Netflix’s The Defenders and the Comics that Inspired Them

The Defenders was the first comic book I ever read. To be precise, my Dad had to read it to me because I was so young. That makes the memory even more special. As I progressed through grade school, Defenders honed my reading skills and inspired a lifelong love for all types of literature. I also loved television adaptations of Marvel characters. I longed for a live action version of the Defenders while I was growing up in the early 1980s. Eventually I came to accept that comic books were the only way I would be able to enjoy their adventures. Some forty years later I heard that Netflix was going to make my childhood dream come true. Could the mini-series satisfy fans of the original comic like me as well as a younger audience raised on Netflix’s current stable of superhero programs? To answer this question we must examine the themes that made the comic book so popular and see how well they worked in the Netflix mini-series. If you have not seen The Defenders yet please be advised that the following paragraphs contain spoilers.

THE NON-TEAM

The original comics began with a caption box stating that the Defenders were the “greatest NON-TEAM in history, heroes called together only when need arises- to battle MENACES that threaten the security- or the very LIFE- of the planet EARTH!” The idea was to take heroes known for working alone and create situations that forced them to work together. The first iteration included the Hulk, Namor the Sub-Mariner, and Doctor Strange. They were joined for a short time by the Silver Surfer. Not only were they loners but their disparate personalities would seem to make teamwork impossible. Despite these built-in challenges, the unlikely trio successfully defended the public from a wide variety of threats. Despite their insistence on not being an official team, their ranks swelled as new and lesser used characters from the Marvel Universe joined them. These included Valkyrie, Nighthawk, and Hellcat. The fact that these three remained core members of the group for years would seem to belie the idea of a non-team but the comic still described the Defenders as “a publically unknown superhero alliance that exists only informally at best.”1 Nonetheless, the longer the same group of superheroes shared adventures together, the harder it was to claim that they were not a team.

The Netflix show effectively embraces the concept of a non-team. The “team” does not even fully come together until episode three and then only reluctantly and because of circumstances. The show thus captures the feeling of those early comic books. In some ways, the Netflix version does an even better job of demonstrating the concept of a non-team. Not only are their members loners but they have no leadership structure and no official headquarters (unless you count the Chinese restaurant where they gathered to strategize).

For all its claims of being no more than an informal alliance, the comic book Defenders always had a headquarters. First it was the Sanctum Sanctorum of Doctor Strange in Greenwich Village. Later the Defenders moved east to the Long Island Riding Academy owned by Nighthawk’s alter-ego, the wealthy Kyle Richmond. The comic book Defenders also had a clear leader, something we do not see in the television incarnation. Doctor Strange was the group’s first leader, a position he held for almost four years. The Defenders were visibly shaken when Doctor Strange decided to leave the group in issue 46. Despite their differences the Netflix Defenders are all equals while the comic book Defenders needed a leader. For years that role was filled by Nighthawk. Even Valkyrie briefly held the reigns of leadership. Doctor Strange himself returned from time to time and the rest of the Defenders always deferred to him. While comic book fans are familiar with a formal leader, they would no doubt respect the commitment the mini-series made to the concept of a non-team by not allowing any of the characters to step forward as leader. The Netflix Defenders try to make decisions by committee but frequently disagree as to what constitutes the best course of action.

CHARACTERS IN CONFLICT

The comic book pitted characters with different personalities against each other. The ensuing tension helped to drive the various storylines. This became more difficult in later issues when the characters outgrew their flaws and began to like each other. Never was this more clear than in issue 98 when the Asgardian Valkyrie says, “I’ve watched the Defenders grow to be more than comrades in arms . . . You’ve become my earthly family.” Having a much shorter history with each other, the Netflix Defenders never lose that initial tension with each other. They make no secret of the fact that they are uncomfortable working together but see no other choice given the circumstances. There is a lack of trust between the characters that culminates in a violent encounter between Iron Fist and the other Defenders. This fight was likely to be welcomed by most fans of the comics. Despite the friendly relationships developed by the core characters over time, physical combat between Defenders was common in the series. This was initially accomplished by simply putting inherently angry personalities like Namor and the Hulk in compromising situations. Later, traditional tropes like mind control and demonic possession forced characters to fight each other. Finally, battles often broke out when new characters entered the picture. One example was when former bad guy Gargoyle joined the cast only to be met with violence from the usual happy-go-lucky Hellcat.2

Regularly rotating out some Defenders and bringing in new ones did more than just create opportunities to see heroes fight one another. It was also necessary to support the claim that the Defenders were a non-team with no official roster. Despite this informality, many heroes had stints with the Defenders that lasted for years. It thus became possible to identify certain superheroes with the Defenders comic. The Netflix version chose not to use any of them. Instead, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist made up the roster.

At first glance this would seem to be an impediment to comic book fans enjoying the series. If one looks closely, however, there are ties between the Netflix cast and the comic book Defenders. Longtime devotees know that Luke Cage spent several years as a Defender. While not an official member, Daredevil shared enough adventures with the group that his face was included in a drawing of the Defenders and their headquarters in issue 50. In more recent times, Iron Fist has served as an official member. This idea had been brewing since 1974 when The Defenders creative team used the letters page to pitch Iron Fist as a possible member.3

The lineup is understandable given the effort that Netflix has expended linking its shows together to create a cohesive universe based in New York. Shared characters and in some cases shared plotlines helped bring this universe into being. Iron Fist was the direct lead-in to The Defenders but the cool reception the show received no doubt worried potential viewers. The show was criticized for poor fight scenes and for having a main character that seemed naïve, arrogant, and unsympathetic all at the same time.

I had a chance to discuss the issue with Iron Fist actress Jane Kim. She played Bride of Nine Spiders, one of the few villains to come directly from the comic. She acknowledged the criticisms but felt that it “was a good starting point for [Iron Fist] because you can see him grow so much more during the series.” This sentiment was shared by season one showrunner Scott Buck who made clear during the Television Critics Association summer press tour that Iron Fist’s personality traits were by design to better play off the other characters in the Defenders mini-series.4

Iron Fist set up The Defenders in other ways as well. Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage focused on making superhero shows that were as gritty and realistic as possible given the genre conventions but Iron Fist explored other elements as well. While early episodes had their share of realism, they also had a greater emphasis on mysticism and other dimensions than previous Netflix shows. This shift in tone is very clear in episode six, “Immortal Emerges From Cave,” in which Jane Kim brought the Bride of Nine Spiders from the comics to the small screen. She is not just another garden variety opponent for Iron Fist but a denizen of a mystical realm herself. The episode was directed by rapper RZA of the Wu Tang Clan, a serious comic book aficionado in his own right. “It was fun to get on with his vision which was to make this particular episode more fantastical,” said Kim. “This one was supposed to be more like the 1970s theme of comics which is a little over the edge.” Kim noted that reactions to the episode on social media were mixed. Some praised the episode while others felt it was way over the top.

One has to wonder how much attention producers of The Defenders paid to social media analysis of Iron Fist. Many of the criticisms levelled at the show online were addressed in The Defenders. Luke Cage becomes a mouthpiece for disgruntled viewers when he lectures Iron Fist on everything from naïvity to white privilege. It is cathartic for viewers to see that someone else feels the same way about him. This, along with the fact that three other heroes helped carry both the dramatic load and the fight scenes, made Iron Fist more palatable. Whatever dislike remained fit well into the paradigm established by the comics that emphasized personality clashes and tension between Defenders.

FACING DOWN SUPERVILLAINS

Each Netflix series has featured a prominent villain- Wilson Fisk on Daredevil, Cottonmouth on Luke Cage, and Kilgrave on Jessica Jones. Science fiction icon Sigourney Weaver was brought in to play Alexandra on the Defenders. She gave a polished performance in every scene but the real threat came from the organization she fronted, the Hand. Introduced in Daredevil and further developed in Iron Fist, the Hand was clearly evil but their true intentions were obscured for several episodes. This sense of mystery is reminiscent of storylines from the comic book Defenders. It took several issues and sometimes the better part of a year for the Defenders to unravel their enemies’ plans. With Doctor Strange as their leader, the Defenders were as comfortable fighting superpowered villains like Magneto as they were taking on supernatural opponents like Dormammu. Ironically, one of these storylines involved a demonic alliance known as the Six Fingered Hand (usually referred to simply as the Hand). Through a series of evil machinations they succeeded in opening a dimensional doorway to Earth where they were eventually defeated by the Defenders. Fans of the source material would likely enjoy the Netflix Hand toying with some of these same ideas.

THE BOTTOM LINE

While members of the Netflix Defenders are not those traditionally associated with the comic book Defenders, the show nonetheless did the franchise proud. The mini-series successfully captured the spirit of the source material and made good use of the themes and concepts that made the original so enjoyable.

We will never see traditional Defenders like Valkyrie trying to restrain other members like the Hulk from a violent rampage (although both of those characters can be seen in the new Thor movie). Fans of the original will have to be content watching conflicts between the heroes that Netflix has chosen to work with, and that’s not so bad. After all, no matter how many times the comic book lineup was shuffled, there were always characters that didn’t get along and could quit the group at any moment. There was a feeling of impermanence that has successfully been transplanted to the Netflix series.

The ending gave too much away to be a cliffhanger in the usual sense of the word, but it will be interesting to see where things go from here as we again follow interconnected plotlines through the various Netflix programs. What type of threat will bring this non-team together in the future, and will there be new additions to the roster? Comic book fans still hold out hope that Trish Walker will follow the same path she did in print and become the heroine known as Hellcat.

Those who yearned for a live action Defenders have finally seen it. It will be quite some time before they see another one. Netflix takes its time when it comes to producing new episodes of superhero shows. In the interim fans may go back to their comic book reading roots. Marvel is now producing a new comic about the Defenders. It sports the original Defenders logo but utilizes the same cast as the Netflix series. Writer Brian Michael Bendis has hinted that future issues will bring back former Defenders who don’t like the team name(or should I say non-team name?) being used by a bunch of newcomers.5 Having the new Defenders meet the old Defenders sounds like a perfect way for fans of the show to learn more about the comic that inspired it. Both the Defenders comic and the Defenders show were built around conflict. Certainly conflicts will arise when these characters all meet up. Let the chips fall where they may.

1. Sliffer, Roger, and David Kraft (writers), Keith Giffen and Klaus Janson (illustrators), Irv Watanabe (letterer), and Dave Hunt (colorist), “Who Remembers Scorpio?” THE DEFENDERS #46, Marvel Comics Group, 1977, 1.

2. DeMatteis, J.M. (writer), Don Perlin and Joe Sinnott (illustrators), Diana Albers (letterer), and George Roussos (colorist), “The Vampire Strikes Back!” THE DEFENDERS #95, Marvel Comics Group, 1981, 6.

3. Wein, Len (writer), Sal Buscema and Mike Esposito (illustrators), Charlotte Jetter (letterer), and Glynis Wein (colorist), “Alpha, the Ultimate Mutant!” THE DEFENDERS #16, 19.

4. Drum, Nicole. “Former Iron Fist Showrunner Defends Danny Rand’s Personality.” ComicBook.com. Last modified May 17, 2017. http://comicbook.com/marvel/2017/08/07/iron-fist-showrunner-scott-buck-defends-danny-rand-personality-n/

5. Lovett, Jamie. “Five Things We Learned From Bendis, Marquez, and Brevoort.” ComicBook.com. Last modified May 2, 2017. http://comicbook.com/marvel/2017/05/02/marvel-defenders-bendis-marquez-brevoort/

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Steven Ronai grew up reading comic books and watching kung fu movies in New York. He earned his undergraduate degree in History at Ithaca College and received a master's degree from Stony Brook University. His appreciation for comics, movies, and martial arts has stayed with him to this very day. He enjoys writing articles in which all of these interests intersect. His work has been published in Black Belt Magazine and Tae Kwon Do Times. Steven continues to write while teaching history to high school students in New York.

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