Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Defending The Defenders

Netflix recently dropped The Defenders, which is the culmination of four other Marvel TV shows spread across five seasons. If this were a comic book series, it would be akin to the Summer Annuals, where all of the stories converge and everyone gets together to team up against an enemy that they can’t handle solo.

If this sounds like how The Avengers movie came together, well, that’s kinda the template. And while the results weren’t quite the same, overall, The Defenders works very well for what it is, if not for what it’s supposed to be. It’s shorter than the other series by a full four hours (making it seem more like an event) and it resolves character’s ongoing storylines and sets up future seasons nicely.

Granted, the show is not without its detractors. The online chatter was varied, with some folks doubling down on Iron Fist being a “thundering dumb-ass” (thank you, Stick, for that colorful phrase) and others claiming he’s “not as horrible” when paired up with other heroes. Some folks took issue with Jessica Jones, for reasons I still don’t fully understand. A lot of people had a problem with The Hand, the criminal empire who resurrected Elektra and is the main adversary in The Defenders.

Still a great many more tried to watch The Defenders without having seen all of the Netflix series that preceded it. I think this is where a number of complaints came from, and their subsequent bafflement is, as a result, somewhat out of place. Of course, the Netflix shows aren’t for everyone; if this Age of Media Super Heroes has taught me anything, it’s that everyone brings their own baggage to these shows, and the spectrum of opinions around them are so wide and varied that you have no choice to chalk them up to subjective personal tastes and not as any kind of objective criteria or metric for quality.

I think that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the most ambitious and inarguably most successful of the various world-building exercises, and the Netflix shows are doing something equally as interesting, and they aren’t being talked about in toto. In short, Marvel Studios tried to do with Netflix series what they successfully did with The Phase 1 of Marvel movies that culminated in The Avengers. And like that Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the Marvel movies, the sub-plots and background Easter eggs are just as important as the main storylines in each movie.

Astute movie-goers and life-long comic book fans now know that all of the glowy bits and bobs that have appeared in various movies are now about to make glorious comebacks at Infinity Stones in the massive and sprawling two-movie epic, Avengers: Infinity War, which starts in 2018. But the Marvel universe is not all cosmic happenings and Earth-shaking events. Crime continues apace in places like New York City. And this is where the Netflix shows come in.

Why The Defenders is Better Than You Think
What makes the Netflix shows different is that the focus is not on the heroes so much as it’s on the villains. This is specifically true for the Hand, which ran through three of the five series, but in general, it’s the villains that rank higher than the heroes in Netflix’ storytelling structure. Let’s briefly consider the five seasons that went into The Defenders

Season 1 was, at first glance, all about Matthew Murdock and his troubles with the Kingpin, Wilson Fisk, played with incredible verve and intensity by Vincent D’Onofrio. And a lot of the first six episodes are all about Fisk, with Murdock and Daredevil (not yet in costume) relegated to sub-plots. The momentum changes about halfway through when it’s revealed that Fisk is doing some things at the behest of a sinister and secret organization that, among other things, employs ninjas, runs drugs, and uses a stylized dragon for a symbol.

In season 2, with the Kingpin out of the way, Daredevil (aka “the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen,” which is a much cooler name) is free to concentrate on The Hand, and even as he’s making those overtures, here comes the Punisher to distract everyone. Meanwhile, the Hand have built a building on the block they bought from Fisk in Season 1 and are digging a hole. Oh, and they have more ninjas, and made it clear that they were taking over the Asian drug cartels in the wake of The Kingpin’s incarceration.

Jessica Jones
This series did a better job of splitting its time between Jessica Jones and her contemporary situation and the past tense threat of Kilgrave, the Purple Man, and what he did to Jones. Jones is a stand-alone series, with tie-ins through Claire, the nurse, and also serving to introduce Luke Cage and partially explain his back story. But the Purple Man dominates the series from the first episode, driving the narrative and with good and terrifying reason, as the series repeatedly demonstrates.

Luke Cage
Continuing from Jessica Jones, this series intentionally establishes itself as being separate from the rest of the Netflix series. Harlem, in specific, is not Hell’s Kitchen, and Luke Cage is adamant about taking care of his corner of New York City and not much else. But the series managed to get a number of past, present, and future villains on-screen and all cued up for later development, which was impressive. That Luke Cage’s backstory is tied to Diamondback’s origin helps double up on the flashbacks and keeps the episodes flowing.

Iron Fist
After two seasons of worldbuilding featuring a person of color and a woman as the lead, and with both of these shows getting rave reviews, Iron Fist had a lot to live up to, and it failed, almost from the get-go, mostly by not being “the thing that people wanted it to be from inside of their heads.” This is not quite fair to fans, but it’s really not fair to Iron Fist, who has, in the Netflix series, been reimagined by Marvel Studios as a real novice and not at all the cool and interesting character from the comic books. See “thundering dumb ass” above. Pacing problems that were somewhat overlooked and forgiven on Daredevil were now the primary focus of everyone’s ire. No one, it seemed, was particularly interested in Iron Fist’s agonizingly slow “Year One” story, and most of the fault for that was laid at the feet of showrunner Scott Buck. But the series dropped the other shoe on the Hand’s grand plot, which was essentially muted in Jessica Jones and Luke Cage.

If we are keeping score, I would rank the series in order of my preference thusly: Luke Cage, Daredevil Season 1, Jessica Jones, Daredevil Season 2, and Iron Fist. I'm going to write more about this in a future blog post, but let me again remind all of you over the age of 40 that, had any of these series--oh, to hell with this--had Iron Fist, as is, been available to us prior to the year 2000, we would have lost our collective minds at how good it was. So, let's not throw the baby out with the bath water just yet. I'm still slightly amazed that we're even talking about five TV shows that include Power Man and Iron Fist among them. There is no way--NO WAY--that my ten year old self, twenty year old self, and even thirty year old self, ever thought we'd be having this discussion to begin with. I want you all to keep this in mind as you continue reading. 

This brings us neatly to The Defenders. All of the connective tissue from the other Netflix series is in place; the lawyers, Night Nurse, and most importantly, the street-level sensibility. The Marvel movies frequently take to the air to give you a bird’s eye view of the action, but the Netflix TV shows do just the opposite. They plant the camera at ground level and let you look up as someone scurries over a fire escape. Or they pin you into hallways (where Iron Man and Thor would have a hard time maneuvering). In these series, bullets can kill. Knives can cut. The stakes are much closer to us. That’s why a woman with super strength or a black man with invulnerability is such a big deal.

And that’s why The Hand is such a big deal, as well. Or Kilgrave. Or Cottonmouth, or Diamondback, or any of the other corrupt politicians, drug pushers, real estate moguls, and criminal organizations with their own selfish agendas to enact. This sentiment was best echoed in Spider-Man: Homecoming, and make no mistake; the Vulture’s salvage operation is right at home with the Marvel Knights (can I just go ahead and call them that, for crying out loud?)

A perfect example of what a super hero
battle might look like from the bystanders
point of view, from Kurt Busiek and Alex
Ross' seminal work, Marvels.
This “looking up” perspective, first used brilliantly in Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’s Marvels mini-series, is kind of blasé’ now in comics, but for television, it’s perfect. After all, who among us can’t relate to the destruction of a skyscraper in downtown New York City? That’s a big deal, and it should be. The scale is smaller than the movies, because in some ways, it has to be. These heroes, Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, are saving lives, one person at a time. And the shows make a point of showing how that matters, how it impacts people, a community. This is something that the large-scale Marvel movies can’t quite dwell on, not in the same way that the TV series can. And it’s a positive.

In the Mighty Marvel Manner
Another positive is that The Defenders sticks ably to its comic book roots, and especially the “Marvel Storytelling” method. To wit, two heroes find themselves on opposite ends of the same problem and they have to fight before they realize they are better off working together. But just because they are working together doesn’t mean they are automatically friends, or that they even like each other. This staple of Marvel comics culture is perfectly encapsulated, more so than the first Avengers movie, and runs through the whole series. Everyone sticks to their guns, too, right up until circumstances force them to do otherwise:  Luke Cage is helping a single family out; Jessica Jones is trying to clear one case; Matt Murdock is doing lawerly stuff to keep from beating people up; and Iron Fist, along with Colleen Wing, are chasing their tails.

The Defenders gets the group together and talking in a way that should make comic fans happy. Jessica and Matt Murdock have a moment (several, actually) that sets up her working for him in an official capacity at some point down the line, a plot device straight out of the comics. Jessica and Luke Cage reconnect, wedging the door open for further romantic entanglements (in the comics, they have a child together). And last but certainly not least, Luke Cage and Danny Rand, aka Power Man and Iron Fist, square off in a couple of sparring matches, verbal and otherwise, that are satisfying for all of the Danny Rand haters out there (insert your own, out of whack reason here), and perfectly set off their unlikely friendship.

Bring on the Bad Guys
Once they have established the hero’s need to cooperate, we get more information about The Hand, and in this series we see they are very similar to DC’s League of Assassins by way of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. This isn’t plagerism, as they are both drawing from the historical Assassins to make their ancient mythic karate people, but it is very clear that, if the extraction of the dragon skeleton destroys New York City in the process, c’est la vie. That’s a hell of an omelet to make for the breaking of the eggs. I’d had to calculate their profit/loss statement at the end of the year.

But it’s also not surprising in that The Hand wears a corporate face, and their members all wear Armani suits, and in all other ways exhibit the outward appearance of corporate culture. One of the things Iron Fist drove home (admittedly, repeatedly and often ham-fistedly), was that some corporations care more about profits than people. It’s not an accident that the bad guys in Luke Cage are politicians and developers. Ditto Daredevil. These street-level heroes, these champions of the underdog, are fighting the 1% for the other 99%. It’s the villains that we need to pay attention to in these series, not the intricate details of each character’s origins. The fact that all of them are shown in flashbacks emphasize that. Super strength and invulnerability matter less than the suckers and shitheads trying to poison us. That’s the focus of Marvel’s Netflix series.

It’s not clear if the gang will reunite for another event. But we do know that all four Marvel Netflix series are moving forward from here. Daredevil Season 3 is confirmed. Jessica Jones Season 2 is filming now. Luke Cage Season 2 is about to start up again. And we presume that Iron Fist Season 2 is getting a major overhaul and a tonal shift. This would be possible, now, thanks to The Defenders, specifically how the show ended.

Also, there is ample evidence to suggest that eventually we’ll see the Power Man/Iron Fist team-up we’ve all been hoping for, as they were some of the best comics in the 70’s and 80’s. Especially now, with those two characters serving as excellent foils for one another. Also, now that Misty Knight is, um, off the police force (I guess), we would all love a Knight-Wing Investigations series. Or combine both ideas. Perhaps it’s where Iron Fist Season 2 is headed.

You can’t watch The Defenders without having seen the other series first. Some say you can, but trust me, you can’t. Not without experiencing some information gaps, some character and plot motivation that runs through the majority of the Netflix series, and also some connective tissue that makes The Defenders hang together. Whatever you might think about it (and you will, I have no doubt), it’s well-constructed and dovetails nicely together, much like the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Obviously, your mileage will vary, but if you are enjoying Marvel’s massive multi-media experiment, and check your pre-conceived notions at the door, you’ll enjoy Marvel’s The Defenders even if it’s not greater than the sum of its parts.

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