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Is the Future of Netflix’s Marvel Universe in Jeopardy?

The recent cancellations of ‘Iron Fist’ and ‘Luke Cage’ seem to suggest that the streamer might be leaning away from the superhero space

Marvel/Netflix/Ringer illustration

As Netflix continues to produce more and more original content, the streamer that was once reticent to cancel any of its series is beginning to pull the plug on programs that fail to meet expectations. (It’s hard to say what those expectations are since Netflix doesn’t disclose viewership data, and generally doesn’t make its inner workings public unless it’s trying to flex about, say, how popular its rom-coms are.) Just this year, The Break With Michelle Wolf, Everything Sucks!, and the Emmy-winning Seven Seconds were cancelled—though there was no clear through line between a talk show, a ’90s-set coming-of-age comedy, and a dark crime drama, respectively.

But now, Netflix has our attention. Because just a week after Netflix cancelled its Marvel original series Iron Fist after two seasons, the company revealed on Friday that Luke Cage wouldn’t return for a third season, either. “Everyone at Marvel Television and Netflix is grateful to the dedicated showrunner, writers, cast, and crew who brought Harlem’s Hero to life for the past two seasons, and to all the fans who have supported the series,” the companies said in a joint statement.

While Iron Fist’s axing was admittedly a bit of a surprise—in that it was the first of five current Netflix-Marvel series to be cancelled—the news didn’t exactly warrant the same concern for the joint enterprise. Iron Fist was easily the biggest Netflix-Marvel misfire; a series that wasn’t just controversially whitewashed with the casting of Game of Thrones’ Finn Jones, but mired in derivative storytelling, comically bad writing (as in: A random New Yorker on the street saying “Ey, I’m walkin’ heyah!”), and most indicting of all, underwhelming action sequences in a show about a martial arts master. If Netflix’s intent is to cancel its shows that aren’t actually good, well, it couldn’t do much worse than Iron Fist.

Luke Cage is another story. The series isn’t perfect—like all of Netflix’s Marvel shows, it suffers from narrative bloat—but it’s delivered a compelling lead performance from Mike Colter (not to mention half a season of Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali as a mob boss). But with Luke Cage also done, suddenly, Netflix is down to three Marvel shows: Daredevil, which released its third season on Friday, the same day Luke Cage was cancelled; Jessica Jones, which has a third season on the way; and The Punisher, which returns with a second season sometime in 2019.

While Daredevil remains in a good spot—the third season, released Friday, falls more in line with the quality of the first season than the second, meaning it’s actually fun and watchable—there’s some cause for concern with the longevity of Jessica Jones and The Punisher. After its third season, Jessica Jones will lose showrunner Melissa Rosenberg—and while the second season mostly worked by keeping conflicts introspective and intimate, the show hasn’t matched the Peabody-winning highs of Season 1 with a villain anywhere near the level of David Tennant’s Kilgrave. The Punisher, meanwhile, with its hyper-violent presentation of guns and gore, is always going to be a risky proposition for the streamer. Its Season 1 release was delayed after the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting; a bleak reality that isn’t going to go away so long as the show remains committed to such intense violence. (Which is all but required, because we’re talking about the friggin’ Punisher.)

Complicating matters is Disney’s aspirations to create its own Marvel TV shows. Though networks and other streamers have had Marvel shows competing against Netflix’s offerings—ABC has Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Freeform has Cloak & Dagger, Hulu has Runaways—Disney is looking to expand its original programming for its forthcoming streaming service by providing six-to-eight-episode limited series led by characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Some of the characters currently being considered include Loki and Scarlet Witch, with Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen reprising their respective roles. With big-name actors coming straight from the MCU and purported series budgets that will be similar to the budget of a “major studio production,” Disney’s streaming push will be alluring for superhero buffs who may feel underwhelmed by Netflix’s Marvel shows. Not to mention, Disney’s streamer will get all the MCU films currently on Netflix once it’s ready to launch sometime in 2019. All told, if superhero-related content is what a streaming user is specifically craving, Disney will be the preeminent subscription option come next year.

That Netflix has suddenly pulled the plug on two of its Marvel shows—along with no current plans for a follow-up to its Defenders miniseries—may indicate a waving of the white flag. You guys can have all the superhero stuff; we’ve still got more original content than we know what to do with. But that’s not necessarily the case—at least not yet. As Deadline reported on Friday, the primary motivation behind Luke Cage’s cancellation was creative differences between the writers’ room, Netflix, and Marvel Television. Some of the reported tension derived from wanting to shorten the third season from 13 to 10 episodes—which, honestly, might have helped the narrative bloat!—with Netflix and Marvel Television on “different sides of the dispute.”

The Marvel-Netflix enterprise has now reached a major inflection point. The fate of Daredevil—and whether it’s renewed for a fourth season—may be the litmus test for how long these shows will continue to exist on the streamer, if they continue to exist at all.

Some fans may be holding out hope for a Heroes for Hire or Daughters of the Dragon series—combining characters from the cancelled Luke Cage and Iron Fist onto one show—coming from Netflix, but that seems unlikely, if only because of the purportedly contentious cancellation of Luke Cage. It’s not what Marvel buffs who subscribe to Netflix will want to hear, but perhaps the eventual outcome is still a win-win. Disney could become the undisputed platform for original superhero shows—with Loki and Scarlet Witch miniseries helping propel the newest streaming empire. As for Netflix? Well, it’s still got nearly everything else.