I recently caught up on all of Marvel’s Netflix series, and I found myself compelled to compare them to each other. It makes sense. Following the formula set by the Avengers film sequence, each superhero has his or her dedicated series, and then in 2017, they came together to form The Defenders.
First a note: All but one of these series have only produced one season, so things could change. The creators could right the ship or sink it. I don’t expect my rankings will change too much, considering these first seasons will always exist, but crazier things have happened. Also, this is all spoiler-free, so if you haven’t seen all of them yet, never fear.
Here’s where I see them standing, worst to best.
This story about the heir to a global corporation—who is presumed dead for 15 years and then returns to New York with exceptional kung fu skills and a glowing fist that can punch through just about anything—is as bad as you’ve heard. I mean, it’s really bad.
Finn Jones is awful as Danny Rand, but I suspect part of the responsibility for his performance lays at the feet of the writers and directors. Danny comes across as a petulant child and amazingly, stunningly dumb. Time and again, he loses his cool in juvenile melodrama and charges headlong into a rash decision, which seems bizarre considering he was raised by wise monks and chosen from a field of other wise monks to wield the power of the Iron Fist. It becomes quickly apparent that nothing really makes Danny Rand special other than his status in the real world. Perhaps that is part of the intention, to portray a guy who was given everything he never cared about and (supposedly) earned everything he wanted. It just doesn’t work in this case, but I could see it working if handled properly.
The supporting characters aren’t so silly, but they are dull. Secondary storylines follow other characters that I just don’t care about or are equally as poorly realized as Danny Rand. However, parallel to Danny runs a story of Colleen Wing, a struggling owner of a dojo, and I think her story is the strongest point of the series, even if it is only superficially explored.
All of that aside, for a kung fu production, you’d at least expect the fighting and visuals to be noteworthy, right? They’re not. The fighting is just okay, and often, it’s apparent the actors are on some low-budget studio stage somewhere instead of, for example, in the Himalayas.
For all of its faults, Iron Fist has some good ideas and potential, but it never realizes them. I’m not sure if that’s a strength or just a tragedy. The biggest shame is probably that, of all of these series, it’s potentially the most relevant if you want to watch The Defenders, which you should (and I get to it below). Here’s hoping Netflix can turn this one around.
I still can’t decide if Luke Cage (the character) is just dull or so dull that he’s interesting. As static characters come, he’s certainly that.
Set up for a crime he didn’t commit, this former sheriff’s deputy serves time in prison until an experimental treatment to save his life (and an accident, because all superpowers are granted through accident, apparently) gives him super strength and invulnerability. After his clumsily handled origin story and escape from prison, he finds his way to New York. When he eventually lands in Harlem, he is reluctant to use his powers for good because, if he’s discovered, he could go back to prison. Thus begins an internal struggle about a good man with the tools to do good but a limited ability to act.
Luke Cage’s (the series) strength is in its social commentary. It’s not a particularly well done series in many ways, but the ideas here are solid. Luke Cage is simultaneously a symbol of everything that is good in black culture as well as everything that is its potential.
Here, Luke Cage is more Superman than Batman (which I acknowledge is a confusion of universes, but admit it; DC has the foothold on comic book archetypes). That is both a strength and a weakness. In terms of creating an icon, that’s fantastic. In terms of telling an interesting story, that presents a few challenges: How do you fear for a guy who literally can’t be hurt? How do you identify with a man who is essentially a god?
Beyond the obstacles the series sets for itself, it has missteps that are hard to ignore. Luke’s origin story, for instance, may be canonical, but some of the logistics surrounding and handling of it are pure nonsense. Moreover, about halfway through the first season, the storyline takes a hard turn with its antagonists and eventually goes off the rails with characters that are so painfully stereotypical that they threaten to undermine everything the series does right.
Ultimately, for all its faults, I just plain liked Luke Cage (the series and the character). I don’t have a logical reason why, but there’s just something cool about it (and him). I wouldn’t even say the series is particularly entertaining, but unlike the privileged Danny Rand who has every resource available to him and still bungles just about everything, Luke is an underdog who almost always does the right thing, and everyone loves an underdog with principles.
Admittedly, the parallel is interesting, and it’s explored in The Defenders. But before we get there, we have to use the Luke Cage stepping stone, which, I’m sorry to say, is a little wobbly.
I know someone reading this is going to really disagree with Jessica’s placement on my list, but hear me out. She has a solid series, and I fully acknowledge that. However, her series also has its share of flaws.
The first of these is, if we are to believe Jessica is a noteworthy private investigator, she has to stop missing the obvious. I’m a fan of dramatic irony as much as the next guy, but more than once, she misses something that’s abundantly clear, and it’s apparent that Jessica Jones wouldn’t actually miss these things. She’s simply missing them because the plot couldn’t work if she didn’t.
It’s also worth noting that there’s almost nothing likeable about Jessica Jones. She’s a jerk to virtually everyone. I get that she’s an anti-hero, and I love me some anti-heroes, but a proper anti-hero is driven by a deep-seated human connection that they simply can’t deny. Through an anti-hero’s challenges, we discover they actually are a good person beneath it all. Jessica Jones is driven by selfishness and an innate need to overcome her own grief and guilt. Part of the point is Jessica Jones is a victim, and that’s powerful. The series attempts to convince us that she is motivated by trying to ensure what happened to her never happens to anyone else, but I just don’t believe it. In the end, it feels to me like Jessica Jones fights for herself more than anyone, including her sister and her victimized neighbor, both of whom are more sympathetic and believable to me than Jessica Jones, and I think that’s a problem.
Jessica is also extremely awkward in a fight. Actress Krysten Ritter would have benefited from some instruction and agility training because it’s often apparent the directors had to film sequences in certain ways simply because, if they showed us what she was really doing, it would be comedic. That, and her powers seem inconsistent. Sometimes she hits a guy, and he goes through a wall. Sometimes she hits someone, and they shake it off. Sometimes she lifts a car without a problem, and sometimes she struggles to carry her 120-pound sister. Sometimes she can virtually fly, and sometimes she has trouble keeping up with a scrawny British guy in a foot chase.
Criticism aside, Jessica Jones may be the most culturally relevant of all of these series in this present moment, and it features one of the best-written and portrayed villains in any comic book series with David Tennant’s Killgrave. Of all of these shows, I think it has the most potential moving forward. I think the first season doesn’t really nail its premise, but if future seasons do, I think it’ll be fantastic.
Also, she wears fingerless gloves constantly, so she finds a special place in my heart.
The first Netflix Avengers-esque assembly of superheroes does virtually everything right, including following the Avengers’ formula set by Joss Whedon in ensuring it is fun first. Notably, The Defenders is entertaining and even funny at times where the other series just aren’t. Therein lies its greatest strength: it is just a fun, fulfilling, and satisfying series.
When these superheroes come together, they’re not only greater than the sum of their parts in battle but also in banter. Watch the trailer, and it’s immediately apparent that these characters have personalities, and they either jive or clash in entertaining ways.
This one takes a little bit of shepherding to make work, and that’s definitely a liability. The characters don’t meet under the most natural of circumstances. In a way, it feels a little bit like being set up on a blind date and pushed into the room. There’s a moment of awkward glances, but fortunately, there’s fighting to be done almost immediately, so that helps get these people together. There’s a bit of contrived, trope-y no-I-can’t-work-with-or-trust-you-ism, and I wanted to just yell at them for their stupidity, but otherwise, things fall together pretty well.
Most of the strengths and weaknesses of the individual characters are on display here, but it’s notable that Danny Rand, whether due to better writing and editing or a decreased prominence, is much better. In fact, his character takes a developmental step that would address some of the problems of his first season, and it’s inspired by Luke Cage. What’s interesting about that is it suggests, when these characters get together, they will influence each other’s individual stories, which is something The Avengers hasn’t really done.
In the end, even though the Iron Fist narrative plays strongly, The Defenders is much more Daredevil than any of the other series. And that’s a good thing because, as The Defenders go, Daredevil is the strongest entry.
When I saw the first season of Daredevil back in 2015, I realized the testament to a comic book character’s adaptation quality was whether it made me care about a superhero I didn’t care about before. If an adaptation sold me on not just the film or the series, but the character itself, the myth and legend, it was a success. Netflix’s Daredevil does that for Matt Murdock. And it does that for Wilson Fisk. And it does that for Frank Castle, the Punisher (whom, if you’re at all good at logical deduction or cheating, you know I’ll get to in a moment). It does that for Elektra. Just about every character involved in the Daredevil series is a person I care about or who intrigues me, and that isn’t something I can claim of any series I’ve written about until this point.
There is a narrative consistency to Daredevil that gives it a more engaging quality than the aforementioned series. These episodes don’t feel merely filmed. They feel crafted. Deep thought not only went into every installment but into every scene.
While rewatching with my wife, we got to the famous hallway long cut fight in which Matt undertakes one of his first truly heroic deeds as the man in black to save a kidnapped child. I pointed out to my wife that the whole thing was filmed in one long cut with one camera. She said she didn’t understand why they would do something like that if it was so difficult. I said that was exactly why they did it. Daredevil rarely takes the easy way out, and it usually is better for it, producing more memorable, creative, and identifiable experiences.
Daredevil is a production of deliberate storytelling. Even if nothing is perfect, almost nothing is an afterthought. Sure, the first season of Daredevil gives us a lot of Matt Murdock recovering on his couch, but that’s precisely the point. It’s a story about a guy who is 100% vulnerable at a fundamental level (he’s blind after all), and it’s a story about a guy who can’t lean on his crutches even if he needs to.
Daredevil isn’t a guy who chose to don a mask and go fight crime as a vigilante. He did it because he had no other choice, and that is one of the series’ main driving themes. It’s almost tragic to watch as Matt sacrifices his relationships, his career, and virtually everything he cares about except for the city he loves. I’ll allude to the other universe again: it’s similar to Batman in these ways; however, Daredevil comes across to me here as even more interesting than Bruce Wayne’s alter ego, and I’m keenly aware of how bold that statement is.
We know Daredevil’s story ends one way. There will be no long walks into the sunset for Matt Murdock. He won’t give up the horns and retire. He won’t ditch the bomb and escape in his devil-copter. He’s going to wear down, one way or another, until he dies for his city. The only question is if he can save it before he does.
Jon Bernthal portrays Frank Castle as a guy with a skeleton held together by pure rage, and the series perfectly embodies that. Just when you think it’s reached a limit in intensity, it dials a little further.
For my money, The Punisher is one of Marvel’s crowning achievements in film. It is deep and powerful. It is thrilling and entertaining. It is memorable and visceral. It is whole and complete.
The most notable thing about The Punisher’s standalone series is the way the story creates a huge narrative with a bunch of characters and diverging storylines, and everything is about Frank Castle. Every character’s struggles is a mirror of Frank or somehow connects with his own. It’s an interesting outward-in character study about heroism, honor, patriotism, and that which corrupts those things.
When The Punisher first hit Netflix, I remember reading a review that stated the series misses an opportunity to comment on gun culture and violence in the United States. Without seeing it, I thought, yeah, actually, what a great way to make The Punisher relevant in 2017. Having seen it, I just think The Punisher is more concerned with other, arguably more important matters. Certainly, there’s a motif of it, and there’s a strong theme regarding liberty and Constitutional rights, but ultimately, The Punisher is about what it means to sacrifice for that liberty and those rights and what it means to confront people who really don’t understand what those things mean or have no regard for them.
This criticism inherently demands The Punisher take a moral stance on such issues, but what The Punisher does instead is hold up a mirror and make everyone confront those very issues they think define them, and then Frank Castle asks those people, “is this really who you are?” (He almost literally does this in one extremely memorable instance.) The Punisher doesn’t ask us to consider whether Frank’s brand of morality and justice is right or even an appropriate prescription. There is honesty and authenticity in what he does where there is none in what he confronts, but what The Punisher does is blast a hole in our living room, tear through our body armor, leave it smoking and charred on the floor, and then exit through the front door so you can answer those big questions yourself.
That is, The Punisher doesn’t care about your questions. It riddles them with bullet holes and discards them, and then it poses its own questions for you to answer because that’s your job.
Grouped with these other series, The Punisher is something else. It doesn’t roll into The Defenders (for now), and maybe that is to its advantage. I’m not sure. What I am sure about, though, is that this version of the Punisher and the story it tells is a final triumph amid a string of failed attempts to realize Frank Castle in film (the exception being the incredible “Dirty Laundry” short).
One final point
On that last note about The Punisher, all of these series can stake the claim that they are the best versions of their respective superheroes that have ever been filmed. Granted, the majority never have been, but the bottom line is, even if the series have their faults, the portrayals are solid.
The exception there is probably Iron Fist. Man, I really hope they turn that one around, but most of all, I hope they carry these stories forward, because it’s all a lot of fun.