When we talk about the six TV shows that make up Marvel’s Defender-verse of small scale superheroics—Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, The Punisher, and The Defenders itself—we usually do so by talking about them as “Netflix’s Marvel shows.” (We also say things like, “Hey, maybe you don’t need Iron Fist in your life.”)
But that description was never entirely accurate—and became even less so today, as Netflix revealed this week that its licensing deals for the shows are set to expire at the end of this month, at which point they’ll vanish from the service for good.
Because despite all the triumphant (sigh) “TUDUM!”s that kicked off every episode of Matt Murdock or Jessica Jones’ streaming adventures, Netflix’s “ownership” over these six TV shows—series that it promoted relentlessly, from top executives on down—has always been nominal at best. Their deaths, back in late 2018 and early 2019, served as the harbinger of the serious beginnings of the streaming wars that now dominate pop culture; their removal from Netflix later this month will mark the end of a more exploratory, somewhat amateurish and collaborative iteration of the streaming ecosystem.
When Marvel’s Daredevil—the Disney overlords are always very careful to let you know who’s actually making this stuff, right up there in the title—was first released back in 2015, it was into a very different media landscape than the one we’re living in now. At the time, very few people were looking at Netflix as a direct competitor to anybody; the former (and still, amazingly, current) DVD shipping company had carved out a niche for itself online, and gotten ahead of most of the competition in the streaming marketplace.
That made it a very attractive partner, even for brands like Disney, whose own Hulu (more on which, in a minute) was just beginning to venture out into the world of original streaming series. Licensing deals for existing content with Netflix meant lots of easy money up front, no need to build out extremely costly infrastructure on their own, and a reliable place to milk some extra cash out of older shows and movies that’d otherwise simply be rotting in the catalog or waiting for syndication.
The next step, of treating Netflix like just another network the studio might produce original content for, flowed naturally from there. After a few mixed results on Disney’s own ABC—most notably Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., which managed to become its own thing after a few years of trying to ride in the MCU’s big-budget wake—the company turned to the streamer as a natural outlet for a series of cheaper shows focused on less immediately marketable characters.
These would be produced under the aegis of Marvel Television head Jeph Loeb (and looming above him, Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter, who’d maintained control of Marvel’s TV output even as its film work began to fall more fully under the auspices of MCU architect Kevin Feige). Focusing on characters whose abilities usually topped out at nice, cheap punching—and using rights that had reverted to Disney from a then-still-separate Fox a few years earlier—the shows would be relatively inexpensive, while expanding out the Marvel brand considerably, and giving the company a foothold in the streaming market.
And it worked! Despite a few missteps, the Netflix Marvel shows were a critical and commercial success, with Daredevil and especially Jessica Jones drawing rave reviews for depicting life on the ground floor of a super-powered universe. (Even if the shows’ overt connections to the MCU became more fragile as time went on.) They had their own style. They had a shared mythology. Only one of them was Iron Fist. Life was good.
As late as October 2018, when the third season of Daredevil was released, the Netflix shows were continuing to garner praise and fan enthusiasm. (Eclipsing, as it happens, the few shows Marvel had floated over to its partners at Hulu.) But that particular season arrived under a dark cloud, coming as it did just a week after Netflix announced that it was canceling Iron Fist, and the same day it handed down a kill order on the more critically well-regarded Luke Cage. Clearly, something had changed, and it didn’t really seem to matter how well audiences were responding to Charlie Cox or Vincent D’Onofrio’s latest takes on beloved characters.
What had changed was, of course, Disney+—and, with it, the assumption that Netflix was anything other than just another well-backed rival for a piece of a market Disney was now interested in owning. As major studios (a mere decade late to the party) began to realize how much money was available in streaming, Netflix stopped being a symbiotic place where, say, a show like The CW’s Riverdale could catch on in the public consciousness, building an audience that would follow it back to its live broadcasts. And it was certainly no longer a company Marvel and Disney would loan out their uber-valuable intellectual property to, no matter how good the ratings and reviews were. (Possibly because of how good the ratings and reviews were.)
And so the “Netflix” Marvel shows—which had always really just been the Netflix Marvel rentals—died. Which was where things sat, for two years, until Marvel’s TV plans started to get ambitious.
Marvel Television, the independent production entity, died in 2019, without an excess of fanfare. Its death was generally seen as both a victory, and an inevitability, as Feige—by now one of the most successful film producers in the entire history of the industry—absorbed Marvel TV production into the far more lucrative Marvel Studios proper. (Shaking loose the last vestiges of control from Perlmutter, with whom he’d reportedly clashed on more than one occasion.) The net result was a new focus on tying Marvel TV production directly into the MCU, launching zeitgeist-snagging series like WandaVision, Falcon And The Winter Soldier, and Loki.
In the meantime, Feige continued to field periodic questions about the fates of other Marvel TV properties, including the Defenders shows. Answers to the questions tended to be of the “Let’s wait and see” variety, although it’s known that Feige has a weakness for these characters—per at least one report, he’d tried to get a Daredevil movie off the ground nearly a decade ago, before being re-directed toward other Marvel brands.
So it can only really be read as a statement of intent when, in late 2021, Marvel released not one, but two high-profile projects that signaled that it was bringing Matt Murdock and associates back into the fold. First, an episode of Hawkeye aired that revealed Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin was alive and well in the MCU. Then, an appearance by Cox himself in Spider-Man: No Way Home. Besides being exceptionally good fanservice—and forcing Cox to hide out at lunches with fellow walking spoiler Andrew Garfield—the moves made it clear that Daredevil was clearly back in play.
The other shoe on all this then dropped earlier today, with the reveal that the Netflix Marvel shows—which had reportedly experienced a serious viewership spike thanks to the above cameos—were set to expire from the streamer’s servers. We don’t have access to the exact details of the licensing deal signed between Netflix and Disney, but it feels significant (given that we’re coming up on Daredevil’s 7th anniversary) to note that Netflix’s deals are generally reported to run from 7 to 10 years in length.
Netflix never owned Daredevil. (Even if it’s going to be weird, however long down the line, to see the show run without the company’s production card—the way Cheers reruns now loudly proclaim themselves as property of CBS, of all places.) And it looks like its lease has run out, just as Disney has decided to work the character (and, possibly, his contemporaries) back into its massively lucrative fold.
Disney, in the modern era, is not in the business of stopping fans from giving it money. Once it re-acquires the streaming rights to a whole bunch of beloved superhero shows and also Iron Fist, we can’t imagine it’ll be long before the company finds a way to leverage those properties for consumption. The big question, then, is where that’ll end up happening.
Disney+ is an obvious answer, despite its role as a contributing culprit in these shows’ original murders. But it’s also, as we noted earlier today, a pretty bad fit: The service, at least in the U.S., aims for an at least teen-friendly content standard, and the Defenders shows traffic in a whole bunch of sex and violence. In other countries, Disney has a specific outlet for this stuff, through the Star sub-brand it filters more adult-oriented content through. But its options in the U.S. are more limited.
Which leaves Hulu, which may soon be forced to play host to a set of TV shows that kicked Helstrom’s ass from here to Sunday. (Even after they were canceled.) Hulu is, itself, a product of the weird early days of streaming TV—having been owned jointly, at one point, by Fox’s News Corp, then-NBC Universal, a consortium of independent TV stations, and Disney. But it’s now, despite Comcast holding on to a small share, primarily a Disney property. The logic of it becoming the new home for Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and the other Defenders shows feels fairly straightforward: It’ll get a big marketing boost when they land, insulation from the more “official” MCU shows, and a continued consolidation of all of Disney’s Marvel’s brands within the “family.” This is still speculation, but it feels solid to us.
And as to the future of Daredevil, well: Who knows? A big part of Feige’s success is that he seems to understand—and like!—the characters he’s taken stewardship of, even the less well-known ones; 10 years ago, no one could have predicted that Rocket Raccoon and Groot, of all people/trees, would be household names. Cox’s Matt Murdock has now shown up in one Marvel Cinematic Universe movie: Who knows when we’ll see him in another?