'The Defenders': The Netflix show breathes new life into an old comics concept

Sarah Shatz/Netflix

The Defenders on Netflix teams (from left) Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), Danny “Iron Fist” Rand (Finn Jones), Matt “Daredevil” Murdock (Charlie Cox) and Luke Cage (Mike Colter).

By Andrew A. Smith

Tribune Content Agency

The Defenders are coming to Netflix Aug. 18, 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 to 1965. 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

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 every 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.)

Sarah Shatz/Netflix

The Defenders will include a lot of supporting characters from the heroes’ individual series, including Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick, left) of Iron Fist and Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) from all of them.

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 (who was super-strong royalty from the undersea city of Atlantis, and preceded Aquaman by a couple of years).

Copyright Marvel Entertainment Inc.

The comic book version of the team debuted with an entirely different lineup in 1971: Sub-Mariner (left), Hulk (center) and Dr. Strange. Art by Neal Adams.

“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 that first issue? 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. This fluid membership idea climaxed in 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?

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The show is available now on Netflix.

Got most of the first volume of The Defenders, at least from issue 4 through 110 or so.  By far my favorite runs were by Englehart & Gerber, although I also liked the brief run by Wein, who brought in Nighthawk as a regular member and first brought in Luke Cage a guest-Defender.  Kraft's first major storyline, Who Remembers Scorpio?, was good, but afterwards, IMO, the title got progressively worse in story and art and I was continuing to buy it more out of habit than enjoyment.  Haven't read any of the later volumes.

I've been watching the show but it's been tough sledding. Better than Iron Fist but not by much. And Iron Fist is even more of a tool in this show.  Additionally, Daredevil has suddenly lost a bunch of IQ points. Jessica Jones is pretty much the only thing that's keeping me interested.

I forgot how much I missed Jessica Jones until she was back!

Watched the last half of The Defenders series a couple of weekends ago (followed by watching the last 3 episodes of season 7 of Game of Thrones, another series involving guys missing a hand and dragons!). I enjoyed it, although I wouldn't rank it among the best of the Netflix Marvel series. In the last episode noticed two riffs on classic panels from the Born Again series by Miller & Mazzuccheli, one scene with Elektra curled up in a corner of Matt's bed and the closer, with Matt in a Catholic hospital with a nun at his bedside, visually echoing the first pages to the Purgatory and Born Again issues/chapters. Alas, as things stand, they won't really be able to do a tv version of the entire Born Again story but it seems they might try a variation of the last chapters in the next DD series.

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