Let me tell you a story about Marvel, more specifically my relationship with the Netflix corner of the Marvel Cinematic/Television Universe. Having just digested all of the second season of Jessica Jones, the latest entry in the Marvel TV stable, it’s time we had an honest chat about these shows and how there’s a problem I just cannot get past.
Jessica Jones had a really impressive first season, and still could well stand as the strongest run in what, at the current count, stands as eight thirteen episode seasons that have encompassed the Netflix TV corner set in and around Hell’s Kitchen in New York City, with a ninth on its way in the next few months. Melissa Rosenberg’s adaptation of the comic Alias Jessica Jones (the Alias dropped in part to prevent confusion with ABC’s spy-fi drama of the same name) made a star of the biting and droll Krysten Ritter as Jessica, a super-powered private detective with a caustic attitude and few social skills, and told a quite violent, harrowing and dramatic story all about an abusive, controlling relationship & the psychological scars of rape. It was, on the whole, pretty superb television.
The second season was always going to have a difficult job living up to the story of Jessica’s mental and physical battle against the mind-controlling monster Kilgrave (played with sadistic relish by David Tennant), and never quite manages to match it for raw, heartbreaking power, but Rosenberg successfully does manage to craft a tale which naturally follows up on Jessica’s determined destruction of a man who corrupted, abused and violated her; a tale in which Jessica faces her own origin story, in a sense, and reunites with the mother she believed long dead, who turns out to be a darker and even more troubled reflection of herself.
Thematically, Jessica Jones remains about abuse, abusers and the search for ‘normal’ in a world filled with fractured families and controlling parents, siblings and lovers.
In the end, Season 2 largely sticks the landing and tells a compelling story, but it takes at least four or five episodes before it reaches a point where you become truly invested.
From then on, once Janet McTeer fully enters the picture as Jessica’s disturbed, errant mother, we’re off at the races. The show leaves behind a tedious focus on Trish Walker, Jessica’s sister and best friend (and arguably the most annoyingly sanctimonious character in modern television), and a steady piecing together of Jessica’s investigation into the mysterious IGH company, and starts telling an emotional tale which cuts to the very core of Jessica’s character. Out of 13 episodes, that makes roughly eight or nine at a push which truly serve as engaging, compelling television.
Pacing, then, has perhaps become Marvel’s primary supervillain when it comes to the TV universe they have crafted on Netflix these past four years. There is not one of these series—not one—which has truly justified a 13 episode running length. Jessica Jones S1 comes close, but even it has the odd episode which feels a little redundant, putting together pieces as opposed to truly forwarding the narrative or character arcs. The same can be said for what I would argue is the second best of the Marvel TV shows, S1 of The Punisher, which aired last year; on the whole, a really strong, powerful and ultra-dark tale of loss, vengeance and acceptance, but which suffers from the occasional bout of malaise which causes the plot to drag.
This phenomenon doesn’t always happen at the beginning of each season, either. Jessica Jones S2 has issues at the beginning, as does Luke Cage S1 (which only really gets interesting around the halfway mark), but The Punisher arguably has the strongest ‘pilot’ episode of each of these shows, despite being divorced largely from the main story and serving as a thematic introduction to Frank Castle following his appearance in the second season of Daredevil – it’s during the episodes of plot escalation later we get the occasional blip.
Daredevil S2, conversely, falls off a narrative cliff once the Punisher disappears from the story after around the fifth or sixth episode – partly due to the hackneyed introduction of Elektra, partly because the writers don’t seem to have any idea where the plot is going, building to a conclusion which has a surfeit of action but almost zero substance.
So why 13 episodes? Bear in mind, in the older paradigm of television production, we could well have been looking down the barrel of at least twenty episodes of each of these series. Just look at The CW’s Arrowverse of DC Comics shows, which regularly churn out 20-22 episode seasons and have been doing so for multiple years now, to the point anyone trying to invest from the beginning is facing a mountainous commitment (someone like me, who hasn’t tried to scale it yet).
While the Arrowverse doesn’t look cheap, they don’t have nearly the budget Marvel & Netflix have the freedom to pump into their Hell’s Kitchen series. They may only have 13 as opposed to 22, but their shows have better cinematography, have the freedom to be longer than the standard network 42 minutes, and can attract a richer, more expensive class of actor to the project, especially given the filming commitments are much less stringent.
One has to also consider how 13 episodes changes the creative texture of how these shows are made. The Arrowverse does have a significant amount of serialised continuity between Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl etc… and they have many more examples of ‘crossover’ than the Marvelverse shows do, but they also rely much more on the ‘standalone’ episodic model. You can’t make a 22 episode season of television as one long serialised story, not unless you’re 24 or a very specific, genre style of television show.
None of the Marvel series to date have engaged with anything resembling a stock, ‘standalone’ narrative template. Each of their series are one, long, connected narrative in which each episode picks up right off where the last one left. Hence why they are released as one, singular TV ‘binge event’, unlike the Arrowverse which still airs weekly in ‘seasons’.
13 episodes are much more conducive to a serialised model than 22 or more, but there is a strong argument that 13 itself is too much for these series to handle. Look at shows such as Game of Thrones or more recently Westworld – both of them series laden with a rich level of world-building and mythology, in a much deeper way than the Marvel-Netflix shows, which have always been capped at 10 episodes. Every time a season of Game of Thrones airs, you will hear people claim 10 episodes is simply not enough to get the most out of the narrative, but barring a few exceptions they make it work. Recent seasons have been a thrill ride of pacing—perhaps too fast, ironically—in a way none of the Marvel-Netflix shows have ever truly managed.
There is another argument that perhaps pacing is a natural sacrifice of the kind of measured story development these shows engage in. Would we have felt as broken by Jessica Jones’ first season had we not been afforded the development of Jessica’s character before Kilgrave emerged more clearly as the villain? Many have pointed to the slow and steady development of Daredevil S1, the season which established a template the subsequent series have followed, as a good example of when this extra breathing room works; it allowed Vincent D’Onofrio the time to really develop Wilson Fisk into not just the nascent Kingpin from comic-book lore, but a character in his own right with multiple dimensions. Pacing, perhaps, is relative.
More so it feels as though the Marvel-Netflix series haven’t quite reached a happy medium between both of these arguments yet. They do benefit from a creative position, on the whole, from a shorter run which is entirely focused on a serialised narrative – Iron Fist S1 is possibly the exception, given how empty that felt due to poor writing and miscasting; Luke Cage S1 also suffered in being a season of two halves, the second demonstrably stronger than the first, but what that show lacked in storytelling, it made up for in the charisma of lead Mike Colter and a sense of unique, cool style and sensibility. As of yet, however, regardless of the failures or successes, there has yet to be one of these seasons which worked from beginning to end with no bumps in the road.
Conversely, the alchemy didn’t quite strike either when we had the eight-episode team-up The Defenders last year. Marvel’s grand plan had been to create four series which would, in the style of the MCU with the Avengers movies, dovetail into a team-up show where Matt Murdock, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones & Danny Rand would come together to face a bigger threat. The Defenders S1 was certainly punchier and quicker than the other shows but suffered from tonal inconsistency, flip flopping scene by scene to try and evoke the style of the other four series rather than doing its own thing, and a narrative which unwisely chose to pick up from Iron Fist & Daredevil S2 – the weakest entries into this connected universe by some distance.
Eight episodes, on paper, could well work better for the individual shows rather than 13. Ten perhaps might be the compromise, ten episodes which could barrel through plot and character, separating some of the wheat from the chaff. Jessica Jones S2 proved that you didn’t need more than 10, and it will come as no surprise if Luke Cage S2—next up on the roster—makes the same point. If Marvel reduced their episode order, they wouldn’t just save money, they might well along the way turn these TV events on Netflix into thrilling, appointment television when they arrive.
As this TV corner moves into its own ‘Phase Two’, to borrow MCU parlance, dare we hope they might evolve as the cinematic universe itself has? Time, as always, will tell.