Marvel's Netflix shows: Sure thing or blind faith?

Netflix wages superheroes battle against HBO
Netflix wages superhero battle against HBO   

On Friday, Netflix will launch the first of four series based on Marvel Comics properties, and industry watchers will be tuning in to see whether the exploits of a blind lawyer with superhuman senses can find an audience.

There is no doubt "Daredevil" has a loyal and wide following. Marvel's so called "Man without Fear" and his eponymous series debuted 51 years ago this month. Yet unlike some of its current projects, Marvel Studios is venturing beyond the realm of family friendly superhero fare, reaching deeper into its bench of characters with its darker Netflix shows.

A deal announced in November commits the Web streaming company to host four separate 13-episode shows starring Daredevil, reluctant heroine Jessica Jones, reformed criminal Luke Cage and the mystical martial artist Iron Fist—as well as a miniseries that ties all four shows together. Marvel Television will produce the series in association with ABC Television Studios, both of which are owned by Walt Disney.

The deal makes sense, as it follows a 2012 agreement that designates Netflix as the exclusive U.S. streaming service for first-run Disney movies beginning in 2016, Anthony DiClemente, senior analyst at Nomura, told CNBC's "Squawk Box" on Thursday.

"The Marvel relationship … is a reminder of the positive relationship that Netflix has with Disney," DiClemente said. He continued to say the Marvel shows help Netflix diversify its content, which can improve subscriber retention.


'Lack of confidence'?

Netflix will become the most 'powerful media company in the world': Analyst
Netflix will become the most 'powerful media company in the world': Analyst   

After churning out box-office hits like "The Avengers" and "Iron Man" franchises, Marvel has developed a reputation as a studio that can do no wrong. However, some think it is sending its farm team into a small-screen scrum that's already chock full of comic book entertainment—especially featuring a character that previously fell flat with audiences.

The Netflix original will not be Daredevil's first live-action adaptation. The character featured in a widely panned 2003 film from Fox Studios starring Ben Affleck. While the film's $102.5 million U.S. box-office haul was no disaster, it did not make a strong case for a television series, said Michael Pachter, a digital media analyst at Wedbush Securities who covers Netflix.

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"I think that the debut on Netflix demonstrates a modest lack of confidence on Disney's part in network broadcast for Marvel shows," he said. Using one of Marvel's current television properties, "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." as an example, he suggested all might not be well in the land of superheroes.

"'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." was reviewed well, but its ratings have been pretty unimpressive," Pachter added.

ABC also ran an eight-episode series based on the post-World War II exploits of Peggy Carter, a character introduced in the 2011 movie "Captain America: The First Avenger." The show has seen ratings steadily decline, however, and its fate is uncertain.

"I think Disney is now looking to develop series with less risk, selling an exclusive window to Netflix in exchange for sharing the production cost," Pachter said. He also believes Netflix doesn't own any of the shows, instead leasing the rights to an exclusive first window. Marvel Studios, as the production company, likely owns all ancillary and rebroadcast rights, he said.

A spokesperson for Disney told CNBC the company does not disclose terms of deals.

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The coming TV superhero onslaught

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Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak, sees something else in Disney's choice to release Daredevil on Netflix. He calls it Marvel's "100-year plan" of creating a legacy and ensuring its brand is represented across multiple platforms—including streaming video.

When viewed through that prism, Daredevil's relative B-list status doesn't spell doom for the series. In fact, Dergarabedian thinks it could be an advantage.

"A lot of the Marvel properties are very character-driven. Some of these interpretations, where they know they're going to be tailored for the small screen, are going to be very effective," he said.

Indeed, the comics from which the Netflix series characters are derived have long histories and have starred in well-received comic titles. In addition, they all have ties to "The Avengers."

Meanwhile, Marvel has proven it can elevate little-known characters to the level of cultural icons, Dergarabedian said, as it did with "Guardians of the Galaxy." That film, based on a title that had little more than a cult following, went on to earn a staggering $774 million worldwide—making it one of the most successful comic book movies of all time.

But the juggernaut behind "The Avengers" faces stiff competition in TV land from its rival, DC Comics. The Time Warner-owned publisher has a proven track record of creating compelling television series, including the coming-of-age Superman series "Smallville," which ran for a decade. Between the two titans, Wedbush's Pachter believes DC has the more valuable properties for commercial television.

The CW, a joint venture operated by CBS and Warner Bros., airs two series based on DC characters—"Arrow" and "The Flash"—and has a third in the pipeline featuring characters introduced in those shows. Separately, DC's "Supergirl" will star in a CBS series, while another superhero group, "Teen Titans" is being developed for the TBS cable network.

"Arrow" was CW's most watched hourlong show last season, while "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." came in seventh among ABC's 60-minute series, according to Deadline Hollywood's season rankings.

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Ultimately, viewers' appetite for content featuring caped crusaders will not come down to how much of it is available, but how good it is, Dergarabedian said. He thinks Marvel has proven itself on that front.

"When you create a lot of a product, often the quality diminishes," he said. "I haven't seen that yet with Marvel."