“The Defenders” are coming to Netflix on Friday, an old name from Marvel Comics that is getting new life from a TV show.
This is not the first TV series named “The Defenders,” of course. That honor goes to a CBS courtroom drama that ran from 1961-65. It starred E.G. Marshall (“12 Angry Men”) and Robert Reed (“The Brady Bunch”) as a father-and-son team of defense attorneys and is well regarded even today.
But the Netflix “Defenders” is from Marvel Television and teams up all the characters which have headlined Netflix series so far: Luke Cage (Mike Colter), Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), Matt “Daredevil” Murdock (Charlie Cox) and Danny “Iron Fist” Rand (Finn Jones). It also includes a lot of supporting characters from those shows, both heroes and villains, including Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho), Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss), Misty Knight (Simone Missick), Elektra Natchios (Elodie Yung), Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll), Stick (Scott Glenn), Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor) and Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick).
If you don’t recognize all those names, and/or know which shows they belong to, then you’ve got a project to complete before Aug. 18: binge-watching the first two seasons of “Daredevil” and the first seasons of “Luke Cage,” “Iron Fist” and “Jessica Jones.” If you think that’s difficult, pity poor Luke Cage if he’s ever on camera with Claire, Jessica and Misty at the same time — because he’s slept with them all.
Now you want to binge-watch, don’t you?
Anyway, “Defenders” is sort-of the culmination of the various Marvel Netflix series to date. We’re going to see more of The Hand, those sneaky, undead ninjas seen in most of the series. We’ll learn why there was a gigantic hole dug in the ground in New York. We’ll see Elektra come back from the dead as a tool of The Hand.
We’ll probably also see if Matt and Foggy can patch up their friendship and law firm, and if Karen can forgive either of them. We might see Iron Fist grow up a little, after having abandoned his post as guardian of the mystical city of K’un-Lun. We’ll see how Luke Cage gets out of jail and, hopefully, how he explains to current squeeze Claire his bedroom romps with Misty and Jessica. We’ll learn how Jessica gets arrested by Misty, and how Matt comes to the rescue. (We might even see Jessica’s pal Trish Walker become the hero Hellcat, as she does in the comics, but I kind of doubt it.)
So “Defenders” will advance all the main characters a little, before each of them gets a new season in the coming months and years. (They’ve all been renewed.) And it will put paid to some of the long-running plots running in the background of all four shows.
“I think that ‘The Defenders’ is the most ambitious television project to date, period,” says Marvel Head of Television Jeph Loeb in the production notes. Using “The Avengers” from Marvel Films as the model, Loeb says “from the very beginning, we … committed to four separate television series. … The idea was that at the end … we would take all of our actors, not knowing if any of them would even be suitable for the roles, and put them together in a story where they would interact with each other and fight a common problem.”
Now, some critics would argue that “Iron Fist” actually didn’t work. Ignore them. Any chance to see this group in the same room is worth the price of admission. None of these characters are going to agree on anything, because their individual series have established them as very specific — and specifically stubborn — individualists.
Which brings us to the original Defenders from Marvel Comics, which was an even stranger team-up.
Beginning in 1971, writer/editor Roy Thomas teamed three very unlikely companions in a book called “Marvel Feature.” This trio — which was awarded its own title the following year — consisted of Dr. Strange; the incredible Hulk; and Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner.
“But the Hulk,” you say “was already a member of the Avengers!” Well, that’s true — but only technically. The Hulk was in fact a founding member of the Avengers in 1963, along with Ant-Man, Iron Man, Thor and Wasp. But he quit in the second issue, and by 1971 had come nowhere close to ever re-joining.
And where was Captain America? In the comics, he was still in an iceberg when the Avengers formed. Capsicle wasn’t thawed out until the fourth issue of “Avengers,” sometime in 1964. Then the following year, everybody quit except for the Living Legend of World War II, who led a new team consisting of only Hawkeye, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch.
It was that sense of unpredictability, of scripted events acting like the vagaries of life, that gave early Marvel Comics some of its verisimilitude — and popularity.
So the Hulk was a free agent in 1971, as were Doctor Strange (who didn’t start Avenging until 2007), and Namor (who had a short stint with the team in the mid-1980s). And the fact that they weren’t Avengers was about all the Master of the Mystic Arts, an Emerald Behemoth and the Prince of Atlantis had in common.
But they had one other thing in common in the early 1970s: Thomas. He was writing “Dr. Strange,” “Incredible Hulk” and “Sub-Mariner” at the same time (more or less), and when “Dr. Strange” was abruptly canceled, he finished the magician’s current story in the other books. He also threw Hulk and Silver Surfer into a few issues of “Sub-Mariner,” where they were nicknamed “Titans Three.”
So in retrospect, it almost seems inevitable that these three popular characters (and the Silver Surfer, a few issues later) would find a home together. A new writer named Steve Englehart added some characters he could play with, an Asgardian in a human form named The Valkyrie (a version of which will be played by Tessa Thompson in the upcoming “Thor: Ragnarok”), a character who began as a Batman parody called Nighthawk and Hawkeye (on hiatus from his other team). Before long they duked it out with the Avengers — who, it must be said, were vastly out-powered.
But The Defenders weren’t a team. They always insisted they were a “non-team,” gathering only when there was a threat that needed that kind of firepower (which, in laughable coincidence, happened monthly). Eventually the membership became rotating, with only Dr. Strange and the Hulk as mainstays.
Lots of characters rotated through, including at various points, Luke Cage and the aforementioned Hellcat. Then there was the infamous “Defenders for a Day” story in 1978, when a documentary on the “non-team” implied that anyone could join the team just by saying so, resulting in dozens of heroes and villains declaring themselves to be Defenders for a three-issue battle royale (including Iron Fist).
Nighthawk eventually fielded a fairly stable team — which didn’t include any of the three original members — and most iterations of the Defenders since have been pretty team-like, the “non-team” idea having faded away. Currently there is a new “Defenders” title, starring only four heroes: Luke Cage, Daredevil, Iron Fist and Jessica Jones.
Gee, I wonder where they got that idea?
Contact Captain Comics at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more comics news, reviews and commentary, visit his website: comicsroundtable.com.