I used to binge watch all the time, plowing through entire shows in days sometimes. I kind of miss doing that, especially since so much of the pacing behind many streaming shows now relies heavily on being able to binge them. All that said, I finally finished the third (and it turns out final) season of Daredevil on Netflix.
I was a huge fan of Daredevil when it first came out, and though Jessica Jones first season had some problems, I was still incredibly pretty pleased with it. Then I started losing interest. I enjoyed season 2 of Daredevil but it just didn’t feel as compelling as the first season, and I never made it past the first episode of Jessica Jones‘s second season. I manage to get through the first season of The Punisher, but only just, same with The Defenders.
There are a lot of reasons these later seasons failed to grab me, but today I want to talk about one reason in particular.
You Don’t Have to Save the World:
Epic Plots in Storytelling
Daredevil wasn’t trying to save the world in the first season, he was just trying to improve the lives of the people living in his tiny corner of it. Same with Jessica Jones, Kilgrave was never out to destroy the world, but he still needed to be stopped. These were very personal stories, pitting two characters against each other, making the stories character driven. Fisk and Daredevil were struggling to make Hell’s Kitchen a better place but in radically different ways. Jessica Jones and Kilgrave were in an even more intimate struggle of retribution and justice.
Unfortunately the delusions of grandeur that would eventually sink both these shows was introduced in their first seasons. Daredevil goes off on a tangent to hunt “Black Sky,” and Jessica Jone’s first season has a stupid conspiracy theory about some evil company turning people into superheroes. And unfortunately in the second season of both shows they focus on these plots to the detriment of everything else. Basically the stakes of both shows go from personal struggles to trying to save the world. Taken in a vacuum that might be okay, but this is Marvel.
Marvel already has an exhausting schedule of movie releases where various heroes try to save the world, and the main problem is that the TV shows can’t compete with the movies in terms of stakes. Daredevil’s second season tries to sell the audience on Black Sky being some potentially world-ending weapon, even though it never specifically tells us what the hell it can do. Meanwhile less than a year before that season aired, we got Avengers: Age of Ultron and the incredibly vague threat of Black Sky doesn’t really compare with Ultron’s plan of human extinction. And now these shows have to compete with Thanos’s plan of wiping out half of all life in the universe, and they simply cannot compete with something like that. And they shouldn’t be trying to.
Not every story has to be about saving the world and that’s something season 3 of Daredevil proves beautifully. The stakes are considerably smaller in scope, once again pitting Daredevil against a resurgent Wilson Fisk, yet it felt so much more important at the same time. I couldn’t bring myself to care about Black Sky or whatever the hell she was going to do in The Defenders, but I was at the edge of my seat wondering if Daredevil would actually kill Fisk. That personal drama, the struggle between those two characters, was more powerful than anything the ridiculous ninja clan plot managed to produce. To be fair though, this is hardly a new problem, and not one limited to Marvel.
One of the most disappointing examples of this is in Fantastic Beasts. Here was a story that could have been absolutely wonderful, following a bumbling but good natured magical zoologist on his adventures. This film started out so promising, and I went in thinking that returning the thunderbird to its natural habitat would form the core of the plot. With the bureaucracy of the magical government serving as the antagonist, this story had everything it needed. Ten minutes in I already had an image of the ending in my head, as the thunderbird was released into the Arizona wilds as an exhausted but euphoric Newt looking on while the music swells.
And then it all went wrong. There was a conspiracy of dark wizards, some dude name Grindlewald who is basically Voldemort version 1.0, and a plan to enslave all the muggles or something, I don’t even remember. As a result the fun adventure story we could have had, watching Newt bumbling his way across the world on his way to release a rehabilitated Thunderbird, was lost in exchange for a run-of-the-mill Evil Wizard Does Evil Things Because He’s Evil. The fantastic visuals we could have had, Newt exploring forests, swamps, and deserts, replaced with the oppressively gray and black London. And the Thunderbird, who’s return home should have formed the emotional core of the film, is reduced to a simple plot device; a lazy way for the writers to justify the amount of destruction they inflict on London for their flashy over-the-top battle scene.
Commercially I know why this was done, Warner Brothers wanted another set of films to capitalize on The Harry Potter franchise. And in typical corporate thinking, they twisted a fun adventure story into an almost dystopian story of evil, cliched wizards. The shame is that they could have still had their cinematic universe, they were just in too much of a rush to get there. Ironically Marvel did this exceptionally well, they didn’t start their franchise with Thanos trying to wipe out half of all life, they didn’t even start with the Avengers. They started with Iron Man, and slowly built up from there, spent an entire decade building the foundations for Avengers: Infinity War.
Not every story has to be about saving the world, and that’s a trap a lot of science fiction and fantasy falls into. The whole world doesn’t have to be at stake to make an exciting story, just put the character’s world at stake and you’ll have my undivided attention. Or if you absolutely have to have a world-ending threat on the horizon, keep it in the background.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt succeeded because the whole “save the world” storyline took a backseat to the more interesting personal drama. Geralt spends most of that game simply looking for Ciri and wanting to keep her safe, that’s all he cares about. The world-ending danger of the White Frost was more Ciri’s story than Geralt’s (more on that in a future update), and since it was Ciri’s job to save the world, it allowed Geralt’s story to be more character driven. Geralt indirectly saves the world by saving Ciri, but I never felt like that was the main narrative drive, the real goal was to save the girl that Geralt thought of as a daughter. I keep coming back to something a friend of mine told me years ago:
People don’t care about events. How do those events affect the people they care about, that’s the question.-My good friend BJ.
It’s absolutely true, both in fact and fiction. You can have the most cataclysmic event you can think of on the horizon, but unless you make me care about the characters and what affect it will have on them, I won’t care. There simply has to be more at stake than “the world will end if we don’t succeed,” and again Marvel’s films do this well. Infinity War had so much more going on than Thanos’s plans for galactic genocide; Scarlet Witch being forced to kill Vision, Thanos reluctantly killing Gamorra, Thor’s quest for vengeance. It didn’t rely solely on the threat Thanos posed to the galaxy, if it had, it would have been a far less powerful film.
You don’t have to save the world to tell a story; just save the character’s world, even if that means simply saving their friends.
Great article John, completely agree! I was so disappointed by The Defenders, I was hoping for so much more!
Thanks Martin! Yeah, shame the Defenders didn’t have a better story, maybe that would have kept all the other Marvel Netflix shows from collapsing like a house of cards. 😦
Unfortunately, Netflix’s deal ending is what is killing the Netflix shows. DD 3 was great but no follow up. Also Defenders has its weaknesses, but has some really fun moments as well that are worth checking out. Watch Iron Fist clocking Luke Cage and the first appearance of Daredevil (not Matt Murdock, but Daredevil).