The Marvel-Netflix Universe’s Final Hero

The third and last season of Jessica Jones says farewell to Krysten Ritter’s superpowered P.I.—and marks the end of a small-screen experiment that helped pave the way for streaming’s big swings.

Krysten Ritter’s superpowered P.I., Jessica Jones, returns to Netflix for its third and final season.
'Jessica Jones' is among the shows that helped legitimize Netflix as a platform willing to take narrative risks. (Netflix / The Atlantic)

Like the superhero-turned-private-investigator she brought to life with the Netflix drama Marvel’s Jessica Jones, Melissa Rosenberg prefers not to overstay her welcome.

So, before the third season began filming in the summer of 2018, she chose to make it her last as the series’ showrunner. She signed a deal to develop projects at Warner Bros. Television. She told her cast, her fellow writers, and her crew ahead of the official announcement. She even selected her potential replacements, she told me one afternoon in early May: “I had two, three people I was working with who easily could have taken over the show if they wanted.”

And then, the death knell arrived. In February, Netflix axed the series along with The Punisher, which had just aired its second season. Because the streaming service had already canceled Daredevil, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist months earlier, the move effectively ended Marvel’s output on Netflix, the studio’s attempt to create a set of interconnected TV shows that would serve as the dark and gritty antidote to its big-screen offerings. But with one season still to air, Jessica Jones was left in a unique position: Its final batch of episodes would serve as the world’s last entry. The series had to pull double duty. “It doesn’t surprise me that Jessica is the last one standing,” Krysten Ritter, who stars as Jessica and directed her first episode this season, told me with a laugh. “Just like she would be after a long night.”

Rosenberg, though, wasn’t thinking about Jessica’s status as the universe’s final girl when she heard the news. “I was like, ‘Couldn’t you have told me that before I put everyone through hell, before I traumatized everybody by leaving?’” She laughed, then sighed. “It was really painful because I love these people so much, and I love this character.”

When Jessica Jones began in 2015, the series looked nothing like other comic-book adaptations. It featured the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s rare female franchise lead, but it wasn’t interested in superheroics or in Jessica’s superstrength. Instead, it examined its protagonist’s life after she’d tried the whole hero thing, failed, and thought she’d escaped from her tormentor, Kilgrave (David Tennant), the mind controller who’d made her his pet. Leaning heavily into noir—Jessica works as a private investigator and has a penchant for brown liquor and grim voice-overs—the show was about an abusive relationship and its aftereffects. “In the world of Marvel Comics, a female antihero—a female anything—is a step forward. But a rape survivor, struggling with P.T.S.D., is a genuine leap,” wrote the critic Emily Nussbaum for The New Yorker. “In a genre format that is often reflexively juvenile about sexuality, Jessica Jones is distinctly adult, an allegory that is unafraid of ugliness.”

During Season 1, Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) squared off against the mind controller Kilgrave (David Tennant) in a relationship that examined abuse as much as it did heroism. (David Giesbrecht / Netflix)

In her final episodes, Jessica is still trying to shake off that dark worldview she adopted from her time with Kilgrave. It’s not easy: A serial killer is obsessed with her; her best friend and surrogate sister, Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor), has disappeared; and Jessica’s still grappling with her identity as a hero, which she’s struggled with throughout the show. Said Ritter: “This season’s about [Jessica] really trying to see, like, ‘Am I a hero? Can I be a hero?’”

Spoiler alert: Jessica figures out an answer to those questions. When Rosenberg learned of the series’ cancellation, she had enough time to rework the original cliff-hanger ending she’d envisioned for the season and to allow Jessica to close her final case. The death of the Marvel-Netflix project may have turned Jessica Jones’s third season into a lame duck, but to Rosenberg, it meant an opportunity to wrap up the story, even if she’d been prepared to leave the show in trusted hands. “We came to the party, had a great time,” she joked, “[and we] said goodnight before we were falling over drunk.”

The analogy would probably work better if the party weren’t already over. Though Jessica Jones gets a chance to finish on its own terms, the rest of the Marvel-Netflix lineup ended on tantalizing teases. Still, the muted finale to the Defenders—the unofficial nickname for the four heroes in the original lineup, who came together in a crossover miniseries with the same title—exemplifies the way the streaming landscape has evolved: No single genre dominates, and even a high-profile, highly anticipated experiment such as this one can fizzle out. On the big screen, audiences can’t get enough of superhero films, which have reigned at the box office for years. On TV, though, even superhero stories offered as a collection—with the promise of hours upon hours of narrative—can get kicked to the curb.

Netflix’s Hollywood headquarters are dazzling. As soon as visitors step inside the lobby, they’re greeted with trophy cases housing rows of Emmys and floor-to-ceiling screens promoting upcoming projects. (Stranger Things Season 3, back July 4!) But if they were to look beyond the lobby and into the rest of the building, they’d glimpse a poster of a skull, the one used in key art for The Punisher. And if they were to walk down the hallway, they’d find a conference room to the left named after The Defenders, with an image of the four titular heroes looming large over the space.

The building is littered with relics like these, unofficial memorials to dead shows. But in 2013, that wasn’t what Jeph Loeb, the head of Marvel Television, would have seen when he arrived to help deliver the supersize pitch that would result in the Marvel-Netflix universe. Netflix had just begun acquiring and producing its own streaming content. It had a handful of original series—House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, Hemlock Grove, and Lilyhammer—and plans to go global. “It’s ironic to think that five years ago,” Loeb mused to me, Netflix “would need something that would help put them on the map.”

And yet, it did—which is why the streaming service committed to building an entire comic-book world. It agreed to making five interconnected shows totaling 60 episodes: Four New York–based comic-book characters dealing with street-level crime—the blind vigilante Daredevil, the hard-drinking P.I. Jessica Jones, the indestructible ex-con Luke Cage, and the martial-arts master Iron Fist—would receive solo series. They’d also team up in a miniseries. The project, modeled after Marvel’s Phase 1 films, which had culminated in 2012’s The Avengers, was unprecedented; small-screen crossovers were rare events, and the CW’s superhero universe had barely begun to form. (Arrow had just debuted its first season in 2012; The Flash would arrive in 2014.)

At the height of Marvel-Netflix’s run, the universe seemed like it would only grow: Its shows dominated eight production stages in New York, as overlapping crews shot three series at a time. The Defenders scored the A-list actress Sigourney Weaver to play the villain—a move that had fans chanting “holy shit” at New York Comic Con in 2016. All of the stand-alone shows received second-season orders, and Netflix greenlit The Punisher, a spin-off of Daredevil Season 2.

But last fall, a year after The Defenders aired, Netflix began canceling each of its series under the Marvel brand. The streamer hasn’t said much about these endings, aside from offering diplomatic statements. (Top executives weren’t made available for interviews for this story.) But shortly after the cancellation of Iron Fist in October, Netflix’s Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos did provide a blunt response to a question about the future of the Marvel shows: “Those are for us to cancel,” he said, “and we’re super happy with their performance so far.”

Loeb admitted that he didn’t expect the universe to contract this way. “Look, I was surprised that we would not be doing Season 4 and 5 of all of our shows,” he said. “It was a decision that Netflix made, and that’s what we deal with … They call and they say, ‘We have some bad news; we’re not continuing.’ It’s not a discussion. It’s an edict.”

There is a silver lining, though, Loeb argued: For better or worse, the slate of shows Marvel brought helped legitimize the platform as a network interested in taking herculean swings. “People have told me that … when Marvel made the deal with Netflix, the rest of the town went, ‘Oh! Oh, [streaming]’s a real thing,’” Loeb said. “That was certainly not our intention,” he continued, chuckling. “Our intention was to get our shows on the air, but it really cemented that there was another way for people to tell stories.” In fact, with Netflix in the rearview mirror, Marvel TV is leaning into Hulu: Ghost Rider, Helstrom, and the animated universe The Offenders are set to start rolling out in 2020., the hub for online petitions, yields more than 150 results for the search term Marvel Netflix. Some entries have nothing to do with the Defenders, but most revolve around urging Netflix, Disney (which owns Marvel), or a combination of both to save the shows. (Even Iron Fist, the lowest-rated critically of the shows, is the subject of multiple ongoing petitions.) Daredevil fans are especially organized: They built a website, purchased billboards in Times Square, and coordinated an ongoing mass rewatch.

Campaigns to save canceled series are nothing new, and superhero shows tend to draw fan fervor. But the Marvel-Netflix universe might particularly linger in fans’ minds because the exact cause of its series’ abrupt ends has been unclear. Critics, in their eulogies, have speculated that the creation of Disney+, Disney’s own streaming platform, meant that Netflix opted to purge its library of Marvel titles rather than compete. They’ve also pointed to the waning popularity of the shows: Netflix rarely releases viewing data, but the marketing-analytics firm Jumpshot concluded that The Defenders had been the least-viewed Marvel series in its release month.

‘Jessica Jones’ showrunner Melissa Rosenberg admits incorporating Jessica into the team-up miniseries ‘The Defenders’ was ‘a challenge’: ‘She's so different from those characters that you begin to compromise her reality.’ (Sarah Shatz / Netflix)

Over time, the entire operation had also become less and less connected, in viewers’ eyes. The universe had begun with a crossover-heavy bang: The seeds for the Defenders’ ultimate foe were planted in Daredevil Season 1; Luke Cage (Mike Colter) was introduced in Jessica Jones; and Rosario Dawson popped up in every series as the nurse Claire Temple. But after The Defenders, crossovers shrank into cameos, which became passing references in dialogue. Claire disappeared. So did the Avengers Tower from the New York skyline.

World-building for five shows at once is a complicated endeavor, and to Rosenberg, Jessica Jones never worked well as part of such an ambitious package deal. The Defenders had moments she enjoyed that furthered Jessica’s development—she mentioned Ritter’s verbal sparring with Charlie Cox (who plays Daredevil) as a high point—but being part of a universe that involved ninjas and dragons and alien invasions, in some ways, betrayed the character she’d brought to life. “Jessica in The Defenders was a challenge, because she’s so different from those characters that you begin to compromise her reality … by putting her in other people’s worlds,” she told me. “Jessica doesn’t really fit in a world where there are aliens. She’s very much of this Earth.”

And so, when it comes to seeing the larger universe over the finish line, Rosenberg and Ritter aren’t concerned. Jessica’s world has gotten knotty enough. The first season dealt with Jessica confronting her (literal) demon and the second with her confronting her origin; the third was their chance to have Jessica confront herself. “The story is always about … her psychological and emotional journey, and that gets difficult to do as the seasons go on,” Ritter said. “What has been so important to me is how personal we always keep the story.”

“I felt a real sense of closure,” Rosenberg said. “Each season [was] like an act in a play. [This was] a three-act play.”

Act I started with Jessica trying to control her shattered world. The first scene of the pilot found her with an unsatisfied client, a man who’d asked her to capture photographs of his spouse cheating on him with his brother. She did the job, but when she shared her findings with him, he got angry at her for delivering the truth. So she violently tossed him through the glass of her office door, in a shot taken straight from the comics.

Act III, though? In the opening minutes of the third season, Jessica deals with an equally unhappy customer—one who refuses to pay and then calls her a “third-rate Joan Jett wannabe”—but this time, Jessica doesn’t retaliate. This time, she walks away. “I hate heroism,” she thinks to herself. And then she returns to her office and pores over another case.