The entire clip is in CCTV black and white and set inside an elevator. One of the characters has a makeshift cowl on his head, a rag that covers his eyes. An African American, dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, looks primed for a fight. A young man in a suit is facing the elevator doors, fidgeting. The fourth, a woman, looks upset, even in profile. She suddenly spots the camera, jumps up and swats at it. There’s nothing but static on the screen. This 17-second teaser of Marvel’s Defenders, released barely a week ago, has clocked over two million views. Set to stream on Netflix later this year, expectations over this ensemble series are high. They were much higher before the newest and last ‘defender’ of the quartet, the critically panned Iron Fist, arrived. It derailed many things.
When half the world was looking forward to the March 17 release of Iron Fist, the stage was set for a delicious one-upmanship of appreciation for four very impressive meta-human-themed series on Netflix: Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist. The analogy of a juggernaut offered itself nicely. The first three defenders on the scene were spectacular – each a delightfully unconventional, often stylised, take on superpowers. Jessica Jones is a good place to start.
Until recently, female superheroes lived in a rather misogynistic world. They were dressed in costumes indistinguishable from body paint, and were often endowed with ‘softer’ powers while the men did the heavy-duty stuff. Most embarrassing was their generally one-note, unimaginative characterisation.
Marvel’s Jessica Jones sucker-punched every rule in the female superhero instruction manual. She didn’t pout, she grimaced. She dressed frumpily, drank herself to sleep. She generally didn’t give a damn. She wore her powers – enhanced strength, endurance and limited flight – very lightly, calling on them only when absolutely necessary, or when it was fun. A sex scene comes to mind.
Jones has so many layers she would put a lasagna to shame. She’s a skilled private investigator unencumbered by scruples who snapped pictures of her clients’ suspects from the shadows. She’s estranged from her sister, the one person she was close to. And when she finally makes a human connection (with another Defender), the relationship is based on a lie and doomed from the start.
Why is she the way she is? In answering this is where the series stands apart. Jones’s backstory isn’t a parallel track. It is the story itself. From her early childhood, crushed by an accident and an exploitative adoptive mother, right up to her running into Kilgrave.
The comic-book name apart, this is one of those characters who pushes his villainy to the limit without a hint of conscience or remorse. A supremely convincing David Tennant brings presence and palpable danger to this role of an absolute brat who’s used to getting his way. A man who controls people’s minds and makes them do his bidding. Smitten by Jones, he makes her his puppet, lover, bodyguard and executioner. Tennant as Kilgrave would be a wonderful surprise to those who’ve only seen him overcooking it as Barty Crouch Jr. in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
Apart from Jones herself, the series is a delicious mix of characters played by non-A-listers like Rachel Taylor (Jessica’s step-sister), Wil Traval (ex-military, policeman briefly under Kilgrave’s control) and, not the least, Carrie-Ann Moss, who plays a shark of a lawyer in the midst of a divorce with her doctor wife, while having an affair with her assistant. These very adult themes – same sex relationships, PTSD, guilt, unequal relationships – are dealt with in a refreshingly adult manner.
Jessica Jones‘s is a grown up world. It isn’t made for the fanboys. That would be Daredevil’s turf, Hell’s Kitchen. That world has blind vigilantes, secret millennia-old cults, print journalists who are still relevant, and one of the most iconic villains ever to weigh in on TV: the Kingpin.
Defined by the villain
Some stories, usually the duller ones, are defined by the hero. Others become background to the villain. One can imagine what the makers of Daredevil must have been thinking – “So we’ve got a Catholic hero who’s perpetually conflicted about what he’s doing, vociferous against killing and works as a penniless lawyer by day. How do we make this interesting? Let’s create a really big bad guy.”
The Kingpin, self-proclaimed emancipator of Hell’s Kitchen, is a man of monolithic physical proportions and intelligence. His machinations for control of the community are at once brutal and intricate. A man of covert speed and obvious strength, an apex predator. But a man all the same, haunted by fears and by demons from the past, and capable of fierce love (Ayelet Zurer, who plays Superman’s mother in Man of Steel, is the love interest). Certainly more interesting as a character than Daredevil and played with astonishing energy and honesty by the 57-year-old Vincent D’Onofrio.
Vincent made his mark as Private Leonard Lawrence in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987). Crime TV fans might know Vincent from his run as Detective Robert Goren in Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Or from a livelier turn in Men in Black, as Edgar the farmer who had an unfortunate encounter with an alien bug and became the bug’s skin for the rest of the movie. He was in Jurassic World, in which he played the avaricious security chief of InGen who later becomes a meal for velociraptors.
Charlie Cox, who plays the titular role, brings an earnestness and coiled physicality to the character. He gets beaten up more often than a hero ought to – but he hits back with convincing agility and acrobatics. Daredevil has, hands down, some of the best action set pieces ever on small screen. Brilliantly choreographed nighttime sequences are nicely bolstered by some solid courtroom drama and heroic journalism in the day.
While the Kingpin pretty much carried the first season on his sizeable shoulders, season two got more ambitious and brought in a rash of new characters, each with a very satisfying character arc. Stick, Elektra, the Punisher, each adds a fresh burst of adrenaline at just the right time. French-born Elodie Yung brings a foreign accent, a primal joy in killing and an intense love for Daredevil. A personal favourite is Jon Bernthal’s (The Walking Dead, Wolf of Wall Street) Punisher. He wakes up from a coma (bullet to the brain) and goes to town on a killing spree, disposing of entire mobs. In a voice like he’s gargling gravel, Bernthal manages to bring army humour and genuine pathos to the role. The Devil of Hell’s Kitchen has to work really hard when sparring – with fist or word – with the Punisher.
For those who had the misfortune of suffering through the Ben Affleck starrer, the Netflix version was…redemption – something every Defender is in pursuit of. Every Defender except Luke Cage, who simply wants to be left alone in Harlem, where conversation is punctuated by the snip of scissors in the local barber shop, where music still comes out of boom boxes and the air is thick with history.
The whole point of Luke Cage is to celebrate all things African American. The entire series is saturated with black culture and aesthetic. While this particular sensibility isn’t all that rare in film – even film that isn’t made by or for a black demographic – it takes on a richer, more nuanced dimension when given context and time.
There’s a school of thought which suggests the word ‘nigger’ isn’t entirely taboo, that it has a place in defining the socio-economics, personality and identity of African Americans. In Luke Cage, the bad guys drop N-bombs as easily as flicking lint and some of the phrasing is rather catchy. For instance, Alfre Woodard, who plays local Councilwoman Mariah Dillard, says with an extended affectation, “Nigger pleeease.” It drips with disdain. Woodard is a powerful presence and kills it as a crooked politician who gradually rips off her mask of civility. The obvious bad guy, Mariah’s Cousin Cornell ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes, seems the lesser evil. He’s also more watchable.
There’s a huge portrait of Biggie with a crown. Mahershala Ali towers above a punk he just beat to death. The crown frames his bloodied face. In another scene, he’s on the piano, riffing some jazz, lost in a wave of emotions from a scarring past. A small harem of women is sprawled on his scarlet-covered bed, listening. As Cottonmouth (he hates the moniker), Ali bludgeons people to death, shoots them, throws them off the roof and fires a bazooka at Luke Cage’s building. Despite it all, he makes us believe he’d rather be someone else.
It’s a powerful performance from the Academy-Award-winner. Though his early death ties up all the loose ends of his story, and wraps up the emotional arc beautifully, it leaves a credibility vacuum in the proceedings. One imagines that even the music – which features some incredible talent – gets a bit muted after he leaves.
The attitude of Luke Cage is contagious. There’s no ambiguity between the good guys and the bad (N-word speakers = bad). And unlike with Daredevil, the good guys seem to be more comfortable in their own skin. Having grown up in the same neighbourhood, exposed to the same set of circumstances and temptations afforded to the gang-bangers and choosing a life free of crime meant they earned their moral superiority. Empathy with the bad guy is automatic and a rejection of his life choices is free of ambivalence. Even the pontification is convincing.
“Do you even know who Crispus Attucks is?” Cage asks a punk who has a gun to his head. “A free black man. The first man to die for what became America.” They’re in front of a building named after Attucks. After recalling Attucks’s courage, he decides to step up from the shadows and take his place as a defender of Harlem. He then grabs the gun and shoots himself in his chiseled stomach. The punk bolts before the mangled bullet bounces off his impervious skin and hits the ground.
Gorgeous production quality, spectacular action, bold themes and memorable characters painstakingly built a fair amount of atmosphere for the larger Defenders’ saga. Crackling with dark energy, flashes of impending terror. Suddenly, in all that atmosphere, a golden balloon floated in, the string came loose and with a loud wheezing noise, the balloon flew in every direction, knocking down all the built-up mystery, smashing into the faces of the gravest characters. The balloon was embossed with the words ‘Iron Fist’.
‘The Hand’ is an ancient cult bent on global domination, with tentacles deep within corporates, government and organised crime; possessing an army of Ninjas; and have, incredibly, managed to reanimate the dead. In the Iron Fist, we’re given to believe that there’s a ‘good’ Hand and a ‘bad’ one. And then told they’re both bad, just that one of them isn’t as scary. Coming back from the dead is trivialised. Madam Gao is a centuries-old master of a drug den, staffed entirely by people whose eyes have been burned out. She’s reduced to a human fortune cookie. We’re given to believe she possesses the power of telekinesis, which she then never uses again, even to escape imprisonment. For a series supposedly about a hero with extraordinary martial arts skills, the action is weak. It never gets better.
It begins well enough, probably because the first episode is usually viewed through the rose-tinted glasses of expectation – and the memory of watching the other Defenders. Billionaire Danny Rand is the Iron Fist, the youngest of the Defenders, and the least conflicted with regard to his ‘destiny’. Unfortunately, that confidence stems from childishness and not much else. One soon realises that lines like “I don’t have a plan. We’ll figure something out when we get there” or “You know why you make such a bad Iron Fist. You have no idea where you’re going” are manifest symptoms of writer’s block because they never do figure anything out. The plot holes are ridiculous. Good actors are wasted: David Wenham (Australia), Tom Pelphrey, Jessica Stroup.
The plot holes and gaps are unforgivable. For someone who’s lived for 15 years in a parallel dimension accessible only through the Himalayas, Rand acclimatises himself far too quickly to New York. He carries an iPod with a playlist of the biggest hits from 20 years ago. How on Earth did he charge the gadget in a place without electricity? Davos, a fellow acolyte, comes to remind him of his destiny and take him back. He suddenly develops a county English accent. There are entire listicles online discussing the many bloopers that made the final cut.
Even the stellar efforts of the regulars – Carrie-Ann Moss (the lawyer Hogarth) and Rosario Dawson, who plays nurse Claire Temple across all four series, can’t rescue Iron Fist from mediocrity.
Considering the kind of backlash Iron Fist received from fans and critics, dissecting it any more would be like beating on a puppy. Beyond a point, it becomes a sad exercise. The puppy can’t fight back on any count.
Writing on the wall
The title art for the Defenders is graffiti. Considering what Iron First wrought, the fate of the impending series is a bit worrisome. How much damage can one bad apple do? Or have the makers of Defenders managed to elevate the proceedings somehow?
It took a rewatching of some of the best aspects of the other Defenders series to get over the metallic aftertaste of Iron Fist. The tittle tracks, for instance. While the Iron Fist’s isn’t completely terrible, it certainly is unimaginative. The animation is low quality and a bit monotonous. Daredevil’s is set to the beat of a racing heart. The visuals are of a city being drenched in scarlet blood. As the city takes shape, so does Daredevil – cowl first and then the rest of him. The Luke Cage opener is intimate. Landmarks and signboards of Harlem reflected on the hero’s sculpted body. It reflects the ponderous, inevitable power of the protagonist. Then there’s the pacing. Cage doesn’t jump, or run, or move really fast. When he starts swinging, he only needs to connect once. This gives the whole series an unhurried air. Daredevil happens in wave after wave of action. The waves are mostly predictable, but when they’re not, they tend to be even more effective. Jessica Jones plays things close to the chest at first, then goes all guns blazing. The Iron Fist is just… off. Atonal, inconsistent.
The background score and music in Iron Fist was forgettable, save for a few nice touches – when Rand and Wing indulge in a little post-coital tai chi, for instance. Daredevil packs heavy bass and some intense violins. The background score is top notch, particularly during the fight sequences and whenever the Punisher comes on screen. And Luke Cage? The music is the best part of the series. Raphael Saadiq, Jidenna and a host of others – veterans and new stars alike – perform live at Cottonmouth’s nightclub. Some of the most cinematic moments of the story are drummed up to perfection with some spectacular percussion. Blown up and brushed by trumpets and the slipstream from the plucked strings of an electric guitar.
So after all that, to trudge through the abysmal Iron Fist, perforated plot and discordant rhythm and wasted mystery, all set to insipid music – one could be forgiven for having developed some amount of scepticism.
Speculation that ought to be sweet isn’t entirely so. Nevertheless, there’s still much to look forward to. At the most basic, watching a man with impenetrable skin, a cynical superhuman no longer susceptible to mind control, a vigilante with heightened senses and a human weapon battle a maleficent horde ought to be something. So yes, when the Defenders converge, one will wait, watch and cheer, and wildly hope that the fourth defender puts a fist in it.
Anand Venkateswaran is a Chennai-based freelance writer.