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The Defenders Shows that the MCU Formula Doesn’t Work on TV


When I first heard that The Defenders was being made, I was pumped. When I heard it was being made and streamed on Netflix, I about had a heart attack I was so happy (and it’s not that difficult to imagine from an overweight nerd either). I’ve always preferred “street level” Marvel heroes to your A-listers that make up the Avengers, and as I watched Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage hit the mainstream I felt reassured. Even if each show had their own specific missteps, the shows were still good, and I felt confident that The Defenders would be a game changer for both the superhero narrative and TV as a whole. I … was wrong.

The MCU Formula Requires Interconnectivity

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) formula is hard to break down in so many words, because it is so many things, but when you see it you know. The hallmarks of this formula I think are:

  1. Interconnectedness: When you watch one film you know that all or part of what happens in it will reverberate into the next film. This usually involves how the ending of a character’s last arc informs their actions in the following movie (Like how Tony Stark suffers from PTSD in Iron Man 3 after almost dying in The Avengers), but sometimes includes events in the previous movie affecting the next one (like how the Sakovia Accords in Civil War are a repercussion of the climax of Avengers: Age of Ultron).
  2. Cinematic Asthetic and Tone: Lets be honest — all MCU movies look the same. There are minor tweaks to the look of these movies as the creators behind it put their own stamp on them (I’m thinking of the Russo Brothers with the Captain America series and James Gunn with Guardians of the Galaxy), but the tone remains the same throughout. They’re fun movies that allow a certain contemplation of the things happening in the film, without ever allowing it to get too heavy, are go so far as to actually risk any of the characters. You know, in the end, certain characters are going to make it out in the end. It doesn’t make the ride less fun, but it does create a floor to how much depth these movies can convey. This piece is really important because it is what allows the casual viewer to understand this is a Marvel movie in the same way that when you watch The Incredibles you know that it’s a Pixar movie.
  3. Shared Narrative Structure: Now this is more a result of the genre than the MCU itself, but you know the movie is going to have three acts where in the first act a problem/villain is presented, in act 2 the problem/villain challenges that hero’s worldview, and in act 3 the problem/villain is defeated by the hero. The MCU, however, has added to this structure by creating a three part (or three phase) arc for all their movies, and applies this act structure to each movie that falls into these arcs (the exception being the movies that started their initial run outside the arcs). The point here is that instead of being haphazardly created by the writers, the studio itself informs the narrative boundaries of each movie with where it’s at within its own phase structure.

The Defenders Didn’t Once Feel Connected

A visualization of the average color per frame in The Defenders, Episode 1.

This is probably the start of the problems with The Defenders, and Marvel’s approach to television as a whole. The Defenders, and it’s constituent shows, was premised on the idea that these characters would all come together in the end, yet other than Luke Cage’s presence on Jessica Jones and Claire Temple, there isn’t a strong attempt to tie these desperate series together before they make their appearance. Sure, the tone of each series is much grittier, but overall the writing, cinematography, thematic material, and genres are different. Daredevil is part gritty superhero show, part courtroom drama. Jessica Jones is a gritty crime noir with superhero elements. Luke Cage is a blaxploitation series. Iron Fist is an attempt at a Kung Fu show.

When the heroes did finally come together, you could see the writers and directors struggling to make bring jarring tones together in a way that doesn’t suck, and they don’t succeed, they just give up trying at episode 4. A reddit user actually created a fantastic chart (seen above) visualizing the actual usage of colors in the first few episodes, and it demonstrates that they directors and D.P.s actively tried to take the visual cues from these shows to fit them together into a similar narrative. You can feel the shifts between shows in the first few episodes as both the colors, directing, and writing changes between scenes to match the tone and feel of the hero’s particular series. The early Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage episodes are particularly obvious. Jessica Jones’s scenes are filled with hard boiled dialogue and saturated in purple. Daredevil has it’s classic dialogue and almost voyeuristic cinematography, and Luke Cage feels like he’s from another genre altogether with scenes punctuated with a hip-hop soundtrack. When the heroes finally share the same soundstage at the end of episode 3, I actually laughed out loud when Luke Cage busted into the scene with Run the Jewels playing in the background. I mean, who the hell thought this was a good idea? The scene transitions are so jarring it’s hard to watch. Fortunately they totally dropped the schtick by episode 4.

The reason why this is so bad is because each series, when you drill down past the TV-MA rating, is very different. When you take these different series, that each belong to different genres, and smash them together its awkward and heavy handed. It’s tantamount taking two shows on the same network that have no business interacting and making them do a crossover episode (You know, like that Full House/Family Matters crossover). This is simply because not a single writer or director worked on all five shows to build that connective tissue (Phil Abraham gets a gold star though, for directing Daredevil, Luke Cage, and The Defenders).

Its Not Subversive, its Reductive

From Marvel’s The Defenders

MCU movies may seem like what every superhero movie should be, but originally they were transformative. No one had ever really tried to create a superhero cinematic universe before (Superman kind of tried), nor had anyone managed to combine Marvel’s trademark snark, slick visuals, and let their superheroes be weird. The original Iron Man was practically Avant-garde, and that was before Guardians of the Galaxy. That being said, the MCU is now the standard of what a superhero movie is supposed to look like, and The Defender’s various series looked to be a push to redefine what superhero stories were to look like again. They would have their light fare in the films, but TV was to be the domain of mature stories dissecting the intersections of race, privilege, crime, justice, vengeance, morality vs ethics, sexual violence and exploitation, all with a superhero veneer. The first three series managed to do that, and do it well. Luke Cage might have stumbled in its run to the finish line (looking at you Diamondback), but the show was so good, and so relevant, at the beginning that it made up for the subpar ending. Then came Iron Fist, and the narrative created in Iron Fist colored the entirety of The Defenders. They would come together and fight The Hand, an organization with poorly defined everything, and punch their way to victory. These great characters were squandered on a low budget Avengers movie.

It Could Only Be as Good as Iron Fist

Like anything, The Defenders was only as good as the sum of it’s parts. Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage set the stage for a New York City filled with deep issues and its own mythology. Hell, they even had the whole MCU to fall back on (Avenger’s tower is a part of the Skyline, even though I can’t remember them showing it once). Iron Fist was a boring dumpster fire that took the lead of The Hand from Daredevil and instead of developing them into anything that made sense, made their mission and organization even more convoluted than it was before, squandered the magnificent Madame Gao, totally avoided any issues of relevance for a series of poorly choreographed fights and a hero who was guaranteed to always make the dumbest decisions whenever possible with no real reason as to why. Then they took this dumb character (and I mean that he literally has a low IQ. He’s an idiot.) and made him the lynchpin of the series. He was the way in which the lore of The Hand was grounded for the viewer, and was  also the key to their victory in the series. Think about this, the writers knew how dumb Iron Fist was and they built the Hand entire plan in such a way that it relied on Iron Fist’s dumbness to make it work. He had to actually summon his chi and tap the Stele with his chi focused fist in order to open the door. If he simply didn’t summon his chi the whole plan fails. Seriously, The Hands entire plan required the Iron Fist to willingly open the door. The damage done by his series was so bad that it sabotaged The Defenders. The only exception to this is Colleen Wing, who’s final fight with Bakuto carried more weight, drama, and force than the final showdown between The Defenders and The Hand. Without that fight, episode 8 is totally skippable (and yeah, I know it’s the last episode of the series).

The MCU Formula Doesn’t Work on TV…

… because they didn’t put in the work to make it work. The MCU requires someone like Kevin Feige to oversee each movie, and work with each creator, to make sure that the integrity of the MCU as a whole is preserved and consistent between outings. Jeph Loeb is supposed to be this person for Marvel TV, but is either not keeping the reigns tight enough or doesn’t know what he’s doing. My personal feeling is that if he was willing to give Scott Buck another job after seeing Iron Fist then he must not be concerned with the quality of these series at the very least. That other series, by the way, is Inhumans, another Marvel TV show that won’t connect to anything until it will.

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