The Defenders Legacy and the MCU

By now, most of us are finished binge-watching the new Netflix Marvel series, The Defenders. In its eight episodes, we’ve seen four street-level MCU characters bond into … well, something. Not a team, certainly. At least, not in their view.

We’re used to seeing Marvel’s cinematic offerings differ from their comic-book counterparts to a certain extent. The Avengers films feature one specific roster from the many different Avengers lineups, while the Guardians of the Galaxy put some trousers on Gamora and decided it wasn’t worth trying to explain who Moondragon was (which was probably right). But probably no MCU product differs more from the comic of the same name than The Defenders. In fact, the original comic incarnation of the Defenders has almost nothing in common with its screen counterpart. 

The Defenders was one of Marvel’s odd team books of the 70s (compare to the weird mishmash that was The Champions). The team started out with the unlikely trio of the Hulk, Namor and Doctor Strange, and later added character like Valkyrie, Silver Surfer, Nighthawk, Son of Satan and Yellowjacket. Not exactly Marvel’s A-list. The early period of the group also included the only real connection between the comic and the TV series: the presence of Luke Cage (or Power Man as he was called at the time), whose blaxploitation-influenced book was still getting off the ground; Iron Fist was briefly a member, but not long enough to really count.

Over the years, The Defenders underwent a number of changes, frequently adding and losing characters. One of the most memorable periods in the team’s history was the tenure of Howard the Duck creator Steve Gerber, who sent them on bizarre adventures against strange enemies like the Headmen, whose members included a man with a gorilla’s body, a saggy-faced scientist and a yogi.

Entertaining as they were — and there is a certain wild goofiness to them — the Defenders’ adventures never reached breakout star levels, and none of the book’s various reinventions over the years have transformed them into a top-tier team. The films have done a lot for less-prominent teams like the Avengers (seriously — older fans can remember when the Avengers were distinctly B-level) and the Guardians of the Galaxy. But why is Marvel putting the name on what is almost a new team of characters?

There are a couple of possible explanations: the first is that Marvel dearly loves to keep a name in use and prevent a trademark from lapsing. As silly as that sounds, it’s genuinely the reason for various decisions the company’s made over the years. Naturally, the company is also launching a new Defenders series starring the characters from the Netflix series.

But there may be another reason, one that digs a little deeper into the concept behind the team. One of the core ideas of the Defenders comics has always been that the team isn’t really a team. Indeed, they frequently call themselves a “non-team.” A group of people assembled for a common purpose can be the Defenders, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to get a secret base and hang out together. Even when working together, Defenders are often pursuing their own separate, even competing, agendas. That’s very much the case with the heroes of this Netflix series. If Marvel was going to use an existing team name for IP reasons, Defenders is a much better fit than, say, Champions or New Warriors or whatever.

As little as it has to do with the original Defenders series, the Netflix series carries on some of its best traditions: an unlikely pairing prompted by commercial motives, saddled with an arbitrary name, stacked up against mystical threats that don’t quite fit all of the characters — and yet ultimately resulting in something interesting and fun.

About James Holloway

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