In the last few weeks, Netflix pulled a Thanos-level move by cancelling Marvel’s Iron Fist and Marvel’s Luke Cage on successive Fridays. The major reduction in Marvel Television shows by the streaming service is a far cry from the hope and optimism the two companies shared when they first announced plans to attempt an Avengers-style trick on television. In the beginning, the plan was to produce four television shows and bring them together in a fifth show called Marvel’s The Defenders. The plan took a little bit longer than anyone expected — Marvel’s Daredevil pulled off a second season before the first year of Iron Fist could be mounted — but it did come to fruition as an eight-episode series worthy of a Certified Fresh 77% rating on the Tomatometer and an Audience Score of 75%.
And yet, somewhere along the way, the plan still derailed. After The Defenders debuted, various members of cast and crew referred to it as a miniseries. Marvel’s Jessica Jones star Krysten Ritter said she was told it was always intended to be a one-off thing.
Then the ax came for Iron Fist and Luke Cage. The former felt inevitable; the show’s second season received the greatest season-over-season gain in Tomatometer history, but it still left the show with a 55% score and the series at an embarrassing 37% overall. Luke Cage‘s cancellation was more of a surprise with a generally well-received second season (a Certified Fresh 83%) to its credit and a writers’ room working on scripts for a third season.
So what went wrong? Why has Netflix seemingly cooled off on its relationship with Marvel Entertainment? And what could it mean for the remaining shows. Also, is there still hope for Luke Cage and Iron Fist? Let’s take a look at what we know.
While Netflix never offers concrete viewership numbers, social media engagement is often a good indicator of a Netflix Original Series’ success. Fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 took to Twitter and other platforms to convince the service to greenlight a 12th season and the social media reaction to Sense8’s cancellation led to a wrap-up film.
As it happens, the engagement on Luke Cage and Iron Fist fell sharply after their debut seasons. Which is a real shock considering Luke Cage reportedly taxed Netflix’s servers into a shutdown when the first season became available in October 2016. Again, it is still unclear if that engagement directly correlates to raw viewership, but it is an indication that both shows simply failed to capture the imaginations of Netflix subscribers.
Or, ultimately, the shows were not as appealing as Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Marvel’s The Punisher, which would be necessar to justify their existence. And considering the way the companies ramped up the release schedule — Iron Fist season 2 and Daredevil season 3 debuted just over a month apart — it may just have been too much to support. Flooding the market with product is a trademark Marvel move longtime readers of the comics will recognize, but there may have been other factors involved.
Quality may not have been an issue at all. Netflix changed its posture when The Walt Disney Company announced its plans to launch its own streaming service in 2019, around the time the company’s long-term licensing deal with Netflix expires. All the Disney-owned content, which includes the Marvel Studios films, Star Wars movies, and Disney’s animated offerings like Coco, will vanish from Netflix sometime next year and, presumably, populate Disney as-yet-unnamed platform. (Also read: “7 Ways TV and Streaming Fans Win With the Disney-Fox Deal.”)
Specific details on the service are still cloudy, but reports indicate much of its film and television library will end up on the platform before too long. The actual rollout will likely follow the pattern DC Universe is employing to stagger its library with material cycling in and out at a regular interval.
No matter Disney’s plans, though, it will be a major rival to Netflix before too long and many suspect the end of Luke Cage and Iron Fist relates directly to this eventual competition between the streaming service and Marvel’s parent company. When Disney first announced its platform in 2017, Netflix content chief Ted Sarandos said the Marvel brand is “not that exclusive,” before adding “Netflix has The Defenders.” Up until Iron Fist‘s demise, the company repeatedly confirmed the shows were staying put. Although, just before Daredevil‘s debut last week, Sarandos said, “Those shows are for us to cancel, and we’re super happy with their performance so far.” Before Luke Cage was cancelled, the statement seemed hopeful. Now, there is a certain ominous tone to the phrase “for us to cancel.”
In the case of Luke Cage, the situation may have been more interpersonal as a reported dispute regarding the length of the third season appears to have led to Netflix’s seemingly abrupt cancellation of that season. Additionally, creative differences about the scripts themselves may have led to the quick decision. But with the relationship between Marvel and Netflix changing, cancelling a program they do not own outright instead of fighting a creative battle must have looked appealing in the moment. Presumably that lack of ownership will come into play when both parties consider the remaining shows.
While Marvel’s long-term future at Netflix may be coming to an end, the situation may not be apocalyptic. Some have noted that none of the stars or top-line creatives involved in Iron Fist or Luke Cage have rushed out to find new work. Granted, in the case of Luke Cage, the situation changed dramatically one week ago, and we may see those talents dispersing into new opportunities. But for the moment, let’s assume Marvel Entertainment has assured them of some sort of future.
Then there’s the wording of Marvel and Netflix’s joint statement regarding Iron Fist, in which both companies said, “While the series on Netflix has ended, the immortal Iron Fist will live on.” The sentence immediately led many to speculate the show may have a future on one of Disney streaming services. While the upcoming Disney platform might seem like the natural outlet, the company’s majority control of Hulu may see it become a venue for revived Luke Cage and Iron Fist shows. Reportedly, Hulu will play home to Disney and 20th Century Fox’s more adult-friendly fare, while the Disney-branded service offers content for general audiences. And considering Hulu is already the home of Marvel’s Runaways and the streaming home of Freeform’s Cloak & Dagger, the grittier Marvel shows will not be out of place there.
Of course, it is unclear what form such a Hulu revival would take. Plenty of people want both shows to contort into a Heroes for Hire or Daughters of the Dragon series. Some would even like both. As Luke Cage’s Misty Knight (Simone Missick) and Iron Fist’s Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) were breakout characters and very appealing elements of Iron Fist’s second season, focusing on them in a Daughters of the Dragon series makes a certain sense. As Luke Cage showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker told us in June, people were already asking for Daughters of the Dragon while the second season was in development.
Then again, both Iron Fist and Luke Cage ended their second season on cliffhangers worthy of resolution.
It would be interesting to see a Heroes for Hire series begin with both Luke and Danny exiled from New York for reasons left unexplained, but related to where their shows left off. And if we are being greedy, a Daughters of the Dragon series could see Colleen and Misty setting their own path.
Meanwhile, Marvel Studios contributes its planned limited series on the Disney-branded service. It almost sounds ideal to keep the Marvel Studios product on Disney while odder shows like Luke Cage and Runaways take root at Hulu.
While the news of recent weeks is sad, particularly for fans of Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the relationship between Netflix and Marvel will continue into the short term. Daredevil just debuted its third season, and it might be the best season of any of the Defenders-related programs (though its 92% on the Tomatometer is still down 7% from the series’ season 1 height).
A third year of Jessica Jones and a second season of The Punisher are also in various stages of production, meaning the latter two will return to Netflix for at least one more season. Daredevil is, at the moment, a question mark. As executive producer and showrunner Erik Oleson recently told us, he “can’t talk about the future,” but is nevertheless hopeful the quality of the work will merit continuing the series. As the flagship program, its future will be the bellwether of the Marvel shows beyond 2019.
Jessica Jones, meanwhile, may be heading toward a natural conclusion on its own. Just as work began on the new season, showrunner Melissa Rosenberg announced her departure from the series following the third year for an overall production deal at Warner Bros. Television. It is a major creative change that could be recognized in the story, with Jessica (Ritter) and Trish (Rachael Taylor) getting more closure on Netflix than Danny of Luke. Or, at the very least, the final episode of Rosenberg’s run could be reworked into something more definitive.
As Oleson told us, producing a season of a Marvel show is not unlike writing a “run of the comic,” with the understanding that someone else will always be along to tell more stories with the characters. Rosenberg may have guided the show to an end point that Netflix will use to justify its cancellation. The Punisher, sitting at a 66% on the Tomatometer, may have the wisdom to give Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) a worthwhile send-off, while leaving a bit of hope for a Hulu resurrection.
And should all of the shows leave Netflix for Hulu or the same cancellation bin shared by Marvel’s Agent Carter and Marvel’s Inhumans, Netflix will be fine for comic-book content as it looks to a future with programs like The Umbrella Academy and content emerging from Millarworld, the comic-book company the service bought in August 2017. Plans are already in place to develop films based on creator Mark Millar’s Empress and Huck and series from his Jupiter’s Legacy and American Jesus comics. Another Millarworld project, Sharkey The Bounty Hunter, is being developed as a film and comic book concurrently.
But with just about every Marvel cancellation, there comes the sadness that story-lines will not be resolved. The small, but dedicated fanbase of Agent Carter is still infatuated with star Hayley Atwell and hopes for resolution regarding Jack Thompson (Chad Michael Murray), just as many Luke Cage viewers hope to see how Luke deals with running Harlem’s Paradise. While Marvel Television President Jeph Loeb could not be reached for comment, his previous statement about Agent Carter probably applies here as well: “Find us a network.” All he needs is a platform to carry to series and he will bring it back. To him, the shows Marvel put into production are strong enough to go the 100-episode distance. While it is doubtful he will ever orchestrate the return of Inhumans, Heroes for Hire devotees should remain hopeful.
The fact is, Marvel never lets an idea die. Luke and Danny’s popularity in comics also waxes and wanes over the decades, but they are always poised to make a comeback with good creative people at the helm. And even if neither show was strong enough on its own, the interest in the team-ups both shows teased could be enough to give the shows another life. It is just a matter of when and how.