‘The Defenders’ (Eventually) Assemble In Netflix’s Latest Marvel Drama

You’ve got three basic types of superhero team:

First, you have your all-star collection of popular, pre-existing characters: your Avengers, your Justice Leagues, all the way back to the Justice Society of America in 1940.

Second, you have teams made up of characters — often ones created specifically for this team — connected by a clear and common bond, whether they’re a family (Fantastic Four), mutants (X-Men), or sidekicks to more famous heroes (Teen Titans). These teams aren’t meant to represent the best of the best the way the ones in the first group are, but the thematic connection among the members can often make them better and/or more successful than the A-listers.

Finally — and historically much less successful — you have teams whose real-life origin story more or less amounts to, “Hey, here are a bunch of solo characters nobody has other plans for; what happens if we put them all in the same group?” That’s how Marvel briefly had a team (the Champions) featuring two former X-Men, Hercules, Black Widow, and… Ghost Rider? It’s largely the impetus for the CW’s Legends of Tomorrow, which at the start was made up of all the characters that Flash and Arrow didn’t really need. And it was the structure of The Defenders comic book, which featured a “non-team” of heroes like the Hulk, Doctor Strange, the Sub-Mariner, and whoever else was free and unlikely to get an invitation from Captain America and friends.

The TV version of the team aspires to be more like groups one and two, even as it can’t entirely shake off the DNA of group three. Following the playbook the Marvel movies used to introduce the Avengers members one by one, the four Defenders — blind vigilante Daredevil (Charlie Cox), superstrong detective Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), bulletproof hero of Harlem Luke Cage (Mike Colter), and martial arts master Danny Rand, aka Iron Fist (Finn Jones) — each received a Netflix solo series before finally coming together for a combined show, which debuts on August 18. And to a degree they’re all linked by being street-level heroes, as well as ones with varying degrees of history on the comic book page: Cage and Iron Fist were longtime partners, Luke and Jessica eventually married and had a daughter, Daredevil has helped the other three (often in his secret identity as lawyer Matt Murdock), and all four were even briefly members of an Avengers team at the same time.

The way the four shows were developed, how they played out, and the four episodes of The Defenders (out of eight) Netflix sent for review, though, all suggest this team has more in common with Hulk and friends than just a name. Netflix ordered all five properties — the solo series and Defenders — sight unseen four years ago, without even having any writers attached. Daredevil was a relatively big name whose screen rights had just reverted to Marvel, and all four characters operate on a smaller scale, with powers more easily portrayed on a TV budget, than the Avengers, and they did have that comic history, so they made some sense together. But it also felt like Marvel’s TV division trying to reverse-engineer their own Avengers out of a group of heroes that the movie folk deigned to let them use — possibly while snickering at the thought of Iron Fist and Iron Man being in the same story — without bothering to first see how the audience responded to these versions of them.

The results til now have been mixed. (Creatively, at least; as with any Netflix series, we have no idea how many people are actually watching, though each solo show has been renewed at least once.) Daredevil has already been through three teams of showrunners — the last set, Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez, are the men in charge of The Defenders — and features great action but sketchier plot and character work. Jessica Jones and Luke Cage were critically acclaimed, but both critics and ardent fans agreed that each show didn’t have nearly enough plot to fill their respective seasons, leading to big story problems late in each just to keep things going. And Iron Fist was widely panned for pretty much everything: lackluster fight scenes in a show about a living weapon, too much time wasted on boring corporate intrigue, supporting characters whose motivations kept changing every three or four scenes, and, worst of all, a lead performance by Finn Jones that made Iron Fist seem like a pouty 14-year-old. As Defenders teasers began rolling out over the last few months, the most popular moments have tended to be the ones where Jessica and the others treated Danny like an obnoxious bro they can’t believe they’re forced to spend time with.

Still, some characters are better suited to be part of a team than to fly solo — on the movie side, Marvel failed twice with Hulk films before a new take clicked in Avengers — and all four here could perhaps qualify. Ritter and Colter had solid chemistry together when Cage was introduced in Jessica Jones, Cox is generally at his best on Daredevil when Matt is interacting with his friends, and Iron Fist could potentially work better as the jerk nobody else in the group likes (a staple of many superteams, including Wolverine in his early X-Men days) than he did as a righteous hero on his own.

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