You know it’s a bad sign when in the middle of a superhero team miniseries you find yourself pining for the team members to work solo again. Yet this is precisely the thought I had watching Netflix and Marvel Television’s long awaited miniseries The Defenders.
Debuting last Friday, the miniseries was the culmination of a plan that goes back over three years. Laid out in the first quarter of 2014, The Defenders would serve as the fifth act to a cycle of Netflix series focusing on the “street-level” Marvel heroes. The plan sounded promising. Unlike their comic book counterparts, the Marvel Cinematic Universe films had acquired an unmistakable post-Avengers bloat. It became a running joke that all the (solo character) sequels after Avengers featured antagonists and earth-shattering stakes that really merited the team reforming. In the comics, the solo titles have the freedom to take a single Avenger and put him or her in decidedly intimate stories where the stakes weren’t so dire, but the blockbuster mentality of movies overruled that.
So the idea of focusing on heroes who fight in alleys rather than the roofs of skyscrapers held a lot of appeal as did the selections of characters who (with the exception of Iron Fist) were all fan favorites with staunch followings. The first show would be Daredevil, the scrappy blind brawler who plays like a working class Batman with Catholic angst. Then Jessica Jones, a recent creation from an innovative neo-noir title called Alias that explored gender politics, trauma, healing so well it earned the show a Peabody Award. Next came Luke Cage and finally Iron Fist (the latter show breaking the impressive streak of critical approbation).
But what we got on Friday wasn’t just a disappointment, it reflects a lack of vision at the top of Marvel Television that is stunning. The team behind The Defenders had over three years to make this show and yet every one of the 8 scripts feels like it was rushed on a Sunday evening for a Monday deadline.
The first catastrophic flaw is the utter lack of connection this series has to the comic books or the MCU. In truth this is really two flaws that have interwoven so tightly as to appear fused together.
The first half of this is seen in the total lack of excavation on the part of the storytellers of Defenders lore, plotlines, or iconography. When you watch the miniseries, you wonder if the writers and showrunner even know who the Defenders are or what makes them unique.
For the uninitiated: The Defenders first appeared in 1971 as the brainchild of Roy Thomas. The series began as a contingency plan for the cancellation of Doctor Strange. Thomas shrewdly figured out how to continue Strange’s story arc: by continuing it with a new team. He brought Strange together with the Hulk and Namor the Sub-Mariner to finish Strange’s plot line involving the planned invasion of Earth from beings from another dimension. And so the Defenders were born.
The Defenders had to establish its own identity quickly. All the major teams were already in place so The Defenders needed to claim its own corner of the Marvel Universe. They became Earth’s line of defense against mystical threats and in essence the team served as the as-needed backup for Doctor Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme of Earth.
The Defenders were branded a “non-team”: unlike the others they had no headquarters, no symbol, and their roster fluctuated wildly. The Defenders were a team of rugged individualists who could never be an Avenger (Joss Whedon beat them to the bunch by bringing some of that “band of misfits” energy to the Avengers films).
A major blow dealt to the series is the loss of Doctor Strange. Strange is more of a constant presence in the Defenders than any other single Marvel character has been to any other Marvel superhero team. If you’re asking why Strange isn’t in the Netflix series, the answer lies in the unsexy world of corporate structuring.
Marvel Studios and Marvel Television have for some time regarded one another as stepsisters despite the central conceit that the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe would reflect the unity and continuity of plot in a way heretofore only seen in the comics. Lore has it that the split began when Marvel TV decided to resurrect Agent Phil Coulson (much to the consternation of the Marvel Studios), the everyman SHIELD agent whose death cemented the Avengers as a team. This seems to be largely accurate. Agent Coulson was a mainstay in the Marvel films before his “death” in Avengers. Since his small screen resurrection, he has not appeared in any of the films or even been mentioned (even in Age of Ultron when it would’ve made sense). As a result, the Marvel TV series became the bastard sons of the Marvel movies; the shows would pattern themselves after the storylines of the films, the films pretended the series didn’t exist. This has been frustrating to fans since it violates the whole idea we were promised when Iron Man was released 9 years ago.
And worse yet, the problem has gotten worse. Now the bastard sons, having grown tired of rejection, have walked away from the family. In the Netflix series there has been a marked decline with every show of references to the big events of the MCU. Loki’s thwarted invasion of Manhattan is crucial to the first season of Daredevil and is mentioned many times in the first season of Luke Cage. But in both Iron Fist and The Defenders it is never mentioned once; nor are Ultron, the Sokovia Accords (which make it a crime to practice superheroing without government registration and oversight), or the fact that the Avengers dissolved spectacularly in a very public brawl.
Doctor Strange was claimed by Marvel Studios and denied to Marvel TV, which is a shame not just for The Defenders but also for Doctor Strange because I’m quite certain the character would’ve been better served in a Netflix series than on the big screen.
Finally, when Marvel Studios honcho Kevin Feige outmaneuvered his boss Marvel Entertainment Chairman Isaac Perlmutter (famously conservative, both politically and with the purse strings), he took Marvel Studios away from Marvel Entertainment and put the parent company Disney in charge. This was a shrewd move and will likely be beneficial as now Feige can operate without any input from the Marvel Chairman (Perlmutter appears to have been somewhat toxic: he famously drove Joss Whedon into the arms of the competition, sparked standoffs with talent over pay, and once blocked Rebecca Hall’s character in Iron Man 3 from being the villain simply because she was a woman). But Marvel TV wasn’t part of that deal. They stayed under Perlmutter. So the rift has widened.
All of this leads to a curious sense of disconnection from the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is a shame. The timing of The Defenders is perfect since it coincides with the shift toward mysticism in the MCU. And the “non-team” element fits because the Defenders are in essence filling the void created by the implosion of the Avengers, an entity that is never once mentioned or referred to in the miniseries.
The idea that four loners are compelled to join forces to become a team because the team everyone relies on is MIA is the perfect comic book metaphor for life under Trump. The norms and oversight we’ve taken for granted became null and void on January 20, 2017 and many citizens have made the decision to become defenders as a result.
It would be easy to write another 10 pages about what The Defenders should have been, but let’s focus on what it is. For one, it is short. The Netflix solo series have all run 13 episodes and that is the most consistent complaint. By the 10th episode, these series, even at their best, begin treading water in order to fill out that episode count. The Defenders which one would assume could easily fill out 13 episodes, has a hard time filling out eight.
Plotting is often overrated in importance. But if you’re going to underplot a story, it better take up character development and/or rich, complex themes to fill the void and The Defenders does neither. Instead we get an endless procession of ‘what are YOU going to do” scenes, broken up by utterly uninspired fistfights.
Not one character in Defenders has anything approaching an arc either. The supporting characters that once brought so much to their respective solo shows, are relegated to waiting room small talk. Claire Temple, the fifth Defender in essence, who has been a vital presence in all four solo series is relegated to Love Interest. Claire’s payoff for entering this world appears to be the honor of getting to be Luke Cage’s lady (no small accomplishment, I grant you). It would have been great if she’d found a way to fulfill her own destiny in this culminating miniseries, like floating a proposal to Danny Rand to set up a clinic (perhaps with a hidden purpose of healing outlaw heroes), but this was beyond the imagination of the writing team.
And then there’s Alexandra, the putative nemesis. The miniseries reveals the casting of Sigourney Weaver to be nothing more than a stunt. Her character is a compendium of bad guy cliches and comes to naught. I hope she was paid well. Alexandra shores up one of the unspoken rules of comic book movies that showrunner Marco Ramirez and his staff foolishly flouted: do not make up villains. Draw from the source material.
The Hand returns and one hopes for the last time as the laughably generic sinister secret society (dripping with Yellow Peril Orientalism) is pushed past the point of absurdity. It’s objective is ill-defined, trite and nonsensical, the scenes between its immortal “fingers” is a crushing bore, and even their corporate cover (Midland Circle Financial) offers nothing of interest. Foolishly, I thought perhaps we’d learn that all of their origins- Matt Murdoch’s blinding, Jessica Jones’ car accident, Luke Cage’s experiment, and Danny Rand’s plane crash- are interconnected. We do not.
Again, with over three years to plan The Defenders, I am staggered by the poverty of ideas. We know they can’t fight the Chitauri in the way the Avengers did or travel to space but you can write interesting scenes as cheaply as you can write bad ones. Everything in Defenders is borrowed or a retread. The big bad guy twist from Luke Cage is employed again without any of the emotional impact that made the twist work in the earlier series. Daredevil has a climactic battle that is almost dialogue identical to the helicarrier fight between Captain America and the Winter Soldier.
Worst of all, The Defenders doesn’t copy the good stuff from better films. The Defenders never have the “now we’re a team” moment one needs in this kind of story (e.g., using their skills in tandem to defeat something they’d be unable to stop alone). The creators seem to think having them stand shoulder to shoulder makes them a team.
The Defenders was always going to be tricky. Combining street-level action with the epic dimensions of a team story is contradictory at best. But after the stupefyingly poor Iron Fist series and what looks to be an ill-conceived Inhumans show over on ABC (word has it Perlmutter insisted the Inhumans become the X-Men of the MCU despite almost no significant fan interest in the show) it appears that Marvel TV is at a crossroads. Perlmutter’s parsimoniousness combined with Marvel TV honcho Jeph Loeb’s lackluster attempt to compete with Marvel Studios is ruining the entire endeavor which at one brief, shining point looked stronger and more interesting than the theatrical releases.
Next we’ll get a Punisher series, and in the next few years, new seasons of all four of the Defenders’ solo shows. Loeb has been vague about whether or not there will be a second season of The Defenders (I would prefer a Daughters of the Dragon miniseries that puts Misty Knight and Colleen Wing front and center). Loeb and company still have the characters they need to make TV series every bit as good as the best of the theatrical offerings. The Marvel films work best when they hire a storyteller who connects to the material in a deep way, and the Marvel TV series need to find showrunners with the same passion.
Brandon Wilson is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker and educator. He has directed numerous short films and two feature films, most recently “Sepulveda” sepulvedathemovie.com which he co-directed with his wife Jena English. He writes essays on film and culture at geniusbastard.com. He also tweets a lot.