With X-Men shattering the box office 17 years ago, Marvel have since been more or less omnipotent in the business of live action adaptions. After a slight wobble in the mid 00’s with releases such as Elektra, Fantastic Four, Ghost Rider and Spider-Man 3, Marvel firmly cemented their status with 2008’s Iron Man, the first film to be produced by Marvel Studios. This would also be the introduction of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) a shared world in which all other characters from any subsequent Marvel Studio releases would exist. This allowed films to overlap, reference each other and allowed characters to wander in and out of each others movies. With 16 films released in the last 9 years and another 7 scheduled by 2019, it’s safe to say that the Universe is rather vast. So vast in fact that it spilt over onto the small screen in 2013 with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and latterly Agent Carter. Marvel’s global media domination in the last decade has been both breathtaking and slightly overwhelming.
With so much output, I was getting a bit staggered trying to keep up. Attempting to recall, what or who links up with what or who was proving to be a tad exhausting. Mainly because, during the time of the MCU expansion simultaneously there’s been 20th Fox’s continuation of the X-Men and Fantastic Four series, Columbia’s revamp of Spider-Man, Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight series, 4 connected DC Universe films and a handful of graphic novel one-offs in the form of Green Lantern (2011), Watchmen (2009), Jonah Hex (2010), Kick Ass (2010), The Spirit (2008) and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014) to name but a few.
When Daredevil launched on Netflix in 2015 I was intrigued for a number of reasons. I’m not particularly well read in terms of comics and graphic novels, but the original Daredevil series from the mid 60’s and Frank Miller’s 1980’s reboot of the character was something I’d been a huge fan of. I’d even enjoyed Ben Affleck’s poorly received Daredevil film from 2003. Granted it was all over the place and a bit of a mess generally, but with a 15 rating in the U.K. it seemed a lot darker and grittier in parts than most of what was happening in the superhero world at the time.
Alongside my love of the character, I’d very much been enjoying Netflix originals, and was keen to see some of the Marvel heroes explored in a more in-depth and adult oriented way.
So, without further ado, here’s my musings on the 4 original Marvel / Netflix series:
The original Defenders release saw Britain’s very own Charlie Cox adopt the role of Matt Murdock. Lawyer by day and vigilante crime-fighter by night, Daredevil’s unique power is a heightened sense of awareness and reflexes. After being blinded as a young boy, Murdock acutely tuned his remaining senses to create a picture of the world around him.
Firstly, the mini-Universe in which the individual Defenders series are set is fantastic. I love New York and it’s such a great backdrop for a superhero story. Luke Cage takes place in Harlem, Iron Fist in Midtown Manhattan, Jessica Jones took herself all over the city in pursuit of Killgrave and Daredevil takes place predominately in Hell’s Kitchen. Confining the 4 heroes to the city really does add a sense of realism to the story and the overlapping of characters within the shows feels completely organic and believable.
Daredevil was the perfect launching pad for the series and feels, of the four, closest to what was happening in the MCU. Purely because, of the four, Daredevil is the most recognisable character. He’s a costumed hero with a unique gimmick and featured character’s that some milder comic book fans may already be familiar with such as Kingpin: Wilson Fisk and The Punisher. Daredevil does feel like more of a traditional “superhero” than the others.
I loved Daredevil from the get go and was so pleased that Drew Goddard had created a harder / grittier Marvel production that wasn’t bound by the existing constraints of the MCU. I was especially pleased as DC’s current series, namely The Flash, Arrow and Supergirl weren’t really doing it for me. I’d found DC’s recent television works a bit tame and rather old fashioned. The Flash in particular seemed like the kind of show that wouldn’t have been out of place in the 1990’s.
Daredevil on the other hand was rough and gory with some spectacular fight sequences and a great supporting cast. The stand out being Vincent D’Onofrio’s portrayal of Wilson Fisk, the finest on-screen depiction of the character I’ve seen.
The most obscure of the 4 defenders would be Jessica Jones. The character doesn’t quite have the same history as the others and could be considered to be a relatively recent addition to the Marvel World, first appearing in the comic series Alias in 2001.
Thanks to J.J. Abrams the title Alias had already been taken for an unrelated TV show in the early 00’s and thus Jessica Jones made her televisual debut in Jessica Jones. No idea how they came up with that title.
Truth be told, I knew nothing of the character and tuned into the show purely as an extension of Daredevil. I wasn’t too familiar with Krysten Ritter either and wasn’t even aware that David Tennant was a co-star until the opening credits rolled. Of the 4 shows JJ is my favourite.
It’s very close, as I think all of them bring something interesting and unique to the party but I really got involved with Jessica Jones. Whereas Luke Cage had it’s influences rooted in blaxploitation and Iron Fist had a martial arts edge, Jessica Jones was much more reminiscent of Film-noir works and was more of a psychological thriller than a superhero series. With Daredevil pushing the censors boundaries in terms of violence, Jessica Jones resonated with an adult audience more with it’s sexual content, depictions of heavy drinking and rather dark psychological tones, particularly in regards to the lead villain Killgrave.
I had heard of Killgrave prior to seeing Jessica Jones as he’d featured in an early Daredevil comic I’d read. He was refereed to as ‘The Purple Man’ and had the ability to control people’s minds through suggestion. In the comics he had purple skin and hair etc, however I’m quite glad that this was dropped for the show and was simply David Tennant, often wearing purple garments. I think it would have distracted from the realism of the piece. Despite the fantastical events in all of the shows, they never feel like they stray too far past the mark.
Having never been a Doctor Who fan, I didn’t have the same investment in David Tennant as a lot of fans would have had, however, I thought he was absolutely superb in the role and the scenes in which he featured were, for me, a definite highlight of the show.
The supporting cast again were fantastic across the board, and with Jessica Jones, we got our first crossover of the Defenders in the form of Luke Cage, who appeared in numerous episodes.
As mentioned earlier Luke Cage is heavily influenced by classic blaxploitation cinema. Blaxploitation was a film making movement in the 1970’s that produced films specifically designed for an urban black audience. Films of the genre such as Shaft have since been remade, and Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown pays homage to blaxploitation cinema with Pam Grier in the lead role. Grier being one of the genre’s biggest stars.
One of the greatest aspects of this influence is in the music. Luke Cage has one of the greatest soundtracks in television. As a lot of the action takes place in the nightclub ‘Harlem’s Paradise’, there is a lot of live performances to enjoy. The soundtrack is rich with hip-hop, R&B, jazz, funk, gospel and soul, and even the original score has a definite 1970’s influence and really sets the tone beautifully.
Luke Cage is a tad slower in pace than the previous 2 series, however at more or less the exact moment I felt it was dragging, the show did a bit of a re-shift, brought in a significant new character and explored the Luke Cage backstory in much more depth.
By the end of the series the show had really grown on me. I don’t think the villains were as particularly memorable as those of Daredevil and Jessica Jones, however Mike Colter in the lead role is perfect casting. Having since read up on the original character of Luke Cage from the 1970’s, it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the part.
Finally, another aspect of the show that I really engaged with was how confined to it’s environment it was. Aside from the occasional venture, nearly all the action takes place in Harlem. As Luke Cage is a hero in plain sight he’s able to wander the neighborhood performing his heroic duties and isn’t restricted to going out at night, or having to lead a double life or protecting his identity etc. So much of the action takes place smack bang in the middle of Harlem or in public places and it’s so great to watch Luke Cage just being ‘the face’ of Harlem.
Now we’re into interesting territory. It’s generally universally accepted that Iron Fist is the weakest entry in the series and has been the subject of some completely scathing reviews. To put it in to context, on the film / TV review website RottenTomatoes.com Daredevil currently holds an average positive critical rating of 86% Jessica Jones is at 92% Luke Cage is at 96% and Iron Fist holds a positive critical rating of just 17%. To put that into perspective Iron Fist scored a lower average critical rating than Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) and Texas Chainsaw 3D. So the question is…. Could it really be that terrible?
The answer is of course no, it isn’t terrible. In fact, I found Iron First to be genuinely intriguing and a perfectly sound installment to the Defenders series. After reading reviews and speaking to people about the show, it’s almost as if it’s the norm is to slander the show or just dismiss it completely. I went in to Iron Fist with all of this ringing around my head and was expecting to see something truly appalling. I will concede that, for me, it’s the weaker of the 4 shows, but it’s certainly not 79% worse than Luke Cage as the critics would suggest.
On the positive side, I like Iron Fist as a character. I think he has a very interesting backstory, and the source of his power / ability is something a bit different and not something I’ve seen represented in the MCU so far. The martial arts influence is strong throughout and a lot of the action takes place in dojo, an underground fighting arena or through flashback to the Himalayas.
One of the main criticisms seems to be around the casting, particularly of Finn Jones in the lead role. I’d only ever seen him in Game of Thrones prior to Iron Fist and whereas he isn’t as captivating on screen as any of the other Defenders, he has a certain charm that resonates with me. Any critique of his acting I feel should be directed towards the script, as an actor is only as good as the script they’re working from.
There was piece in the New York Times that essentially slammed Marvel for not casting an Asian American in the lead role and accused them of lacking diversity. I don’t share their view however, I feel an Asian-American actor would have suited the role perfectly fine, but the character Danny Rand is based on the original Iron Fist comic books from the early 1970’s and was portrayed in the comics as a Caucasian character. Also the backstory of Iron Fist makes casting a Caucasian character perfectly legitimate as he originated from New York. Also, it’s not as if Marvel deliberately snubbed an Asian-American actor in favour of a well known Caucasian actor, as, other than a bit part in Game of Thrones, Finn Jones was a relative unknown. I don’t think Marvel can be accused of lacking diversity, particularly in the Defenders series as we’ve seen leading and supporting characters of varying races, sexes, sexualities and nationalities.
The supporting cast are perfectly entertaining, particularly Jessica Henwick as Colleen Wing. Many have cited her performance as the shows highlight. I was also very impressed with Tom Pelphrey’s portrayal of Ward Mitcham. Marvel yet again dipping into Banshee’s cast list having also featured Frankie Fasion, Hoon Lee and Chance Kelly in their Defenders series.
Yes, some of the dialogue is a bit clunky and Finn Lee isn’t 100% convincing as the greatest martial artist on the planet, but I thoroughly enjoyed Iron Fist. At no point was I bored and at no point did I feel the series was too lagging or massively below par. It didn’t quite reach the highs of the previous 3 Defenders installments, but it definitely doesn’t reach the lows it’s being accused of.
Before we prep for the all-star Defenders series, an honourable mention please for Claire Temple. The only character to overlap every series thus far.