The Long Road to ‘The Defenders’

It’s been a long and confusing road through the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  What started off as a risky prospect with Iron Man ballooned into a multi-media sensation by the release of 2012’s The Avengers.  Spanning multiple film franchises, TV series, comics and shorts, it has redefined the way that the film industry views the 21st Century blockbuster.

And what The Avengers did for the Marvel movies, The Defenders will do for its TV series.  Both exist purely to answer one, simple question about their respective mediums: do audiences want giant, superhero team-up events?

The answer seems so obvious on the face of it — YES! — that it almost doesn’t warrant a response.  Of course audiences want to see bombastic, costumed lineups like the Avengers and the Justice League duke it out for the fate of the world.  Why would the small screen be any different from the big one?

The problem arises, however, when you consider that Television and Film are two entirely different mediums.  A movie is a quick shot in the arm: an afternoon spent catching up with your favorite heroes and villains.  It eats two hours out of your day at most. And with the genre’s near-universal PG-13 rating, it’s fun that the whole family can enjoy.

TV series — and especially the Marvel Netflix series — are a little different.  We’re not talking about two hours in the middle of your day anymore.  We’re taking twelve-hour stretches devoted to a single story: upwards of an entire week of your life dominated by the lives of a single set of characters.  And because television series often employ a range of writers and directors to handle the individual episodes, they can dramatically swing in quality from episode to episode.

That’s why so many people found it a chore to slog through Iron Fist.  Even the most generous viewers were forced to admit that it was a nosedive in quality from the likes of Daredevil and Jessica Jones.  With characters that nobody cared about running around a plot that nobody could invest themselves in on a budget that couldn’t support what was supposed to be happening on screen, more than a fair number gave up halfway through, while the rest disappointingly trudged through till the end.

That wouldn’t have been all that big of a deal for a movie.  I slog through the Star Wars prequels once a year when marathoning the whole saga and am happy enough sitting down for Iron Man 2 when revisiting Marvel’s Phase 1.  But spending a week to rewatch a lackluster series just to catch up for The Defenders?  That’s a Hell of a lot to ask a guy who just wants to kill a few hours before bed.

And then there’s the matter of content.  PG-13’s pretty much the friendliest rating you can hope for with an action movie.  Even families with young children feel comfortable fudging the numbers to let their little ones in on the fun.

Netflix’s Marvel series aren’t nearly so accommodating.  Each one caries the rough equivalent of an R-Rating.  This means more sex, more violence and more adult situations that even than laxest parents are happy letting their youngest see.

It’s not even like we’re doing this for Captain America or Spider-Man, either.  These are Marvel’s street-level heroes: C-listers and bit players and usually can’t even sustain their own books for too long of a stretch.

Sure, Daredevil’s a pretty big name, but he was damaged goods after that God-awful movie starring Ben Affleck.  Jessica Jones was too inherently “adult” to ever catch on with the general public.  Luke Cage and Iron Fist are most noteworthy for being quick cash-grabs on border-line offensive pop culture trends of the 1970s (blaxploitation and white guy kung fu respectively) and frequently had to star together in team-up books to avoid being individually canceled.

So is there a market for the small-screen Avengers: a low-budget team of street-level heroes that never had a shot in an MCU film?  Absolutely.  Despite Netflix’s limitations, they’ve proven remarkably adept at handling the R-rated superheroes the film branch is too busy to deal with.

The increased freedom that Netflix allows with the properties has resulted in the MCU’s most spectacular villains: from the show-stopping Kingpin to the darkly enchanting Kilgrave.  Their radically darker tone compared to the more light-hearted movies has brought in a subset of viewers that had long since grown fatigued with the patented Marvel formula on the big screen.

Now they have a crossover franchise of their own, and everybody’s the richer for it.

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