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The Defenders – The H Word (Review)

It’s a hell of a town.

One of the most striking aspects of The Defenders is its emphasis on New York City. Of course, the Marvel Universe has always been centred on the Big Apple. Decades before Fantastic Four #1 laid the foundation stone for that elaborate shared continuity, Marvel Comics #1 established New York City as a hub for characters like Namor, the Angel and the Human Torch. The city has a long and rich shared history with the comic book publisher, allowing visitors to take tours of iconic comic book locations and even lighting the Empire State Building in the colours of The Amazing Spider-Man.

Matt’s got the devil off his back.

Of course, this long-standing association between New York and the Marvel universe has inevitably bled over into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Most obviously, The Avengers places its iconic long pan around the eponymous heroes right in front of Grand Central Station. Spider-Man: Homecoming features its hero swinging through Queens and the suburbs. However, most of these scenes are shot on location outside New York; Atlanta and Toronto frequently double for New York.

In contrast, the Netflix Marvel series have all shot in and around New York. Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist all went to the bother of filming Manhattan, rather than trying to recreate the city using another location. In many ways, it feels like these series unfold in a more authentic and grounded version of New York than the corresponding feature films, right down to the fact that their skylines all feature the real-life MetLife Building instead of the fictional “Avengers Tower.”

Trish Talk.

The Netflix shows did not always engage with a particular vision of New York. Iron Fist was so confused about its own identity that it never engaged with the city around it. Jessica Jones never invested in Jessica’s surroundings, but it still found time to include the city itself in the title character’s goodbye tour in AKA Top Shelf Perverts. However, both Daredevil and Luke Cage were very firmly rooted in their own versions of the Big Apple. Daredevil imagined a pre-gentrification eighties urban hellscape, while Luke Cage celebrated the history and culture of Harlem.

Given that The Defenders is being overseen by showrunners Marco Ramirez and Doug Petrie, it makes sense that the series would have a very strong sense of place. Ramirez and Petrie were previously in charge of the second season of Daredevil, which imagined a version of New York that seemed trapped in the urban decay of the late seventies and early eighties, Bang even evoking the Summer of Sam in its introduction of the Punisher while the ninjas that populate the second half of the film look to have escaped a particularly dodgy seventies exploitation film.

Cage re-match.

However, The Defenders is not particularly interested in one individual version of New York. It is not a show that is firmly rooted in one single idea of the Big Apple, not a story that unfolds against the backdrop of one individual conception of the urban space. Instead, The Defenders is particularly interested in the capacity for these various iterations of New York to overlap with one another. The opening credits offer a visual expression of this approach, suggesting the series serves as a point of intersection.

The Defenders is a series built around the infinite potential of New York, this idea of the city as a space in which narratives collide and coalesce, where separate stories might come together and where people on their own journeys might find common cause with one another. The Defenders seems to accept that nightmarish cityscape of Daredevil is hard to reconcile with the uncaring urban environment of Jessica Jones or the vibrant community of Luke Cage. However, The Defenders also insists that they are are all facets of the same city.

Oh, and Danny is there too.

New York City is one of the most important and iconic cities in the United States. As such, it is one of the most important and iconic cities in the world. Its skyline is instantly recognisable, even to people who have never visited the city. People around the world can identify the city through silhouette, with distinctive landmarks like the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, the Chrysler Building and countless others. Even cities like Rome and Paris struggle to compete in terms of density of iconic architecture.

Even people who have never set foot in the United States recognise the geography of New York City; Hell’s Kitchen, Brooklyn, Wall Street, Central Park, Times Square, Madison Avenue, 34th Street. Closing their eyes, they can imagine the city lit up at night. New York City a beacon shining through the darkness. Washington, D.C. might be the capitol of the United States, Los Angeles might be the hub of the entertainment industry, Boston might have historical significance. However, none of those cities quite have the same cultural weight as New York itself.

A perk of Central Park.

Part of the mythology of New York is that of a melting pot, of a city populated by people with different perspectives and different backgrounds. New York City attracts over sixty million tourists annually, more than seven times its indigenous population. It currently accounts for one third of international arrivals into the United States. More than one third of New York residents were born in a different country. Following the Civil War, New York City became the point of arrival for many European immigrants. For many people, the Statue of Liberty was their first glimpse of America.

The idea of New York extends even beyond the boundaries of the city itself. The “I Love New York” logo is a recognisable brand around the world, to the point that the city itself has a reputation for aggressively defending its copyright. There is a boom industry in souvenirs related to the city, models and depictions of its more famous landmarks. New York City is the third most visited city on the planet. New York City is the most loved city on the entire planet. It is something truly special.

A city in bloom.

At the same time, the city has its own mythology and persona. Part of that is down to the sheer size of the city. New York is the most densely populated city in the United States, with over twenty-seven thousand people per square mile. As such, it can feel anonymous and alienating. The stereotypical New Yorker is rude and abrupt, unwelcoming to strangers and lost souls. There is a sense that many of its inhabitants might live in their own little worlds, detached and removed from one another.

This is largely a result of New York’s status as an iconic and archetypal big city, the very embodiment of an urban jungle dominated by towers of steel and glass. Most of the iconic depictions of the city focus on the skyline, looking at the city from a height; its citizens tend to appear small and indistinct. Anomie is considered a scourge of big city living, a sense of listlessness and disconnect that people feel when they are at once surrounded and alienated. It makes sense that New York would become associated with that paradoxical feeling of being alone with everybody.

A window into the city.

There is not one New York. It is possible to break down these versions of New York any number of ways. The five boroughs. The ethnic neighbourhoods like Chinatown or Little Italy or the Five Points. In Me Love Brooklyn, editor and writer Adam Sternbergh suggests that the city is even more fragmented than that:

Everyone who moves to New York from another place comes at least in part because they’re chasing after an idea of New York. This New York is not a place you move to; you actually arrive with it already in your mind. This New York has only a tangential relationship to the actual bricks-and-mortar city; instead, it’s constructed from a collection of movie scenes, Broadway song lyrics, half-remembered punk albums, and/or favourite dog-eared novels devoured over the years. Your personal New York might roughly resemble the one in The Sweet Smell of Success or the one in Wall Street or the one in Sex and the City – all very different cities – but it’s also just that: yours. You built it. It’s a kind of mental collage you’ve assembled over the years, then decided you should find a way to live inside.

Everybody has their own unique version of New York, everyone has their own approach to the city and their own understanding of its complexities. Writer and journalist Roy Hoffman insists that every visitor or residents “builds his or her own New York, assembling it from a vast complex of choices.”

‘fess up.

The Defenders seems to suggest as much in its early episodes. In the first four episodes of the season, there is a lot of attention paid to colour and lighting. It often seems as though the primary characters are wandering through different cities, where the ambient light colour shifts slightly. Matt Murdock lives in a world where the sky is red. Jessica Jones lives in a city with an ambient blue glow. Luke Cage protects a version of New York which shines yellow even at the dead of night.

The Defenders repeatedly suggests that New York’s defining characteristic is its flexibility. It can be home to these four unique individuals with their unique abilities and unique perspectives. At then end of The H Word, Danny and Colleen find themselves returning to the city from a trip overseas. Surveying the city from the air, Colleen reflects, “Greatest city in the world.” When Danny seems confused by this observation, Colleen explains, “That’s the beauty of it. It can be whatever you need it to be.”

Flights of fancy.

In some ways, New York itself becomes a reflection of the American Dream. The American Dream suggests that a person might come to the country and make anything of themselves, and New York City seems to exist as a literal embodiment of that idea. It is a city that is constantly reinventing and reimagining itself. It is a city that is relatively young, particularly when compared to European cities like London and Paris. There is something romantic in the idea that New York can become anything that a visitor or a resident needs it to be.

However, there is also something lonely in all of that uncertainty. Nick Genovese has described New York as “a place where people go to do their own thing.” Adelle Waldman has talked about the isolation that she felt in the city, a feeling of depression which was deepened by the fact that it was “so commonplace, so clichéd.” When everybody is off in their own world, exploring their own distinct version of New York, it is very easy to feel disconnected and detached.

It’s wild out there.

Although, as with any stereotype, this view is subject to considerable debate. Although many depictions of New York stress that fact that is a huge and densely populated city where many individuals can feel isolated and unseen, there is also a recurring sense that New York is still a sprawling community. As Anna Quindlen argues in her introduction to The New York Times Book of New York, the city can sometimes feel like a small town:

In a metaphysical feat, the more you know New York, the smaller it feels. Flying over it on the way to Kennedy or LaGuardia, the size of the sprawl is overwhelming, but at ground level it’s intimate. A borough becomes a neighbourhood, a neighbourhood a block, and a block a single family in a single apartment. Really New Yorkers know that they live in the biggest little small town in America, in which anonymity vies always with knowingness, and usually loses. Just because neighbours don’t acknowledge one another by name or even eye contact doesn’t mean they don’t acknowledge the fights they hear through the walls, the routines of leaving for work and arriving home, even the contents and timing of the grocery deliveries. We’re a laissez-faire tribe, perhaps because the city is so diverse. The street scene includes people in wheelchairs and people in drag, women in clown suits and women in Chanel suits. A subway car at rush hour often looks like a general assembly session at the United Nations.

This sense of an underlying community made up of diffuse and diverse individuals tends to emerge in times of crisis. New York is a city that tends to come together. The city’s heartwarming response to the 9/11 attacks is perhaps the most famous example, a sentiment that seems to have inspired key scenes in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Spider-Man II when the entire city seems to come to the aid of the eponymous web-crawler.

Catching up.

To be fair, there are any number of films and television shows that tend to present New York as a bleak and nihilistic place. Many of them are rooted in the mood and tone of the seventies and eighties, such as Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Walter Hill’s The Warriors or Abel Ferrara’s King of New York. Modern movies and television series seem much more optimistic about the city and its inhabitants, suggesting some unspoken bond that holds New Yorkers together despite their cynical exteriors.

In some respects, it makes sense to contrast portrayals of New York in popular culture with portrayals of Los Angeles. Film and television tend to be quite cynical of Los Angeles; the city has been the setting for many of the bleakest noir stories from Sunset Boulevard to Chinatown to L.A. Confidential. However, more than that, there is a recurring sense of disconnect and drift in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles anthology film is subgenre unto itself, lives intersecting randomly in patterns more obvious to the viewer than the characters; Short Cuts, Pulp Fiction, Crash.

Doesn’t scan.

If Los Angeles is a world where people seem to glide past one another without even realising it, then New York is the city where they come together in spite of their fundamental differences. Perhaps that is why New York City served so effectively as the cornerstone of the Marvel Universe, the comic book world of heroes and villains that was developed by the comic book publisher over decades of stories featuring hundreds of characters. Although New York is not as central to that shared mythos as it once was, it is still a hugely important part of that cultural tapestry.

While DC recently moved their operation to the west coast, Marvel is very firmly rooted in New York City. New York is an essential part of who these characters are. Spider-Man, for example, is a character who could only work in a city as densely populated and as well-developed as New York; he would be lost in the urban sprawl of Los Angeles. Characters are even rooted in specific places; of course the middle-class Peter Parker is originally from Queens, of course thirties working class hero Steve Rogers is from the Bronx, of course Charles Xavier is from Westchester.

Okay, and of course Luke Cage is from Harlem.

As Anthony Lioi points out in The Radiant City, the decision to depict these larger-than-life characters in familiar surroundings added a texture to these stories:

During the Golden Age of DC Comics, superheroes lived in places that suggested real cities but never named them directly. The disguise of the city mirrored the superhero’s own disguise, signaling the importance of keeping dual identities secret. The thrill of Marvel’s New York was the thrill of identity unmasked, but also of shared community: Marvel’s Silver Age heroes give the sense that they are just around the corner in Midtown. The collapse of the fictive and the real worlds parallels the thrill of pulling off the mask to discover someone you already know, of recognising the hero as one New Yorker among others.

New York was a city at once impossibly large and also surprisingly intimate. Marvel at once grounded the fantastical and elevated the mundane.

Shaky ground.

Franklin Harris credits writer Stan Lee with the observation that “if you live in New York, you half expect to see Spider-Man swing past when you look out your window.” However, it is more than just verisimilitude, more than being able to place Doctor Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum on Bleeker Street in Greenwich Village or knowing that the Daily Bugle was located on Fifth Avenue. It was more than just ensuring that there could be a Spider-Man float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.

New York was a city so large that these characters could all have their own adventures. Spider-Man could lose the love of his life on the Brooklyn Bridge, at the same time that Luke Cage was operating from an office above the Gem Theatre in Times Square and the Fantastic Four find one of their arch enemies hiding out on Long Island. However it could also be so small that they could occasionally overlap. Spider-Man could bump into Thor, while the latter was still recovering from his last big adventure.  New York could be a big place, populated by larger-than-life characters.

Courting controversy.

At the end of the 1948 crime film The Naked City, a tale of murder set against the backdrop of New York, narrator Mark Hellinger assures the audience, “There are eight million stories in the naked city; this has been one of them.” The obvious implication is that New York City is full of similar stories, that the audience is only limited by their time and their interest. Naturally, The Naked City would spin that premise out into a five-year television show with one-hundred-and-thirty-eight episodes; one-hundred-and-thirty-eight of those eight million stories.

The Marvel Universe offers a slightly more fantastical twist on that core premise. It invites readers to imagine a window into a version of New York populated by characters who living their own narratives. During the sixties, the publisher would tell dozens of those stories every month. Over time, that number compounded. However, New York provided a city so vast and so limitless that these characters could all coexist without stepping on one another’s toes, and yet still find one another when the plot required it.

Clamping down on this sort of thing.

Laura Felschow argues that comic books are a medium uniquely suited to explore a city like New York, owing both to the fact that the artwork doesn’t require location shooting and because the publication of a diverse array of titles can embrace the wide variety of vantage points associated with the city:

Unlike film and television, whose location shooting can be complicated and cost-prohibitive, in comics, no New York City location is out of bounds. A more “real” or “authentic” New York City can result not only from depictions of iconic architecture and the use of well-known cultural references, but also through diverse representations of identities and experiences often associated with the “melting pot” of NYC.

Spider-Man’s relationship with New York is different from that of the Fantastic Four, which is different from that of the X-Men, which is different from that of the Punisher. Recent years have seen the company grow increasingly cognisant of differing perspectives; Kamela Khan looks at New York for New Jersey.

Captive concerns.

Of course, there have always been Marvel titles set outside the city. Under Chris Claremont, Uncanny X-Men featured an extended sojourn to Australia in the late eighties. The publisher’s British titles, such as Captain Britain, have obviously unfolded in their own corner of the shared universe. West Coast Avengers did exactly what it said on the tin. However, the New-York-centric nature of the shared Marvel Universe was affectionately mocked by the very concept of Great Lakes Avengers.

Still, New York is not as central to the publishing line as it once was. Recently, the publisher has made a conscious effort to more evenly distribute their characters across the map of the United States. The Initiative suggested that every state should have its own superhero team, and many of them had titles. Familiar characters branched out. Nathan Edmondson took The Punisher to Los Angeles. Nick Spencer set his Ant Man in Miami. Brian Michael Bendis based his Invincible Iron Man in Chicago.

This isn’t going to help Matt’s disposition.

In some respects, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has seemed similarly removed from New York. Iron Man established its hero as based out of Malibu. (Although Iron Man II did feature a climactic riff on the iconic New York World’s Fair.) Thor had its major character land in New Mexico. Captain America: The Winter Soldier sent its central character to Washington. Ant Man unfolds in San Francisco. Even the Earthbound scenes in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. II are set in Missouri.

Even those movies set in New York still do not capture the feel of the city in the same way that Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Spider-Man II do. Part of the issue might be that these films frequently use different cities to double for the Big Apple. The climactic battle in The Incredible Hulk had Toronto double for Harlem. The Avengers used Cleveland to double for the city. Spider-Man: Homecoming used Atlanta. It is possible to use CGI and inserts to disguise this fact, but it also creates an absence.

No Cam (bodia) do.

In contrast, the Marvel Netflix series have a much stronger connection to New York City than their bigger-budget cinematic counterparts. Each of the four miniseries actually shot in New York City, meaning that even the less-engaged series like Jessica Jones and Iron Fist could soak in some of the ambiance. Even when Iron Fist went to “China” in The Blessing of Many Fractures, it still filmed within the city limits of New York. This is to say nothing of the emphasis that Daredevil puts on Hell’s Kitchen or that Luke Cage puts on Harlem.

The importance of New York to each of these four series is perhaps best reflected in the plotting. Each of the four series feature key plot points rooted in the city and its landscape. The first season of Daredevil is primarily about Wilson Fisk’s sinister (if somewhat belated) plot to gentrify Hell’s Kitchen. The second season of Daredevil structures its big mid-season cliffhanger in Semper Fidelis around the reveal that a ninja death cult has made a giant hole in Manhattan. Luke Cage is about a battle for Harlem, with the eponymous protagonist trying to depose the local drug kingpin.

Luke has some skin in the game.

Even the series less overtly about their surroundings are also very strongly tied to this idea of place and ownership. Iron Fist is about Danny Rand trying to take back his company, represented by a giant building in the middle of Manhattan with his name on it; he introduces himself in Snow Gives Way laying claim to that building. The title character’s original sin in Jessica Jones ties back to the unearthing of top secret information buried in concrete beneath the city itself. The characters in The Defenders are all of New York, even if it is not the same New York.

Of course, each of the four Netflix series offer a very different version of New York City, unfolding within worlds separated by more than mere geography. The Hell’s Kitchen in Daredevil seems stuck in something resembling the urban anxieties of the seventies and eighties, albeit with modern technology. The Hell’s Kitchen of Jessica Jones is a colder and more anonymous place. The Harlem featured in Luke Cage is a vibrant cultural hub with its own energy and ambiance. Even Iron Fist is set in an upper-class version of the city with two feuding families wrestling over an empire.

Seeing (or not seeing) red.

This is one of the most interesting (and intriguing) challenges facing The Defenders. In bringing these four characters together, The Defenders also has to bring these four versions of New York together. It is a mission statement that is clearly baked into the premise of the show; the opening credits feature various different maps of New York overlaid with one another, suggesting the characters might occupy the same physical space while existing at a remove from one another. Those maps align and separate, each revealing their own features and their own details.

Indeed, the title sequence even goes so far as to emphasise the unlikely connection of these separate versions of New York. Not only are the characters shown to overlap and intersect as the maps do, but the cast and production team members are stylised in such a way as to evoke the city’s public transportation system. The Defenders seems to suggest that these characters might live in very different worlds, but that they are still only one train or bus ride away from a collision. New York is that sort of place.

Try, try again.

Quite tellingly, The Defenders establishes each of the characters existing in their own worlds. This is most obvious in the strong colouring choices; Matt is red, Luke is yellow, Jessica is blue, Danny is green. (Because of course Danny is green.) Even in scenes that the characters share with one another early in the run, the colouring tends to intrude and contrast. When Matt visits Jessica in the holding room in Worst Behaviour, the room is blue while the door and Matt’s folder are red. These colours bounce off one during the dinner scene in Royal Dragon, emphasising the differences in characters.

However, even the (re)introductions of these characters in The H Word make a point to emphasise that they exist in (slightly) different stylistic settings. Danny is introduced in sewer in Cambodia, establishing him as a globe trotter tied to conspiracy and mystery. Matt is introduced as a sincere and well-meaning attorney. Luke is introduced leaving prison, with a hiphop soundtrack. Jessica is introduced as a private detective nursing a drinking problem and slipping back into depression.

Getting the all-Claire.

As the show bounces between these four characters and their surroundings, the effect is jarring. The transitions are marked by quick cuts of footage around New York, often through distinctive filters and in distinctive aspect ratios, as if to draw the audience’s attention to the act of transition itself. In some ways, these cuts from one story thread to another feel like changing the television channel. The audience is bouncing from one show to another. In the early episodes, The Defenders is clearly intended to evoke the feeling of watching four different shows that geographically overlap.

Initially, it is the supporting cast who transition between these versions of New York, marked by clear geographical transitions. When Misty meets with Luke in Harlem in The H Word, she explains that she has been assigned to a “city-wide task force.” This allows her to cross paths with Jessica Jones. Similarly, Foggy is now clearly a part of the upper-crust world of Danny Rand, working with Jeri Hogarth. When he visits with Matt in Mean Right Hook, Josie refers to him as “Mister Uptown.” These are very different worlds, but they coexist for characters willing to wander between them.

White on.

Even more than Daredevil, although perhaps not quite as much as Luke Cage, The Defenders places an emphasis on the city. In fact, even before the audience discovers who Alexandra is, she is framed as a threat to the city itself. She is a force who emerges from outside New York, who clearly presents an existential challenge to it. To Alexandra, New York is a curiousity. It is indistinct and interchangeable. Another city. “It’s just a city,” she tells Elektra at the end of The H Word. “You’ll get used to watching them fall.”

The Defenders makes it clear that Alexandra is older than New York, and alien to it. She still imagines the North American continent as it was before the European Settlers arrived. “It must be hard for these people to imagine the whole island of Manhattan as a forest,” she reflects to Madame Gao as they sit in Central Park in The H Word. Of course it must seem that way. New York is only four hundred years old, which must seem young to a character who is functionally immortal.

Danny has made a bloody mess of things.

Alexandra is an embodiment of the old world. Although she is clearly associated with wealth and luxury, that wealth and luxury explicitly predates the United States. In Mean Right Hook, she talks about European composers like Brahms and Beethoven. In Worst Behaviour, she makes reference to “Constantinople.” In Royal Dragon, her office features a copy of (or original) The Birth of Venus. Even Alexandra’s name consciously evokes the old world that existed before New York; it is one letter removed from “Alexandria”, the city where “the true foundations of the modern world were laid.”

In some ways, Alexandra resurrection of Elektra is presented as something akin to a “new world” fable. Elektra had been killed off in A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen, but seemed destined to be resurrected in large part because of the debt that the Netflix Marvel shows owed to the work of Frank Miller. (Who, ironically, had been less than keen on her resurrection in the first place.) The Hand clearly conceives of Elektra as a weapon, “the Black Sky”, that might be used in furtherance of their agenda.

Luke no further.

However, The Defenders teases the idea of Elektra’s resurrection as that quintessential immigrant story. Elektra’s resurrection is depicted early in Worst Behaviour, revealing that she has no knowledge of her identity or her history; she does not know where she came from or how she lived. “This is your home now,” Alexandra advises Elektra on reviving her in New York in Worst Behaviour. When Elektra studies her scars in Royal Dragon, Alexandra reflects, “Your life is new, but your body is not.” This is its own archetypal New York story; the immigrant who finds a new life.

Elektra’s impromptu decision to promote herself at the end of Ashes, Ashes reinforces this sense. Elektra was resurrected by the Hand to serve as a tool, but Elektra rejects that role. Elektra ultimately elevates herself to serve as the leader of the Hand, with The Defenders serving as the story of how Elektra transformed herself from an undead ninja assassin to the leader of a powerful secret society. New York is truly a place where anybody can be anything, if they are willing to try hard enough.

City living.

Even Alexandra herself cannot escape the gravity of New York City. Although her plan is hinted at and developed over the first six episodes of the show, Ashes, Ashes confirms that Alexandra hopes to harvest something of immense value from under New York City. “The substance” is the key to immortality and eternal youth, and it serves as the (literal) foundation of New York City. This makes sense. New York is a city that is constantly reinventing itself, and which seems eternally young.

Alexandra is clearly designed to stand apart from the heroes. This quite evident right down to the decision to code her wardrobe and her surroundings as white in opposition to the four-key heroes who stand in opposition to her. (Jessica is cyan, Luke is yellow, Matt is a dark magenta, and Danny naturally can’t even be “key” properly.) However, Alexandra has been cast as Sigourney Weaver, an Oscar-nominated actor who carries her own deep-set genre associations with New York.

Sure, Danny, you can be key lime.

Weaver has appeared in any number of iconic films over the years; Alien, Aliens, Gorillas in the Mist, Galaxy Quest, Avatar, The Ice Storm. However, in terms of New York, her most iconic role might be that of Dana in Ghostbusters. As Hadley Freeman argues, Ghostbusters was a genre reflection of New York City in the mid-eighties:

Many of the jokes in Ghostbusters stem from the idea that, ghosts aside, Manhattan itself was an out-of-control wild west place, a Gotham city where a man could collapse against the windows of the Tavern on the Green, the ritzy restaurant that used to be in Central Park, and the diners would simply ignore him. Trash is piled on the sidewalks and Checker cabs whizz round corners: this recreation of New York, 1984 – the New York of my childhood – is still how I think of the city, even though I live there now and Manhattan has, for better or worse, changed a lot since. Ghostbusters is as much a love letter to New York as anything Woody Allen ever wrote, and a much less self-conscious one at that.

Ghostbusters plays a metaphor for the city’s economic and social anxieties in the eighties, a town that often felt unreal and detached from itself. (Ghostbusters arrived almost a decade after New York nearly bankrupt itself and while New York was in the middle of an extended crime wave.) In fact, Ghostbusters taps into the same spirit of seventies/eighties New York suggested by the second season of Daredevil, which was also overseen by Marco Ramirez and Doug Petrie.

Elektra-fying.

It is worth noting that The Defenders owes a lot to the plot of Ghostbusters; most obviously, both are tales of four unique (and unlikely) individuals coming together to save the city from a supernatural threat. The occult architecture of the city itself is part of this grand design in both cases; the Midland Tower building is a point of converge in The Defenders, 55 Central Park West does in Ghostbusters. In fact, Ghostbusters also literally overlays a fictional New York over the real one; the real 55 Central Park West is only nineteen storeys tall. The film added eight storeys.

The Defenders even borrows the trappings of a geographically-focused ensemble piece. Major characters don’t begin to properly overlap until the end of Mean Right Hook, don’t completely overlap until the end of Worst Behaviour, and don’t overlap by choice until the end of Royal Dragon. However, the end of The H Word makes a point to cement the overlap between the characters through an earthquake that ripples across the city of New York. It is an event bigger than any one of their stories, and Matt’s closing scene in The H Word focuses on red, blue, yellow and green lights rippling across his face.

Fist in the Mist.

The use of an earthquake as a unifying narrative thread evokes the natural disaster genre, a now largely defunct genre of epic storytelling that tends to focus on a diffuse ensemble that are brought together by forces far beyond any individual’s control; The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Airport, Earthquake, The Cassandra Crossing, Juggernaut, Rollercoaster, and so forth. (This carries over somewhat to modern takes on the genre like The Day After Tomorrow, 2012, Daylight, Independence Day.)

There are a number of reasons why natural disaster films tended toward ensemble pieces. A large cast helped to sell the scale of the threat, by allowing the audience to get a sense of how different people were affected by the current catastrophe. The larger the cast, the larger the threat. Natural disasters are generally so much bigger than the particulars of any individual’s life, so it makes a great deal of sense to watch them cut across a diverse group of people in terms of class, race, gender, politics, and any other social division imaginable.

The jury’s out.

At the same time, ensembles worked very well in the context of these disaster films because natural disaster narratives allowed for a little flattening of the characters and personalities. Characters in natural disaster movies tend to be more archetypes than individuals, if only because it makes sense for such disasters to reduce a person down to their core personality. As Nick Roddick argues in Only the Stars Survive:

The characters in a disaster movie have been assembled (they believe, temporarily) in a plane, ship, airship or bus, or on the top floor of a skyscraper. This narrative device has a number of advantages. Firstly, it is possible for the studio to fit in half a dozen stars without the slightest problem. Secondly, psychology can be reduced to an elementary level, since no single character occupies the centre of dramatic interest for long enough to be developed or to establish a relationship of any complexity with any other character. Thus disaster movies are peopled by archetypes who react to a the given situation in function of their sex, class or profession and not in function of any individual identity. What is more, the archetypes are extended by the known personality of the star playing the part: in accordance with the usual formula, what we respond to on the screen is not someone called Stuart Graff (Earthquake) or Alan Murdock (Airport 1975), but someone far more substantial called Charlton Heston.

The Defenders could be argued to do something similar. With most of the cast “between seasons” and effectively “on loan” from their showrunners, being written by Petrie and Ramirez for the first time, the heroes are consciously flattened somewhat. (This is most noticeable for Jessica; least noticeable for Danny.) However, in keeping with broader shifts in modern pop entertainment, the stars in The Defenders are not individual actors but individual brands.

It’s a mystery to me.
The game commences.

Of course, The Defenders is not exactly a disaster movie narrative, even if it borrows some of the trappings. The characters do not spend all eight episodes responding to the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, instead spending most of Mean Right Hook and Worst Behaviour following their own separate investigations into the season’s central mystery. The earthquake at the end of The H Word is more of an inciting incident, a demonstration that the characters all share the physical space to the extent that they are all impacted by a natural disaster.

In some respects, then, this framing device almost feels like a shout out to Short Cuts. Directed by Robert Altman, Short Cuts is one of the defining Los Angeles anthology films, like Pulp Fiction or Crash. It is also a spiritual companion piece to Altman’s earlier anthology film Nashville. Short Cuts is bookended by two earthquakes in California, events that seem to at once provide a structure to and thematically feed into the scattered lives of the primary characters.

Slash and burn.

As Haiti Sarashti argues in Short Cuts and American Life and Society in Early Nineties, the earthquake serves to impose an external narrative framework upon these characters’ stories and provide a logical start and end point:

Altman’s masterful use of natural disaster in the beginning and the end of Short Cuts, not only represents the reality of life in California, but also makes the film coherent, and not only by connecting the characters in the film, but also by connecting the film with the audience and the rest of the world.

Altman said that he doesn’t like to create “satisfactory” endings, as he doesn’t believe anything in life stops. “The only ending I know about is death.” Altman describes that the endings in some of his films like M*A*S*H are rather manipulated endings: “Those aren’t endings, they are stopping places.”

Short Cuts suggests lives that are disarrayed, and characters who are so confused about their place in the world that they are blind to these points of intersection.

Don’t you know about the birds?

In the world of Short Cuts, Los Angeles is an urban sprawl populated by people living in their own bubbles, and the only order that can be imposed on the lives of its inhabitants comes from an outside event like an earthquake. There is no tangible sense of community. Several key characters in Short Cuts momentarily brush against one another, but without any appreciation of the importance of such events; they are only important to the audience watching the film at home.

In borrowing that earthquake framing device, The Defenders juxtaposes itself with Altman’s Los Angeles anthology and provides a very clear point of contrast. While the earthquakes in Short Cuts provides an otherwise arbitrary start point and end point, throwing the lives between into disarray, the earthquake in The Defenders is something with a greater sense of purpose. The earthquake at the end of The H Word is no act of nature. It is a tremor rippling through the narrative world, but one that serves to move these characters into alignment.

Luke hasn’t the Foggy-est who his lawyer is.

Like so much of pop culture around it, a lot of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is defined by the events of 9/11. The iconography of the Chitauri Invasion at the climax of The Avengers is the most obvious example, but other films are full of similar imagery. Shows like Daredevil and Luke Cage have both suggested that New York still lives in the shadow of that alien attack. The parallels are even acknowledged by a caller to “Trish Talk” in Mean Right Hook. That caller laments, “After everything we’ve been through, we can’t help but think that it’s the incident or terrorism.”

It seems inevitable, then, that The Defenders should build from that opening earthquake towards a climax that quite consciously and quite deliberately evokes the imagery and iconography of 9/11. The Defenders finds the eponymous team laying siege to a skyscraper in the middle of Manhattan. The teaser to the episode features the team debating whether or not to blow it up. The eventually agree to the plan. At the end of The Defenders, the team destroy a major New York skyscraper, fire and debris flying from the wreckage.

Food for thought.

The imagery of 9/11 has (understandably) imprinted itself upon popular culture. Unlike many other disasters and atrocities, most of 9/11 was captured through first-hand video recordings. Cable news was saturated with hand-shot footage from amateur cameramen who happened to be filming as the attacks unfolded. Most of the world witnessed (and, over the following weeks, relived) those attacks through video footage and first-hand accounts. 9/11 was filtered through the lens of media, thoroughly documented and constantly recycled.

More than that, the language of those attacks was arguably cinematic in nature. For many of the people watching these horrors unfold, there was no frame of reference outside of film. Many observers reflected that 9/11 looked like a blockbuster spectacular, evoking the imagery of high-budget spectacle like Independence Day. Inevitably, those lines blurred in both directions. If 9/11 looked like a film, it made sense for films to look like 9/11. This was reflected in a number of different ways, from approaches to urban destruction to emphasis on a found footage approach.

As below, so above.

As Kyle Buchanan argued, this imagery began to permeate blockbuster spectacle, often in an uncanny and bloodless fashion:

Such knowing, referential obliteration probably began with the apocalyptic terror of 2005’s War of the Worlds, in which Steven Spielberg at least had the decency to use the entire movie as an allegory for our feelings of post-9/11 dread and hopelessness. Since then, though, the weighty underpinnings to those scenes in War of the Worlds have fallen away as city-wrecking summer movies like Transformers: Dark of the Moon seek only to up the ante from the destruction featured in whichever summer spectacular came out the year before. In last year’s The Avengers, the splintering of New York City was cause for lighthearted super-banter. Only one bittersweet nod to our post-9/11 outlook remains: Action heroes used to prevent disasters, but now, they can only avenge them.

This applied to even the most unlikely of films. Thor: The Dark World featured an attack on the mythical realm of Asgard that was clearly intended to evoke 9/11. The climax of Man of Steel turned Metropolis into a graveyard.

Things cannot car-ry on like this.

The Marvel Netflix shows have always existed at a remove from the blockbuster films. Just about the only significant point of overlap is “the Incident”, a rather vague reference to the Chitauri invasion at the climax of The Avengers. This serves as a plot enabler in various shows; it allowed for the destruction and gentrification of Hell’s Kitchen in Daredevil and explained a magic super weapon in Luke Cage. It was the inciting incident for these four separate series. It should also be noted that “the Incident” was clearly a metaphor for 9/11.

As such, it makes sense for The Defenders to return to that imagery at the climax of the series, to stage one last dramatic recreation of the trauma that left such a mark upon the city. The image of Matt and Elektra embracing beneath the collapsing tower at the end of The Defenders is framed so as to suggest lovers embracing in a nuclear blast. Rogue One used similar imagery at its own climax, suggesting that there might be something lurking in the zeitgeist.

Hacking away at it.

Of course, The Defenders never quite knows what to do with this simulated recreation of 9/11. The destruction of Midland Circle is perhaps a sanitised recreation of that atrocity, an attempt to work through it. Although countless ninja die in the destruction of Midland Circle, the script is very explicit in its assurance that no innocent blood has been shed. More to the point, the tower is demolished by heroes rather than villains. It seems like an awkward attempt to “reclaim” 9/11 imagery, imaging some weird warped heroic reflection of that attack.

The Defenders is an ode to New York, and it makes sense that it should be rooted in the defining twenty-first century image of the city, a community of unique and distinct individuals who find themselves drawn together in the face of adversity rather than blown apart.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of The Defenders:

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