Marvel’s deal with Netflix has led to some of their most popular TV shows. Daredevil was a breakout hit, while Jessica Jones season 1 was seen as one of the most important superhero TV series of 2015. But as good as the Netflix shows may be, they’re far from flawless, and almost every series has been criticized for one particular issue: pacing.
“Pacing” is essentially the speed with which the series tells its story. The best shows vary the pace subtly, with action sequences interspersed with slower, character- and plot-defining moments. Every series needs to find its own balance, shaped by the kind of story it wants to tell, the genre it operates in, and the character dynamics in play. When a show gets it right, the pacing can create real and enduring tension, ensuring both the slower- and faster-paced scenes resonate with the viewers.
The Marvel Netflix shows are heavily criticized for their slow, frequently meandering pacing. It’s led fans to speculate that there may be one simple solution: to reduce the number of episodes. Would that really work?
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Do Marvel Shows Have Too Many Episodes?
Part of the problem is that Marvel Netflix shows are dropped all at once. That means fans will experience the series in different ways; some will binge watch, absorbing the story in just one or two sittings, while others will take their time and appreciate each episode individually. That creates a real narrative problem for the showrunners. On the one hand, they have to ensure that each episode works on its own, for viewers who take the traditional episodic one-at-a-time approach. On the other, they also have to work hard to make sure the pacing runs across the series as a whole. It’s a matter of record that Marvel’s Netflix shows just haven’t pulled it off.
Netflix’s screener policy only makes the issue worse. The streaming service tend to give screeners of the first five or six episodes of a series, in order to whet critics’ appetites and generate reviews before the full series goes live. Unfortunately, the first few episodes of a Marvel Netflix series are typically the ones with the most visible pacing problems. They’re the ones with intrusive flashbacks, lengthy investigations, and retold origin stories. Netflix’s approach to screeners essentially guarantees that all the critics and reviewers will be aware of a show’s pacing problems.
The classic example is Luke Cage season 1. Four episodes in, the series finally seems to pick up steam, having spent nearly four hours setting the scene. Contrast that with The CW’s Black Lightning, which accomplished just as much in the space of a single pilot episode. It’s little wonder fans have suggested Marvel could do with cutting down the number of episodes; it’s a criticism that’s been hefted at Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and especially Luke Cage and Iron Fist.
The Defenders Was Shorter, But Still Badly Told
Last year, though, The Defenders proved that the problem runs deeper – and the solution isn’t as simple as reducing the episode count. The Defenders only had an eight-episode run, which in theory should have resulted in more efficient storytelling. In reality, the first three episodes were almost all setup. The series felt like a game of chess, with three episodes used getting the pieces in place in order to actually progress with the story. That particular pacing problem was particularly frustrating; the last five seasons of Marvel Netflix shows had essentially been setup for The Defenders in the first place. It simply shouldn’t have been necessary.
The amount of setup in The Defenders actually exposes another problem; Marvel’s lack of long-term planning. When Marvel signed up to produce the shows with Netflix, they always knew they would culminate in The Defenders. Careful, long-term planning would have ensured each hero’s separate series ended with the hero in the right place for The Defenders. As a result, the ensemble show would have simply picked up the plot threads carefully left dangling by the other shows, and ran with them.
The real problem isn’t to do with the length of the series. Rather, it’s to do with their lack of direction, and – quite frankly – with the actual writing for the shows. Jessica Jones season 2 is the latest Marvel Netflix series to be criticized for poor pacing, but in this case it’s largely a result of the show’s lacking a clear antagonist. An intrusive flashback episode interrupts the ongoing narrative; the series drops the ongoing story for 53 minutes in order to tell viewers the backstory. Meanwhile, subplots don’t intersect with the main narrative thrust, creating a strange, disjointed feel to the series. All these problems come together in the vague sense that the show’s pacing just isn’t quite right.
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