The Defenders: How Marvel's street-level heroes landed on Netflix
Marvel TV head Jeph Loeb thought of The Defenders while watching The Avengers for the fifth time, on DVD, back in 2013.
“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 few blocks, you’d be in Hell’s Kitchen where there’s a group of heroes who are not really interested in saving the universe,'” he remembers. “That’s a really interesting place to start a television series.”
And not just one television series, but five, based on Marvel’s lesser-known heroes who have long populated the streets of New York. 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.
Loeb chose blind vigilante Daredevil, super-strong 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 (think Heroes for Hire, which partnered Luke and Danny, or New Avengers, which included Daredevil, Luke, and Jessica), 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 stories. It got us excited about the possibility of putting them together.”
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 back-to-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.” Plus, he says Netflix opened doors to lesser-known creatives and to new forms of storytelling. “They’re very open to directors that might not have that same opportunity in broadcast television,” he says. “The notion of having all 13 episodes at one time, particularly in serialized storytelling, is very appealing.” Likewise, Netflix, despite not having heard of most of the heroes, considered Marvel a safe bet to help expand its then-slim library of bingeable dramas, which then included critical favorites (House of Cards) and not-so-favorites (Lilyhammer). “All we were promising was that we would do better than Lilyhammer,” Loeb says with a laugh.
And so Netflix went all in, and the rest is small-screen history. After choosing showrunners, casting the stars, and rolling out the stand-alone series in the years since, Loeb says he now hopes to see the Marvel-Netflix universe continue to widen. “We go back to what Marvel’s always about, which is that there’s 50 years of Daredevil [stories], there’s 40 years of Luke Cage and Iron Fist, there’s 30 years of Jessica Jones,” he says, “so you know, there’s a lot of stories out there.” Still, don’t expect Marvel’s TV arm to pull off a series for every character on the Marvel slate. “Unlike the movie studio where they can say, ‘In 2019 we’re making Captain Marvel,’ the television division doesn’t have that ability,” Loeb says apologetically. “We are, at the end of the day, beholden to the network that we’re on. So for all of you Agent Carter fans out there, we didn’t cancel the show.” If only Netflix had room for that fan-favorite…
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Marvel’s The Defenders hits Netflix this summer.