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

Charlie Cox plays a lawyer by day and the costumed Daredevil by night in the Netflix superhero series <em>The Defenders. </em>
Charlie Cox plays a lawyer by day and the costumed Daredevil by night in the Netflix superhero series The Defenders.

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 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.
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