It’s been an interesting fall for the Marvel Netflix shows. While Iron Fist and Luke Cage were both canceled, the flagship Daredevil posted up with a season that was a contender for the strongest yet across the board for this shared pocket universe of street-level heroes. Meanwhile, the announced departure of Jessica Jones’ showrunner Melissa Rosenberg pushes the future of that show after its upcoming third season on shaky ground, and season two of The Punisher is still awaiting a release date. While the end of a solo run for Cage and Danny Rand has led to speculation of a possible combined Heroes for Hire series or a jump to Disney’s upcoming streaming service, it still feels like a good time to take stock of the road these shows have all taken till now and what’s led them to succeed or fail.
With a little over five years since they were first announced, and the memory of the 2003 Daredevil film a distant shadow, what makes the Charlie Cox-led series continue to move forward at full steam? What’s led Jessica Jones to that third season while another Defenders season is highly unlikely? There are certainly other factors at play with the writing quality, the amazing fight choreography, and the charisma of their leads, there’s one major detail that seems to have made the largest difference: villains.
When it comes to these shows, the villains are the most important relationships that the heroes have. While some of the Marvel movies have gotten away with weaker villains due to the charisma of their leading casts or their higher CGI action sequences, these shows need more than just a few breathtaking hallway fights a season. While each of these shows also has a full supporting cast of friends and allies for their heroes, most of the seasons are spent with said hero trying to push them away. In order to further the narrative of the angsty loner just trying to do what’s right, the audience has to accept the fact that these heroes are frequently just flat out terrible to the people who love them. All of these stories function better when folks like Karen, Foggy, Claire, Misty, Colleen, or Trish are working side by side with their heroes. But since that’s rarely what happens they need solid villain relationships to give the heroes purpose, a sense of urgency, and momentum to their stories.
The best thing that could have happened to Daredevil is Wilson Fisk. Vincent D’Onofrio's puppet master crime boss loomed so largely over the first season that the show could have easily been called "Kingpin." Remove Matt Murdock from the plot and it’s easy to imagine a Breaking Bad style tale of a well-intentioned man who made compromise after compromise until he finally has to look in the mirror and know he’s the bad guy. He’s the perfect twisted mirror antagonist to Murdock, who could easily become a monster himself if he truly abandoned his code. The fact that he was able to return for another season after having already been defeated by Murdock and his friends and somehow manage not only to meet his original stakes but raise them speaks volumes to just how effective a villain he really is.
Likewise, Jessica Jones' season one thrived because of David Tennant’s Kilgrave. He was charismatic and menacing. The terror in the memories of his victims is palpable. Like Kingpin though, what makes him such a perfect villain is how his presence comments on Jessica. The most terrifying villain for a character who uses her strength as a shield is the one person who ever made her feel weak.
And then… that’s it. No other villain on the show has ever come close to either of those two. Luke Cage came close with Mariah Dillard but sidelined her right as she was reaching her status as the new apex predator of Harlem, and replaced her with the far less satisfying Diamondback. Jessica Jones’ second season didn’t fare much better, returning Jessica’s mother from the dead in the form of a rage monster that was even stronger than her. This might have been interesting if it weren’t a complete retread of the Meachum family plot from Iron Fist. This is a recurring theme on these shows; long lost relatives returning as antagonists. It’s a cheap substitute for earned character history and lived-in conflict. The animosity between Cage and Mariah Dillard of the soul of Harlem had far more heart and far more narrative weight than the sudden revelation of burning resentment from a secret half-brother, but by the time we circled back to her the damage had been done.
The biggest letdown, the one that almost sunk the entire enterprise as a whole, is the Hand. Intended to be the big bad glue that held all of The Defenders together, the Hand never lived up to the threat they were suggested to be in the flashbacks of Matt Murdock or Danny Rand’s training. Meant to be a shadowy clandestine organization, the Hand ultimately proved to be little more than a disorganized, sub-par Hydra but with ninjas. The Hand, while a menacing threat in their comic book origins, were a gamble that never rose to feel like more of a threat than the Foot clan, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles parody of their organization. This lack of menace, of a defined vision, or even of a clear focus on their leader, was a huge factor in the disappointment of The Defenders, as well as Iron Fist, and Daredevil’s second season. Even Sigourney Weaver, who did the best she could with the material, couldn’t save the crossover.
Daredevil was smart to go back to Fisk for season three, but what happens now that he’s been twice defeated and seemingly neutralized? That’s a well that is likely dry at this point. Jones is already in production on season three so time will tell if they’ve found a villain as interesting as Kilgrave. As we know, it’s too late for Iron Fist and Cage, but with three other shows still in production and the possibility for future team-ups always on the table, here’s hoping the future of these shows is a fight worth having.