When Marvel Television announced their deal with Netflix over three years ago, they were not shy about their ambitions. The Avengers $1B dollar release clearly indicated that their concept of a shared universe was not only working, but was popular enough to sustain more products. So, what would have seemed overly ambitious for any other production company was old hat to the Marvel executives. They announced plans for four 12-episode anthology series centering around four of their most popular “ground-level” heroes. This would culminate in an 8 episode crossover series featuring all four called The Defenders, Marvel Television’s version of the Avengers. This was notable not only for its ambition, but being Netflix’s first foray into original programming, adding a spark to the already smoking kindling of the cord cutting phenomenon.
The lucky chosen four were as follows:
- blind lawyer by day, the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen by night, Matthew Murdock a.k.a. Daredevil
- the alcoholic private investigator imbued with super strength, Jessica Jones
- Luke Cage, the righteous Harlem convict with bulletproof skin
- and Danny Rand, the orphaned son of a billionaire, and the Immortal Iron Fist
These choices illustrate a smart, but necessary, distinction between Marvel television and film properties. It’s not sacrilege to suggest that some heroes just make more sense on the big-screen than others. Captain America deals with geo-political incidents and the accompanying intrigue. It’s hard to imagine all of Asgard’s majesty being realistically realized on a television budget. The Avengers and its members save literal cities – and the Earth itself – from destruction.
By contrast, the four members of the Defenders deal with muggers, murderers, drug peddlers and the types of crime you might read about in a local crime blotter. Our heroes fit into that mold rather perfectly, likely by design. Daredevil micromanages the absolute shit out of the approximately 13 blocks that comprise Hell’s Kitchen. Ditto for “Harlem’s Hero” Luke Cage. New York and its issues are barely a memory to Danny Rand, consumed by his role as the Immortal Iron Fist. And the irascible Jessica Jones could care less about anything that doesn’t involve her getting drunk, paid, laid or a mix of all three. There’s no Nick Fury, SHIELD, Sokovia, or Ultron here.
The combination of those restricted settings with additional afforded screen time allows for deeper exploration of themes like faith, mental illness, drug addiction, ethics and racial strife. The common thread throughout all four was a theme of responsibility, not totally uncommon for any superhero product. The difference here being the defined, visible selfish streak in each of these individuals that would seem to preclude any team-up. Luke Cage and Jessica Jones have a shared aversion to even using the word “hero”, interested in just living their lives in spite of what they are and are able to do. Danny Rand and Matt Murdock, by contrast, embrace their abilities to the detriment of their personal and professional relationships. Both pairs subvert parts of themselves to cater to the half they prefer.
And that’s where we begin The Defenders.
The fear with any crossover, or team-up special, is that the spirit of the original shows or previously established characterizations will be sacrificed for the sake of plot. After a weaker-than-normal critical showing from Iron Fist, there were fears that profit and expediency were starting to win out over quality product. This had always been rumored to be the schism between Marvel TV head Ike Perlmutter and Marvel film president Kevin Feige. Perlmutter made no claims that he was interested in anything other than profit. Superheroes make money so he was going to make superhero shows. Feige’s beliefs stand in direct contrast, believing that the money comes from a quality product and you can’t just put out something like Jonah Hex or Catwoman and expect audiences to trust you and come back for the next one. This resulted in the split of the two productions arms when Marvel Studios was acquired by Disney.
However well founded, those fears went wholly unrealized as the Defenders served to shore up weak spots in its title characters, while re-emphasizing their strengths. Danny’s overly one-note nature carries over, but it’s played up as immaturity instead of self-righteousness. One of the main complaints coming out of Iron Fist was that Danny had no depth or motivation as a character. The show is a journey for him to understanding that being a protector means having something to actually protect. Being a hero is less about the powers you have than the sacrifices you make. Finn Jones balances that immaturity with a naive earnestness that serves to endear him to the rest of the team. He immediately recognizes that meeting other exceptional people is no coincidence and is on-board with creating a team right away. Some of that is borne out of his single-minded pursuit of the Hand’s destruction, and some comes from genuine admiration for his teammates.
The main villain of the series is the Hand, first introduced in season 2 of Daredevil. A clandestine organization in the vein of Hydra, their five immortal leaders sew disharmony and discontent throughout the world to suit their interests. It’s said their responsible for the fall of cities like Chernobyl and Pompeii. Given how well their villains have been established thus far, from Kingpin to Kilgrave to Cottonmouth, it’s a little odd how little we know about the Hand or their plan, only that it invovles resurrecting Daredevil’s ex, Elektra, the “Black Sky”.
This is the first time we meet their leader, Alexandra, played by Sigourney Weaver. Her menace breaks one of the basic rules of storytelling: show, don’t tell. We understood the unspoken fear Kingpin garnered because of his demonstrated ruthlessness in the infamous car door scene of Daredevil‘s first season. The cavalier and casual way in which David Tennant’s Kilgrave regarded murder and rape made him eminently deplorable, yet fascinating. We’re told a lot about the Hand’s deeds, but very little about their motivations.
Jessica Jones gives a voice to that skepticism. She is having none of this talk about ninjas, floating cities, monks, chi and immortality. It would be hard to call it comic relief, but it does alleviate some of the problems with the villains when there is someone calling out their ineptitude. That also falls directly in line with who we’ve come to know Krysten Ritter’s Jones as thus far. For her to be totally on board from the get-go wouldn’t make sense given her reticence to even be recognized as anybody’s hero or savior.
She and Mike Colter’s Luke Cage share that unwillingness to get wrapped up in this theater of the surreal, but go along with it anyway for the sake of helping one person. As the show progresses, they both realize they’re being stubborn for it’s own sake. Luke doesn’t share in Jessica’s outright selfishness, but resists because he can’t see how anyone around him would benefit from his involvement. And its hard to be upset because he has a point. He and Jessica don’t have the stake in defeating the Hand that Danny and Matt do, but their resistance to responsibility is really borne out of some deeper fear that they’re unworthy or unable.
Conversely, Matt’s feelings of responsibility are treated like a burden by everyone around him. Both his former partner Foggy Nelson and ex-girlfriend Karen Page react to him like an addict they desperately hope will avoid his umpteenth relapse. It’s no wonder he reacts so strongly to Elektra when she re-appears; she’s the only one that has ever embraced the devil within him. With Karen especially, this speaks to a glaring hypocrisy given her willingness to cover for Frank “The Punisher” Castle, while chastising Matt for doing the same thing. To understand Matt’s side is to be frustrated with Foggy and Karen for being sticks in the mud.
Because we’ve had two seasons worth of time with him, it makes sense that the most emotional moments come from Charlie Cox’s Matt Murdock. It comes through in interactions with Stick, Elektra and even the young paralyzed man he’s defending. Murdock knows that their are two parts of himself, and has always defaulted to denying one in favor of the other. His journey comes in the form of reconciling his dual identities with one another. Matt knows he is uniquely qualified to help the city, and also knows that it may cost him his life. The depth of that sacrifice is what makes him heroic; not his powers.
And that is part in parcel of where the divide between our heroes and the Hand comes from: their distinctive relationships to life and death. Philosophers say the meaning of life comes from being lived and there is no greater purpose other than that. So, its sanctity comes from being a singular, limited experience, something each of the Defenders understands and values. They respect life because they understand how precious and limited it is.
There is a certain myth to the strength that immortality implies. If you can no longer die, there is seemingly nothing for you to be afraid of, but also no challenges left to be overcome. What meaning does your life have if there are no consequences to guide you? You aren’t living at that point, you simply exist. The Hand project the strength not because they respect life, but because they fear death. They’re not concerned with preserving any lives but their own, and that selfishness undermines their ability to work together. Alexandra, for example, is an unquestioned, but never fights for what she claims to value most for fear of having it taken away. And in that way, she isn’t respecting life at all.
Reaching into the technical, the fight choreography was top-notch throughout, and a marked improvement for Danny Rand’s Iron Fist, especially. The writers and directors obviously took cues from their big-screen counterparts and incorporated several Avengers-style moments into the narrative. Danny and Luke’s first meeting – the unstoppable force versus the immovable object – mirrors Thor and Captain America’s encounter in the woods. At one point the team inevitably turns on each other when one of their own – Danny here, Hulk in The Avengers – is meant to be turned into a sleeper cell style weapon.
Though the interactions are expected – it’s a team-up show after all – some of the transitions up to that point are jarring. Netflix has positioned itself as a leader in the “television as an event” market. They want their series to be binged watch, hyping up midnight releases and tracking their users watch rates to inform their programming. This lends itself to television shows that resemble movies in the ways they’re filmed and produced. While The Defenders still looks visually stunning, there are some abrupt scene transitions. It’s the first of the Marvel Netflix shows that feels more like it was made for TV in that regard. The quality is not diminished, but it is a noticeable difference from the series that preceded it.
Those original intersections and interactions are also marked by not-so-subtle lighting choices. Each character is shrouded in the color of their trademark costume with Matt bathed in reds, and Jessica Jones in varying degrees of purple and blue. Luke Cage is surrounded by yellow almost to the point of sepia tone, while Danny is mostly shrouded in green. These get less overt as the series moves on, but still come up in interesting ways. For example, in the Royal Dragon sequence where the team first convenes in a Chinese restaurant, you can note the following:
- The backlight on the bar is bright blue and purple, clearly a nod to Jessica’s love of Jack Daniels
- Each of the tables is lit underneath by a green glow. Danny pays for all of the food upon their arrival and then proceeds to eat a majority of it.
- The neon sign outside is bright red and illuminates the adjacent street. This represents that only Matt can hear what is going on outside.
But beyond a few technical issues, the show delivers visually and emotionally. We get the hallway fight we expected and then some, and give some additional depth to each character. Though the villain falls a little short, Elektra is menacing enough to make up some of the difference. Overall, The Defenders delivers meaningful moments and fast paced action in bunches, providing a solid bookend to the first chapter of the Marvel Netflix universe.
EASTER EGGS [SPOILERS AHEAD]
While riding the bus after his release from prison in episode one, Luke Cage sees both Pop’s Barbershop and a sign for “Harlem’s Renaissance”, references to events from Luke Cage, season 1.
Stan Lee’s trademark cameo occurs in the third episode. He can be seen on a police poster behind Matt as he trails Jessica throughout the city.
When Luke goes to investigate Cole at his apartment, there is a copy of Jidenna’s Long Live the Chief on the wall. He performed the song in Cottonmouth’s Club during episode 5 of Luke Cage.
This marks the third Marvel appearance of the famed rooftop terrace in New York City. It was the location of Madame Gao’s meeting with Alexandra here, her dalliance with Kingpin in season 1 of Daredevil, and 2002’s Spider-Man.
Elektra’s re-origin story is told in episode 3. After her “Black Sky” training, while picking a weapon, she briefly pauses on her trademark sai before opting for short swords instead.
When investigating the architect’s disappearance in the city records, Jessica Jones finds a company called Yushioka. This is a nod to Daredevil villain and Hand member Nobu, whose full name is Nobu Yushioka.
When playing the piano in episode 6, the melody Matt plays is the show’s theme.
Colleen Wing wears her comic accurate costume of a white jumpsuit and samurai sword for the majority of the final fight scenes.
In the final episode, resurrected Iron Fist villain Bakuto chops off Misty Knight’s arm with a samurai sword. In the comics, she loses it in a bomb blast and receives a bionic replacement from Tony Stark. We can expect Danny will likely fill that role and provide her high-tech prosthetic.
In the last episode, we see Danny, clearly inspired by Matt’s sacrifice, perched on a rooftop, fist alight. He is dressed in a variation of his comic costume, and is rumored to don his trademark mask as a tribute to his “fallen” friend. Also, it is worth noting that in the comics, Danny briefly poses as Daredevil to allay suspicion that Matt is the one behind the mask.
At the end of the last episode, Matthew Murdock has seemingly survived the collapse of Midland Circle and is lying in a plain bed in a convent. A nun at his bedside remarks “Get Maggie. He’s waking up.” This is a reference to Maggie Murdock, Matt’s mom, first introduced canonically in Frank Miller’s Born Again storyline. She will likely figure heavily into season 3 of Daredevil.