Some superheroes can change the course of mighty rivers or throw a massive Norse hammer into the air. They get to appear on movie-theater screens. Others have hard skin or super-sensitive taste buds. Some are experts in martial arts. They get to star on Netflix.
In a signal that not every superhero belongs on the entertainment industry’s biggest screens, Disney’s Marvel has devised four super-hero series just for Netflix, the video-streaming site that is emerging as a more powerful show-business force as more consumers adopt broadband technology. And while the popularity of such characters has never been in dispute, what’s becoming more clear is that some heroes are mighty and others are mighty entertaining if they’re placed in the proper distribution venue.
The characters Marvel has agreed to develop for Netflix – in four separate live-action series that will lead to a mini-series event – are Luke Cage (sometimes known as “Power Man”); Daredevil; Iron Fist: and Jessica Jones. In the world of comic books, these characters are known as “street-level” superheroes who spend more time tackling more ordinary challenges, like solving murders and keeping gangsters at bay, rather than fending off alien invasions or vengeful gods.
Daredevil has been around since the 1960’s. “Ol’ Hornhead,” as he is sometimes called, is actually blind attorney Matt Murdock, whose absent sight is complemented by enhanced hearing, smell, touch and taste – all the result of a horrific dousing in radioactive waste when he was a child. He is best known for inhabiting a dark, dour world populated by the obese gangster the Kingpin and the enigmatic femme fatale Elektra. More recently, however, his adventures have grown more light-hearted in an award-winning Marvel comic penned since 2011 by Mark Waid.
Luke Cage was for many years a second-tier hero, first introduced in the 1970s, who worked lesser duties along with partner Iron Fist in a firm called “Heroes for Hire.” The character, who has impervious skin, gained a new lease on life between 2005 and 2010 when he was made leader of a rogue team of Avengers in a series written by Brian Michael Bendis. He happens to be married to Jessica Jones.
Jones is a former super-hero who became a private-eye. She first came to attention in 2001 in a Marvel series called “Alias,” also written by Bendis. While she has powers (also caused by exposure to radioactivity), they are used less prominently in stories that involve her. She and Cage have a young child in the comics.
Iron Fist first rose to prominence in the 1970s, and has often been paired in comics with Luke Cage (one of their comics was known as “Power Man and Iron Fist”). The character is a martial-arts expert, but also has the power of the “iron fist,” which may look better in pictures than it is described in words.
The Marvel quartet may find their adventures best presented on Netflix. Their stories may not be outsize enough to launch four movies; indeed, Daredevil was featured in a 2003 film featuring Ben Affleck that received decidedly mixed reviews (though it still served as a launching pad for a 2005 “Elektra” movie starring Jennifer Garner).
Yet their tales may be more sordid than the norm, owing to their ongoing dealings with gangsters, crooks and the occasional supervillian (Daredevil’s recent foes have included The Spot and The Jester) – rendering them less suitable for a spot on broadcast TV, like “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on ABC. Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, for example, are part of comic-book trivia, having been one of the few couples to have a steamy, on-panel tryst at a time when depicting comic-book superheroes having sex was decidedly taboo. In a statement released Thursday, Disney and Netflix said the four series would be set in “the gritty world of heroes and villains of Hell’s Kitchen, New York.”
Marvel rival DC has also been testing ways of launching its second-tier characters, including a series featuring Green Arrow, a character who in the comics once shot arrows topped with boxing gloves to subdue his enemies. One possible new series recently announced involves Hourman, a character that dates back to the 1940s.
Not everyone can be Iron Man, Captain America, Superman or Batman. And just as there is a hierarchy in the colorful pages from which these characters were born, so too does one seem to be developing among the media outlets that want to exploit these properties for greater financial gain.