(Photo by Netflix)
Last week, word broke indicating the six Marvel Television programs on Netflix would be leaving the service at the end of the month. The reason: Netflix’s rights to the shows are about to expire per the original deal struck long before Disney+ was a public concept and the streamer’s relationship with the now-shuttered division of Marvel Entertainment soured. The situation is ultimately akin to other licensed content reverting back to its owner; Friends and The Office also left the service — for HBO Max and Peacock, respectively — after long stays and the various Star Trek shows are slowly disappearing from Netflix queues after what seems like an eternity and resettling over at Paramount+.
But any move regarding Marvel media is not just newsworthy, but part of a surprising meta-narrative about Marvel Studios calling all its intellectual property home for its own use. Will the removal of those six shows from Netflix simply be a procedural change of rights or does it speak to things we can expect in Marvel films and shows in the short term? Let’s take a look at the situation as it stands and see what we can find.
(Photo by Sarah Shatz/Netflix)
As a quick recap: in 2013, Netflix agreed to carry and distribute four series co-produced by Marvel Television and ABC Studios based on street-level Marvel heroes with the title characters all teaming up in a subsequent standalone miniseries called The Defenders. The four shows — Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist — all sought to highlight a diverse cast of characters and the particular streets and avenues of Manhattan they called home.
The first effort, Daredevil set the tone as more mature-minded set of programs. The epic Battle of New York from Marvel’s Avengers was obscured as “the incident” and its effects were more concerned with property values and insurance scams than any processing of an alien invasion. Costumes were de-emphasized and issues like sex, PTSD, and alcoholism took the place of Whedon-esque quipping. Brutal hallway fights also emerged as the close-quarters combat calling card of Marvel on Netflix.
(Photo by Netflix)
It all went great at first. Two seasons of Daredevil and one season each of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage were produced before any signs of trouble emerged. Then the first season Iron Fist proved to be a significant black eye (20% on the Tomatometer in its first season) and the long-promised team-up series, The Defenders, receiving a 78% on the Tomatometer but still ending up perceived as a muted effort. Nevertheless, Marvel Television and Netflix went forward with a Punisher series while each of the Defenders moved on to the next season of their individual shows. But the promise of another big team-up faded as the streaming platform confirmed The Defenders as a one-time event.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Disney began making moves to launch its own streaming platform with television shows from Marvel Studios as a key unique selling point.
Back in the Netflix version of Marvel’s Manhattan, a chill came over the city as, one by one, the shows were canceled across late 2018 and early 2019. Industry pundits guessed the imminent launch of Disney+ as a reason for the swift change in the programs’ value to the Netflix. Most doubted the streaming giant wanted to be in business with a company soon to be its rival. And even as we began to speculate about the characters’ possible return in a Marvel Studios project, word came that the contract with Netflix would keep the ex-Defenders grounded for two years from the date their individual shows were nixed. No shows could be developed with the characters and even thinking of a cameo in, say, Avengers: Infinity War was reportedly forbidden.
(Photo by Netflix)
Cut to 2020. The stipulations regarding the characters began to expire and almost immediately came rumors that Charlie Cox would appear as Matt Murdoch (Daredevil’s civilian identity) in the film eventually titled Spider-Man: No Way Home. As a straight-up guess, it made sense — we even suggested it as a possibility ourselves! From our understanding of the original deal, Marvel Studios (who by then had complete creative control over Marvel film and television projects) could not even contemplate the Defenders characters until the expiry dates; November 2020 in Daredevil’s case. But a quick cameo was possible, particularly as scenes with Cox could be filmed at any time that winter and into the next year. As it happens, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed No Way Home’s release date to December 2021, giving the production plenty of leeway for a Daredevil appearance.
As it turns out, Cox did indeed shoot scenes for No Way Home, and if his comments in recent days are any indication, it is only the beginning of Matt’s days in the current Marvel Cinematic Universe.
“I presume there’s more for us to do,” Cox told The Hollywood Reporter. “I know a little bit — not a huge amount — but a little bit.”
More surprising, though, was the featured appearance by Daredevil’s key adversary, Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’ Onofrio), in last December’s Disney+ series, Hawkeye. D’Onofrio told us he was first approached about reprising role early in 2021. Observing from the outside, though, the closeness to the contract expiry date to Hawkeye’s production still made a Kingpin return a long shot until, suddenly, his history with the characters made him a viable option and he appeared in a Hawaiian shirt ready to slam Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld) into a wall.
Following the one-two punch of Daredevil characters in No Way Home and the final Hawkeye episodes, the program shot to the top of Netflix’s internal charts. But as we now know, this did little to convince the streamer to extend its rights to the show or any of the Marvel productions. Instead, each will leave on March 1 — a Blip of Defenders proportions.
(Photo by Netflix)
As of now, it is unclear where the shows will go. Considering their mature themes — a shift in tone inspired by the Marvel Knights publishing imprint – they may not fit in the Disney+ lineup. Nevertheless, they have direct ties to the MCU and, if our conversation with D’Onofrio is any indication, the events of Daredevil are more or less canon. But the themes of Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and The Punisher (and Daredevil’s violence) make them more suited to Hulu. Then again, Disney operates a mature-themed hub within the Disney+ app in other countries, so there is a way to include them on the app.
Having as much Marvel content as possible in the Disney+ Marvel hub is ideal for the company and for fans, of course. It’s easy to refer back to Daredevil when it’s just a few remote-clicks away from Hawkeye. Indeed, wasn’t that the promise of Disney+ to begin with?
Complicating the issue is the material housed at Hulu. The live-action series Runaways and Helstrom — and the animated programs M.O.D.O.K. and Hit-Monkey — were produced for the Disney-controlled service and are unlikely to move to the Marvel hub anytime soon. If the former Netflix programs are also declared out of continuity, it would make more sense for them to find a permanent home alongside these last efforts of Marvel Television.
But that leads to the question: Are the shows canon or not?
(Photo by Netflix)
The canonicity of the Netflix shows is a matter of great debate. As D’Onofrio told us, he approached his Hawkeye appearance with his time on Daredevil as part of the character’s history. Cox’s brief moment in No Way Home required far less consideration about the former series, but we imagine it was pretty easy to slip back into the process of playing Matt Murdoch from the muscle memory gained on that show. Everyone else, though, is up for grabs. The actors themselves all have series commitments, so don’t expect new seasons of Jessica Jones or Luke Cage in the near-future, but there is always room for guest slots or a supporting character to pop up in unexpected ways.
When She-Hulk was first announced, we suggested there might be room for Jessica Jones’s Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor, pictured above) to resurface as an investigative assistant for Jennifer Walters (Tatiana Maslany). Back in the comics, the characters are close friends and have a working relationship. The show was developed within the contract stipulation, though, so this is quite unlikely. But going forward, who’s to say? But with Jessica Jones potentially part of a lost reality, Hellcat could emerge as very different person should she ever appear on She-Hulk.
This wide openness could lead to something like Luke Cage eventually returning for season 3 and picking up from its thematic cliffhanger or Iron Fist undergoing a complete rethink. It could also lead to more surprise cameos leaving fans to wonder if these shows “happened” or not. As a matter of history, the Marvel Television programs supposedly connected to the MCU are of a lesser canon — cameos in Avengers: Endgame and No Way Home notwithstanding.
(Photo by Disney+)
Another alternative is the possibility of The Defenders brand re-emerging as either a more supernaturally-tinged group or something truer to its comic book roots — a more mixed team with characters like Doctor Strange, the Hulk, Hellcat, Nighthawk, and Valkyrie. As it happens, Moon Knight’s second appearance was in several issues of The Defenders. In one issue, he famously escaped a deathtrap with a can of beer. If Moon Knight proves to be more supernatural in his Disney+ incarnation he could take Strange’s place on a Defenders roster comprised of characters from the Disney+ shows and, maybe, a few returning heroes from the Netflix incarnation. Seeing Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) make fun of Moon Knight’s costume would be worth it alone.
There is one other wild idea to consider. In the most recent Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness trailer, the distinctive voice of Patrick Stewart can be heard suggesting it may be time to tell Strange the truth. Most believe Stewart is reprising his X-Men role as Charles Xavier, but circumstances have made him part of a Multiversal governing council dubbed “the Illuminati” in honor of various Marvel Comics storylines. We don’t know if any of that is true, but it would be a place for Marvel Studios to honor all the work before they unified the film and TV universes. Could Finn Jones, perhaps, have a seat on the council as a representative of the Netflix reality? Will the truth Xavier wants to reveal indicate the Defenders invaded the MCU during Doctor Strange’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) No Way Home spell?
(Photo by Netflix)
No matter who is on that council glimpsed in the trailer, the film may be able to offer the Netflix programs — and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for that matter — a place in the Mutliversal narrative structure and a way for Marvel Studios to use the characters, actors, and storylines they want the most while shunting the rest to the an elsewhere zone. That might seem confusing at first, but Marvel Comics has been doing such continuity fixes for decades.
Or, as we said up top, this may just be a matter of procedure. The rights to the shows are just reverting to Disney and there are no grand plans for the former Defenders. If the change is nothing more than that, it at least indicates Marvel Studios is free and clear to reintroduce the characters when and how they wish.
It also means the cameo we suggested long ago for Matt Murdoch — trying a case across the aisle from Jen on She-Hulk — could be a little bit more than a cameo.