Jupiter’s Legacy cancellation proves Netflix’s worst problem isn’t going away
Netflix’s strategy with volume held back what could have been its biggest original hit in years.
When Amazon’s comic adaptation Invincible premiered earlier this year, the buzz surrounding it felt immediate. An audience familiar with superheroes were stunned when the heroic, square-jawed Omni-Man ripped through a Justice League equivalent and coated their pristine headquarters in blood like a Jackson Pollock painting. It was a mind-melting moment that took place in the first episode, signaling to viewers exactly what Invincible was about. (The show’s since been renewed for two additional seasons.)
Just over a month after that series premiered, Netflix launched its own superhero series, Jupiter’s Legacy, based (like Invincible) on an Image Comics series. The first volume in a centuries-spanning saga about superheroes struggling to safeguard humanity while convincing a powerful next generation to follow their example, the initial eight episodes of Jupiter’s Legacy set the stage for an epic. But earlier this week, on June 2, news broke that Netflix was already all but pulling the plug on the series.
In a Twitter statement, comic creator Mark Millar — who wrote Jupiter’s Legacy and whose Millarworld company is owned by Netflix outright — revealed on Wednesday that Jupiter’s Legacy’s actors had been let out of their show commitments, indicating that future seasons are not moving forward at the streamer.
Speaking with Inverse prior to launch, Millar even said that he was envisioning a 40-hour arc for Jupiter’s Legacy, suggesting plans for at least five volumes of the show in total (if additional seasons followed an eight-episode structure). “I’ve worked at Marvel, I’ve worked at DC, and Jupiter’s Legacy is the one I’m most excited about,” said Millar. “I feel as if this is the one I’ve been building my whole career toward. It’s Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings, but with superheroes. It’s a big, grand epic that nobody else could dare try in terms of ambition.”
So, what happened?
Jupiter’s Legacy was the first series to come out of Netflix’s pricey acquisition of Millarworld, a company through which Millar independently publishes his and other creator-driven comics.
First penned by Millar in 2013, the Jupiter’s Legacy comics exist as Millar’s treatise on American exceptionalism through the eyes of a foreigner. (Millar is Scottish.) Like Invincible, the comics include a deeply pivotal moment where “good” superheroes are brutally murdered by their colleagues. In Jupiter’s Legacy, this kicks off a primary storyline about a young woman (the daughter of two superheroes) and her boyfriend (the son of a villain) who escape that massacre and run off together to raise a son.
Both Millar and Invincible creator Robert Kirkman are visibly influenced by Marvel and DC, but they also maintain that the biggest superhero comics don’t always challenge their audiences. No matter what happens to Superman or Thor, they’ll always return to being the heroes readers want them to be. In Jupiter’s Legacy and Invincible, Millar and Kirkman counter that sometimes superheroes, rather than descending into darkness, have been villains all along.
But when it comes to Netflix’s Jupiter’s Legacy adaptation, there’s one major problem with all this rich dramatic conflict: the series didn’t get to any of it.
Like 2008’s Iron Man, Jupiter’s Legacy was engineered to be the first step into a wider universe. And while Netflix isn’t quite giving up — a new show, Supercrooks, will take place in the same universe — the fact that Jupiter’s Legacy left off on a cliffhanger and barely touched upon the key moments that actually defined its story as a comic is not only upsetting for fans, but concerning for Netflix as a streaming service.
In 2017 Netflix acquired Millarworld in a major deal valued at upwards of $50 million, one that appeared ideal for both parties.
Millar is a big-name creator, responsible for not just influential Marvel storylines like Civil War (adapted into 2016’s Captain America: Civil War) and Old Man Logan (adapted into the 2017 film Logan) but also Kick-Ass, Kingsman, and Wanted, all of which have been adapted into blockbuster films. Netflix was an ideal home for a creator like Millar, whose work finds its way to Hollywood on a regular basis.
And Netflix was in need of content with a built-in audience, given that its own relationship with Marvel — a collaboration that produced shows like Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and more — had by that point run dry.
But as all of Hollywood enters the streaming game, Netflix has become something akin to Tetsuo at the end of Akira: big, bloated, and gobbling up everything in sight. While Netflix has made major plays in terms of top-tier talent, inking multi-year pacts with industry giants like Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy, and David Fincher, the streamer’s overall play appears to be volume. Netflix wants hours, and as many of them as possible.
Other streamers are similarly oriented, but they’re going about their mission of creating vast content libraries in different ways. Disney+ leverages the unparalleled Disney IP. HBO Max has the enviable HBO library of prestige programming and — through a decision by previous owner AT&T — is fast becoming the best way to watch must-see theatrical releases, like Godzilla vs. Kong and this week’s The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It. (WarnerMedia has said it will not pursue this strategy in 2022, but that’s certainly not a guarantee.) Apple TV+ is, debatably, the most carefully curated service out there, with no pre-existing content library but a full slate of originals boasting marquee-name actors and creators.
Netflix’s content suggests its strategy is not too far removed from those of its competitors, but it has mass volume on its side. The streaming equivalent of that Kylo Ren meme, Netflix is more, more, more. Its emphasis on reality TV (generally cheaper to produce than scripted programming), animation (which Hollywood has learned can be made remotely), and a service-wide promise to deliver “a new movie every week” in 2021 is all evidence of Netflix’s strategy.
That’s not to say Netflix is cheap. In 2021 alone, the streamer expects to spend $17 billion, with a capital “B,” on all its originals. But how Netflix is spending those billions is a point of particular curiosity, and it brings us back to Jupiter’s Legacy, which cost an eye-watering $200 million. That’s not quite the cost of Avengers: Endgame, but it’s close enough that the end result — just eight episodes that don’t tell a complete story — has to be read as a huge loss.
Creatively, the problem with Jupiter’s Legacy is that this series was based on a comic that ran for less than 30 issues (an additional 12-issue sequel is planned for later this year). Jupiter’s Legacy is one of the few instances in comic-book history where the televised adaptation of its storyline is adding a lot more material than originally existed in the book. The first season of the series featured parallel narratives in two different time periods that expanded laboriously on its principal characters’ origins. It was a neat concept in theory, providing ample opportunity for actors, especially those playing both younger and older versions of the same heroes, to sink into their roles. (The series also had a much better handle on Leslie Bibb’s Lady Liberty, who was more expendable in the Jupiter’s Legacy comic.)
But by making the show’s first season an exhausting “prequel” to the actual story told in the comic, those involved with Jupiter’s Legacy left audiences with a pale impression of the thrilling yarn Millar spun in his tighter, leaner comic.
It was also clear that the Jupiter’s Legacy series was stretched to its seams to ensure at least a few more seasons. The eighth (and now final) episode ends with Brandon/Paragon (Andrew Horton) set up to turn against his father, The Utopian (Josh Duhamel) thanks to the machinations plotted by his uncle, Brainwave (Ben Daniels). The second season was bound to include a defining moment from issue three, in which Brainwave and Brandon lead the murder of Utopian and Lady Liberty, which encourages Chloe (Elena Kampouris) to retreat into hiding.
Jupiter’s Legacy was meant to be an epic about generations of superheroes in conflict. But its violent moment that could have rivaled Invincible — and generate the same buzz that show did — was kicked further down the road. And unfortunately, in an era where obscure algorithms determine an audience’s interest in seeing a show continue, that creative decision left Jupiter’s Legacy without the gas to get there.