Netflix

Netflix recently announced that Friends was being removed from their streaming service, starting on January 1, 2019. There was a public outcry and that decision was promptly reversed and the 90’s sitcom will now stay on Netflix throughout 2019, thus once again confirming Hollywood’s sneaking suspicion that all they really need to do to make money is pull something off the shelf from twenty years ago, put it in a shiny new package, and sell it to us again. Yet as Marvel and their Defenders learned, there is perhaps only one force in the entertainment industry that can stop even this impulse, and its spelled M-I-C-K-E-Y… Why, because money.

Disney+ Alias No More Marvel
It was also announced last week that Daredevil was to be canceled by Netflix, despite being ranked as the 4th Highest In Demand Series on the streaming service. With Matt Murdock going to the trash heap along with Iron Fist and Luke Cage, the rest of the Marvel lineup is sure to be next. Jessica Jones and the Punisher both have seasons that are currently being filmed or are in post-production, and it is unlikely that the streaming giant will cancel those properties with seasons so near completion, but do not hold your breath for a Jessica Jones season 4 or a Punisher season 3. The writing on the wall has become clear, Netflix is stopping production on all new Marvel content.

Now that is not to say that these five super-powered friends will be leaving your subscription in 2019. No, Netflix still owns the streaming rights, so all 13 season -8,500+ minutes of gritty-street-level-superhero goodness- will still remain on the platform. There just won’t be any new content added. So, the real question that seems to be on everyone’s mind is why? Why would Netflix and Disney choose to end their lucrative deal together? Why would Netflix who owns the shows, but not the heroes themselves, choose to stop making more wonderful Marvel content? The short answer is Disney+… which is a terrible name.

Disney+ will be Disney’s new exclusive online streaming platform, because the House of Mouse will not be content till they dominant all forms of media, entertainment, culture, and several small developing countries. It will debut sometime in late 2019 -which is coincidentally right after the last Marvel season will air on Netflix- and it is going to be a juggernaut. This is not going to be like CBS All Access or some other crappy streaming service created by some low-rate network that got it in their head that people wanted to pay an additional 75 dollars a year so they could have unlimited access to The Big Bang Theory and whatever NCIS they think up next, NCIS: Topeka? No, Disney is pulling all Marvel, Star Wars, Muppet, Pixar, and other properties that they own off the streaming platforms of their new competitors. You do not realize how much content and intellectual property that Disney owns until you start to see all of them disappearing from the streaming services that you are already paying a few hundred-dollars-a-year to watch… or are just using your upstairs neighbor’s password for… Thanks Charlie.

“But wait,” we hear you saying, “didn’t you just say that Netflix owns the Marvel shows, even if it does not own the characters?”

You are paraphrasing, but yes.

Heroes for Hire: Out of Business
Netflix does own the rights to the Defender properties, which means that they can choose to keep making more seasons if they desire, but they are desiring not to do so. Some people, are pointing to the reduced viewership of the Marvel properties on the streaming service as reasons to why they were cancelled, but that cannot be confirmed. Netflix is notoriously stingy with releasing its viewership data, but we all know the seasons that most people are talking about. With that said it is no surprise that Iron Fist was the first to be canceled, even though it had a decent second season. Similarly, Daredevil struggled in its second season, but just produced a critically acclaimed -and very enjoyable- third season. Now, the lowering viewership may have been a factor, but it probably wasn’t the main contributing factor.

After all, the rating could not have been that bad. These shows were more solid than terrible, and superhero properties are still selling out movie theaters and taking over the small screen to an almost chokingly massive degree. Marvel is a brand that sells and Netflix could have ridden the train for at least a few more years, but what would be the benefit to Netflix? We do know a few things about the viewers of Marvel/Defender properties, of which we count ourselves among. First of all, those people that watch shows like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage are more likely to watch other Netflix original shows. Secondly, the Marvel shows were no longer bringing in new subscribers to Netflix. Now, that may not have been true when the first season of Daredevil aired in 2015, but the shows seem to be making no noticeable impact on subscribers or revenue. That means that they are not offering any positive financial benefit, and because the vast majority of the show’s watchers are already engaging with other Netflix shows regularly, it also means that cancelling them will have no negative financial impact.

In short people are not going to stop watching Netflix because there is no Iron Fist season 3. Lastly, as Disney goes ahead with its plan for global domination Netflix is going to lose all its Marvel and Star Wars movies, and Disney+ will be launching a plethora of Marvel and Disney live-action and animated shows. The Netflix Defenders are heavily Marvel branded and tied-in to the MCU, which means that continuing their production is only going to serve to give Disney -their now competitor- more free advertising and remind viewers that they could just cancel Netflix and subscribe to Disney. In a way, it is an incredibly smart financial move on the part of Netflix. They risk nothing, but by doing it they cut off a source of free advertising for their newest and biggest competitor… but there is a catch.

The Punishing Reality
All the speculation that people have had over seeing a Heroes for Hire or any new Defender properties made on Disney+ is a fantasy. The Netflix shows are too gritty to fit into Disney’s sterilized kid-friendly world. Marvel has been less and less enthusiastic about the links between the gritty shows and the colorful witty movies, even going so far as to say “no”to any cameos from Daredevil and friends in Infinity War. So leaving the Defenders and their sex-scenes and bloody-violence to wither and die in the back queue of Netflix also serves the purpose of Marvel and their overlords in the Empire of Mouse. basically, it will benefit both companies to try and forget that these shows ever happened, so if we do see them again it will probably only be in cartoon form, where they can be contained and utilized in a more child-friendly way.

However, do not give up hope of ever seeing superheroes on Netflix again. Netflix has entered into an agreement with Mark Millar to start making properties of his Millarverse with adaptions of Jupiter’s Legacy, American Jesus, Empress, Huck, and Sharkey the Bounty Hunter possibly on the table for a new connected universe. So, the dominance of superheroes in our media remains strong, even if the Defenders will fall by its wayside.

blaxploitation

“Sweet Christmas.” If you haven’t yet streamed Luke Cage on Netflix than you are missing out. Marvel’s newest show is a hit, and a refreshing take on a character that was once more two-dimensional than the pulp pages he was printed on. Luke Cage first appeared in 1972’s Heroes for Hire. Originally the character of Cage was a man of unlimited violence and limited vocabulary that punched his way through Harlem encountering every situation and trope that the blaxploitation movement had to offer. Though Cage was a breakthrough for black comic characters, much like blaxploitation itself, the original Power Man comic was fought with missteps and offensive stereotypes.

Sweet Sweetback Badass History
Blaxploitation was a movement in the movie industry that began in the 1970’s. It was a direct reaction to several forces, but to understand the movement’s origins you need to go back to a much earlier time. At the start of the era of motion pictures the only roles available to African Americans were that of the slaves or buffoons. Even positive roles, such as the butler or the “mammy,” still emphasized the inherent idea that blacks were inferior to whites. Movies like Gone with the Wind put forth a world view that the proper place of a black man or woman was at a social position lower than a white man or woman. This idea continued well into the 1950’s and 1960’s, but then things started to change.

The Civil Rights movement ushered in a new racial landscape. All black casts began to put on productions of their own, financed on their own dime. This was how in 1971 Martin Van Peebles was able to put together a movie called Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song. It was the story of a black protagonist fighting against white power and the violent forces of ghetto life. It was all set to a soundtrack by Earth, Wind, and Fire. Van Peebles made the movie on a shoestring budget in two weeks, but it went on to gross 10 million dollars. It was an incredible success and black audiences found a hero who looked more like them and struggled with some of the same things they did. Much like Luke Cage it was a milestone for black protagonists, and it started a movement.

By the late 1960’s the movie industry was struggling. The Golden Era of cinema was over, and the rise of TV as well as several Justice Department lawsuits had broken up the monopolies of the the old major studios. Many places -like MGM- were struggling just break even with each movie they made. Yet, the success of Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song exposed Hollywood to a potentially new revenue stream, black people. So in 1971, MGM released Shaft. If Sweet Sweetback forged the genre of blaxploitation than Shaft sharpened and refined it down to a formula. It grossed 12 million dollars, won Isaac Hayes an Oscar for the soundtrack, and inspired every studio in Hollywood to make its own Shaft. Blaxploitation was born.

The Angry Black Power Man
Marvel -never one to be left behind- launched their own title in the genre of blaxploitation. Heroes for Hire -later re-titled to Power Man- was about Luke Cage, a tough talking, ass-beating, ex-con, with super powers. Like the cinema movement Luke Cage embodied all the elements of blaxploitation: violence, themes of anti-establishment, and negative stereotypes of inner cities and those that lived there. Many criticized the comic’s protagonist as nothing more than a jive-talking angry black man, and that original characterization is pretty spot on. He was nothing more than a caricature. After all, it is hard to forget that he was created by three white men, Archie Goodwin, John Romita, Sr. and George Tuska. However, if we are going to talk about the negatives of Cage’s original depiction and its roots we also need to examine the positives as well.

Luke Cage was the first African American to star in his own comic book. -At the time Black Panther was not American and the Falcon only played second-fiddle to Captain America- Cage, despite his initial flaws, was the first black American superhero to have his own book, and that is incredibly important. It is also worth noting that Cage’s struggles were real. He fought gangs, thugs, corrupt police, and a power structure designed to keep black men in “place.” Those were all themes explored in blaxploitation movies, and there is a reason they resonated with some African American audiences at the time. Cage and his writers often showed that the law is not equally applied to everyone, and though the comic and its depictions were often simplified and relied on stereotypes, they did -at least in part- reflect the struggle of many black Americans. Having someone like Luke Cage -who had the power to fight back and be a hero- was empowering, even if it wasn’t always the most flattering of depictions.

As the blaxplotiation movement faded in the mid to late 1970’s so did the popularity of Luke Cage, but he never went away. Later writers went on to fix a lot of the more questionable elements of his character. His vocabulary was expanded, the jive-talk was dropped, and he found a best friend in Danny Rand, Iron Fist, -who himself was initially an exploitation of the popularity of kung fu movies. Luke Cage eventually married Jessica Jones and they had a child together. He became a member of the Defenders and the Avengers and evolved into a much more nuanced and three-dimensional figure. All of this has culminated in the depiction we receive in the Netflix show, an intelligent and complicated character. Similarly, Harlem and its people are also depicted in various ways, not just criminals or victims, but as neighbors and friends. The world and Luke Cage have come a long way, but it is worth looking back and remembering those beginnings.

Getting the Shaft
Blaxploitation had its fair share of critics and supporters. The NAACP and the aptly named Coalition Against Blaxploitaiton lodged protests against the films, claiming they were centered around negative stereotypes, black men as violent and angry criminals. They also criticized the movies’ use of language and it depiction of life in inner cities populated only by drug dealers, hit men, and pimps. Thus, even while blaxploitation movies were breaking down barriers they were also reinforcing others, casting black men as thugs. It also didn’t help that movies like Shaft were written by white writers, most of which who had no real experience in inner city areas. In fact, Ernest Tidyman a white writer from Cleveland is the man who created Shaft. He also wrote the screenplay with the help of a man who most famously wrote for Star Trek. That’s hardly the “ghetto experience.” Blaxploitation was not exactly a shining moment in cinema history, but like Luke Cage, it wasn’t entirely without merit.

More than anything blaxploitation movies started a conversation in America about race and depictions of African Americans in stories. It also helped give black directors -such as Gordon Parks– a break they may not have ever received, and for the first time it gave audiences a chance to see non-white heroes in starring roles. We would also be remiss not to mention the memorable soundtracks and songs of these films, many of which came to define the 1970’s as a decade. Maybe, these are all things worth remembering, even amidst all the elements of exploitation and the overwhelming number of negative stereotypes. By the mid to late 1970’s Hollywood studios stopped producing blaxploitation movies under pressure from groups like the NAACP and CAB. They claimed that ultimately the movies did more harm than good through eroding positive black role models in favor of vengeful and violent depictions.

The movement ended as quickly as it began, but its legacy continued. It is possible that without these movies and heroes like Luke Cage, the mainstream black actors of the 1980’s would not have been possible, people like Eddie Murphy or Denzel Washington. Thanks to the movies of the 1970’s leading black men no longer seemed so impractical or unmarketable. Luke Cage’s roots will always lie in the era of blaxploitation, but as this most recent Netflix show proves they do not end there. Cage has evolved into a thoughtful and positive role model, much like how the modern movie business evolved from the 1970’s. Nobody is saying that either are perfect, but it is worth reflecting on how far we have come, even as we acknowledge how much is still left to accomplish.