as of this writing. I believe I have two for three episodes left. But I’ve definitely watched enough to have an informed opinion, and oh… I do. Regardless, this article will be SPOILER-FREE)
The union of Marvel and Netflix seemed to be a blessing of glorious visual storytelling and larger-than-life characters for a solid period of time. The first season of Daredevil was brilliant, with an Emmy-worthy performance from Vincent D’Onofrio (though he was denied even a nomination in a snub that is the most criminal thing I saw that year since D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk beat a foe’s head in with a car door), a fun and engaging supporting cast, and episode-after-episode of breath-taking action. Jessica Jones succeeded the blind vigilante, and she brought with her a show full of hopelessness, dread, and psychological terror. Krysten Ritter and David Tennant played a mesmerizing game of cat-and-mouse over thirteen episodes that told an impactful story and had wonderful moments (as someone who has never even enjoyed the character Nuke, I marked out at Simpson’s simple “Gimme a red” line because I never saw that turn coming). And for seven episodes, Luke Cage was a romp through the streets of Harlem with a man trying to be a role model and a savior while more nefarious forces conspired against him.
And then Cottonmouth died.
What followed was a chore of a back-end of a season. There was a ridiculous acid bath that was so over-the-top it became a laugh. Luke was forced into an awkward, unbelievable love story with Claire the nurse, and Diamondback pulled a lame “evil long-lost brother” turn, made even worse by his asinine choice for a costume.
Since then, Netflix and Marvel have put together a string of shows that have ranged from passable to borderline terrible. Daredevil season 2 was a busy mess of intertwining plots that came together to form a season I’d call “Okay, but forgettable”. I, personally, will defend Iron Fist to the death, but it was admittedly not great (and a lot of folks’ complaints about it are justified, even if I enjoyed much of the season). Defenders was abhorrent and completely wasted the casting of Sigourney Weaver. The Punisher… okay, The Punisher was pretty damn good. It started slow, but the back half of the season was a brutal, visceral parade of intriguing twists and action.
So there was hope that Punisher’s slow start was a long-term turn like what we experienced in Luke Cage. Maybe it was the ride back glory for Marvel and Netflix. With that in our hearts, Jessica Jones season 2 came out.
(for clarity’s updated sake, I have finished S2 since the start of this article! Huzzah!)
After a fine start and a strong mid-season build, Jessica Jones fizzles HARD in the last several episodes, and it finishes with a substantial limp. If there is one overarching problem with the season, it’s that Jessica’s main plot is often the weakest going on. The subplots surrounding Jeryn Hogarth, Malcolm, Trish Walker, and others are often much more interesting, but even they are watered down and hastily resolved–if resolved at all, in some cases–by season’s end. Hogarth especially has an incredibly savory plot line through the season that comes to an underwhelming conclusion that takes the air out of the room. Season 2 strives to become one of those shows that revels in how unlikable its ENTIRE CAST can be, and by the end, there’s really no one left to cheer for. Characterization is a mere distant concept for the show, and everyone’s priorities, attitudes, and even driving desires seem to have been written with the focus of a drunk bumblebee. It’s eminently and entirely unenjoyable, wrapped up in a season finale that spends forty meandering minutes making you say “This can’t be the finale, right?” only to have one big shock to finish off the main storyline, followed by enough different “endings” to make Lord Of The Rings blush.
So what is going on here? Why has the Marvel/Netflix marriage veered so far off course? Are they straining under the high bar set by their first two series? Or were those shows the true fluke? The gem that was The Punisher shows there is still some spark to be found, but over the last several seasons of shows, it is proving to be the exception to the rule.
The idea that these shows might eventually be moved to the streaming service that Disney is creating was met with hard resistance at first (and at the last news item I had heard, the idea was that Netflix would end up keeping these shows and characters), but is it possible they could do with the change in scenery? It’s hard to say. If you look at the three best seasons so far–DD S1, Jessica Jones S1, and The Punisher–it’s nearly impossible to imagine the world’s happiest mouse abiding by the acts that take place within. So I don’t know what the answer here is, but hopefully they figure it out soon. Out of their last three outings, they’ve given us one good show split between their two worst. That’s not a pattern for success.