For a while now, I’ve been voicing my frustration with the unchanging structure of Marvel’s cinematic universe. But even further stuck in my craw has been the treatment of their streaming content: Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and most recently, Luke Cage. Every one of these shows started with such potential. But somewhere around the last few episodes, they all hit the same snag, all promising the moon, never quite getting off the ground, the ultimate payoff feeling shoehorned and unearned. It has kept me from wholeheartedly recommending any of the shows to anyone, their individual parts unfortunately greater than any whole. But if I could fix one thing, just one goddamn thing, it would be this:
Stop ending every season with the “getting the costume” moment.
This makes me so mad I hardly even know where to start. No matter where the show is going, at some point the black hole of that costume moment starts making itself felt, and by the end of the season everything that the show could have been is swallowed up in the service of “Uh oh, it’s just like the comics everyone…”. It’s happened in every season of every show thus far. In Daredevil season 1, Daredevil gets his costume. In season 2, he gets his stick, and Elektra and Punisher suit up. In Jessica Jones, Purple Man literally turns purple, and Jessica wears an outfit from her comic. And Luke Cage might be the worst. Several episodes after an actually pretty clever shout-out to the original Powerman costume, fucking Diamondback can’t decide if he wants to dress as Snake Man or Proto Man, so why not both? (Oh, and as a bonus, Misty Knight appears for literally no reason at all during the closing credits of the finale in her FUCKING AFRO COSTUME GODDAMN IT!) Diamondback is the worst offender of all, because he so completely undermines what the show has been building. He shows up halfway through the season, replacing another villain, Cottonmouth (looking nothing like his comic-book counterpart, I might add) who is a great, nuanced, magnetic character, maybe the best villain Marvel has had yet. But he doesn’t offer an opportunity for a costume moment, so forget the Hercules versus King Eurystheus (look it up) parallel the writers have been building up. Instead, we get a boring superhero brawl with the worst villain Marvel has produced to date, a character who actively ruins the show.
I don’t really care about the costumes specifically, or about whether or not they look cool. It’s the too-tight focus, the sterile package, the unmistakable scent of the factory: reducing these shows to action figures in the Marvel comics continuity they emerged from, instead of works (of art, even) that stand and evolve on their own terms. And I’m not the only one who feels let down. After 4 seasons worth of these shows, not one of which has maintained popularity after the excitement of its initial release, the pattern should be obvious. But Marvel can’t seem to figure it out.
No one watched Jessica Jones looking for a super hero brawl. They watched to feel empowered by the story of an invincible woman exacting revenge against the embodiment of everything women fear in men of privilege, who’s very word is the law. People connected with Daredevil, a man with a disability trying to reconcile competing father figures and his own internal demons as a poor Batman. They didn’t fall for the show because Punisher has a skull on his shirt!
Speaking of Punisher…
In Daredevil season 2, Frank Castle gets into a bloody fight. By the end, his white shirt is stained with blood, forming a skull akin to his comics costume. It’s an amazing and organic moment that pays homage to his origins without making it all about him suiting up in spandex. And then it’s ruined: he gets into costume and saves the day with a sniper rifle like he’s goddamn Steve Buscemi at the end of Billy Madison. GOOD THING HE WAS IN THE COSTUME!!!
So why is it that the climax of every single Marvel TV season is built so tightly around moments that have, consistently, not worked?
I sometimes get the feeling that the first and last episode of every season is written in advance, and creative writers are given carte blanche on the rest of the sandwich. And those creative decisions are great. I never liked Daredevil or Luke Cage more than I did in the early episodes of these series, when I was introduced to them in lights that were more entertaining and relatable than any throwdown with Mysterio. Jessica Jones may not be MY Jessica (I’m more of a comics fan on that one), but she became a standout hero, attracting fans who had never known the rush of empowerment that a superhero fantasy can provide. That is the magic of these shows. And I wish someone at Marvel would figure that out before Iron Fist or The Defenders premieres.
Or maybe it’s all just building up to Wilson Fisk wearing a purple ascot. Glad we had five seasons of TV to build up to that important moment.