The Defenders: How Marvel Became the King of Superhero Stories

This last month, Marvel uploaded The Defenders to Netflix, their fifth original series to the streaming platform. The show unites Daredevil, Iron Fist, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage, largely regarded as Marvel’s “street level” heroes. While characters like Thor and Iron Man take on larger than life foes that threaten to destroy the world, in The Defenders Marvel presents a team of heroes who are more likely to get into a street brawl than to punch out an alien invader.

The Marvel movies have largely aimed to appease the general audience by injecting humor without raising the stakes too terribly high. Since moving to Netflix, Marvel’s shows have targeted a mature audience with realistic violence and complex themes. In these individual shows, Netflix viewers have seen characters wrestle moral ambiguity, deal with rape and mental trauma, and face a death cult. These aren’t Saturday morning cartoons.

Much like the way Marvel films started with Iron Man in 2008 and were followed by individual stories on other superheroes before crossing over in 2012’s The Avengers, the show comes as the culmination of a few years’ worth of storytelling. With that in mind, I critique The Defenders with the same consideration I give to the Marvel team up movies which are required to tie multiple plot threads together, continue to develop its characters, and set up future events.

The Defenders had a similar tall order to fill in tackling this list of demands, but perhaps one of the biggest concerns going into the show was how well Marvel would mesh the mystical elements introduced in Daredevil and Iron Fist with the more grounded world of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage.

Marvel’s saving grace comes in the form of the thing that made them pioneers in the superhero movie revolution: self awareness. For years, studios desperately tried to make comic book films gritty, practically begging audiences to take them seriously. For the most part, this received mixed results and typically still does. However, from the beginning, Marvel has been aware that no matter their adaption, they’re still translating stories about people who wear bright costumes and fight crime.

Throughout the show, Danny Rand/Iron Fist references his backstory. Luke Cage laughs when Danny talks about defeating a dragon to gain his abilities. Jessica Jones mocks Daredevil for being the only one to wear a costume (“Nice ears,” she remarks when seeing it for the first time. “They’re horns,” replies Daredevil.) These kind of interactions warm up the audience into seeing these characters together as they serve as a welcome bridge between the two worlds.

The crux of The Defenders hinges on The Hand, an ancient ninja organization introduced in Daredevil and Iron Fist. Although, Marvel seems afraid to completely lean into the rich mythology they have available here. As a result, Sigourney Weaver’s villainous Alexandra and her cabal of evil isn’t completely realized. The show couldn’t seem to decide whether to stay grounded or go mystical and after a watch through I couldn’t help but feel that Marvel limited themselves, especially where the “bad guys” are concerned.

This isn’t to say there aren’t enjoyable moments. Overall it integrates its main characters well, giving enough of each hero to satisfy fans regardless of which one brought them to the show. It presents several stellar action sequences, the first fight that sees our heroes united a fist pumping Avengers type moment. The show drags in some areas, often struggling to find things for its supporting cast to do. However, the transition from the typical thirteen episodes of a Netflix show to eight ensures that these weaker points are moved through at a faster pace.

If you don’t already enjoy any of Marvel’s Netflix shows, chances are that The Defenders won’t enthrall you. But if you like these characters, appreciate cool ninja action, and need something to tide you over till the upcoming Thor movie or The Punisher, Marvel’s next Netflix series, you might as well give The Defenders a try.

And if not, at least watch Daredevil. Because man, that show was good.

 

jlfpw4@mail.umkc.edu

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