How Netflix Chooses Its Marvel Superheroes

Image: Netflix

Over the past 60 years, Marvel Comics has created more than 7000 characters, including hundreds upon hundreds of costumed superheroes. Many boast unique powers and compelling backstories that are ripe for TV - yet only a tiny fraction ever get to star in their own Netflix series. Often - as in the case of Iron Fist - the decision of what and what not to adapt seems bizarre.

During a recent set visit, we asked Netflix Originals' vice president to explain how the company picks and chooses its fictional crime fighters. If you've ever wondered how the process works, read on.

Last week, Netflix unleashed the fourth Marvel superhero to headline his own show: the "Living Weapon" Iron Fist (AKA Danny Rand). Whether you're a casual superhero fan or a self-proclaimed Marvel Zombie, the decision to turn this obscure four-colour Kung-Fu master into a Netflix series seems a bit odd. After all, the character's heyday was all the way back in the 1970s - and he wasn't particularly popular then either. (Indeed, his original solo series was prematurely cancelled after just fifteen issues.)

Then again, the same thing could be said of Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and even Daredevil. In their own ways, each was a risky bet, yet they all managed to win over critics and make new fans out of properties that were 'cult' at best. Whether Iron Fist pulls off the same feat is open to debate - but it can't be denied that Netflix's batting average when it comes to Marvel is pretty damn solid.

Which brings us to the original question: just how does Netflix choose its heroes? We posed this question to Allie Goss, vice president of Netflix Original Series and an executive producer on all Marvel Netflix shows. As you'd probably expect, most of the decisions were dictated by the parent company - with every character mapped out from the very beginning.

"A few years ago, Marvel came in to us and pitched a very ambitious project called The Defenders," Goss said. "The idea was four individual shows followed by a limited series that would bring them all together. So when [Marvel] came in it was always those four characters: Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist."

Interestingly, Goss said that discussions remained open over whether these characters were the best choice during the creative and development process. In other words, we potentially could have seen a completely different roster of superheroes making up the Defenders. In the end though, Netflix decided that the originally suggested quartet just worked - for reasons both narrative and practical.

"After the success of Daredevil and Jessica Jones, it started to feel like these were the exact right superheroes," Goss said. "They're far more grounded [compared to other superheroes] and they set up the Defenders really well. Because they are "street level" heroes, we're able to explore the characters' stories without getting too consumed with people flying through the air or massive visual effects."

Even the slickest Netflix series can't hope to compete on a visual level with a $300 million superhero movie (the purported budget of Avengers 2) - so the above considerations makes a lot of sense.

When it comes to villains and supporting characters, Netflix has been given more freedom to choose what it wants to show. According to Goss, the series' showrunners typically pitch the stories they want to tell for each season at the early development stage. The suggested characters are then cleared by Marvel - or refused. Goss said the company is very protective of its characters precisely because they are so good.

While Marvel clearly has a hand in much of the creative process, it's up to Netflix to turn the comic books into compelling television.

"What we strive to do on all the Marvel shows is to tell a great character-driven story first and a superhero-driven story second," Goss explained. "At the same time, we don't want to downplay their powers or abilities or the fact that these characters are derived out of comics and graphic novels, because that's what's so special about them."

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In less than a month, martial arts superhero Danny Rand is heading to Netflix for his own TV show — and he's being heralded as "the fourth Defender" as much as he is by his actual hero name, the immortal Iron Fist. He's had a long history in Marvel Comics, both on his own and as a partner in crime-fighting. So here's what you need to know about Iron Fist before his show premieres on March 17.

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Lifehacker traveled to New York as a guest of Netflix.

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