A BLIND VIGILANTE, A POWERFUL P.I., AN INDESTRUCTIBLE EX-CON, AND A MYSTICAL MARTIAL ARTIST ARE HERE TO PROTECT NYC. MEET MARVEL’S LONG-AWAITED ANTIHERO TEAM, THE DEFENDERS
BY SHIRLEY LI @SHIRKLESXP
PHOTOGRAPHS BY FINLAY MACKAY
LETTERING BY ALEX TROCHUT
AFTER 65 EPISODES APART, THE DEFENDERS ARE, AT LONG LAST, TOGETHER. Almost. On a chilly December afternoon, inside a brightly lit set, the stars of Marvel and Netﬂix’s small-screen superhero universe— Charlie Cox (Matt Murdock, a.k.a. Daredevil), Krysten Ritter (Jessica Jones), Mike Colter (Luke Cage), and Finn Jones (Danny Rand, a.k.a. Iron Fist)—are still waiting to ﬁlm their ﬁrst scene as a group for their summer 2017 team-up,Marvel’sThe Defenders.
Cox hums the theme song to Captain Planet, the heroesuniting animated series, while Colter thumbs bullet holes on his costume and Jones—Finn, not Jessica—strolls the set. “We’re workingreally hard right now,” Ritter quips, looking around.
The cameras weren’t rolling, but for the actors and crew—alumni from Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist—being in the sameplaceisenough.“There’sthisbuzzandenergy,”Coxsays of ﬁlming the eight-part crossover. “We’ll often do a take, and after they call ‘Cut,’ you’ll hear people going, ‘Oh,coooool.’”
Today we’re on a Brooklyn soundstage that’s housed everything from Matt’s apartment on Daredevil to Cottonmouth’s nightclub onLuke Cage to Colleen Wing’s dojo onIron Fist, and ﬁnally—ﬁnally!—the cast steps in front of the camera for their money shot: the four of them in a row, braced for battle. It’s epic, it’s glorious, it’s a comic-book fan’s dream come true, it’s—
“Oh, s—,” Jessica says. A mysterious ﬁgure has appeared. “Bad news,” she warns. “We gotta go.” As tension descends into mayhem, the camera swings madly through the crowd and accidentally slams into Ritter’s left shoulder, knocking her over. The action stops. “I’m indestructible,” Colter jokes, noting Luke Cage’s unbreakable skin, as Ritter gets back up. “She’s not.”
Every take afterward looks just as riotous, but it makes sense that the four are making a mess:They’re not the Defenders yet. After investigating the corporation for diﬀerent reasons, each has arrived separately at the oﬃces of Midland Circle (a name that should sound familiar to Daredevil fans as the shady operation behind a giant, literal plot hole in season 2). “Every one of them is following their own trail of bread crumbs, trying to unpack a mystery in New York,” explains showrunner Marco Ramirez, who produced Daredevil’s ﬁrst season before co-showrunning the second. “We wanted them all caught oﬀ guard. Once they’re in that room together, it’s kind of like, ‘Oh, s—, who areyou?’”
IT’S A BIZARRE BEGINNING FOR A BUDDING SUPERHERO TEAM, BUT IF THIS FIRST meeting of the Marvel minds looks chaotic, the planning ofit has been anything but. The meticulously crafted origin story of The Defenders can be traced back to 2013, when Marvel TV head Jeph Loeb was watching The Avengers for the ﬁfth time. “Iron Man is falling out of the sky, and the Hulk is catching him, and my storytelling brain starts to think, ‘If you went over to 10th Avenue and down a fewblocks, you’d be in Hell’s Kitchen where there’s a group of heroes who are not really interested in saving the universe,’” recalls Loeb, referring to Marvel’s lesser-known heroes who have long populated the streets of New York. “That’s a really interesting place to start a television series.”
And not just one television series, butﬁve. Loeb and his team dreamed up a plan that would involve producing 60 episodes of gritty, street-level comic-book drama—13 for each of the four (anti)heroes’ individual series, and eight for the show that combined their forces. The plan mimicked the blueprint for Marvel’s big-screen approach, in which stand-alone ﬁlms starring Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America hit theaters before they teamed up in The Avengers.
Adding 60 hours of superhero stories sounds like a lot, but the Marvel machine doesn’t worry about super hero fatigue—even with the addition of The Punisher, starring Jon Bernthal, to the MarvelNetflix lineup. “I don’t know that you’d be asking this question if we were a medical show or a law show or a cop show,” Loeb explains.
“I think the other part that separates us from, let’s just say, our d inguished competition”— blquely referencing DC shows like Arrow and The Flash that poulate The CW—“is that we take place in a very real, grounded world. We’ve always said that there is a ﬁfth Defender, and that is New York.”
Wait, does that mean that The Defnders will visit New York-based Doctor Strange, cross over w h other Marvel series like A nts of S.H.I.E.L.D., or enter the realm of the ﬁlms? “You’re trying to trap me into saying, ‘Hashtag, it’s all connected,’” Loeb says, chuckling. “If the story warrants it, we will obviously do our best to have folks cross into each other’s story lines.”
Loeb chose blind vigilante Daredevil, superstrong sleuth Jessica Jones, indestructible ex-con Luke Cage, and orphaned martial artist Iron Fist not only because they lived in New York, but because they had encountered each other in various comic books to great eﬀect—but never in the Defenders comics themselves, as members of the team at the same time. Created by Marvel in 1971 to capitalize on the popularity of groups like Fantastic Four, The Defenders rotated lineups faster than you could say “Defenders disassemble!” But Loeb wanted to tell an unconventional superhero story, and these Defenders are the epitome of an unconventional grouping. They prefer to operate alone in their respective New York neighborhoods and have no interest in stopping Asgardians, saving the world from aliens, or chasing mythical gemstones. “We never had any other characters in mind,” Loeb says. “The differences in their personalities [in the comics] and in how they each see heroism enabled us to tell very diﬀerent series. It got us excited about the possibility of putting them together.”
The Alias Investigations P.I. may have wiped that smile off of Kilgrave’s face, but her takedown of the mind controller in Jessica Jones’first season brings more interest to her work. “She’s still dealing with the aftermath of Kilgrave, and now she’s dealing with ‘success’—and not well,” Ritter explains. “People want her to work for them, she’s getting a lot of business, and she’s not ready for any of that.She hasn’t changed, but her environment has, and there’s no handbook for how to exist in a world where you are now popular.” And popularity has never been Jessica’s goal, which makes the idea of teaming up in the Defenders particularly unappealing. “She’s gloriously the most reluctant hero in the world,” Ramirez says. “She’s going to have to let three men into her life who she doesn’t 100 percent trust.” At least she has Trish, who when we last saw her was diving into some files labeled “IGH,” the mysterious group that has ties to Jessica’s past.
Confident in its chosen cast of misfits, Marvel approached Netflix with the mega-pitch in 2013. The streaming giant had just begun producing original programming and seemed up for the superhuman task of rolling out ﬁve series backto-back. “We weren’t interested in making four pilots and then hoping someday that they could all get together,” Loeb says. “Netﬂix really understood what it is we wanted to do.” Likewise, Netﬂix considered Marvel a safe bet to help expand their then-slim library of bingable dramas, which included critical favorites (House of Cards) and not-so-favorites (Lily hammer). “All we were promising was that we would do better than Lily hammer,” Loeb says with a laugh. Now, more than three years later, the culmination of Loeb’s germ of an idea is ﬁlming, and the story has never strayed from its cape-and-cowl-free, un-Avengers-like focus. In other words, just because the members are ﬁnally together with a team name doesn’t mean they’ll be using it. “The Defenders didn’t have a D on their belt buckles and a Defenders Tower,” says Loeb. “We agreed from the very beginning that these folks could at the very end go, ‘I never want to see your face again.’”
THEY CERTAINLY DON’T SEE EYE to eye at ﬁrst. Picking up where each individual series left oﬀ (see sidebars for a quick catch-up), The Defenders begins with Matt distraught over losing Elektra (Elodie Yung, set to reappear on The Defenders) and thinking about abandoning his alter ego; Jessica dealing with newfound fame and freedom after destroying her tormentor Kilgrave (David Tennant); and Luke ﬁnding himself back behind bars.
Fans, though, still haven’t met the ﬁnal Defender: Danny, who’ll make his debut when Iron Fist arrives in March. At the beginning, he’s a fish out of water upon returning to New York after surviving a plane crash as a child and being raised by monks in the mystical city of K’un-Lun. According to Jones, Danny will continue that search on The Defenders: “He’s craving desperately for family, for help, for guidance, for people to learn from, and for a team,”the actor muses. “But because of what happens in Iron Fist, he’s very untrusting. It’s really his way or no way.”
Which is why Danny may be the key to the Defenders’ formation. “Danny has drive,” Jones teases. “He drives all of the Defenders to get behind him to solve the…” He trails oﬀ, noticing the publicist in the corner looking up. “Issue.” Ah, the “issue.” It’s no spoiler to say there will be a villain entering the picture, but this one, Ramirez promises, is impressive enough to draw the Defenders’ collective attention. “We knew it would take something massive to pull these four characters from their individual worlds to work together,” he says, “but also small enough that it felt like it existed in our world.” What, or who, could possibly walk that line?
Sigourney Weaver, it turns out—as in the Sigourney Weaver, of Alien and Avatar fame. Her evildoing Alexandra, whom Ramirez describes as an “utter badass,” is not based on a comic-book character. “Sigourney is the kind of person you can buy as the smartest person in the room, who you can also buy as a person holding a ﬂamethrower. Her character is a very powerful force in New York City. She’s everything Sigourney is: sophisticated, intellectual, dangerous.” He pauses. “I’m sorry. I can only say a bunch of adjectives right now.”
The Devil of Hell’s Kitchen ended his second season in a fittingly hellish place: alone. His relationship with best friend Foggy came undone, their law firm Nelson & Murdock was dismantled, and Elektra died fighting the Hand, only to have her corpse recovered by the evil organization. In the final minutes of the finale, Matt comes clean about his secret identity to Karen, but it may already be too late to make amends.The Defenders picks up a few months afterward, Cox says, and Matt’s thinking about leaving his role as the Man Without Fear. “One of Matt’s big things is trying to protect the people he loves, and he’s failed,” the actor explains. “He’s left holding the dead body of a loved one, and so I think he’s tried to turn a corner. It’s almost like quitting an addiction…. When we meet him at the beginning ofThe Defenders, I’m not sure he’s completely found peace with that idea. He’s doing the best with what he has.”
Fans didn’t mind the lack of details when Weaver’s casting was announced in October at New York Comic Con. Attendees started chanting, “Holy s—” as Loeb brought her on stage to join the four leads without sharing any tidbits about her role. And it wasn’t just fans who reacted this way. “When Jeph Loeb told me she as doing it, I think I may have said, ‘Shut the f— up,’” Ritter says. “I think that ay have been my response to the head of the studio.”
WEAVER’S CASTING SCORED A WIN FOR THE DEFENDERS, BUT THE SERIES HIT A bump that same month. Right before shooting began in late October, Doug Petrie, who served as an EP on Daredevil’s ﬁrst season and helmed the second with Ramirez, left as co-showrunner. “We got to a point where the scripts were done, and we wanted Marco to continue,and Doug pursued other avenues,”Loeb says. But Ramirez wasn’t worried. “We’ve all been working on this for a very long time, so we’re good,” he explains. “Daredevil season 2 was an interesting audition, in a way, because we dealt with three major characters,” he says, citing the additions of Elektra and the Punisher. “I’d gone through the motions of ﬁguring out how to cross those streams and mix the tones of each of those worlds.”
Luke may have been carted back to Seagate Prison at the end ofLuke Cage, but don’t worry— he won’t be there for long. “It’s safe to say Cage is not going to spend the entire season ofThe Defenders behind bars,” Colter says, laughing. “He’s been able to come clean and deal with his past.” Even better: His romance with Claire is going strong after the two shared a kiss in the season finale. “Anytime you’re smitten with someone and hanging out with them for the first time, there’s a spark,” Colter says. “That newness makes everybody excited.” The positive outlook helps when it comes to joining the Defenders. Colter says Luke acts as “the conciliator” for the group, and Ramirez agrees: “Luke is someone who’s, in a very mature way, compartmentalized his life.” Still, that doesn’t mean Luke is invincible. “He’s openly walking around as a hero,” Ramirez teases. “There’s a lot of pressure that comes with that.”
In this case the team had to juggle four entirely different worlds with four leads: Daredevil is an ultraviolent law drama, Jessica Jones a heady noir, Luke Cage a hip-hopinfused character study, and Iron Fist a martial-arts extravaganza. Instead of shoehorning them all into a whole new genre, Ramirez says they tried to emphasize what grounded each of the shows: the characters’ need to find the truth. “We’re taking our cues from shows like The Wire and The Shield,” he says, adding that viewers don’t need to see the stand-alone series to understand The Defenders. “This is about what happens in the back alleys of New York City, and how people have to rise to the occasion. It’s for a fan of good crime TV as much as it is for a fan of superhero TV shows.”
To make the balancing even more difficult, when Ramirez and Petrie began working on The Defenders, neitherLuke Cage norIronFist had aired, but they had to draft the shows’ arcs in advance. Plus, they had to make sure their familiarity with Daredevil didn’t mean his story would overshadow the others’. It helped that the Defenders’ writers had access to the other shows’ writers’ rooms, with all of them sharing an oﬃce building in L.A. If Ramirez had a question about Luke Cage, for instance, he could talk to showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker in person. If any beats sounded too similar, execs could quickly ﬂag the parallels. “It’s weirdly like there’s a massive writers’ room with all of these shows existing as little organisms,” explains Ramirez. Still, the best way to understand the Defenders is to look at what they have in common: They’re loners who don’t play well with others. “It’s ultimately a story about a family of orphans who are very grownup but still have more growing up to do,” he says.
Fans don’t have to brush up on the comics to understand martial artist Danny Rand, a.k.a. Iron Fist, when his series hits Netflix on March 17. “This ismy version of Iron Fist, this is [showrunner] Scott Buck’s and Netflix’s and Marvel TV’s version of Iron Fist,” Jones says. “We are dealing with an entity that is in and of itself.” So what exactly is that entity? Even Danny doesn’t know the answer at first. When the story begins, Danny has returned to New York City 15 years after the plane crash that left him orphaned in the mystical city of K’un-Lun, where he was raised and trained by monks. “He’s a child trapped in a man’s body,” Jones says. “He’s an incredibly fierce warrior, but he doesn’t know who he is.” In other words, he has to grow up—and grow up fast. “Iron Fist is like Danny in his adolescence, and The Defenders is like Danny taking responsibility and moving forward with his purpose,” Jones explains. Expect literal growing pains with this one.
THE ACTORS FORMED THEIR OFFSCREEN RAPPORT FAR EASIER THAN THEIR CHARACTERS did on screen, thanks to forgiving schedules that allowed for downtime. “With Jessica Jones I’m in almost every frame of the show,” Ritter observes. “This is spread out, and we’re all working about three days a week.” Adds Ramirez of the labor distribution: “We never wanted anyone to feel like they’re a guest on anyone else’s show.”
Because of that, there’s no leader of the Defenders. Instead, misanthropic Jessica and people-pleasing Matt have a cat-and-mouse relationship, while Luke and Danny share some mentor-mentee chemistry. And what about Jessica and Luke, who, uh, had “coﬀee” onJessica Jones? “I don’t think I can tell you,” Ritter says, adding that the pair, aside from crossing paths in that ﬁrst scene, haven’t had a conversation yet.
No worries—they will, says Ramirez: “It was almost like a checklist. ‘Where’s our great Luke and Jessica scene? Where’s our Danny and Matt scene?’” And not just for the leads. Supporting players like Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) and Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) from Daredevil will enter the fray, while Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor) and Jeri Hogarth (Carrie Anne Moss) from Jessica Jones are set to assist the team. Misty Knight (Simone Missick) from Luke Cage will cross paths with Jessica, and of course, Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), now Luke’s love interest, will be ready to patch up any wounds. “We look up at a bunch of boards in the writers’ room and say, ‘Oh, wait, we haven’t seen an interaction between these two,’” Ramirez says. “So what does that mean? Where does that lead?”
Sometimes, it’s teaming up to face a threat. Other times, it’s simply talking and connecting. Cox treasures those smaller interactions from the comics: “One of my favorite images is from aDaredevil issue with Luke Cage and Daredevil on a rooftop eating cheeseburgers. I love that.”
Unfortunately, having enemies crash their initialmeet-andgreet means the Defenders haven’thadtime for cheeseburgers yet, but four hours after their first take together, the cast and crew are having cake—inhonor of Cox’s and Ritter’s birthdays. And instead of looking back, Ritter eagerly contemplates The Defenders’ future, despite the fact that she and most of her costars have to shoot new seasons of their individual shows after the crossover series wraps: “If they want to do Defenders 2,” she says, “I’m in.”