Netflix has spent the past two and a half years slowly setting the stage for the grittiest superhero universe yet.
By David Curcio
The present review comes not from the perspective of a binge-watching television fan (though yes, I’ve seen some of the haloed greats from episode one straight through to the end), but from a loud, proud comic book geek. (Do we still call them geeks?) My fealty was directed at very few titles and, for better or worse, the heroes in the first season of Netflix’s new 8-episode The Defenders are the very same I followed through my elementary school years, before I took a long hiatus from the medium. But, in the past ten years, I’ve made up for lost time.
Multiplexes have bruised us with DC’s failed attempts at developing passable storylines for their heaviest super-hitters. The swelling behemoth that is The Avengers franchise and it’s spin-offs shows no sign of let-up. There are the endless Spiderman reboots and Lego movies about Batman. A handful of excellent X-Men films maintain a level of reliability. Megabuck box office demands grinding out cash cows that feature alien invaders, hovering space ports, and alternate dimensions. In pleasant contrast, Netflix has spent the past two and a half years slowly setting the stage for the grittiest superhero universe yet. Its heroes are kept on the ground, most in New York City. Their adventures unfold in updated (but somehow) pre-gentrified versions of Hell’s Kitchen and Harlem.
Unfortunately, The Defenders does not provide any background for those who missed the four preceding series – each starred a different hero (n.b. The Defenders, now a defunct comic book, never had any of the show’s heroes as a member). Instead, we have an uneasy teaming-up of Daredevil, Iron Fist, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage. None of these heroes entirely trust the others, and they mainly spend their time fighting ninjas. Tidal waves of baddies: every episode includes at least two prolonged battle scenes that involve several — sometimes dozens — of well-choreographed kung-fu mashups that, for all of their leaps and flips, get old very fast.
The saga began in April 2015 when Netflix premiered Daredevil, one of the lesser-known Marvel A-listers whose on-screen reputation suffered a blow in 2003 when Ben Affleck inflicted more damage to the character than any super-villain could hope. (In The Defenders he is brilliantly played by Charlie Cox). Blinded at birth via one of those convenient “accidents” that give so many superheroes their amazing powers, Daredevil acquired heightened senses that are so strong that he can tell how many sugars you put in your latte from a block away. The first two seasons gave us a variety of beguiling, formidable, and morally-conflicted villains and frienemies, from Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk and Jon Bernthal’s The Punisher to Élodie Yung’s Elektra. Powered by a hero with nothing but super-senses, Daredevil depended on lots and lots of mind-bending acrobatics. The show’s violence surpassed any filmed superhero yarn to date. Never has a hero’s moral conflicts and bloody wear-and-tear been presented with more realism, candor, and gore.
Jessica Jones (a character created in 2001) was flanked by two seasons of Daredevil. An ex-Avenger, Jones (Krysten Ritter) was too apathetic and alcoholic to stay in the hero club; she decided to run her own private investigation firm. The series focused on her nightmarish relationship with the purple-clad villain Kilgrave, who has the power to compel anyone to do anything he tells them. Jessica Jones was critically lauded for it’s depiction of a sexual abuse survivor who – despite her superhuman strength – must deal with the psychological challenge posed by her tormentor, a demented stalker. For many, the show was the best of the Netflix crop.
Luke Cage followed the well-muscled hero of Harlem (played by Mike Coulter), a guy endowed with bullet-proof skin and super-human strength. And – in a pointed condemnation of black-on-black (and cop-on-black) violence – he wears a black hoodie while he takes down drug lords in Harlem. Finally there is Iron Fist. Billionaire brat Danny Rand (Finn Jones) earns his strongman sobriquet somewhere in the Far East. His fist blazes like a torch — it’s a hell of an asset in a fight. With it’s endless martial arts fracas and talk of chi, it was the most critically demeaned of the lot.
This background information is necessary, not only for the curious newbie, who should check out the individual series, but for those who want to figure out what is going right (and wrong) in the Marvel-Netflix’s accumulation of heroes in The Defenders.
To keep its quartet of heroes occupied, The Defenders revs up truckloads of plot, the strands of which are much too confusing to detail here. Depersonalized hoards of nasty guys might work for Rambo, but the focus on an individual super villain or two keeps things personal and allows for identification with both sides. Alas, Sigourney Weaver phones it in as the Big Bad; she is the kingpin of an ancient clan of ninjas known as The Hand. (Note: all eight episodes of The Defenders must be binge-watched. Tune out for more than a couple of days and you won’t remember what the hell is going on.)
But is the storyline worth following? The stakes feel pretty puny when the bad guy is a bored, aging, one-time A-list actress and hundreds of faceless marauders. Why does The Defenders eschew further developing villains from the previous series? Instead, crammed into eight episodes, we get a crockful of eastern mysticism and quaint banter among the heroes. Visually, each installment scrambles, awkwardly, to establish a predominate color scheme and overall vibe, the latter mood ranging from the mystical to the urban. Each individual series ended its season with a cliffhanger, so confusion reigns. Each new season or series (such as The Defenders) takes a new direction, so the loose ends are piling up and up, like a mountain of lit cigarette butts.
And don’t hold your breath that an apocalyptic resolution will be coming anytime soon. The next entry in the Marvel/Netflix line-up will feature The Punisher, which will no doubt introduce more red herrings. Still, the fact that Netflix keeps these new installments coming and lets their narratives overlap as they grow — while allowing old plot lines to dangle – suggests that this universe may be in its infancy. (Netflix’s Comic Book Big Bang?) Like the Avengers, The X-Men, and the gloomy DC franchises, The Defenders and their corresponding series feature individual heroes confronting their own fates. It falls to Netflix, through its God-like powers, to neaten up this convoluted reality and create some satisfying order out of chaos. Geeks will cheer efforts at resolution — or swear at the lazy mess.
Finally, it is unfortunate that copyrights held by Disney, Sony, and other giant corporations have kept the elements in the various incarnations of the Marvel universe separate (e.g. when Jessica insinuates she used to be an Avenger, all she says – per copyright laws – is that she used to work with “the big green guy”). Legal strictures on what can and can’t be said is hamstringing the narrative power of the Marvel franchises. The value of the occasional character crossovers are their suggestion that everything is taking place in a complete comic book world. Call me geeky, but it’s comforting to know that while Netflix’s heroes are slugging it out with street thugs, The Fantastic Four are somewhere in space stopping a Skrull invasion.
David Curcio received his MFA in printmaking from Pratt Institute in 2001. He continues to work in the field of prints as well as embroidery and fiber arts. He has written for bigredandshiny.com, boxingoverbroadway.com and boxing.com. He lives in Watertown, MA.