What the Marvel Movies Can Learn From the Marvel Netflix Series

As much as Marvel has had success on the big screen, they've also hit their stride on the small screen, specifically with Netflix. Taking advantage of the site's strengths (thirteen episodes released all at once, grittier and darker stories), they have been able to take street-level characters who may not have been popular enough to warrant their own film (or fit in aesthetically with Iron Man and Captain America) and give them a chance to shine on a new platform. So far, Netflix has had runaway hits with Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Daredevil Season 2, and now Luke Cage, which was just released a couple of weeks ago. All of these have been fantastic, working to both compensate for and complement the Marvel Cinematic Universe at the same time. While I would say I like the movies more, the shows, in terms or narrative and character development, are better. So in this editorial, I will be discussing what elements of the Netflix series work well enough that Marvel could adopt them into their films.

1) The Villain is Just as Important as the Hero

While most of the Marvel movies are universally loved, there is one outstanding flaw with pretty much every single film: the villain. It's not necessarily that the villain is bad; it's just that they don't stand out within the movie. Sometimes they are just poorly written or underutilized (Malekitch in Thor: The Dark World). Sometimes they are just boring and too over-the-top (Ronan the Accuser in Guardians of the Galaxy). And sometimes, we get a decent villain that has potential, but the story just doesn't continue with them in the way they should (Red Skull in Captain America: The First Avenger). There is no doubt that the Marvel movies need to work on their villains, especially when the Netflix series are crushing it with deep, conflicted, multi-layered antagonists. 

Take for example the Kingpin (Vincent D'Onofrio) from Daredevil. He is a powerful and menacing character, for whom you end up sympathizing with for much of the season. There is one episode in Season One where we get his backstory, where I was actually rooting for Wilson Fisk and was questioning whether Daredevil (Charlie Cox) was actually in the right. And that's how we should feel about villains. They should not only be a physical foil for out heroes, but a mental one. We should be questioning the morality of people's choices. We should be unsure of who to root for. The old saying is that a movie is only as good as its villain, and I don't think that's necessarily true. Most of the Marvel movies are great, and a lot of them have sh*tty villains. But it's an area that the movies definitely need to improve upon, and all the villains from all the Netflix series to date are perfect examples of how to write and develop a perfect antagonist. 

2) Deeper Character Development

One of the things that made the first Iron Man so great was that it felt like such a human story amidst a comic book blockbuster. Here we had this self-centered asshole in Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) who had his ego checked (a bit) by witnessing his weapons being used by terrorists. That sparked a change in him that caused him to become Iron Man. The crux of the film is not the special effects or the battle scenes. There's actually very little action in the movie, compared to the amount we've gotten in subsequent Marvel movies. The center of that film is instead the moral dilemma Tony Stark faces, and his intuition and soul-searching. While Marvel movies still do a good job of introducing their heroes and presenting them well, I don't know if we've gone as deep with a hero's faults and convictions as we did with Iron Man.

This is something the Netflix series explore perfectly. Jessica Jones spends much of its first season just looking at who she is as a character. Her hardened demeanor. Her alcoholism. Why she hates the world. We went to such depths with her character that we became much more attached to her as a character. A big difference between the films and movies are the running times. While Netflix has thirteen hours to tell a story, the movies have between an hour and a half to two and a half hours. So it's understandable that the movies won't be able to define their heroes and their villains as much as the shows can, but there is still plenty of opportunities for the movies to do so in smaller ways. Take out one of the five minute action scenes and dedicate it to developing the villain. Cut down on some of the jokes and quips and maybe give us a more emotional and meaningful interaction between two characters. The movies cannot do it the same way as the shows, but there are ways to do it, and they should really try to do so. 

3) Not Every Fight Needs to Destroy Half the World

After the Battle for New York in The Avengers, it seems like the Marvel movies can't go back to smaller battles anymore. Now, it seems in every single movie half the city blows up, or even half the world. There's only so many times New York can be destroyed before we have to move on. The Netflix series have shown that smaller battles actually feel more personal. Daredevil squaring off against the Kingpin in Daredevil Season One takes place in an alleyway. It doesn't even reach the streets. The battle between Luke Cage (Mike Coulter) and his nemesis (I won't reveal too much because it may be a spoiler) is on a city street, and doesn't stretch more than a block or two. And he has superpowers. 

These end-of-the-world fights and the destruction of so many cities and nations can't happen in every single movie. Save the big action sequences for Avengers films, when such mass destruction is actually warranted. But in the solo films, you can have smaller battles. The fate of the world, or the fate of the galaxy, or the fate of the universe even doesn't have to be at stake every time a hero fights a villain. Sometimes, you can just have two characters fight in the middle of the street, like in Luke Cage. And these smaller battles would answer a lot of the \ questions fans ask with every single movie: Why didn't Iron Man help Thor when he tore through half of London in Thor: The Dark World? Why didn't Captain America help Iron Man when the President was kidnapped in Iron Man 3? These questions dissipate when the battles don't encompass so much space and entail so much destruction. If Captain America fought a villain on a street corner, there's no need for Iron Man to intervene because it was never big enough to require his intervention. Make the action sequences big when they need to be big, just don't go big with every movie, because we'll begin to be desensitized to giant, sweeping battles. Save the big ones for when the time is right; don't waste it on every single movie.

4) You Can Go Dark

The Marvel movies are known to be on the lighter side of the comic book movie spectrum, especially when you compare it to DC. We don't get a lot of blood. Nobody really dies. There aren't a lot of huge stakes. We go and enjoy the action, but we know nobody important is going to die. We know there won't be any dark twists or truly adult themes. It's part of why Marvel movies are so wide-spread and beloved, because grandkids and grandparents can both go and equally enjoy them. But there comes a time when a little bit of darkness needs to be injected into these movies. I don't mean that Iron Man needs to go around breaking necks, but if the Marvel movies are going to continue to have stamina, they need to spice things up from time to time.

What sets Netflix series apart from the movies, stylistically, is how much darker it is. The movies are all light PG-13, while the series are all TV-MA. There's blood. There's swearing. There's sex. There are drugs and alcohol. The shows go to the extremes that the movies can't go to, and that division is fine. I don't need an R-rated Iron Man movie. I don't need Captain America to be an alcoholic heroin addict. Those things work better for the Netflix series than they do for the movies. But that doesn't mean that the movies can't go a little bit darker. Avengers: Infinity War specifically needs to learn that not everyone can walk out alive. That film needs to show that we, the audience, have to be on guard at all times. We thought someone may die in Captain America: Civil War, and that didn't happen. Infinity War cannot cop out and not kill anyone, because then why should we be nervous if any of our heroes is in danger? If they keep fake-killing people, then why should we believe that anyone could ever actually die and stay dead? The movies need to learn that it's okay to go a little bit darker, and they're going to have to do so if they want to keep their movies innovative and interesting for all the years to come.

5) Stories Can Still Be Self-Contained Even in a Connected Universe

Remember when Iron Man was just Iron Man? No references to anyone else. No plot-weaving or name droppings or set-up? Sure, we got Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) during the post-credits scene to tie the film into the larger universe, but that's it. Iron Man was just an Iron Man movie. But in the eight years of Marvel movies that we've had so far, they've quickly drifted away from self-contained stories to inter-connected stories. And sure, it's fun to see an Iron Man cameo in a Captain America movie, but it starts to get old when every single movie has two or three other characters showing up. As the universe keeps expanding and growing more prolific with more heroes, Marvel needs to learn that their movies can still be self-contained. 

In the Netflix series, the other heroes exist. Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage all exist together and they don't really pop up in each other's series. Luke Cage was in Jessica Jones, but that was to introduce his character, not as a crossover. And Rosario Dawson does appear in all the series as the connective thread, but her inclusion actually serves the overall narrative of the film, rather than just being a quick cameo. But when I was watching Luke Cage, I realized that I wasn't thinking "How come Daredevil didn't show up here?", or "How come Jessica Jones didn't show up there?" I was simply invested in what Luke Cage himself was doing.  Is it cool that Robert Downey Jr. is going to be in Spider-Man: Homecoming? Yes, but I also want to just see Spider-Man being Spider-Man. And I think that the movies can learn from these series. I know it's hard to downsize. After the Avengers face off against an invading alien army, how do you return to Iron Man fighting his business partner? But with a universe as wide and expansive as the MCU, you have to go back and scale down. The Avengers films are suitable movies to have the crossovers, but the solo films should really be just that: solo.

The Marvel movies are not in any way in trouble. They are doing just fine. But as they start to expand from two films a year to three films a year, and as they are continuously adding new characters and building towards bigger and better threats, they have to be cautious that they hold onto the core of why we like these movies so much. Sure they are fun popcorn blockbusters, but we also care about the characters. We're invested in this universe, and it would be a shame if they began to drift into just generic action movies. The Netflix series are crushing it, and I think there are easy ways to incorporate elements of those shows that works to ensure the longevity of the Cinematic Universe. I'll just recount my five things I mentioned: 1) The villain is just as important as the hero, 2) Deeper character development, 3) Not every fight needs to destroy half the world, 4) You can go dark, and 5) Stories can still be self-contained in a connected universe. Like I said, the Marvel movies are doing just fine. But if they look at the Netflix series and adopt these elements that work, and I think they can help make their movies even better!

What do you think? Do you agree with my ideas? Should the Marvel movies take elements from the Netflix series? Or should the movies just focus on doing what's worked for them before? Are there any other ideas you would add? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below. 

Written by: Nate 
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