Why Marvel and Netflix are telling some of the best superhero stories today

There’s a scene in the middle of the new season of Marvel/Netflix’s “Luke Cage” where Mariah Dillard, the season’s main villain, displays a rare moment of extremely vulnerable honesty. Now, Mariah is a truly terrible person. The former politician has committed horrible crimes during her quest for power, and by the end of the season, I’m sure most viewers would agree that she deserves all the bad things coming to her.

And yet…in this one moment, where she reveals a painful emotional scar from her past, we do genuinely pity her. She remains a terrible person, but the tragedy she experienced is real and heartbreaking, and you can’t help but imagine the better person she could have become if she’d grown up in better circumstances.

Nuanced characters like Mariah Dillard is one of the key strengths shared by the Marvel/Netflix superhero shows (well, most of them, at least). I finished up the new season of “Luke Cage” this past weekend, and since then I’ve been thinking about all the Marvel/Netflix shows and how, overall, they’ve done a fantastic job adding to the Marvel universe we know and love. Some of the best superhero storytelling today is being done on the small screen, and Marvel/Netflix’s partnership is a true standout.

I remember starting the very first Marvel/Netflix show, “Daredevil,” back in 2015 and wondering how it would compare to the Marvel Cinematic Universe films. Sometimes it’s tough to capture that same epic, sweeping feel on a smaller screen with a smaller budget. Thankfully, the Marvel/Netflix shows don’t try to replicate what we’re seeing in the MCU. Instead, they use their smaller scale to their advantage. The whole world isn’t in peril; maybe it’s just one neighborhood in New York City. But through this more narrow focus, we have a chance to dive really deeply into a lineup of fascinating heroes AND villains.

Matt Murdock/Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Danny Rand/Iron Fist, and Frank Castle/Punisher are all completely different people. Some, like Matt and Luke, are able to claim the moral high ground as superheroes (at least at first), while others, like Punisher, tend more towards the antihero end of the spectrum. But each are fascinating in their own way, and the shows have their own unique tone and themes. Perhaps that’s why, at least to me, the Marvel/Netflix team-up series, “The Defenders,” didn’t work as well; it lost the unique flavor that made each of the individual shows stand out.

Now, some of these individual series are more compelling than others. I never finished “Iron Fist,” and I felt the back half of “Daredevil” season 2 suffered after the Punisher’s arc on that show wrapped up. I tried the first episode of “Jessica Jones” season 2, but it didn’t grab me like the first season did. Maybe I need to give it another shot.

Still, there’s some really excellent character development in these shows, and not just for the heroes. The villains are just as fascinating (and in some cases, even more fascinating!) than the heroes themselves.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been criticized in the past for some of its more lackluster villains, who are more of an obstacle for the hero to overcome than a fully realized character. That’s why Wilson Fisk/Kingpin, the main villain in “Daredevil” season 1, felt like such a revelation. He was definitely a bad guy, and I wasn’t really sorry to see him go to prison. However, the show made him a compelling villain by giving him flashes of humanity, including a surprisingly tender and genuine relationship with his girlfriend, Vanessa. He was by no means a stereotypical “mustache-twirling” villain.

For the most part, all the Marvel/Netflix shows have followed that trend. By showing us the flaws in the heroes and the humanity in the villains, the shows become more real and thought-provoking. All the characters have hurts that haunt them.

Due to the shows’ format, they’re able to tell darker stories than the MCU is able to. I’m okay with that, really. I don’t necessarily want/need the MCU to be gritty; I like that they are family films that are accessible to a wide audience. But it’s nice to see some heavier superhero storytelling as well.

Although these shows work on a surface level as compelling action/dramas, there are some really relevant themes to chew on as well. When I first heard about “The Punisher” series, I was excited, because I loved Jon Bernthal’s performance as the character in “Daredevil” season 2. However, I was a little worried about how they would handle a character centered around guns and violence, especially with all the tragic real-life headlines we continue to see. Thankfully, they approached the subject with sensitivity and nuance. The show also touched on another important issue: what happens to veterans after they return from combat.

“Jessica Jones” addressed domestic violence and abuse, “Luke Cage” tackled racism, and so on. I hope that the fans who watch these shows are inspired to have real-life conversations about these issues. That, I think, is the real power of entertainment: to get us to look at the world through a different lens than our own. In our increasingly politically-charged world, I think pop culture has a real opportunity to break down barriers and tell stories that have the power to bring real-world change.

On a lighter note, the shows’ practical effects and well-choreographed fight scenes are also a nice change of pace from CGI-heavy blockbusters (even though if you know me, you know that I love big-budget special effects). ? And the shows also use music really effectively to help tell the story, particularly “Luke Cage.”

If you haven’t tried any of these shows yet, I’d highly recommend them. I know some fans who’ve watched all of them, and others who have tried a couple and just stuck with their favorites. Although as previously mentioned, there have been a few bumps along the way, overall the Marvel/Netflix partnership has definitely been a winning one.

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