Shows set in New York City don’t normally adhere to real life—shout-out the absurdly large, somehow rent-controlled apartment in Friends—and that axiom certainly goes for the Netflix-Marvel television universe. Despite being a grittier, more grounded alternative to the CGI-aided extravagance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the shows still focused on superpowered humans (and one traumatized veteran with a penchant for firearms) dealing with foes that, while less apocalyptic than Thanos, weren’t exactly petty thieves. Which is why it’s fine, for instance, that Daredevil—the guardian of the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood—seemed to either consider the entirety of Manhattan as his playground or to grossly overestimate how big Hell’s Kitchen actually was. (To be fair: He’s technically blind.)
But among the Netflix-Marvel heroes, Jessica Jones (played by Krysten Ritter) has always seemed the most grounded in realism. She isn’t a vigilante beating the crap out of bad guys while masquerading as a lawyer; she’s a private investigator, and her powers—broadly speaking, heightened strength and a God-level tolerance of Jameson—are part of that package. She doesn’t hide behind a mask or live a double life. You can look her up online, and even request her services.
Of course, detective work—and the on-again, off-again noir aesthetic that comes with it—has never been the true aim of Jessica Jones, a series largely focused on trauma and how it can reverberate throughout someone’s life. The strong, Peabody-winning first season saw Jessica confront her literal mind-controlling abuser, Kilgrave (a terrifically insidious David Tennant), before he could inflict more pain on unsuspecting victims, primarily women. Following a lengthy hiatus as the Netflix-Marvel universe expanded with other series like Iron Fist and Luke Cage, Season 2 once again made things personal, as Jessica reckoned with the return of her presumably deceased mother (Janet McTeer), who became prone to Hulk-esque outbursts of rage after being experimented on. While the second season wasn’t as strong as the first, both were intimate, introspective stories concerned with how Jessica’s traumatic past affected her misanthropy, and the moral implications of being a hero and a nihilist.
While admirable, that meant focusing more on the personal than the professional. Jessica Jones’s third and final season, now streaming on Netflix, tries to balance the scales with a greater emphasis on Jessica doing what she (theoretically) does best: investigating. The season begins with Jessica back to her usual habits, albeit now estranged from her best friend Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor), whom she understandably hasn’t quite forgiven for killing her mother at the end of Season 2. But after bringing someone over for a one-night stand, Jessica is stabbed by a masked assailant and hospitalized, a mysterious attack that precipitates some old-fashioned detective work—along with providing Jessica a platform to throw more humans across the room like they’re made of Styrofoam.
Eventually, the central conflict of the third season is revealed: Jessica’s squaring off against an accomplished serial killer named Gregory Salinger (Jeremy Bobb). Salinger doesn’t have any powers—he’s just really good at covering his tracks, legally speaking—so he doesn’t exactly pose a threat in a straight-up fight. Rather, Jessica has to consider the moral cost between taking Salinger down through the justice system by gathering evidence, or putting matters into her own hands by fully embracing vigilantism.
The idea is interesting in theory, but its execution suffers from familiar problems that have plagued the Marvel-Netflix universe since its inception. Once again, Jessica Jones insists on stretching its season to 13 episodes, despite a main narrative that could’ve been depicted in half of that time. Getting to Salinger and the crux of the season takes a full four episodes, thanks to unnecessary subplots that focus on things like Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss) and her law firm. This problem is longstanding, and even more indicting after multiple seasons and in an evolving TV landscape that has proved—via shows like Fleabag, Barry, and Russian Doll—that great television can be executed in 30 minutes or less, and in seasons that don’t strain beyond eight episodes. Ironically, the only time a Netflix-Marvel effort was pared down was The Defenders miniseries, which, at eight episodes, was still too long—entirely aimless and devoid of interesting material, a Sigourney Weaver heat check notwithstanding.
From a quality standpoint, Jessica Jones’s third season falls squarely in the middle of the Netflix-Marvel collection. A great Krysten Ritter performance and a realistic, back-to-basics approach to detective work keep the bloated narrative from succumbing to total obscurity. If it’s any consolation, the final season is nowhere near Iron Fist–levels of bad, and it’s still a much better send-off than the X-Men franchise got with Dark Phoenix. But overall, Jessica Jones Season 3 is an anticlimactic end to the Netflix-Marvel endeavor, which has been discontinued now that all series—including Jessica Jones—officially have been cancelled. Netflix may be an entertainment powerhouse, but the company never quite cracked the Marvel code the way Disney did on the big screen—and the way it’ll try to do with the Loki and Scarlet Witch standalone series on its new streaming service, Disney+.
In lieu of intergalactic stakes and huge fights capable of destroying fictional European nations, the Netflix-Marvel universe tried to demonstrate the importance of locally sourced superheroes who solve the kinds of problems that wouldn’t ever fall on Iron Man or Captain America’s radar. Framing this through New York, an ever-bustling city with a deep roster of Marvel Comics side characters, was a smart approach when kick-starting a small-screen universe. But just as the Netflix-Marvel shows kept repeating the same storytelling problems, they kept running out of original material. One solution may have been shaking things up with a change of scenery; the multi-episode arc of The Punisher’s second season when Jon Bernthal’s character makes his way through Middle America listening to bad country music and beating up assholes was the series’ high point for a reason: it felt different. Instead, the Netflix-Marvel enterprise continued hitting the same beats and producing unnecessarily elongated seasons until someone pulled the plug. Thankfully, Disney seems to have learned at least one lesson from Netflix’s Marvel failures, as early reports indicate the company’s MCU miniseries will be between six and eight episodes long.
As for Jessica Jones and the rest of the Marvel-Netflix experiments, they’ll exist in perpetuity in the streamer’s ever-expansive digital library. Subscribers may yet stumble upon the Marvel-Netflix universe and decide to see how the whole thing plays out—though I pity anyone who sits through the strenuous second season of Daredevil. Throughout its ups and downs, the Netflix-Marvel universe tried to make the case that audiences would embrace superhero stories on a smaller scale (and a smaller screen). Sometimes, like with Jessica Jones’s first season, it succeeded. But these series got in their own way more often than not, limiting their appeal to only the most devout Marvel enthusiasts who didn’t mind wading through exhaustive and stretched-out plotlines. The superhero industrial complex is as strong as it’s ever been, but what the past four years of collaboration between Netflix and Marvel proved is that the genre isn’t all-powerful. In the end, the legacy of the Defenders series is less as an industry game-changer than as a cautionary tale of creative redundancy.