Film & Television

Superheroes on TV

By Craig Mathieson
Marvel’s ‘The Defenders’ are here to save a medium that seems to be doing fine on its own

In the current cultural landscape, the superhero is starting to resemble an invasive species. Nurtured in the expressive panels of vintage comic books, it spread to the American cinema at the turn of this century, swiftly becoming the dominant strain of the Hollywood blockbuster. Now the superhero, a creation of mythic deliverance and pop art tragedy, has reached television, potentially leaving viewers with cape fear.

Will the medium succumb? Based on The Defenders, a new series streaming on Netflix that consolidates four unnaturally powered individuals into a heroic quartet, hopefully not. The show is dedicated and satisfying, but predominantly in the most predictable sense. Pursuing differing strands of a secret society’s conspiracy, there are ructions when the various lone wolves become aware of each other, there are setbacks that force them to question their individual self-belief, and their last stand is a battle against the odds. The superhero’s boilerplate moral stance – with great power comes great responsibility – is even wheeled out.

The series is a culmination of a strategy hatched in 2015 by Netflix and Marvel, the leading repository of superhero intellectual property, which began with the introduction of Daredevil, a superhero drama about Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), a blind lawyer by day who becomes a masked vigilante at night thanks to his enhanced four remaining senses. That was followed by costume-free seasons of Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) and Luke Cage (Mike Colter), fellow New Yorkers who respectively possess superhuman strength and unbreakable skin, before the release earlier this year of Iron Fist, an origin tale for Danny Rand (Finn Jones), a billionaire orphan bestowed with mystical martial arts skills.

If the tactic of deploying one superhero after another into a shared screen realm, complete with interlocking supporting players, sounds familiar it’s because Marvel did exactly the same with the first wave of their movies; starting in 2008, Iron Man, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger were the foundation stones for 2012’s climactic team-up The Avengers. Duplicating that structure isn’t just imitative, it exposes The Defenders to comparisons – budget, reach, technical expertise – the show can’t benefit from.

What superheroes on television do have a surplus of, compared with the cinema, is time. In storytelling terms, the typical superhero film is the equivalent of a modern supply chain: last minute and expedient, as new characters, spin-offs and sequels are dropped into the unending narrative. The eight episodes of The Defenders run to approximately seven hours – which is more than long enough for the great Sigourney Weaver to persuade you that her arch-villain, Alexandra, is the epitome of timeless malevolence – yet too often the plotting feels truncated and traditional.

Combining the four characters is more likely to reduce their distinct elements than it is to illuminate them in new ways. Consider Jessica Jones: her standalone season established the character, for all her physical strength, as a survivor of rape and psychological abuse. Her tormentor, Kilgrave (former Doctor Who David Tennant), could control anyone he spoke to, and in the grotesque name of love he had previously made Jessica both his weapon and his slave before she escaped. Jessica Jones creator Melissa Rosenberg and Ritter, who invested the character with a roiling self-loathing, made a drama about a self-denying superhero with post-traumatic stress disorder who refused to heal herself.

In The Defenders, which was created and run by Douglas Petrie and Marco Ramirez, who previously oversaw the second season of Daredevil, the leather-jacket-clad Jessica is often hungover and nearly always sardonic. “These names are killing me,” she sighs after learning about a succession of ancient orders – the Hand, commanded by Alexandra, and their opponents the Chaste – whose feud is now her problem. But the rawness of her own series, where Jessica embodied a woman who can never feel safe, has here hardened into faint scar tissue and mordant flourishes.

Marvel’s headline movie superheroes are currently all white men (diversity is further down the release schedule), but the television series allowed for genuine representation. The African-American Luke Cage, whose beautiful, invulnerable black skin is a riposte to America’s racial enmity, has a telling line when he confronts Danny Rand, whose wealthy vigilante pose includes a private jet and the easy presumption of power. “I know privilege when I see it,” Luke says, and for a moment secret societies give way to a society addressing its age-old secrets.

That’s the best blow The Defenders lands. Elsewhere there’s a preponderance of hand-to-hand combat, choreographed with wire work, ninja accessories and platoons of faceless goons. The fighting is physically athletic but visually contained. There’s a thrilling moment in the third episode where the camera trails one combatant down a hallway and the frame erupts without warning when Luke Cage calmly smashes through a boundary wall, but the direction is mostly workmanlike. Just by blocking the leads with some imagination and briefly utilising starkly expressive lighting, German director Uta Briesewitz makes the fifth instalment stand out.

There’s a kick in the otherworldly intensity of the Black Sky (Elodie Yung), the assassin controlled by Alexandra, and if nothing else I appreciated that the Hand’s scheme relies on the petulant missteps of Danny Rand, a character who previously made Iron Fist a dreary washout. The Defenders averages out this superhero squad, so that Jessica Jones and Luke Cage lose their distinct edges, but Matt Murdock and Danny Rand are improved. That reversion to the mean encapsulates the lack of ambition on offer. The show is a summation of the pre-existing strands, which is why you’re better off watching Jessica Jones and Luke Cage in their individual complexity.

Superheroes will continue to circulate through television as new streaming services increase the demand for content, but they’re unlikely to conquer it. In the cinema, superheroes are given digital spectacle to enliven the genre’s archetypes, but without those hard-drive heroics those same outlines lack compelling drama. Superheroes pooling their powers is a comic-book staple, but in a television year headlined by Twin Peaks, The Handmaid’s Tale and Atlanta, migrating that approach demands a more radical, revelatory technique.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.


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