You don’t need to be a comic book fan to appreciate the massive undertaking that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It all started with the hugely successful Iron Man movie and has since expanded to include Captain America, Thor, Spider-Man and Avengers movies. On the small screen, Netflix got in on the action with Daredevil before expanding its own mini Marvel dynasty with Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist shows.
On Friday August 18, the foursome team up in The Defenders. In it, Jones (Krysten Ritter), Iron Fist (Finn Jones), Daredevil (Charlie Cox) and Cage (Mike Colter) band together to save New York City from the mysterious antagonist Alexandra (Sigourney Weaver).
It might sound a bit like The Avengers all over again, but don’t expect yet another set of spandex-clad “superheroes”. From the start, this group of misfits are not in the slightest bit interested in using their unique powers (namely extraordinary strength, unbreakable skin and enhanced abilities) just for the good of mankind. “This is a show about characters who, at least in the case of two of them, really don’t want to be superheroes,” The Defenders showrunner Marco Ramirez tells us. “We couldn’t necessarily embrace the model of how other superhero team-ups have happened.” Instead, Ramirez drew on cinematic team-ups such as Seven Samurai, The Breakfast Club and The Dirty Dozen.
“The Dirty Dozen I thought about almost all the time when working on The Defenders,” Ramirez admits. “There’s something about the characterisations being really specific.
It’s a movie about criminals, but there’s like this beating heart at the centre of that movie, and it’s kind of greater than what they each are individually, and that was one of our big challenges.
“We wanted to be fair to all the characters. It’s not Mick Jagger and his buddies – this is the Rolling Stones.”
This idea of four leads extends to the cinematography, particularly in episodes one and two, when director SJ Clarkson uses different colour palettes to signal a shift between the four characters. “So, when we cut from Jessica Jones to Harlem, it should feel like we just got hit by a bucket of ice water.”
Besides featuring the four main characters, and introducing Weaver, the show also sees the return of other favourites from the individual shows, including Elektra (Elodie Yung), Stick (Scott Glenn), Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), Misty Knight (Simone Missick) and more.
But, don’t panic if you haven’t seen the shows, read the comic books, or have no idea who any of these people are – it’s not a deal-breaker, as the eight-episode mini-series was always meant to be independent and “comes to its own satisfying conclusion”, Ramirez confirms.
“But then, at the same time, it’s almost like the last 20 minutes of that last episode make you really excited for every one of the next shows.” Hand us the remote.
Behind the characters
We talk to the four lead actors to learn about the four heroes in their own words
Superpower: Superhuman strength
“I love playing Jessica Jones,” actress Krysten Ritter says emphatically, when we meet her in New York. “I love that she’s the indie rocker hipster in the corner. And the most important thing to me is her psychological journey.” Ritter, who you might also recognise from TV shows such as Don’t Trust The B---- In Apartment 23 and Breaking Bad, is fresh off the set of shooting Jessica Jones season 2, airing next year. “As a show [Jessica Jones is] more psychological because it’s about Jessica and how she lives in the world,” Ritter explains. “The Defenders is definitely a bigger scope. It’s about a lot of things, a bigger villain, and for sure it’s more physical.” Her character is a private investigator in New York City who was orphaned as a child when her parents died in a car accident. After she was adopted, Jessica discovered her extreme physical strength and tried the superhero thing for a while, before falling into a toxic relationship with Kilgrave, an evil man with mind-controlling powers. Once free of her enslavement, she decided to open up Alias, her own detective agency, and hide her true identity. In the first season, when Kilgrave returns to the scene, Jones is forced to use her superhuman powers again to try and stop him once and for all. “She was never trying to save the city, she was never even trying to save her neighbourhood,” Ritter laughs. In fact, she’s trying to free herself from her past for much of the first season. “I have to give a lot of credit to the writers, because when I was hearing the pitch for The Defenders, I was like ‘How are you going to get this character to be here and make sense?’ And they found ways, and it’s because of her gooey inside that she rises to the occasion. Because sometimes you’ve just gotta stand up for the little guy no matter what.”
Superpower: Superhuman strength and unbreakable skin
Each one of the stories of the Marvel-Netflix shows deals with something topical. Jessica Jones, for example, touches on emotional abuse and, by its very nature, feminism. Luke Cage, on the other hand, is more political, tackling race issues head on. The character first appeared in 1972, when the Blaxploitation genre was at its peak, and he’s an ex-convict imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. During his time in prison, he was subjected to an experiment that left him physically enhanced. It’s the still-topical race issues, plus the talents of actor Mike Colter (Men in Black 3, Zero Dark Thirty) and a brilliant soundtrack, that made the show such a huge success. In The Defenders, however, Cage and his storyline are no longer front and centre. “Any time you delve into each individual series and what makes it work and what makes it personal, we’re going into one direction too much,” Colter tells us. “Ultimately, we have to find our way into one goal and one common objective that everyone can get behind.” That goal, says Colter, is “a unification of powers for the good of a society that happens to be New York City”. But, in this case, New York represents a global society. Digressing slightly, Colter animatedly tells us a story about a taxi driver he met, who is a sherpa from one of the most remote parts of the world, and how his cousin (“the most famous sherpa in the world”) was getting his green card for the USA. “This is the city we’re in. We’re defending all of that. We’re defending every person who wants to be in New York City to earn a living and to make something of themselves.” And while, at first, the majority of the team in The Defenders is somewhat unwilling to take on that responsibility, Colter says “it very quickly turns into camaraderie”.
Superpower: His “chi energy” enhances his natural abilities to extraordinary levels. Yes, really
Danny Rand (AKA Iron Fist) grew up in the mystical lost city of K’un-Lun, after his parents tragically died there. Vowing to avenge their death, he learned martial arts. At the age of 19, he earned the opportunity to win the power of the iron fist and essentially become an ultimate fighting machine. The Netflix show Iron Fist begins with Rand (played by Finn Jones, Ser Loras Tyrell from Game of Thrones) returning to New York (after being missing for years). In the Big Apple he becomes a vigilante and fights criminals using his kung fu skills and supernatural abilities. Out of all four characters in The Defenders, Rand is the only one who is actually happy to team up (Krysten Ritter describes him as “much more endearing and optimistic than the rest of us”). We meet Jones far from New York, in his own hometown of London and he’s pretty calm about the new release, considering his own show got some pretty negative feedback from critics. “I don’t buy into the hype,” he says. “I worked on Game of Thrones for six years, which you know was one of the biggest-hyped television shows in the world, and I learned very quickly if you want to have a healthy state of mind and a healthy work ethic, do the job and then move onto something else.” Despite his nonchalance, Jones is clearly still excited by the new show. “It’s a great series for fans,” he enthuses. “[It’s] about these four superheroes who, on a regular day, would much rather work in solitary – that’s just their vibe, they’re lone wolves.” But, once their beloved New York is faced with a threat, they’re forced to work together. “Throughout the process they find that, actually, it’s [what they need]. Well, especially for Danny… he needs those friends, he needs those allies.”
Superpower: Extraordinary senses
Lawyer by day and vigilante by night, Matt Murdock (AKA Daredevil) has enhanced senses, incredible athletic abilities and impressive martial arts skills. He was blinded as a child as his boxer father was murdered, leaving him with his enhanced abilities and a need to fight injustice, which he does from his base in Hell’s Kitchen, New York. There are two hugely successful seasons of Daredevil available to watch on Netflix right now, but actor Charlie Cox (Stardust, The Theory of Everything), who we meet in London, is reluctant to compare them to any other Marvel-Netflix shows available. “The thing that I found surprising and also a little bit frustrating about these shows… I found Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist were completely different,” he says, exasperatedly. “They get compared to one another [and] I don’t think you can do that… I think with The Defenders, the game is, again, it’s a new genre, it’s a new show.” At first, just as with his comrades Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, Murdock is unwilling to play along with the premise and doesn’t want to be part of any superhero gang. He’s a “loner” – as Kristen Ritter puts it – and doesn’t gel with Jessica Jones in particular at first. “I love the dynamic Matt has with Jessica,” Cox said recently at the San Diego Comic Con, where the much-anticipated second trailer was released. “They initially clash, they don’t have any interest in being friends or making friends, but they kind of discover, against their will almost, that they like and respect each other.” That’s a lot of what this show is about – the relationships rather than the action (which is still there in abundance). “The best scenes I had fun with were where the characters start to get to know each other and they interact for the first time.”