As I've said before, when we're in the midst of major political turmoil, escapism is not a bad thing. And there is only so much that can be said about these events, many of which are still unfolding, making an opinion hard to come up with. For my escapism over the last few weeks, it just so happened that the new Marvel/Netflix miniseries, The Defenders premired recently, and well, I'm a nerd. But there is something different about The Defenders when compared to The Avengers or even the individual shows. The collection of characters from four very different shows coming together in their own team-up series is not unheard of in the modern era, but it does create dynamics and highlights the individual strengths of each lead character.
When Daredevil premiered in 2015, it was an unexpected hit, as the 2003 film starring Ben Affleck was a failure. The show hit the audience with the tone within the first few episodes, showcasing the homemade black suited Daredevil, while also making sure to develop his alter ego, Matt Murdock. This makes Daredevil the only MCU show on Netflix to have a main character who must keep their identity a secret, whereas in Iron Fist, Danny Rand tells pretty much anybody that he is the immortal Iron Fist. A highlight of the series is the focus on Matt's personal life, ranging from his disability (blindness), to romance, to faith. As in the comics, Daredevil is a Catholic, and it's not just mentioned once or twice – the church and the priest appear several times throughout both seasons and The Defenders. Season 2 introduced us to the Punisher, who is likely the darkest character in the MCU as of now. He was used in a way to show Matt's struggle with both lives, one where he is the lawyer for Punisher by day, but at night, he was in a constant fight with him over their differing views on fighting crime. Even back in season one, Daredevil showed a side of the universe we didn't really hear about, setting the course for more personal stories like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage not long after.
Jessica Jones, which introduced Luke Cage to the MCU, also was an anti-MCU series, dealing with topics such as PTSD, psychological trauma, sexual assault, and child abuse. This was a drastic tone shift from Daredevil, which was still obviously a few blocks away from Stark Tower. Jessica Jones herself doesn't run around saving people from burning buildings or lifting cars overhead, rather, she runs a one-woman private investigation office. She drinks, she doesn't sleep much. Really not the best role model for young girls. But unlike Daredevil, the show was the first one to be truly a series for adults. While it was dark and oftentimes graphic, Daredevil kept things relatively safe, whereas Jessica Jones features a villain who make people do whatever he wants – even staying with him in an abusive relationship. It is a turning point in the MCU's television projects, as we began to see what the tone would be for this side of the universe, as well as give us a very human and very raw performance of a powered person who didn't want to be a “superhero” like Iron Man or Captain America.
One of the more notable Marvel Cinematic Universe projects was Luke Cage, as it was, at least for the first seven episodes, less of a superhero show and more of a story about a guy with powers, not unlike Jessica Jones. The titular character, portrayed by Mike Colter, is also the first African-American starring role in the MCU (Nick Fury, while a major player, is a side characters to the main hero), and the show itself presents a very un-Marvel view of Harlem. Street gangs, violence, corrupt government officials, all of which are not something you think of when you think of a franchise that includes Iron Man and Ant-Man. The series is also notable for using harsher language, including racial slurs. Of course, it wouldn't be Luke Cage without exploring race – and it came at just the right time, as Luke spends much of the show wearing a hoodie ridden with bullet holes, thus making a statement about being the bulletproof man.
Iron Fist, which holds the record for lowest approval rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes for a Marvel Cinematic Universe project, finds itself too Marvel. The show dealt less with the street-level issues of the previous three, but that made it stand out from the grim and gritty world. Iron Fist took place just as much in a corporate office as it did in the streets, and Danny Rand fought two battles against the Hand organization – one physically, one through his company, not unlike Jessica Jones taking down Kilgrave using her office and abilities to do so. The series is also controversial due to the casting of a white actor in the lead role, a hero who uses martial arts and chi as his abilities, when many wanted an Asian lead. I previously wrote about this when the show was released, but it is worth repeating that Luke Cage dealt with race because the character himself is based in racial commentary, and Iron Fist was about an outsider being trained by ancient monks, not being a master because he is Asian.
The Marvel/Netflix projects are important to the survival of the superhero genre in media, as well as important for showing the capabilities of television. With a two-pronged approach not unlike TSR and Dungeons and Dragons/Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, Marvel has opened themselves and others up to be able to produce quality content for a variety of audiences. The issues the shows deal with, like disability, PTSD, racism, and corruption, aren't often seen in superhero movies or TV shows. However, Marvel had teams who knew their source material and near-faithfully adapted the tone. As with any genre, and as I've said many times, this is a genre that is bound to crash and burn one day. But with the MCU using Netflix to try new stories and new ways of showing off relatively unknown superheroes, it might just be able to last a little longer. Darker is not always better, but being able to have several tones allows for several different audiences, just like the comics the shows are based off of.