Superheroes have ruled the box office for more than a decade; now, they’re looking to conquer new worlds. Marvel just announced four of its superheroes are getting shows on Netflix. Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Iron Fist each will star in 13-episode series, set in New York City. The four characters will then cross over into one another’s storylines, a la how The Avengers tied together Marvel's solo films. The announcement at this point is short on details, but packs a lot of significance—almost all of it good.
While Marvel's showcasing its A-list superheroes on the big screen, and spy-agent bureaucracy on ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, the focus for these streaming shows will be the street. These particular heroes are more prone to fighting gangsters than aliens. They’re not exactly earthly—Luke Cage is super strong, and Iron Fist is a millionaire kung-fu master who trained in a magical Himalayan city—but those two did team up as “heroes for hire” and overall, all four have a gritty, realistic element that, say, Thor lacks. That means they’ll be well suited for our current moment in TV. Daredevil’s depressing, noir stories also should fit perfectly in the age of Breaking Bad and other anti-heroic shows. And Jessica Jones is a cunning private eye, more into solving crimes than fighting supervillains.
The crossover series The Defenders will likely have nothing to do with the comics incarnation of the team – that was much more epic in scope, and commonly featured Namor, the Silver Surfer, the Hulk and Doctor Strange – but could offer a more grounded counterpart to the increasingly fantastical Marvel films.
These are not the most recognizable characters, of course. Daredevil appeared in a flawed Ben Affleck film in 2003, but the other heroes have been out of the mainstream spotlight for a long time. Marvel is taking a chance with these shows by using its deeper roster of characters. But that's a good thing. It demonstrates Marvel’s confidence and willingness to spend money on risky moves, which is refreshing considering this is the studio that fought with its talent by trying to cut costs on sure-to-be hit films like Iron Man 2 and The Avengers. (Then again, the move to diversify also means the studio’s not too dependent on any one actor, director, or character).
Additionally, the traditional superhero arc has become a bit cliché, so branching out to unfamiliar or different characters is smart. And it’s line with the studio’s other plans. After its first wave of fun but slightly generic-feeling films, Marvel decided to delve into other genres for Phase 2 with upcoming movies like the space opera Guardians of the Galaxy, the conspiracy thriller Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and this weekend’s outright fantasy of Thor: The Dark World. Now Marvel’s spotlighting more complex characters.
It is odd that all of these shows will be set in New York’s Hell's Kitchen neighborhood, though. That’s Daredevil's territory, and Luke Cage is a New Yorker, but Marvel has historically been interested in more far-flung settings for its live-action adaptations. Unlike the comics where it seems 95 percent of all superheroic adventures and chaos take place in the Big Apple, the films have done a good job of spreading things across the world. Iron Man relocated the hero to Southern California, while Captain America spent most of his first film in Europe, and the second will find him in Washington, D.C. Thor's Earth-based action was set in a small town in New Mexico. Even Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has filmed scenes in other countries. Although a shared location makes some sense as it will to bring these street-level characters together, it seems like things could get claustrophobic.
Then again, the way that these shows will be released means the rules will be different than usual. The episodes will be available all at once, a la House of Cards. This is great for storytelling, as it encourages serialized storytelling, with arcs and plot getting room to develop: fewer episodic “one and done” stories, and more long-form narratives. How this all will work remains to be seen. Marvel says the four series, and their climatic follow-up, will unfold over a couple of years. Will the characters cross paths before The Defenders? Will the shows keep Luke Cage and Iron Fist – who are basically life partners in the comics – separated before the climax?
Regardless of how it answers those questions, the company’s willingness to take chances on more-obscure characters and untested genres means the future of comics adaptations might be very interesting. Fans should be ecstatic at the potential. Could there be a Marvel One Shot based on Matt Fraction's madcap, Rockford Files-esque Hawkeye series? Or in a bold move, a villain-centric film starring the popular Loki? Whatever happens, it’s cool that Marvel’s embracing the deeper appeal of superheroes: Anything is possible.