Has the revolution begun? Netflix announced just a few days ago that they had delivered 2 billion hours of just streaming content in their fourth quarter this year. Before that, Netflix chief Ted Sarandos provoked the industry with a confrontational keynote speech about releasing films day-and-date on the streaming service and warning theater owners that they will “kill movies” if they continue to resist multi-platform distribution. A convenient, self-serving statement, he’s since back pedaled away from those comments (after all, it’s Netflix who mostly benefits here). Nevertheless, the Netflix behemoth is rattling cages with their media dominance and yesterday, in another display of their growing hegemony, the company announced another game changer: partnering with Marvel Studios to create four live-action superhero series that will kick off in 2016 (not 2015 as previously announced, according to Disney CEO Bob Iger).
The Marvel titles include “Daredevil” (already once besmirched theatrically by the lame Ben Affleck version), “Luke Cage,” “Iron Fist” (already in development as two separate movies), “Jessica Jones,” and a mini-series based on the super group “The Defenders.” The hook is the series will be set in the gritty Hell’s Kitchen of New York depicted in Marvel’s comic universe (a type of now non-existent dangerous, crime-ridden 1970s New York that Daredevil inhabits in the comics). The shows will begin with “Daredevil” first and it will all culminate in a “Defenders” mini-series. The implications of this news within the cohesive Marvel Cinematic Universe are myriad. And here’s several different scenarios to consider as Marvel pushes ahead.
1. It’s like “The Avengers” model for TV.
It’s almost like Kevin Feige, Bob Iger and co. are saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” So they’ll introduce one character (one series) than another, then another and then ramp up into one big super-hero team mini-series. Familiar much? This is “The Avengers” archetype to the letter. Build character, build brand equity, build a whole new powerful team-up, only just on a different platform—Netflix.
2. Does this mean all these characters are now off the table for Marvel’s unannounced 2016 and 2017 films?
Yes, pretty much. The deal is exclusive to Netflix and as you can already tell by Sarandos and Netflix’s business model, they like to keep things that way. Plus, as the press releases says, “the epic will unfold over multiple years of original programming.” Meaning even if it starts in 2015/2016, you may not get to endgame of “The Defenders” for a few years.
It’s not unfeasible that they could use these TV series’ as roadmaps to movies eventually (more on that in a second), but under the auspices of this deal, it would have to be after the series are complete. Plus let’s safely assume that Marvel—a business that likes to gets its ducks in a row far in advance—is already developing its aforementioned 2016 and 2017 films as we speak, so those slots are essentially spoken for at least in a general capacity (perhaps weighing some potential already written treatments/screenplays) and waiting to be announced sometime in 2014. (And while something extravagant like “Dr. Strange” might be on the table, we’d bet the Phase Three titles are much safer choices like “Avengers 3,” “Captain America 3” and already-established brands.)
3. Or are they laying the groundwork for a roadmap that leads to some movies?
Again, Simon Says no. At least not for those aforementioned release dates and not any time soon. Marvel and Netflix will play within this new arena and gauge their respective futures base on the popularity of their Netflix consumption. So yes, they could see how audiences take to the series and then, at some point, perhaps build a bridge to culminate in a feature length movie. But Marvel, despite what some may think, is rather canny about not leaping to the screen with rushed ideas or characters. They’ve already seen “Daredevil” fail onscreen (at least critically and from a fan perspective) and all of these the characters (Daredevil, Iron Fist, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones) are less fantastical and operatic than their super-powered big-screen counterparts. That said, Marvel will never completely close a door.
“Marvel has thousands of characters…and it is not possible to mine them all with filmed entertainment,” Senior Executive VP and CFO of the The Walt Disney Company recently said. “While these characters are attractive characters they are not among the most popular… it’s not likely we would have made feature films about them…though if they are popular on Netflix, they could become feature films.”
4. Expect character-based superhero stories.
“This serialized epic expands the narrative possibilities of on-demand television,” lan Fine, President of Marvel Entertainment said in the statement. Translation? Many of these characters and their respective comic book stories are character-driven; perfect for the medium of television, not so much for the spectacle that audiences are used to seeing on the big screen. Point being, while many fans would love to see the Marvel Netflix series as launching pads for feature-length efforts, it’s very possible that’s not Marvel’s endgame at all. Which brings us to our next point.
5. A massive popularity in these Netflix shows does not necessarily translate into feature films.
Marvel is surely wise enough to realize 2 billion hours of streaming content—while a fantastic number to tout—is not 1:1 translation to success on the big screen. Dissolve writer Matt Singer—a propend in favor of the “are movies too long?” debate that’s become part of the discourse of late—recently related a secondhand thought on Twitter. “People will binge 5 episodes of THE WIRE then kvetch that a movie is 140 minutes.” While this is completely true (and we lament anyone kvetching at long movies; they should be as long as they need to be), audience consumption at home vs. theatrical are two different behaviors. What one will withstand in the comfort of their own home and on their own couch is much different from what they will tolerate in a theater packed with other people (and that they’re paying a premium price for). And therefore, a Netflix success—even with metrics available and billions of hours streamed—is difficult to quantify and correlate for a theatrical comparison. The paradigm keeps changing and success is relative, and Netflix and Marvel will have plenty of time to see how audiences react and consume this new programming.
6. Marvel has demonstrated they won’t rush and want a (relatively) good product out first and foremost.
Quality of Marvel films aside of course (many of us would argue they’ve never made a great film, and Oliver really gave “Thor: The Dark World” a poor review recently), Marvel has only stumbled once so far on the big screen and that was with Louis Leterrier’s “The Incredible Hulk.” It was not the financial success they were used to, and the production was so troubled that they switched out actors before heading into “The Avengers” (Edward Norton for Mark Ruffalo).
And while the character was quickly redeemed, Marvel has shown they are savvy and do not cater to every fan whim. The Hulk, twice maligned in standalone movies, was the breakout character of the multi-billion dollar ‘Avengers’ film, and while talk did swirl of another solo film (and a TV project was put into development), Marvel wisely did not rush a ‘Hulk’ movie or TV show out the door (perhaps heeding the advice of Joss Whedon; Marvel chief Kevin Feige has said it must wait at least until after “Avengers: Age Of Ultron”). Interestingly, a Hulk series was not announced as part of this new Netflix batch of titles which perhaps indicates development has stalled (and Guillermo del Toro has suggested as much), and Marvel will wisely take a wait and see approval and reassess.
Marvel seems to be cogent of the signal to noise ratio with vociferous fans and reality. Fans have been clamoring for a solo Loki movie for example, but Marvel knows their business is about heroes and that would never track (though Marvel One Shots and this new Netflix deal does open the door to interesting new possibilities).
7. Don’t expect to see A-list heroes on the Netflix shows.
While it might be nice to think about top tier characters, The Hulk, Ant-Man or Dr. Strange likely won’t be part of the Netflix world of programming or featured in “The Defenders” (Marvel would need to recut new deals for Mark Ruffalo, for example, and or build one into the deal for whoever plays Ant-Man). What’s more, it sounds like they’re keeping things simple. “The Defenders” team may just end up being the aforementioned quartet of Hell’s Kitchen heroes—Daredevil, Luke Cage, Iron Fist and Jessica Jones—and that’s it. If they do decide to add other characters to the team, our guess is they will be similarly smaller-scale, lesser-known characters like Valkyrie, Nighthawk, Hellcat, the Gargoyle and the Son of Satan,but we also won’t be surprised if they just keep it to the core four players.
In conclusion? Don’t be surprised if Marvel keeps their Cinematic Universe cohesive and its feature-length characters continue into bigger adventures in their respective tentpoles, while their Netflix TV world stays in that medium. At least for now. Marvel’s major tell will be in casting. Yes, they are expanding, or at least testing the waters with “Guardians of the Galaxy,” which has no major name brand lead in its arsenal. But if the person cast as Luke Cage (for example) isn’t a major movie star, it’s doubtful—even with years of development on Netflix—that actor is then going to lead his own movie (though given that the “Avengers” line-up will need to change and expand in the future, Robert Downey Jr.’s not going to do that dinner theater forever, the possibility of in a participatory role is possible). That’s all folks. Thoughts? Weigh in below.