I think Marvel gets it.
Last week, Marvel Entertainment announced that it would begin producing four separate 13-epsiode series featuring Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist and Luke Cage, all culminating into a “Defenders” mini-series.
It’s been a long held belief of mine that there are some comic book characters who simply aren’t right for big-screen epics, not for any reason other than mainstream audiences have a specific idea in mind when it comes to superhero films. The movie-going public wants to see heroes with extraordinary gifts taking down colorful bad guys in a two-hour adventure. The plot shouldn’t be too complex and the action sequences need to be astonishing, and the whole thing needs to culminate in a big showdown for the finale. This is not a criticism or admonishment of comic book films, it’s an observation of a formula that has worked for everything from “Spider-Man” to “The Avengers”, and everything in between.
But what about the characters that don’t have the colorful rogues gallery of villains? What does a film studio do with the comic book properties where the protagonist leans more towards that of an anti-hero than anything else? In 2004 Warner Bros. finally brought “Catwoman” to the screen, but the character didn’t resemble her comic book counterpart. Halle Berry portrayed Patience Phillips, not Selina Kyle, a timid graphic artist who is murdered and brought to life as a result of some mystical cat-goddess mumbo jumbo. The story unfolds, like so many feature film comic book stories, beginning with the hero gaining powers, learning how to use them, and then realizing that responsibility comes with the newfound gifts. In truth, “Catwoman” resembled Spider-Man’s story more than anything Selina Kyle was doing in her own comic books.
Herein lies one of the biggest problems with adapting comic book characters. Film companies, most notably Warner Bros. and Twentieth Century Fox, have attempted to repackage the properties in ways that are totally dissimilar to original source material so as to appeal to mainstream audiences. Unfortunately, you lose whatever it is that has made these characters resonate with audiences for decades. When Fox took a stab at Elektra, the assassin-for-hire seemed watered down as she faced off against a crew of “Mortal Kombat” style adversaries.
If the metamorphosis of anti-heroes into vanilla incarnations of their comic book selves is the first problem, the next one faced by Hollywood comic book adaptations has been the desire to tell too much story in a single film. In the 2003 film “Daredevil”, the film features an origin story, a romance between Matt Murdock and Elektra Natchios, and two villains in the Kingpin and Bullseye. With so much ground to cover, and an attempt to adapt the most iconic parts of Frank Miller’s original run, the film brushes too quickly over important sequences that we are left feeling none of Daredevil’s angst when Elektra perishes at the hands of Bullseye. The same can be said of 2009’s adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ “Watchmen”. The original is dense with story and characterization; the Zack Snyder film played like a series of “best of” hits with too many classic tracks absent.
So how can a Netflix series fix what the feature films have been unable to do? Easy, the stories will have the opportunity to breathe. If the Daredevil series plans to adapt Elektra’s storyline, it can be done at a deliberate pace, allowing audiences to observe as the assassin and the hero fall for one another without having to rush things. A series would allow audiences to invest in their relationship in a way that is too difficult in a film that has villains and action set pieces vying for similar (if not more) screen time.
The villains can be explored in ways that could never be done on film. I’ll assume that the Kingpin is the main villain of the Daredevil series. If so, then there will be plenty of room to show off the menacing persona of Wilson Fisk. Back in 2001, Greg Rucka and Eduardo Risso produced a one-shot Kingpin story in “Spider-Man’s Tangled Web” #4 in which a mobster is called into Fisk’s office in the middle of the night. The man managed a heist that was foiled by the wall-crawler, at the Kingpin’s expense, and a one-on-one with the boss could mean only one thing. The man knew it, his wife knew it, and an hour or so later the man was dead. Stories like these, that allow us to observe the protagonists and antagonists from varying angles, are difficult to achieve in a feature film.
In producing new content for Netflix, Marvel has found what might be the perfect vehicle for those properties that are harder to sell on the big screen. The company has been tossing around ideas for other properties that haven’t gotten off the ground, but may eventually find themselves adapted in similar 13-epsiode Netflix series. Adaptations of “Cloak and Dagger” and “Runaways” have been discussed for the past few years, but neither has come to fruition. The former may not have the legs for a television series and the latter might be two large a gamble considering that Marvel Studios has had so much success with their straight-out superhero films.
Speaking of gambles, this Netflix deal is a super-sized one. “Daredevil” is the most recognizable character of the four announced series, but mainstream audiences are primarily aware of the Ben Affleck film. Marvel Studios took a larger gamble when it green-lit “Iron Man 2”, “Thor”, and “Captain America: The First Avenger” to lead into the 2012 blockbuster “The Avengers”. The “Iron Man” sequel had an excellent chance of finding an audience, but there were no guarantees that the other films would even find modest success. The gamble paid off and now Marvel Studios has become a brand that has, more often than not, found success in their mainstream entertainment ventures.
What if this new venture pays off and Marvel has a number of small screen hits on their hands with the new Netflix deal? In my mind, this is the most exciting aspect of Marvel’s endeavor. What happens next? Well, the studio can go on to produce additional series, such as the aforementioned “Cloak and Dagger” or “Runaways”. We could also get follow-ups to the more successful series in the company’s line-up. Or we might get series based on Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye, Mockingbird, Moon Knight, Spider-Woman, Shang-Chi, or even Loki. I know this might be considered sacrilege, but the Netflix series don’t have to feature the same actors as the feature films (though I’d love to see a Loki series featuring Tom Hiddleston).
Fox, who is sitting on an enormous Marvel property, could produce an endless number of X-Men based series that would have a difficult time finding an audience at the Cineplex. Gambit, Psylocke, Kitty Pryde, Emma Frost, and so many other characters have had little to no exposure in the X-Men films. Or worse, their parts have been reduced so much that it would be clear to anyone who doesn’t read comic books why these characters have been popular for decades. In truth, I think a solid Wolverine adaptation would benefit from a long-form story versus a feature film.
Of course, if Marvel’s Netflix programming turns out to be a success, Warner Bros. has a library of incredible properties that would be a perfect match for a limited-series format. My first choices would be a less-stylized and truer take on “Watchmen”, a Nightwing series that opens with the character dropping the Robin moniker, and maybe even a Batman adaptation (“The Black Mirror” or “A Death in the Family”). Warner Bros. has had great success with Batman on film, but they could find more, even with modestly budgeted Netflix series.
Who knows what other series could surface? “Powers” or “The Sixth Gun” perhaps? There are endless comic book properties that may not be a good fit for television or the movies. For now we’ll let Marvel determine if the gamble is worth the prize.