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Why Is Netflix Giving Up on Its Marvel Series?

With the cancellation of ‘Daredevil’ on Thursday, Netflix took another step toward dissolving its partnership with the superhero studio

Netflix/Marvel/Ringer illustration

It’s often difficult to infer what Netflix’s content strategy is, given the overwhelming amount of original programming the company churns out and the nebulous explanations it gives for its decisions. The streamer only seems willing to disclose information when humble-bragging about a success. But after it was announced on Thursday night that Daredevil would not return for a fourth season, one thing is evident: The streamer is pulling the plug on its Marvel television experiment.

Daredevil is now the third series in the Netflix-Marvel enterprise to be canceled in the past three months, after it was announced in October that Luke Cage and Iron Fist wouldn’t be returning for new seasons. That leaves just Jessica Jones and The Punisher—currently at work on a third and second season, respectively—and it wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone if they were put out to pasture after those final seasons air. (On the bright side, at least these shows can prepare for a decidedly final ending?)

It’s a shame, if only because Daredevil’s third season was some of the best television this Netflix-Marvel partnership produced—featuring a thrilling 10-minute continuous take through the hallways of a prison, an effective introduction for the comic book villain Bullseye (played by Wilson Bethel), and more hypnotically winding monologues from Vincent D’onofrio’s Wilson Fisk. As for the reasoning behind Netflix’s decision? Of course, it won’t come straight from the horse’s mouth, but here are three key factors behind the slow march toward the end of the Netflix-Marvel partnership.

Netflix Wants to Keep More Programming In-House

What do the recently canceled Netflix shows American Vandal, Daredevil (and Iron Fist, and Luke Cage), and Seven Seconds all have in common? Netflix wasn’t producing these shows itself; they came from outside sources. American Vandal was from CBS TV Studios and Funny or Die Entertainment, Seven Seconds was a Fox 21 Television Studios production, and the Marvel shows were all produced by Marvel Television and ABC Studios.

This is the economic subtext: Netflix doesn’t own these shows, so much as it was licensing them. That’s a common practice in television, and was especially common for Netflix when it was first dipping its toes in the original programming pool: Shows like House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black were also produced by outside studios. But now that Netflix is becoming a programming behemoth, it appears to be placing more value on renewing shows that are made in-house—essentially, because it’s less expensive to produce something yourself than it is to pay another studio for it. And when you have an estimated production budget of between $12 billion and $13 billion, you pinch pennies where you can.

So despite the fact American Vandal was a beloved, Peabody-winning series, Seven Seconds captured an Emmy earlier this year, and the Marvel shows were, well, Marvel shows, the fact they weren’t produced by Netflix itself (like Stranger Things is, for example) put them at a disadvantage. Of course, Netflix isn’t going to become a streaming arm that fully commits to producing programming in-house—a 50-50 split is what high-level executives seem to be aiming for—but for whatever reason, these shows got the ax. Expensive production costs are sometimes the culprit, sometimes it’s creative differences, and other times it’s both. The Netflix-Marvel collaboration may fall into the last category: Luke Cage, for instance, was actually at work on a third season, and it wasn’t until a creative dispute between Marvel Television and Netflix over episode orders that the show was canceled.

Disney+ Is Coming

Disney’s streaming service is arriving next year, and with it, the company’s taking all its precious IP away from other streamers, including Netflix. That means if you want to watch anything Star Wars, Pixar, Disney animation, and, yes, Marvel, you’ll need to subscribe to Disney+.

But building a library of old content is just one piece of the pie: Disney is also planning to expand its slate of original programming. Already, it’s got two live-action Star Wars shows in the pipeline: The Mandalorian, a bounty hunter–focused series starring Pedro Pascal, and a Cassian Andor series with Jabba the Hutt superfan Diego Luna, reprising his role from Rogue One. More importantly, Disney plans to make several six-to-eight-episode Marvel miniseries focusing on characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe like Scarlet Witch and Loki, with more possibly down the road.

That’s a lot for Netflix to match up to—especially when Netflix’s counter would’ve been five grittier heroes. It’s all of the Avengers against … five heroes spread across various boroughs of New York. It’s not much of a fight—with the cultural clout of the Netflix-Marvel shows rapidly dwindling already, the announcement of Disney’s MCU-driven series devalued them even more. Why care about Daredevil’s relatively meager travails—that will never be connected to Marvel’s big-screen story—when Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen are over on Disney+?

Since Disney is going to have a near-monopoly on Marvel characters anyway, Netflix doesn’t appear interested in keeping its Marvel enterprise going—especially given the aforementioned outside production costs. And while Netflix is technically waving the white flag on Marvel content, it’s no great loss for the streamer in the long run, which has become a programming behemoth and will remain one even with the loss of the Defenders. (Besides, international Netflix subscribers will be treated to Titans, the DC Universe team-up of heroes like Robin and Raven.) The streamer might not have Disney content, but its current collection of original content—ranging from original movies, anime, documentaries, talk shows, reality competitions, and everything in between—covers just about everything else. Netflix could’ve held onto these characters out of spite, but the mounting production costs of trying to attain entertainment omnipotence means this is just one small loss in an endeavor that’s far beyond these five shows. Netflix will be fine without Marvel—and it knows it.

The Sad Truth

If we’re being completely honest, the Netflix-Marvel shows never lived up to most of what the MCU has been doing for the past decade. The best moments were the Peabody-winning first season of Jessica Jones, the impressive fight choreography of Daredevil, and that time Mahershala Ali was a mob boss in Luke Cage for half of its first season. The opening credits sequences of most of these shows were great, too—but if “the opening credits are great” is one of the only positive things that can be said about a group of shows … there aren’t many positive things to be said. All of the Netflix-Marvel shows suffered from narrative bloat: There wasn’t enough story packed into the 13-episode seasons, and the second season of Iron Fist didn’t offer much improvement when shortened to 10 installments, either. And the criticism surrounding the casting of Finn Jones for Iron Fist already left that show with a sour taste—making the fact it was far and away the worst Netflix-Marvel series all the more detrimental.

All told, Netflix is a very different company from what it was when the first Marvel television shows arrived on the service in 2015. While it may be a loss for these five crime-fighters in New York, both Netflix and Marvel programming as a whole should continue to thrive.