When Disney launched its in-house streaming service Disney+ back in 2019, it changed everything about what we understood Marvel television programming to be. Rather than the offbeat, second-tier, or downright weird offerings that were previously spread across a variety of networks and streamers we’d seen in the past, Marvel television suddenly became as important a plank in the MCU’s slow march to pop culture dominance as any feature film.
From the arrival of series finally fleshing out the stories of characters who’d briefly appeared in its movies (WandaVision, Loki) to more obvious tie-ins and crossovers with the MCU film universe (Yelena in Hawkeye, Wanda in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness), Marvel TV series are now something very different than they once were just a year or two ago.
This is kind of a shame—because while there’s certainly something to be said for the aggressive corporate synergy that’s now connecting dozens of properties across the biggest franchise in the world, it also means that, in order to achieve it, we lost a lot of the riskier programs that told very different kinds of superhero stories Marvel would have never shown on the big screen. (See also: Legion, Cloak & Dagger, Helstrom).
But now that the Disney+ series are booming successes in their own rights, it seems as though the franchise may finally be ready to start embracing the past it was so eager to jettison once more.
A Streaming Service Without Fear
With the news that the Marvel Netflix series—Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and team-up special The Defenders—are all leaving their original streaming service home for what all have to assume are Disney-owned pastures elsewhere, there’s every reason to believe we haven’t seen the last of these stories or the characters in them. This theory is supported by the decision to include a cameo from Charlie Cox’s Matt Murdock in Spider-Man: No Way Home and to introduce Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk in Hawkeye, the first attempts to directly incorporate elements from one of the franchise’s Netflix series into the proverbial big league that is the MCU proper. And while there are certainly some kinks to be worked out (such as allowing Fisk to truly be the multifaceted villain we saw on Daredevil), it’s a positive sign that we may not have to say goodbye forever to these ancillary properties we all once loved. (Justice for Runaways!)
But more than that, it’s a timely and important reminder that Daredevil is still one of the best things Marvel has produced in any medium, and one that more than deserves the renewed viewer interest it’s received in recent weeks (despite having been technically “canceled’ in 2018, it cracked Netflix’s daily Top 10 following the release of No Way Home in December of 2021). And with its impending departure from Netflix to an as-yet-unnamed new streaming platform, there’s never been a better time to watch it than right now.
Devil in the Details
Daredevil originally premiered on Netflix in April 2015 and it was a groundbreaking series for many reasons. Not only was it Marvel’s first show on the popular streaming service, it was the franchise’s first street-level drama, offering a take on post-Avengers life in New York City that was deliberately darker, grittier, and more grounded than virtually anything that had come before in the MCU. The series featured the franchise’s first disabled hero, a whole lot of violence, impressively put-together fight sequences, and refreshingly low-stakes stories that didn’t involve global catastrophe or the threat of alien invasion.
More importantly, Daredevil contained truly complex and morally gray characters, of the sort that Marvel’s feature films had never truly taken the time to develop, and narrative themes rooted in difficult subjects like faith and trauma. From its deeply flawed hero, who struggles with real guilt over the vigilante justice he metes out, to a complex villain who is capable of real love and has a genuine desire to improve the city he’s claimed as his own, this is a show that repeatedly blurs the lines between traditionally good and evil characters to tell a more layered, challenging story.
In its most basic sense, Daredevil is centered on Matt Murdock, a struggling lawyer whose blindness has enhanced his other senses, thus allowing him to fight crime by night as a masked vigilante. With the help of his BFFs Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) and Foggy Nelson (Elden Hensen), he spends his days trying to get justice for the downtrodden and unjustly exploited of Hell’s Kitchen, the marginalized people whose lives were upended by the Chitauri attack in the first Avengers film and smothered by the rash of gentrification that followed after it (something that Hawkeye has laid the groundwork for revisiting thanks to its introduction of Kate Bishop). Matt’s nemesis Wilson Fisk is more corrupt businessman than traditional crime boss, though he’s certainly not averse to using violence and other nefarious ends to justify his supposedly worthwhile means.
The war for New York’s future that erupts between the two men is as often ideological as it is physical, and their rivalry is as defined by mental clashes as it is physical fights (though Fisk and Matt do face off in at least two very memorable—read: bloody—confrontations over the course of the series). Daredevil is equally careful to frame Fisk’s desire to control Hell’s Kitchen as something that is, at least in his mind, initially about a genuine drive to do right by the place and people that birthed him. This desire is repeatedly reinforced through flashbacks and his relationship with art dealer Vanessa, truly one of the best romances this franchise has ever done in any medium. In fact, Fisk’s entire evil plan in Season 3 revolves around planning his own wedding, your villainous faves could never.
An Uncertain Future
Daredevil’s arrival set a new standard for the sort of stories that the MCU could tell on television, and it’s one that this latest crop of Disney+ series would do well to take a lesson from even as viewers enjoy the Defenders quartet’s last few weeks on a rival streaming platform. While WandaVision pushed narrative boundaries and luxuriated in its nine-episode exploration of grief, some of the other Disney series often feel like weak connective tissue that exists solely to move various characters from Point A to Point B in service of the movies that will follow after them rather than explore who they really are (looking at you, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier).
It’s not clear whether Marvel’s decision to move the entire Defenders universe to a new in-house streaming home means that these stories are now—at least in some part—considered official MCU canon. Nor does it mean we’re likely to ever see a Daredevil Season 4 on our screens (there’s lots of reasons that’s a difficult ask, including the aforementioned dark and violent subject matter, not to mention the awful Hand storyline that I think we’d all like to see memory-holed forever) but the possibility that we might once again get to see these characters’ stories continue in more stories that prioritize in-depth character development and relationship dynamics as much as special effects and fight sequences? That’s something worthy of celebration.