Note: This post discusses plot points from Marvel’s Jessica Jones season three, as well as other Defenders series, so continue at your own spoiler peril.
2019 marked the end of an era for the Marvel Cinematic Universe on the big screen and small—in addition to watching the O.G. Avengers pass the torch to a new, still-assembling team, we bid farewell to the street-level heroes of the Netflix Marvel series. The loss of the former is obviously much more deeply felt among fans, but after spending a few years with the Defenders, The A.V. Club can’t just let them skulk off into the good night. We’re prepared to offer a proper eulogy, or at least, some final thoughts on this not-so-grand experiment.
Let’s begin at the end, with the third season of Marvel’s Jessica Jones. The show stayed true to form—the bloated, meandering form that was the template for virtually every one of these series (not even The Punisher was ultimately able to break free). I applaud Krysten Ritter’s excellent performance once more, but season three mostly felt like a retread to me. You have the inversion of the hero—in this case, it was Trish Walker a.k.a. Hellcat (Rachael Taylor), trying to wrest the mantle of superhero from Jessica (Ritter), who really wasn’t fighting too hard to hold onto it at first. Jessica and Malcolm (Eka Darville) eyed each other warily across the hall; Jessica and Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss) eyed each other warily over drinks. Their circumstances have changed significantly since the first season, which did offer some compelling turns here and there, but those storylines often got lost in all the midseason padding. And as I type that, I realize that this could be applied to the majority of individual seasons. In the end, the Defenders franchise died as it lived: overlong with moments of brilliance.
There’s a lot more to dig into than just the final outing of Jessica Jones, though. Since we ranked the individual seasons, season two of Marvel’s The Punisher also dropped. We’ll wade into the larger impact of this streaming experiment, but first, care to tell us what you think of the small-screen MCU’s swansong, Alex?
Here’s what I think constituted the largest problem with this final season of Jessica Jones, Danette: The big twist that makes it interesting doesn’t happen until the third-to-last episode. (Apologies to those who haven’t finished the season yet and want to skip ahead three paragraphs.) Almost every episode save for the road trip is full of irritating, petty squabbling between Trish and Jessica, the former’s holier-than-thou attitude given new lease on life thanks to her recently acquired superpowers. (Also, the show does a really shitty job of introducing those abilities; based on the second episode montage, it seems like she trains really hard in order to...get decent at parkour?) Trish is deeply annoying in these moments, to the point where I actively cringed when she’d appear. Rachael Taylor’s performance worked well when her character was just an entitled wannabe do-gooder way out of her depth, but those same traits are odious in the extreme when paired with the superpowers—not the actor’s fault, I know, but surely someone could’ve noted that this childish drama wasn’t much fun to watch? As such, it’s a breath of fresh air when it’s finally revealed that Trish is killing the very people Jessica is getting blamed for; if only it could’ve happened, say, halfway through the season, this could’ve been a far more compelling story.
Because frankly, the season’s Big Bad (or faux-Big Bad, really), serial killer Gregory Salinger, a.k.a. the FoolKiller from Marvel comics lore, was never as effective as he should’ve been. Honestly, the series doesn’t seem to be smart enough to pull off a genius villain—such characters need to be three steps ahead of the audience, not pulling moves that make audiences think, “Oh, that was dumb of him.” I’m not sure why the writers weren’t able to recover the sharp elegance of the first season’s plotting, but nearly every character this time around makes really stupid decisions, based less in their traits than in the show’s desire to push its chess pieces around. Jessica recorded him confessing to her during their first encounter, and then did nothing with the tape. It vanished. That’s just lazy storytelling. Such examples abound, which is why season three felt like a very promising story that never achieved its potential. I don’t mind retreads as long as they’re well done—it’s the difference between good James Bond movies and, well, bad James Bond movies—but despite the great performances, Ritter especially, Jessica Jones ended with a middling season instead of a hoped-for great one. It was almost good—and really, Danette, isn’t that a fairly accurate summation of the entire Netflix-Marvel universe? Moments of greatness that can’t seem to find any consistency?
DC: First of all, I just want to briefly weigh in on the requisite one-dimensional and/or extraneous villain so we can hit a Defenders bingo! Jeremy Bobb can so easily shift from general sleaziness to menace that I am sorely disappointed that Salinger ended up being such a dud. What’s also been needling me is how out of place the villain felt for much of the season; I had to remind myself that Jessica had bigger problems than Trish’s oneupmanship and Jeri’s secrecy. But then, that wasn’t really the case, right? Salinger was ultimately a red herring—which, for the record, I would have been fine with, because I do think the dynamic between Jessica and Trish, and the ways in which trauma can ruin your life even after you’ve removed yourself from an abusive situation, should be at the forefront. If this season had been eight episodes with one or two of them sending Jessica on a wild goose chase, Salinger’s inclusion might have worked. As it stands, it was a detour that wasn’t worth venturing down.
But with that out of the way, yes, “moments of greatness that can’t seem to find any consistency” should also make its way into the obituary for the Netflix-Marvel universe. Even the strongest outings, like the first seasons of JJ, Marvel’s Daredevil, and The Punisher, had middling middles or underdeveloped characters. It’s funny because, in a way, consistency was at the core of these shows—they were all interconnected. But that obligation to a larger story, one that had little framework in place, tended to dull the impact of individual series. The best of the Netflix-Marvel shows were often at their best when they focused on what made them unique—the choreography and penitent vibe of Daredevil, the reckoning with trauma and anger in Jessica Jones. The shows were considerably more ordinary whenever they were just superhero shows. Is that a fair assessment, Alex?
AM: I think you’re right, though I might quibble with the “just superhero shows” label, as that’s a bit self-defeating. I want lots of superheroics—but as you say, specific forms of it, not boilerplate “punch some guys, have icy conversations with nemeses, punch more guys, lather, rinse, repeat.” One of the reasons JJ’s first season is among the best of the Netflix offerings is because it’s not just a 13-hour movie. Kilgrave is a superb villain, yes, but it’s easy to forget Jessica actually worked a number of other cases, especially in the first half of the season, when he was lingering in the shadows. The larger story of the weaker seasons inevitably lost what made the better seasons work—Daredevil’s second season lost the focus on smaller cases and warm camaraderie between our core trio, the Punisher’s return installment dispensed with the fun variety of threats Castle first faced along with the exploration of male intimacy generated by Frank and Micro, and even Ms. Jones’ second season lost sight of the “on to the next case” detective angle that made her so distinctive. (You’re welcome for not making Daredevil the show that “lost sight” of its idiosyncrasies.)
I get why the shows made such deviations—no creator wants to just repeat themselves to diminishing returns—but there’s a difference between finding a new story and abandoning what made yours work in the first place. Which brings us to The Defenders, the crossover team-up event that should’ve been cooler than it was. Ironically, I’m a bit of an apologist for The Defenders (a defender of it, if you will), as I don’t think it deserves the retroactive drubbing its gotten. First of all, its relative brevity was welcome—only eight episodes!—as was the excellent way it paired off its quarrelsome quartet for maximum fun, with Luke Cage’s (Mike Colter) warm pragmatism getting the comic foil of Danny Rand’s (Finn Jones) dunder-headedness, and Jessica’s dour pessimism met by the can-do spirit of Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox). But it also meant the weaknesses of this universe got highlighted: Great characters and performances met with underdeveloped villains (a tragic waste of Sigourney Weaver) and narratives that never felt quite as solid as they should be. Not to mention the fundamental sameness of it all: You create an interconnected Marvel world of street-level heroes, and you just pick four protagonists who are basically good at punching people? To see them all in a line, doing their fighting-evil thing, was to be reminded that the shows were too often the same when it comes to what should make them super (two of them being better at kung-fu aside). Danette, how would you deliver the eulogy for Netflix’s grand Marvel experiment?
DC: That’s an important distinction that you make, that these shows can offer superheroics along with great insight into humanity—what better way to capture the duality of their protagonists? Unfortunately, as this enterprise rolled on, those two elements were rarely on display at the same time. It was as if the shows themselves were crimefighters with alter egos, and resonance disappeared whenever more complex choreography showed up and vice versa.
I know this is a familiar refrain, but after witnessing Jessica’s last case, all I can think is that what this whole production sorely needed was restraint—not in characterization, because they didn’t exactly let their imaginations run wild when regularly envisioning the season villain as the hero’s opposite, or giving the short shrift to recurring characters like Malcolm. But smaller episode runs and shorter runtimes would have provided a tighter framework; instead, the excessive 13-episode counts and 50-minute-plus runtimes regularly made even the best seasons feel sluggish.
Don’t get me wrong—when Jessica Jones, Daredevil, and Luke Cage worked, they soared. That greatness wasn’t limited to an impressive debut either; I thought the second season of Luke Cage was more ambitious and compelling than the first. And lots of people enjoyed the second season of Iron Fist (still, the best I can say about it is that it took a cue from Defenders and mostly neutralized Danny Rand). Maybe that’s the final word on the Netflix-Marvel series: keep Danny Rand the hell out of New York. Well, that, and a reminder that the number 13 really is unlucky.
AM: So unlucky! If only there were some hero, living in New York, who possessed the power to adjust the length of these shows’ run. Someone with some sort of magical “Time Stone,” say.