The Defenders, or, The Avengers: Appendices

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Mike Colter: statue of human perfect. And three other jabronies.

Like the first Avengers film before it, season one of Netflix’s The Defenders is tasked with bringing together the worlds and aesthetics of various intellectual properties (in this case the Netflix series Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist) into a single cohesive unit. However, The Avengers was and is the vanguard of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the banner behind which everything from Thor to Inhumans to Foggy Nelson must fall in line. Where The Avengers had the opportunity, and burden, of defining a universe, The Defenders has to define itself within an already established world.

Essentially, The Defenders has to do what The Avengers did, in the shadow of what The Avengers did.

Fans will be happy to find that over the course of its eight episode first season the series is able to stake a claim to its own identity both in relation to its own tributary shows and in the context of the MCU at large.

Daredevil (Charlie Cox), Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), Luke Cage (Mike Colter) and even Iron Fist (Finn Jones) react to and interact with one another believably and enjoyably, never betraying the world of each individual character built within their own shows. Some of them, Cox in particular, deliver their best performances yet. Watching these four disparate elements find their way to tracks set on a collision course for one another is exciting and propels the early episodes of the season forward at a brisk pace. But once the titular cabal come together things get particularly interesting for the MCU.

Since the first season of Daredevil Netflix’s Marvel series have used the destruction of New York City in the first Avengers film as a jumping off point, but The Defenders solidifies the first phase of these series as a Tolkien-esque appendix to The Avengers, the kind of tucked away supplemental material that elevates the text from which it is derived.

The Defenders and its four preceding shows weave a tale of trickle down responsibility. The Avengers descended upon an unsuspecting New York City with thunder and monsters and fury, saved the day and irrevocably altered the status quo of the planet in one fell swoop, then left. Though likely unknowingly, The Avengers abandoned their responsibility for the new world order they established, one that took hold in the streets of New York. In their place ninjas and blind lawyers and nefarious business tycoons and bullet proof men fill in the cracks in the city like militias in an abandoned colony.

If The Avengers were equated to Return of the King (spoilers for Return of the King) The Defenders would be the burning of the Shire, a reminder that even heroism can have unintended consequences and that even hardships brought on by demigods and superhumans can be overcome by folks on the street.

The Defenders weren’t in Civil War and they may not show up in Infinity War (though they totally should) but the Marvel Cinematic Universe is better and more nuance for their presence in it.

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Luke Cage, or, Eat Your Heart Out Hell’s Kitchen!

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I got nothing. This is badass as hell.

Much as I love Netflix’s Daredevil and Jessica Jones, there’s something of an underlying buzzing in my ears I get the entire time I watch them. Nothing huge, but it’s there. A small, persistent nagging in the back of my head throughout the adventures of the first two Defenders. As much as I hate to use such a word when referring to any sort of genre entertainment, there’s a part of those shows that just doesn’t feel realistic. I know, I’m rolling my eyes too, but stay with me. I don’t mean Jessica Jones’ superpowers or Matt Murdock’s hyper senses. I mean the neighborhood.

Hell’s Kitchen sucks.

Not the real New York neighborhood, mind you, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s recreation of it as Frank Miller’s wet dream. It can require a big enough suspension of disbelief that the events of two seasons of Daredevil and a season of Jessica Jones take place in a neighborhood that is less than one square mile in size, but I don’t have a problem with that. Superheroics are built on suspending your disbelief. What I do have trouble grappling with is just how unbelievably crappy and unlovable Hell’s Kitchen is. It doesn’t feel like a city worth saving, because it doesn’t feel like a city. It feels like an antagonist with one defining characteristic: utter shittiness. Marvel’s Hell’s Kitchen isn’t a place people live, it’s a place ninjas and human traffickers go to get strung out and collect STDs.

And it’s not just Hell’s Kitchen. This is a trend throughout gritty, realistic vigilantism. Gotham City is cool because that’s where Batman lives. Other than that, it’s pretty terrible place filled with pretty terrible people. Similarly, I really couldn’t have cared less if the fictionalized Hell’s Kitchen burned to the ground. Not because it’s portrayed as a bad neighborhood with a high crime rate, but because it’s portrayed as a high crime rate possessing the concrete and steel of a city block.

Netflix’s latest Marvel outing, Luke Cage, has gotten no shortage of much-deserved praise for its representation and portrayal of anyone that isn’t a white dude, but it also does something else few, if any, other superhero stories have managed to do: create a setting that feels alive and breathing.

The Harlem of Luke Cage doesn’t just feel like a real neighborhood, it feels like a community. The MCU’s Harlem has history. It has heroes and villains that can’t fly or deflect bullets. It has hangouts and landmarks. I feel like I can imagine the places kids would be playing Pokemon Go.

Harlem feels like a community where people live, where people sleep at night and go to work in the morning. That believability goes a long way when a stranger with bulletproof skin comes to town. Not only does it serve to ground the series, it serves as character motivation for Luke Cage himself. I believe that Luke Cage wants to defend Harlem because I want him to defend Harlem because I can believe the Harlem the show presents is an actual human being’s actual home.

Those characters who call Harlem their home play just as big a role in instilling the show with a sense of life.

Luke Cage may be the most intellectual superhero story committed to film. Sure there are plenty of superhero adventuress that boast smart writing and cerebral themes, but Luke Cage boasts smart characters. Not quippy or clever, mind you. The characters that inhabit Luke Cage’s Harlem are intelligent. You gain insight into who they are based on the books they’re reading and their opinions of them. Conflicts in Luke Cage are just as likely to take the form of discourse as fisticuffs.

It’s an exciting development for superhero storytelling. We’ve seen smart heroes before. Peter Parker is smart. We know he’s smart because he makes sci-fi things. Reed Richards is smart. We know he’s smart because he makes sci-fi things. Luke Cage and his opponents and associates are smart. We know they’re smart because they engage in intelligent conversation and express and discuss thoughtful opinions about the world around them.

The prospect of discussing a piece in The Atlantic with Luke Cage is just as daunting as the prospect of arm wrestling him.

Like the show’s depiction of Harlem, the intelligence of its characters breathes life into the fictionalized world of Luke Cage. Its characters are aware of the world around them. They read about the world around them and they talk about the world around them because they have a stake in the world around them, which ultimately makes the audience believe in the world around them.

I love Daredevil and I love Jessica Jones, but after watching Luke Cage get shit done in Harlem, it’ll be hard to go back to the relentlessly bleak matte painting of a gutter that is Marvel’s Hell’s Kitchen.