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Superhero Academy 101: Sociology ("The Defenders": A Non-Team)

Chris Peruzzi is a comic book superhero historian who is passionate about how today's comic book heroes are the new mythology for America.

No one's happy to be here.

No one's happy to be here.

Can't We All Just Get Along?

I can’t tell you how much I was looking forward to Netflix’s premiere of their long-awaited The Defenders.

I remember when I heard the rumors of a Marvel team-up of their stock street heroes and the thirteen-year-old comic geek in me squealed. This was to be the final culmination of a two-year journey where Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist would do their cross-title team-ups against one of the deadliest opponents in Marvel’s martial arts as The Defenders.

Hero encounters are problematic in the MU. Sometimes they don’t work.

And New York is a small city.

The psychologies of Marvel’s heroes are imperfect. Some characters have gigantic egos. Others are just plain anti-social. A character like Luke Cage after spending an extended stay in prison may not be the most trusting of individuals. Doctor Strange’s default personality is one of an arrogant ass. And Spider-Man? Spider-Man is a neurotic mess.

Getting heroes to work together without a proper introduction is more difficult than herding cats.

So it’s no mystery that fighting and misunderstandings happen between good guys. It still happens. Because when you mix a concoction with one part Punisher, one part Captain America, and one part Wolverine, the results can be explosive.

With the exception of the Avengers, it is rare to see a hero whip out a union card identifying himself as a sanctioned member of a super team and therefore have a right to declare martial law.

Here’s the thing: what non-geeks won’t understand is this was classic Stan Lee marketing. While DC had its Justice League and World’s Finest, Marvel's heroes never played nice with each other. Comic fans were given an explosive cover of two heroes facing off against each other and they bought issues to see what would happen.

Both Stan Lee and Jack Kirby envisioned a universe where it was perfectly normal for Spider-Man to butt heads with any of a score of street heroes or a team of heroes like the Fantastic Four. In print, crossovers were quite common. On television, it takes some time to do a setup – and Marvel did it right.

The four series of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist were made by Marvel, and Netflix and introduced all four heroes with the intent they’d be part of a whole series. They created a complex arc of plots and characters and when everything reached a boil it launched more plot points to be carried out in their own individual series.

The really interesting thing about The Defenders series is how they took a name never made for them but made it work.

The Original Three: Namor, The Hulk, and Doctor Strange

The Original Three: Namor, The Hulk, and Doctor Strange

A Non-Team

Don’t think for a minute I can’t hear you die-hard nitpickers. Each nit you pick is like thunder.

This is for the nitpickers.

The Defenders originated as a three-man group of Doctor Strange, the Hulk, and Prince Namor, the Submariner – and later on the Silver Surfer. The thing about this group is they refuse to be a “team”. When they came together for any reason, they were always reluctant to be there.

They declared their union a “non-team”.

And why wouldn’t they? Just saying that Doctor Strange, the Hulk, Namor, and the Silver Surfer are anti-social is just scratching the surface on their animosity. I think we can all agree that after a half hour of Doctor Strange spouting the complexities of the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak and the Hosts of Hoggarth combined with the Hulk’s gamma-powered body odor (a scent that must be like cooking Styrofoam cups and old dirty sweat socks in garlic water), the Silver Surfer’s whining about humanity, and Namor’s royal tantrums, few cities would survive their first argument over who stole the last ice pop from the freezer.

Plus becoming a “non-team” is easier than telling the Hulk he has bad body odor.

The correct term might just be “uneasy allies”.

This is a group without a charter, a home base (although most of the time they met at Doctor Strange’s brownstone), government sanctions, an official roster, or even a “bat-signal”. This being the case, membership was boiled down to anyone who worked with the Defenders could be considered a Defender. If a hero claimed to be a Defender, he would be, provided that another Defender vouched for him.

Additional members who joined the non-team were Nighthawk, the Valkyrie, the Son of Satan, Luke Cage, and Hellcat.

Each member of the original group was only there to stop whatever calamity they were in. Once the crisis was over, they left to go their own way.

In that spirit, the new television adaptation of The Defenders is a success.

The New Fab Four

The New Fab Four

The Defenders: Television Show

Who would have thought being anti-social could make a team work?

None of the Netflix-generated main characters were too fond of each other outside of Luke Cage and Jessica Jones – and their history is somewhat shaky. Daniel Rand, the Iron Fist, is too focused on his own shame from deserting the mythical city of K’un L’un that he can’t think clearly enough to see his true allies. Then there's Matt Murdock whose last and only partnership ended in blood and death.

We should remember that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is not the comic books. Daredevil’s on again/off again partnership with the Black Widow does not exist. He prefers to work alone.

“Heroes for Hire” has not happened yet. Luke Cage just got out of jail and Danny Rand's unstable mood swings go from zero to psychotic in under three seconds. They are not the long-term drinking buddies they are destined to be in print.

And Jessica Jones, while she might have had a fun roll in the hay with Luke Cage, is not the mother of his daughter. In the comics, she is still carrying a torch for Peter Parker from high school while still hanging around Captain Marvel (Carol Danvers).

No, it’s still early days in the MCU. The rich tapestry of our Marvel heroes has yet to be sewn.

These Defenders all have their own missions. Time spent with this team is time away from their goals.

When they assembled together for the first time, all they wanted was to disband. Each felt they could accomplish more on their own without the interference of the others. Luke Cage even went so far as saying that after they finished their business that he wouldn’t want to work with any of them again.

Does that mean they won’t accept help from their team? No. Daredevil in his civilian identity of Matt Murdock usually legally represents his brother vigilantes. Luke Cage and Jessica Jones help anyone who can pay their fees. And with Danny Rand? Who knows?

Whether secondary members of the team will crossover to other shows is a mystery. We don't know what Misty Knight and Colleen Wing will do. Misty Knight might get her bionic arm and she might partner with Colleen Wing as private investigators. Considering how well the crossovers worked with Claire Temple, the Night Nurse, Marvel’s formula for cross-title strategy would probably work.

And Marvel loves conflict. It makes for a good story.

The point of all this is that despite their animosity toward each other, it is the hero within each of them that recognizes the necessity to work together. They do the job and then they go home.

The show is good because they’re so different. The ensemble brings several flavors to the forefront and each character has something to contribute. The show’s producers even make an effort to highlight each scene with each hero’s vibe. We can easily picture this in print. Each character lends their own flavor to each scene. We see this within the series in tinted colors throughout the show.

It's all in the colored lights.

If you pay attention, each protagonist has their own color tint. Daredevil’s lighting clearly has elements of red. Jessica Jones has purple while Luke Cage and Iron Fist have yellow and green, respectively. The ensemble scenes combined all the colors.

The biggest obstacle is always the dialogue. Ensemble pieces where characters must be sociable are hard.

I'm just happy no one let out a "thanks for the assist, old buddy" or "shall we dance?" Some hackneyed comic book tropes never work on screen and barely work in print. The writers know what they've got. Jessica Jones has enough sardonic wit for the four main players - with some to spare.

She's got an alcohol problem and she's not afraid to use it.

The train can't go fast enough

The train can't go fast enough

Final Words

I started writing this article shortly after the Defenders premiered on Netflix then life happened. Between the time I started and the time I published it several things happened. First, I did more research into the Defenders. The original series had a lot going on and, just in case I hadn’t mentioned it before, those issues are great reading.

If you have the spare pocket change and like shopping online I would encourage you to buy a used copy of The Essential Defenders Vol 1. In those pages, you find the DNA of great comic book writing and battles. Old timers like me, can’t help but look wistfully over fights with the Squadron Sinister, Xemnu the Titan, as well as great knock down drag outs with Magneto and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. My only critique is similar to the people who pick at Superman’s easy defeats in old issues of the Justice League as written by both Gardner Fox and Denny O’Neil that the Hulk seems to get taken out by villains who are nowhere near his power levels. I explain it away with the calming influence of Doctor Strange, Namor, and whoever else is with the non-team at that moment.

It also has that old mighty Marvel feel. When you get the talents of Sal Buscema and Steve Englehart writing other world and other time adventures with a nitro glycerin cocktail of four protagonists who can barely tolerate each other, you know you’re reading a Marvel classic.

A calm moment between co-workers

A calm moment between co-workers

The second thing was I saw Thor Ragnarok.

Once again – magic.

The Thor versus Hulk battles are nothing short of epic. I won’t give away any spoilers to any of you tardy enough to have missed this movie, but watching the Hulk battle Thor on equal footing is something that old Marvel fans drool over. Thor fighting Hulk (sans Mjolnir) should get every comic book fanboy to sit on the end of his or her seat. But more than that, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has found a great balance in character chemistry with Mark Ruffalo and Chris Hemsworth. Seeing the Hulk in his calmer moments with his “Hulk smash” dialogue makes me appreciate much of the character’s role in The Defenders comic.

The Crimson Bands of Cyttorak are not to be used lightly

The Crimson Bands of Cyttorak are not to be used lightly

We have to remember that the original Defenders fought among themselves as much as they did their enemies. It was a common thing that Doctor Strange had to employ his Crimson Bands of Cyttorak (the same source that powers the X-men’s enemy, the unstoppable Juggernaut) to immobilize the Hulk. The Submariner’s snobbishness didn’t help matters.

Now we take the chemical instability and inject it into the Netflix show. What happens? Granted, Finn Jones has taken the lion’s share of emotional volatility in Iron Fist (a place where it never should be), Luke Cage remains a badass, Jessica Jones plumbs the depths of being an irrational alcoholic and sexual assault victim, while Daredevil seems to be the voice of reason when he’s not screwing up his own personal life. When they finally get together, it literally takes the common bond of loving Chinese food to keep them together. Once together it becomes a matter of survival against a common menace.

Animosity. Chaos. Abrasiveness. A non-team. They are together. They fight together. But none of them have a bond yet.

This is storytelling at its finest.

© 2017 Christopher Peruzzi