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The Defenders – Mean Right Hook (Review)

The shared universe is a feature of comic book storytelling that has gradually crept into the mainstream.

In some ways, it is a logical escalation of the concept of sequels, a way of expanding storytelling opportunities in a way that beacons in fans of existing properties. The shared universe is a prime example of modern pop culture’s investment in intellectual property ahead of personality, where the familiar concept behind a film or television series is often as attractive as any star headlining. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is perhaps the most successful example, spanning movies, novels and television shows all (in theory) set within the same fictional world.

It’s a big universe out there.

The shared universe has become the default mode for big-budget storytelling in the twenty-first century, a structure towards which studios aspire. The most obvious examples are the shared comic book universes from Disney and Warner Brothers, with another coming from Sony in the near future. However, there are countless other examples. Disney has begun constructing standalone stories within its Star Wars universe. James Wan has built up an unlikely blockbuster horror shared universe.

The Defenders is an interesting beast, the culmination of a shared subuniverse. It brings together the primary characters from Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist in their own weird little corner of the shared Marvel cinematic universe.

Devil in the details.

Of course, the concept of a shared universe long predates modern comic books. Ancient mythology is perhaps the most obvious example, populated by monsters and heroes who overlap and intersect with one another. Pulp fiction writers like H.P Lovecraft also developed their own universes with subtle overlap and continuity. Independent of comic books, Universal Studios fashioned a shared universe of movie monsters. Stephen King developed his own complex and interconnected nexus of multiple universes.

Nevertheless, the shared comic book universes of DC and Marvel Comics are perhaps the most iconic and distinctive example of this shared universe in action. The concept can be traced back to the late thirties and forties, when Namor the Submariner fought the Human Torch in Marvel Mystery Comics #8. A little over a year later, the most popular characters at DC came together to launch the Justice Society of America in All-Star Comics #3. These shared universe endure to the present day, even allowing for reboots; often the reboot is folded itself into the story.

Matt should be disbarred.

However, the shared universe as it exists today was largely a result of creative decisions made at Marvel Comics during the sixties, when Stan Lee was working with collaborators like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby. Although the publisher would retroactively incorporate earlier characters like Namor the Submariner or Captain America into their publishing line, most observers would agree that the modern Marvel Universe really began with the publication of Fantastic Four #1 in November 1961.

Whereas early crossover books like All-Star Comics had imagined specific teams of pre-existing characters, Stan Lee and his collaborators imagined a world in which these characters all coexisted, and in which they could interact with one another on a regular (and organic) basis. Lee and his collaborators imagined a living and breathing world that was overlaid on New York, a vast imaginary landscape populated by larger-than-life superheroes. While not a radical idea of itself, the execution was unlike anything ever seen before.

Playing in harmony.

A large part of this was down to sheer volume. Marvel Comics was quickly publishing dozens of books every month, which quickly added up to hundreds of books every year. All these little appearances began to add up. As Andy Lewis explains, the shared universe quickly took on a history and a texture of its own:

Lee’s superheroes lived in a real world — the Avengers’ Mansion was on Fifth Avenue, the X-Men’s school in Westchester County, N.Y. And they occupied a shared universe — Spider-Man auditioned for the Fantastic Four, the Thing played poker with Nick Fury. Lee pioneered geek fandom, addressing readers as friends and peppering stories with insider winks. “I wanted to make the readers feel like we’re a little select group,” he says. “The outside world doesn’t know, but we’re having fun.”

It was a bold idea, but one that paid off. That complex continuity and history quickly snowballed, to the point that these characters came to have a complex web of social networks and relationships, of dependencies and interactions. It was a web worthy of Spider-Man himself.

Luke won’t truck Turk’s deceptions.

This idea expanded over time, growing in complexity over the years. First, the characters in the Marvel publishing line came to share a universe with one another; they would form teams, and cameo in one another’s books. Then, the characters would come to share a history built upon earlier comic books that were retroactively folded into this new expansive continuity; Second World War characters like Captain America, Namor and the Human Torch came to exist within the framework of the Marvel Universe.

Then, the publisher began organising blockbuster crossovers that would bring these characters together for massive “event” stories. When DC announced plans for a multiversal epic in Crisis on Infinite Earths, Marvel beat them to the punch with Secret Wars. These gigantic crossovers have become a staple of publishing, events that serve to anchor the characters around them; House of MCivil WarWorld War HulkSecret InvasionSiegeSecret Empire. Even these events would cluster around characters; Inferno for the X-Men books, Shadowland for Daredevil.

Collapsing under the weight.

In interviews, Lee tends to downplay the radical nature of the shared universe as an idea. Instead, Lee suggests that the shared universe was just an extension of his decision to set the books in New York, as part of an effort to add something approaching verisimilitude to fantastical stories:

Well, I used to read the competitors’ books, and they always lived in fictitious cities and drove cars that were whizbang V8s. And I said, “Why not have real things?” If I had Johnny Storm, a teenager, who wanted a car, he’d want a Chevy Corvette. And if they went to the movies, they wouldn’t go to The Bijou, they’d go to Radio City Music Hall. I wanted to keep everything real. I wanted them to live in New York. Iron Man lived on Fifth Avenue facing Central Park in a townhouse. So I felt you could identify people if you know who they are, where they live, what they do instead of making up phony backgrounds for them.

To Lee, this was just another example of how his work with Ditko and Kirby had reinvented the superhero genre. Marvel Comics dared to imagine superheroes who dealt with relatable problems in a familiar urban environment. Allowing them to run into one another was just a way to continue that thread, “what if superheroes felt real?”

Fist of fury.

Of course, there is some small irony here. While the shared universe in a familiar setting initially plays into that sense of verisimilitude, that effect tends to diminish over time. The longer that a shared universe develops in a familiar setting, the more complicated it becomes and the more divorced from the reader’s reality. After all, how long before the technology of Reed Richards and Tony Stark changes the way people live? How long before the existence of superheroes affect the politics and social class of this fictional world?

More to the point, the continuity that tended to accrue from these interactions and relationships could quickly spiral and develop beyond the ability of fans (or even writers) to keep track. These shared universes have existed for longer than most readers have been alive. How is a reader supposed to keep track of relationships that have existed for over three quarters of a century? Comic book publishers have offered a variety of answers to that particular challenge, but none of them convincing; alternate universes, soft reboots, hard reboots. It is a fascinating paradox.

Going out in a blade of glory.

Appropriately enough, Marvel Studios would lead a resurgence of the shared universe within twenty-first century popular culture. The Marvel Cinematic Universe was born with Iron Man, which featured a post-credits teaser in which Samuel L. Jackson promised Tony Stark (and viewers) that “you’ve become part of a bigger universe.” This universe was built on cameos from the character of Phil Coulson in Iron Man II, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, not to mention a post-credit appearance from Tony Stark in The Incredible Hulk.

Of course, building a shared universe within live action adaptations is infinitely more complex than doing it on the page. Much like coming books are not restricted by budgetary or filming constraints when it comes to spectacle or location work, comic books also don’t have to worry about the availability and affordability of actors. It is far easier to draw Iron Man visiting Hell’s Kitchen at the climax of Born Again than it is to have Robert Downey Junior appear for a few scenes in a Netflix television series.

Cagey on the subject.

After all, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has already recast the role of Bruce Banner, replacing Edward Norton with Mark Ruffalo. (It had earlier replaced Terrance Howard with Don Cheadle.) There is a reason that Samuel L. Jackson has made fewer and fewer appearances as his contract with Marvel comes to an end. There is also a reason that many observers are so curious about all the actors whose contracts expire with the Avengers: Infinity War films. In short, there are lots of pragmatic concerns that arise from dealing with actors rather than illustrations.

There are other issues as well, particular around rights and production companies. The most obvious issue is that the X-Men cannot be folded into the shared universe because their rights are owned by Fox. Spider-Man has a somewhat tenuous connection to the Marvel Cinematic Universe because his rights are still held by Sony, but they are willing to play ball with Marvel Studios. Even within the confines of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, walls exist. Most notably, the Marvel Netflix characters seem to be locked off from their feature film counterparts.

Bruised ego.

However, there is no denying the fantastic work that Marvel Studios has done with its shared universe. The Avengers is arguably the template for modern summer blockbusters, the kind of mega-hit that other studios were left scrambling to assemble in the wake of its success. Universal Studios have announced several abortive plans to build a modern universe of monster movies based on their old hits. Sony wanted to fashion an expanded universe out of The Dark Tower. There is even talk of a shared universe built around Hasbro’s toy lines.

The appeal of the shared universe is obvious. It is a familiar commodity that can be sold to audiences on the strength of its attachment to an intellectual property, rather than to an actor or a character. Sequels tend to do good business, but sequels are also very expensive. Actors and directors who performed well in earlier films obviously expect a pay bump to keep coming back, which can eat into the studio’s back end. On the other hand, the concept of a shared universe allows for consumer brand loyalty without having to worry about the escalating price of talent.

The cost will just floor you, Danny.

However, it could also be argued that this twenty-first century fixation on shared universes plays into broader cultural trends. As Oliver Lyttelton contends:

Shared universes certainly fit into certain pop-culture trends, particularly among the millennial audience that studios are increasingly struggling to capture (movie audiences have grown markedly older in recent years: even a movie like Guardians Of The Galaxy plays predominately to the over-25s). This is something of a generalization, but it seems mostly fair to say that, in contrast to the allegedly short attention spans of the MTV-raised Generation X, millennials are actively keen on long-form narrative. Their cultural appetite was shaped by binge-watching multiple seasons of Game Of Thrones and The Wire, or playing 50-hour video games like Mass Effect, more than it was by one-off blockbusters. Television is becoming more cinematic, but it’s also becoming more visual in its use of multi-part storytelling and character continuity.

We’re also living in something of a mash-up culture, which is something else reflected in these shared universe ideas. A world where social media is full of pictures of Disney princesses reinvented as Game Of Thrones” characters, or fan-fiction where Sherlock makes out with Doctor Who. Whether it’s a sign that the creative well has run dry, or just of executive laziness, isn’t clear, but crossing over Batman and Superman, or combining 21 Jump Street and Men In Black, or Star Wars characters appearing in The Lego Movie, or Steven Spielberg directing the 80s-nostalgia-driven Ready Player One are all reflections of the way that a new generation consumes media.

This certainly makes sense. Modern audiences have shown a fondness for “meta” culture and for sprawling ambitious narratives that span beyond the confines of a simple two-hour movie.

Stick it to him, Alexandra.

However, there may be more to it than that. The modern world is chaotic and uncertain. Certain technological and cultural trends have led to a situation where it can often seem like people no longer share a single reality. People can disagree over basic facts, like the question of which photo shows a larger crowd. Social media and hyper partisanship have made it possible for people to live within isolated bubbles which reinforce and support their own preexisting worldviews.

This is not a new idea. It is in some ways rooted in the counterculture of the sixties, filtered through the paranoia of the seventies. It exploded into popular consciousness in the nineties, when Oliver Stone and Chris Carter embraced conspiracy theory as narrative and the internet fueled the spread of what might otherwise have been fringe notions. This is why nearly two thirds of Americans believe a conspiracy assassinated JFK, and why it is possible for some theorists to believe both that Osama Bin Laden is still alive and that he died years before his death was reported.

City living, city dying.

Against this back drop, it makes sense that audiences would be drawn towards overarching narratives that stretch beyond the confines of a single piece of popular culture. What is a conspiracy theory but an overarching “meta” text that looms large over reality itself, something bigger than one single event or incident that serves to provide a meaningful narrative arc to the direction of the world as a whole. People want to believe that the world makes sense, even if their mechanisms of imposing order on the world are fundamentally distinct and different.

Indeed, The Defenders borrows quite heavily from conspiracy theory and lore. In Royal Dragon, Matt makes it clear that the Hand are a secret society, and not terrorists. When Trish investigates the possibility that the earthquake in Mean Right Hook was not really an earthquake, she is quickly silenced by her superiors. “They called from upstairs, we gotta lay off the earthquake stuff,” Trish is warned by her assistant. This mirrors the way that many “truthers” feel about their own conspiracy theories, that the truth is suppressed or buried by the mainstream media.

Resting while awaiting arrest.

The 9/11 parallels are not accidental. Although this culture of fragmented reality can be traced back to the sixties and seventies, many observers point to the 9/11 attacks as a moment that fundamentally changed the United States’ (and the world’s) relationship to reality. As Slavoj Žižek argues in Welcome to the Desert of the Real!:

We should therefore invert the standard reading according to which the WTC explosions were the intrusion of the Real which shattered our illusory Sphere: quite the reverse – it was before the WTC collapse that we lived in our reality, perceiving Third World horrors as something which was not actually part of our social reality, as something which existed (for us) as a spectral analysis on the (TV) screen – and what happened on September 11 was that this fantasmatic screen apparition entered our reality. It is not that reality entered our image: the image entered and shattered our reality.

The 9/11 attacks represented the intrusion of unreality into the real world; spectacle that most audience members recognised from films like Independence Day or Armageddon, only for real. Similarly, those real world attacks were then filtered back through amateur recordings playing around the clock on twenty-four hour news cycles.

He Rand. He Rand So Far Away.
He Couldn’t Get Away.

In some ways, cinematic shared universe allow audiences the opportunity to superimpose the notion of a shared reality over the fractured reality outside the television or cinema screen. It might often seem like voters in Texas and New York do not share the same reality, but it is oddly reassuring to know that Thor and Spider-Man and Daredevil all coexist within the same world with its own rules and conventions and expectations. In a delightful irony, this world of gods and mutants can somehow have a stronger sense of what is “real” than the world as it exists today.

This is particularly true of the Marvel Netflix series. After all, they are filmed in a very real and tangible New York, rather than a version of New York that is retroactively created in post-production. Whereas the characters in The Avengers are superimposed over a version of New York constructed in the editting bay, the characters in The Defenders live and breath within the real New York City. As such, the sprawling shared universe is very heavily superimposed over a tangibly real world. There is an eerie verisimilitude to a show about undead ninja.

Her sword against his.

Marvel and Netflix have arguably done a much better job of cultivating their shared universe than their big screen counterparts. Part of this is simply the issue of space. By the time that the four eponymous heroes come together at the end of Worst Behaviour, this subpocket of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has existed for sixty-eight episodes. The audience has been peering into this world for about sixty hours. Much like comic books build up a sense of continuity through sheer volume over time, the Netflix Marvel model has done something similar.

More than that, television shows have more space than movies. This means that they can more comfortably integrate characters into narrative, without feeling too jarring or distracting. Shared universe cameos in the Marvel Universe films can often seem disorienting, the audience barely afforded the opportunity to recognise a familiar face before wondering what the odds are that this character would end up in this place at this time. In contrast, television narratives can unspool at a more relaxed and logical pace.

Jeri bad idea.

Luke Cage can be a proper supporting character in Jessica Jones, before launching his own series. Jeri Hogarth can be a vital part of Jessica Jones before playing a small but important role in Iron Fist and making a guest appearance in the last episode of the second season of Daredevil. There is room to show Foggy interviewing to join Hogarth’s law firm in A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen before he shows up representing Luke Cage at the start of The H Word. There is room for these chance interactions and points of intersection.

One of the pleasures of The Defenders is the ease with which it brings these four characters together. Foggy greets Luke Cage early in The H Word. Misty brushes up against Jessica in Mean Right Hook. There is an operator who is recruiting young kids in Harlem to work body disposal for the Hand, providing a point of intersection between the worlds of Luke Cage and Iron Fist. There is very little incongruity in how these characters come together. Most of the plot contrivances feel organic, playing into the idea of an overlapping universe.

Glowing together, as a team.

Of course, The Defenders reinforces the idea that boundaries exist between these characters. For most of the first four episodes of the series, the four primary characters are still protagonists in their own shows. The lighting and costume design is designed to emphasise that. Matt still lives in a world dominated by red colours, Jessica’s world is a washed-out blue, Luke glows yellow, and Danny is an off-green colour. These boundaries remain in place for the first four episodes, particularly obvious in the restaurant scenes in Royal Dragon.

In The H Word and Mean Right Hook, there is still a sense that characters are hemmed in by their narratives and their own shows. Director S.J. Clarkson is perhaps the strongest director to work on The Defenders, with the possible exception of Phil Abraham. Clarkson directs the opening two episodes of the season, ans so is tasked with coming up with a distinctive visual palette for the show. However, she is also working with a show that is very clearly going to evolve and change as it grows.

Danny’s still green.

Indeed, the production team working on The Defenders largely credit Clarkson with defining the show’s visual language, including the clever blending and conflicting of the various colour schemes:

“Matt Murdoch’s world had hints of red everywhere,” Ramirez added. “Jessica Jones’ world had lots of violet and lots of purple and lots of blue, Luke Cage had a lot of ambers and yellows, Iron Fist had a lot of green and earth tones. And so when [the characters] finally start to combine and cross pollinate visually, [Clarkson] then told the story of green and yellow meeting, or red and purple meeting, or red and blue meeting. And so that, I think, that to me was the stroke of genius that made the first two episodes shootable.”

Mike Colter, who first worked with Clarkson in his initial debut as Luke Cage in “Jessica Jones,” said that “she’s been working with this brand for a while now, so she has a real feel for what it takes to tell the story and how to make it that extra flair that comic book stories tend to have. She knows the camera angles, the lighting.”

Indeed, it is a shame that none of the subsequent directors, with the possible exclusion of Phil Abraham, pay that level of care or attention to the merged visual styles.

Stepping down.

Repeatedly in The H Word and Mean Right Hook, Clarkson frames the action so as to put the audience at a remove from what is happening: Luke leaving prison, glimpsed through close circuit footage and window panes; Alexandra waiting for her diagnosis, caught through the window in a door; Alexandra seen through the window as she sits out on the roof. Even in sequences focusing on characters in the same space, shots are consciously crowded and off-centre. This creates the impression that the audience is only seeing some small facet of these characters’ worlds.

The storytelling also plays into this sense of boundaries between characters early in the run. Early in Mean Right Hook, Misty tries to catch Jessica as she attempts to leave a crime scene. Jessica has stolen a piece of evidence that will inevitably further her own lines of inquiry. As Jessica escapes down a blue stairwell, Misty finds herself trapped behind a line of yellow police tape. Boundaries exist, preventing these four narratives from fully merging until about half-way through the eight-episode season.

Yellow tape.

The production team consciously play up this sense of the characters existing in four different shows for the first half of The Defenders. As Stephanie Maslansky explains:

“As the episodes go on, with characters crossing to each other’s lands and stories, a decision needed to be made: Are we going to shoot the Luke Cage palette or are we going to shoot the Daredevil palette? The Jessica Jones or the Iron Fist?” Maslansky says. “If a Luke Cage character came into Jessica Jones’s world, we shifted the color palette toward Jessica Jones’s world. So you might see, for example, if Misty Knight is interviewing Jessica Jones, Misty Knight is wearing blue as opposed to her usual Luke Cage colors. Just keep your eyes open when you see the series and you might recognize some of this.”

Unfortunately, these distinctive visual identities erode over the second half of the season, with the production team never managing to find a design aesthetic for the team that feels as striking as their individual motifs.

A shot in the dark.

One of the interesting aspects of The Defenders is how it seems to treat this union as an inevitability. These characters have all operated in their own separate worlds, but New York is a small town. It seems inevitable that these four heroes would run into one another sooner or later. This is a reflection of the city itself, which seems to conspire to bring people together. This can be true in the real world as well. Finn Jones once “completely accidentally” wandered on to the set of the second season of Jessica Jones.

The characters allude to these strange overlapping threads. “In a city of nine million people, we just happened to bump into each other?” Jessica challenges Hogarth as she reads through the city records. When Colleen suggests that Danny doesn’t have to do this alone, he mockingly responds, “Just go and find a team to join? An army?” Of course, Royal Dragon reveals that the murdered bodies in Mean Right Hook were Danny’s army. However, New York inevitably provides. Danny finds another team, a surrogate army, a replacement family.

Off the record.

As The Defenders starts to pull these characters together, it is a testament to the shared world that Marvel Studios have managed to build, a reminder of just how thrilling and fun it can be to see the stories of familiar characters intersect. Given the state of the modern world, there is something reassuring in the idea that four stories so radically different might be able to converge and overlap, even for so brief a period of time.

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

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2 Responses

  1. The Kennedy thing may be slightly exagerrated. Last I checked, a majority believe it was a mob hit, and that the administration couldn’t go public with it without exposing mob involvement in their Cuba operation.

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