The Netflix Marvel universe has been a mixed bag, to put it mildly.
Luke Cage best represents the highs and lows of the shows so far: a stellar first half, paired with a regrettable second half. A big reason why: the intricate villain of the first several episodes, Cottonmouth, with complex and relateable motivations, was sacked in favor of a typical, one-dimensional, “Rargh kill them all” villain named Diamondback for the second half. So it went: those Netflix/Marvel seasons with great villains (Daredevil season 1; Jessica Jones season 1; The Punisher; half of Luke Cage) really fired on all cylinders, while the rest suffered from faceless, completely boring villains… usually The Hand, a bland and featureless society of ninjas whose only role in life seems to be following the law of The Conservation of Ninjitsu.
But even the best Netflix season so far — Jessica Jones 1 — hit outside its weight class only because it pressed hard on a real life nerve. More than any Netflix/Marvel or MCU baddie to date, the villain was not some random gangster, abstract horror or fantasy Hitler-wannabe; rather, he was something all too real for so many of us who watched, something straight out of our own pasts… or for some, our present. Few will have their lives dominated by some analogue of Kingpin or Hela; but Kilgrave? You better believe he was triggering something awful for a lot of us. Comics, like sci-fi, can take a real phenomenon and dial it up to 11 with magic or technology to really illustrate the impact — think Ender’s Game with war, or X-Men with racism. Bigotry suddenly becomes a lot easier to comprehend when it’s directed against mutants who can control metal or shoot eyebeams.
And what Jessica Jones did with the very real issue of the abusive romantic parter… well, let’s just say that giving the villain literal psychic powers might help one understand abusers who have figurative powers over one’s mind. Powers that are no less 100% domineering than JJ’s evil version of Professor X. That season even gave us non-powered abusers to really hammer the message down, such as Trisch’s emotionally abusive and controlling mother.
But by striking this nerve early and often, the show let us ignore some of the glaring defects. Such as the regrettable decision to make Kilgrave’s power not a psychic ability at all, but some sort of nonsense about a virus that seems to work instantly and, by the show’s end, also can be transmitted by radio waves. Or the awkward and plodding pacing, most noticeable in the middle episodes.
Point being, some people gave the show a free pass on its shortcomings due to how important it was on a meta level, in addressing our own deep wounds that happened long before Krysten Ritter first put on the leather jacket. When you’re still reeling from how much the Tenth Doctor resembles your ex, you’re more likely to not notice the whole psychic-virus nonsense. This helped immeasurably with Marvel’s second-most-important character with the initials JJ. But the downside: had I not gone through ridiculous abuse of my own, I might not have taken with the show at all. Emotional stunts might get you through one season, but it’s not enough to get you through, say, seven.
Also, Netflix’s stable of writers have had trouble with JJ so far, especially with the Defenders. I remember someone on Twitter asking point-blank: “So what is Jessica Jones’ powerset, anyway?” The Defenders often had her relegated as just another fighter when her original series went out of its way to show that, other than her superhuman strength, she had no real knack for fighting and repeatedly got owned by normal humans.
The only JJ event from The Defenders that stuck out was when she stopped a falling elevator with her strength alone, to the shock of her teammates, and exactly duplicating what Spidey pulled in his latest movie. This means she has strength at least as high as the web-slinger’s, who himself is no slouch in the Marvel universe. Which, in turn, would make her by far the most powerful of the Defenders. The underlying assumption is that her psychological issues and alcoholism prevents her from reaching anything near her true potention
So anyway, I’m not expecting much with the new season about to launch in mere minutes. But unless it finds another emotional nerve to wire into — and remember, almost no other superhero franchise can pull this off — I’m keeping my hopes muted at best…