In 'Defenders,' Netflix Enlists Marvel Superheroes In Quest For TV Domination | WYPR

In 'Defenders,' Netflix Enlists Marvel Superheroes In Quest For TV Domination

Aug 16, 2017
Originally published on August 25, 2017 10:36 am

The villains in comic books usually have grandiose master plans, like targeting and defeating an enemy or ruling the world. Netflix, as it's grown to become more and more of a major player in the modern TV universe, has grand plans of its own.

Netflix started out, and took root and blossomed, by providing easy access to many of the movies and TV shows made by others. Then it began making its own TV series and movies. As those programs have succeeded wildly (starting with House of Cards) Netflix has gone all in on the original production front, to the point where it's now carpet-bombing Netflix subscribers with several new offerings a week.

Meanwhile, other entertainment companies, such as CBS and Disney, are getting into the streaming business with their own services, and beginning to withhold their product from Netflix and other distributors.

That's why original programs are so important to the future of Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and other such companies. It's also why Netflix, most aggressively, is making new series deals with David Letterman and current ABC producer superstar Shonda Rhimes — and why it partnered with Marvel Comics so boldly, and with such long-range commitment, years ago.

Netflix's plan with Marvel, from the start, was to take relatively minor or underused titles and heroes from the Marvel comic books, and star them in their own season-long TV series. Then, after that, to feature them together in The Defenders, in an all-star superhero team-up.

Marvel used the same blueprint (with bigger heroes) in the movies, first launching Iron Man, Captain America and others, then showcasing them together as The Avengers. And Marvel's rivals at DC Comics did the same with Batman, Superman and, most recently, Wonder Woman, while planning a one-movie-fits-all Justice League adventure film.

With Netflix, the plan was to take four different Marvel heroes and give them their own 13-episode shows. All of them ended up in the same Hell's Kitchen turf in New York, but dramatically, not all these characters, or shows, were created equal. Jessica Jones and Daredevil were wonderful fantasy dramas about haunted heroes. Jessica had post-traumatic stress after being captured and manipulated by a mind-controlling villain. And Cox's Matt Murdock, the lawyer by day, and costumed Daredevil by night, was blind, with his remaining senses exponentially enhanced after childhood exposure to radiation.

These two shows had strong supporting casts and terrific villains, played by such actors as David Tennant and Vincent D'Onofrio. But compared to them, Luke Cage was minor-league, and Iron Fist a total washout. Gathered together under one new title, if these Defenders were Marx Brothers, Iron Fist would be Zeppo.

But The Defenders works, in part, precisely because the chemistry among characters doesn't, and because it's a group of loners who don't even decide to join forces until four episodes in. And those were all the episodes provided for preview, so I'm not sure where The Defenders is going.

But I know it starts well, by bringing back the strongest supporting characters and continuing plots from the previous Marvel Netflix shows, and by casting Sigourney Weaver as the new big, bad villain.

The real standouts in The Defenders are the same actors and characters who excelled in their own series: Ritter as Jessica Jones and Cox as Daredevil. When they finally meet, the results are electric. And then there's Élodie Yung's Elektra, an important character in this new series — even though she died at the end of last season on Daredevil.

But figuring out who lives and dies is a tricky thing, in superhero stories and in the real-life battle for world TV domination. With The Defenders, Netflix is making another very bold, very smart move.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. On Friday, the Netflix streaming service presents the first season of its newest collaboration with the Marvel Comics group. It's called "The Defenders." And it's a small screen teeming of superheroes that's been part of Netflix's programming plan since 2015. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The villains in comic books usually have grandiose master plans to target and defeat an enemy or rule the world. Netflix, as it's grown to become more and more of a major player in the modern TV universe, has grand plans of its own. It started out and took root and blossomed by providing easy access to many of the movies and TV shows made by others. Then it started making its own TV series and movies.

And as that has succeeded wildly, starting with "House Of Cards," Netflix has gone all in on the original production front to the point where it's now carpet bombing Netflix subscribers with several new offerings a week. Meanwhile, other entertainment companies, such as CBS and Disney, are getting into the streaming business with their own services and beginning to withhold their product from Netflix and other distributors.

That's why original programs are so important to the future of Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and other such companies. It's also why Netflix, most aggressively, is making new series deals with David Letterman and current ABC producer superstar Shonda Rhimes and why it partnered with Marvel Comics so boldly and with such long-range commitment years ago. Netflix's plan with Marvel from the start was to take relatively minor or underused titles and heroes from the Marvel comic books and star them in their own season-long TV series, then after that, to feature them together in "The Defenders" in an all-star superhero team up.

In the movies, it's the same blueprint with bigger heroes Marvel used to launch "Iron Man," "Captain America" and others, then showcased them together as "The Avengers" and how its rivals at DC Comics did the same with "Batman," "Superman" and most recently "Wonder Woman," while planning a one-movie-fits-all "Justice League" adventure film. On Netflix, Krysten Ritter, who played the doom junkie in "Breaking Bad," came first starring in and as "Jessica Jones." Then came Charlie Cox as Daredevil, the most familiar of this batch of heroes and the only one to get two seasons of his own show. Then Mike Colter as Luke Cage followed by Finn Jones as the Iron Fist. All of them ended up in the same Hell's Kitchen turf in New York. But dramatically, not all these characters or shows were created equal.

"Jessica Jones" and "Daredevil" were wonderful fantasy dramas about haunted heroes. Jessica had post-traumatic stress after being captured and manipulated by a mind-controlling villain and Matt Murdock, the lawyer by day and costumed Daredevil by night, was blind with his remaining senses exponentially enhanced after childhood exposure to radiation. These two shows had strong supporting casts and terrific villains, played by such actors as David Tennant and Vincent D'Onofrio. But compared to them, "Luke Cage" was minor league and "Iron Fist" a total wash out.

Gathered together under one new title, if these defenders were Marx Brothers, Iron Fist would be Zeppo. But "The Defenders" works in part precisely because the chemistry among characters doesn't and because it's a group of loners that doesn't even decide to join forces until four episodes in. And those were all the episodes provided for preview, so I'm not sure where "The Defenders" is going. But I know it starts well by bringing back the strongest supporting characters and continuing plots from the previous Marvel Netflix shows and by casting Sigourney Weaver as the new big, bad villain. Early on, her character, a wealthy woman named Alexandra obsessed with achieving immortality, captures Stick, a character played by Scott Glenn who has individually trained more than one of the other characters. He's tough, but she seems even tougher.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DEFENDERS")

SIGOURNEY WEAVER: (As Alexandra) Everyone else on your side is dead. You know who I am, I know who you are. So let's skip the wartime banter. Time is not something I can afford to waste. Not for your benefit but for mine, I'm taking the blinds off. Try not to bite, old friend. It's undignified.

SCOTT GLENN: (As Stick) Alexandra.

WEAVER: (As Alexandra) Stick, we have so much to talk about.

BIANCULLI: The real standouts in "The Defenders" are the same actors and characters who excelled in their own series, Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones and Charlie Cox as Daredevil. When they finally meet, the results are electric. And then there's Elektra, an important character in this new series, even though she died at the end of last season on "Daredevil."

But figuring out who lives and dies is a tricky thing in superhero stories and in the real-life battle for world TV domination. With "The Defenders," Netflix is making another very bold, very smart move.

DAVIES: David Bianculli teaches TV and film at Rowan University and is the author of "The Platinum Age Of Television: From I Love Lucy To The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific." He reviewed Netflix's new Marvel Comics series "The Defenders." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, performer Bridget Everett. Her raunchy comedy cabaret act showcases her wild sexual humor, her beautiful singing voice and her 6-foot-tall plus-sized body.

She's been featured on Amy Schumer's TV series and is now in the new film "Patti Cake$." Also, actor John Cho. He's best-known for his role in the "Harold and Kumar" comedies. He'll talk about his life and career. Hope you can join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show.

We'll close with "Waltz For Debby" by the late pianist Bill Evans, who was born 88 years ago today. This 1961 recording features his influential trio with Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL EVANS' "WALTZ FOR DEBBY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.