If you think back to the early days of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, some of the most exciting moments were the tiny Easter eggs scattered throughout that referenced heroes yet to come. It gave us something to wonder about, and speculate over, as we waited for new heroes to grace the big screen. So naturally, Marvel wondered if that connected magic might also work for television. Unfortunately, that same idea is actually what killed Marvel's first attempt at a television universe.
In late 2013, it was announced that four brand new series set in the Marvel world would be coming to Netflix. According to the press release at the time, "This pioneering agreement calls for Marvel to develop four serialized programs leading to a miniseries programming event. [The series] will unfold over multiple years of original programming, taking Netflix members deep into the gritty world of heroes and villains of Hell's Kitchen, New York. Netflix has committed to a minimum of four, 13-episodes series and a culminating Marvel's The Defenders miniseries event that reimagines a dream team of self-sacrificing, heroic characters." The four series ordered right out of the gate were Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist.
This will sound crazy, but when Daredevil premiered on April 10, 2015, it was the sixth original Netflix show, ever. The Avengers had happened already, and in a few short weeks, Avengers: Age of Ultron would land in theaters. However, those looking for connections to the MCU were out of luck. There were vague references to the "events in New York" and the superheroes who had saved the day and that was it. Daredevil wasn't made for the big screen; instead, the show brought us into the world of Hell's Kitchen and introduced us to the blind, very-religious lawyer Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox).
However, we could still look forward to new heroes stopping by and them later joining together. Just like the Avengers, the Defenders featured a rotating roster of members in the comics, and they were going to save Hell's Kitchen together. And just like with the MCU, each hero would be introduced in their own standalone series before coming together to save the day. At the time, this was uncharted territory for television universes. None of the shows were spin-offs; rather, they were four separate shows that were connected via the same locations, characters, and villains. It was going to be epic.
Or, rather, it was supposed to be epic. Daredevil and Jessica Jones both started off incredibly strong, and Jessica Jones' first season introduced us to Luke Cage before he went off to star in his own show. But then Daredevil's second season wasn't as well received as the first, and by the time Iron Fist came around, his series was already littered with controversy on top of being saddled with the fact he was not an exciting Marvel hero (Sorry, Danny Rand). But the show (and character) still had to happen because he was part of The Defenders package. The Netflix Marvel Universe was still chugging along, but interest in it was already starting to wane.
The Netflix shows should have taken a page out of the MCU playbook and literally let the characters breathe first. Take Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), for example, who was introduced as a supporting character who later grew to have such a dedicated fanbase there was a loud outcry when he was completely missing from Avengers: Infinity War. Hawkeye became so popular that he's even getting his own series on Disney+. But imagine if he had been introduced in his own standalone universe first. Honestly, fans probably wouldn't have taken to him in the same way, let alone asked for more.
Iron Fist (Finn Jones) should have been a Hawkeye. He should have been introduced as Luke Cage's (Mike Colter) ally (as he is in the comics), and the character should have been allowed to grow and develop before landing 13 episodes just about him. No one asked for an Iron Fist series, but we got one because he had to be in The Defenders.
The Marvel Netflix shows were so focused on creating characters separately for the sole purpose of putting them together. But, uh, why? When the first Iron Man premiered in 2008, I bet no one was like, "One day Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is going to save the world in a movie with 30+ other Marvel characters!" Everyone was just like, "Wow, Tony Stark is cool, hope we see more of him." Suffice to say, no one has ever said, "Iron Fist is cool, hope we see more of him."
Considering all these shows were brought to Netflix as a package deal, it unfortunately all had to happen this way, so there was no time to test or adjust the characters, let alone what their shows would be. By the time they all came together in The Defenders, was anyone really that excited about it? And considering the way The Defenders went down (Daredevil almost died, with everyone else presuming he's dead), it wasn't exactly a great hook to keep us coming back for more.
Each hero had one more season of their show after The Defenders, but the luster had completely worn off. None of the heroes came out the other side of The Defenders necessarily better, so why would we keep watching? Luke Cage and Iron Fist fizzled out, and although Daredevil was able to push its own boundaries in Season 3 (and introduce villain Bullseye), the show was canceled less than a month after it premiered. All the Netflix shows were soon canceled, with much debate as to why. It's assumed that Disney's did so in an effort to keep all its content and characters together in one place, on Disney+. That meant there was room for Netflix's universe to keep growing. The last series to air, Jessica Jones Season 3, wrapped production before it was canceled, which means that while things were tied up, there were still lingering loose threads.
In the end, essentially all the characters of The Defenders will either be rebooted for the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Disney+ content. It's inevitable (after two years, that is). So what will their legacy on Netflix be? It's hard not to see it all as a failed attempt, one that under different circumstances might have actually rivaled the breadth of the MCU. But now we'll never know. The idea of The Defenders was rushed, and honestly, all the Marvel shows should have just ended after the 8-episode series instead of sluggishly moving through more standalone seasons. That way we could look at it and say, "That was a great lead-up to The Defenders, and The Defender was a great send-off." Instead, we have to ask, "Why are we still watching this?"
And you know what? The Punisher (Jon Bernthal) wasn't even in The Defenders. That might actually be the worst part of it all.