Love ‘em or hate ‘em, comic book movies are all the rage. Marvel’s success at launching an interconnected universe with four individual movies leading to The Avengers was so pronounced, DC fell on their faces attempting to bring all their heroes together without first doing the requisite legwork. And now Marvel’s applying the same strategy on Netflix by bringing together Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist in the form of The Defenders. But two of these table legs are terribly unsteady as we dissect which is the worst Defender.
As always, I’m joined by fellow fantasy author, 2017 SPFBO semi-finalist, podcast professor, and all-round academic extraordinaire, Daniel E. Olesen, to put this issue to bed.
Matt: Before we get started and accusations of non-inclusivity get bandied about, I’d like to unequivocally state that I like Luke Cage the character. His appearance on Jessica Jones was pretty awesome, and they parlayed his powers and motivation well into his move to Harlem. And since comics have always been a (white) boy’s club, I really looked forward to a new perspective on the superhero genre I’ve followed for decades.
Unfortunately, I was subjected to Luke Cage (the show), which was by far the weakest of The Defender prequels (and that’s really saying something). I’m all for a show taking its time to establish characters, setting and tone, but the pacing of Luke Cage most graciously could be described as glacial. And I know that seems like a minor quibble, but it did the show no favors and made its other issues more pronounced.
Chief among these was populating the story with characters I couldn’t care about, which wasted the talents of some fine actors in Mike Colter, Alfre Woodard and Oscar winner Mahershala Ali. Instead of taking decisive action and driving the action, all these characters seemed content to sit back and only take action when the situation forced them to. Which muddled motivation and exacerbated said glacial pace.
Oh, and my compliments to acting most decidedly do not apply to Simone Missick, whose turn as Misty Knight is so wooden she might be a fire hazard. She even sucks the life out of every scene she’s in in The Defenders, so the blame’s squarely on the actress rather than the writers there.
Daniel: Despite being a negative review of Luke Cage, you have already brought up a few reasons why it is much better than Iron Fist. Maybe having an Oscar winning actor could have done something, anything in Iron Fist. I do like David Wenham and Carrie Ann Moss though, no offence to them, so I’ll mention the real atrocity here - just how bad a character Danny Rand is.
At least Luke Cage has some interesting facets to him. As you mention, superhero comics have mostly been a white soiree, and there’s untapped material with a protagonist from another background. Furthermore, even a pale European as me can better relate to Luke Cage, however odd that might sound, than Danny Rand.
I mean, he has two problems - his inheritance is stolen and he has to fight ninjas. The latter is not really something that happens to me or anyone I know often, plus we have already seen two seasons of this on Daredevil. As for losing his inheritance; I don’t remember the details, but I am pretty sure he is offered a settlement approaching 100 million dollars. If I remember that wrong and it’s only something like 10 million, that’s still an insane amount of money. Who among Netflix’s viewership can relate to such sums?
It’s really hard to feel sorry for Danny Rand. Yes, he lost his parents in a tragic accident, but he gets offered more money almost on a whim than any of us will ever see in a lifetime, and he got not just kung fu skills, but also some kind of magical hit-things-hard power in the process. The only thing that might possibly be relatable for the audience is losing his parents, but the show doesn’t seem interested in exploring that, so all we get to see is kung fu wonderbread moaning about money.
Matt: Wow, way to really swing and miss on that point. The murdered parents, clandestine training, immense wealth and defeating enemies with a fist is a comic book staple I’m betting you’re already familiar with...
And no, I’m referring to Green Arrow and his boxing glove arrow, not Batman, though I believe that demonstrates how successful said backstory is.
Yeah, their rendition of Danny Rand left a lot to be desired, but at least he had a purpose and goal in reclaiming his fortune, discovering who killed his parents, defeating the Hand and reclaiming his eponymous Iron Fist status.
Now compare that to Luke’s goals, which were to move to Harlem and… well, lay low I guess. I honestly can’t remember much about what he wanted other than to be left alone. Which is not a bad anti-hero motivation. Hell, it’s the first 20 minutes of the excellent Logan, so we know it can be pulled off in more capable hands. It’s Campbell’s “refusal of the call to action” at its most basic, but Logan still went on his journey after those 20 minutes. Luke Cage… not so much...
Really what Luke Cage suffered from the most was reactivity to bland villains. As I’ve stated before, heroes are only as good as their villains, as both Daredevil and Jessica Jones demonstrated with Fisk and Kilgrave respectively. But what did Luke Cage give us other than a mumble-mouthed Cottonmouth and then over-the-top Diamondback? The token white guy villain in Shades, who I honestly can’t remember if he actually did anything of import throughout the series?
In fact, they committed one of the worst cardinal sins in trying to switch out one villain for another, supposedly worse one, halfway through. That’s just bad storytelling there, and no matter how much they try to explain how close Luke and Diamondback were once, if it’s not established at the beginning of the story then it carries no emotional weight.
Daniel: I am going to call that a false equivalent, because Batman spends his time hitting things and Green Arrow spends his shooting things. Any time spent at Wayne Enterprises was just a necessary component in getting Bruce Wayne whatever he needed to become Batman. But in Iron Fist, our hero spends most of his time with lawyers or in corporate offices having business meetings. That’s fine as a step on the way to the actual story, but making most of the plot revolve around it is a poor move. I’ll take Harlem over Rand - Industries? Corporation? Don’t know, don’t care.
Yes, Batman is successful. So is Iron Man to some degree - because the story focuses on the character and his suit, not his boardroom meetings. Green Arrow is less successful, I would argue - Iron Fist is at the bottom. Turns out, you can milk a cash cow to death, and just emulating more successful superhero stories (poorly emulated at that) isn’t enough.
This brings me to the next point, which you also just brought up: villains. Iron Fist really struggles in this department. It’s not a bad setup having him as the champion and “sworn enemy of the Hand”, except we’ve just seen Daredevil do this repeatedly. The Hand gets less and less fearsome each season that they accomplish diddly squat, and by the time Iron Fist rolled out, I was lot less intimidated by them.
I can’t tell if the sibling pair and their Wenham father were supposed to be villains as well or some kind of tragic characters - in any case, a superhero story needs a clearly defined villain, or you’re not making a superhero story anymore, you’re making some kind of character drama. Which would be fine, except having someone yelling words like “Iron Fist” and charging up their hand like this is some fanfic version of Dragonball Z only works in one of these narrative contexts, and it isn’t the character drama.
Matt: So we both believe our specific shows lacked villains worth writing home about, huh? Which in turn meant the hero in question had nothing worthwhile to overcome, leaving him underwhelming throughout. You’d think the showrunner would have taken the lessons learned (or apparently not) from Luke Cage and properly applied them to Iron Fist. Or they could have just forced the showrunner from Daredevil to do double (triple?) duty and sit their writers down and explain an effective season arc.
But maybe the showrunners aren’t to blame any more than the actors. Perhaps, and I’m going out on a limb here, Luke Cage and Iron Fist just aren’t strong enough characters to support their own show. Yes, in aping The Avengers mold, The Defenders needed four characters leading their own series to team up to face an enemy none could overcome on their own. But I wonder if they ever considered if their characters could actually support said shows.
I firmly believe Luke Cage (the character) was at his best when he appeared on Jessica Jones. Danny Rand is also not nearly as annoying when he’s interacting with the other heroes (mind you, I’m only halfway through The Defenders as I type this), and, as much as I think the Jessica Jones pilot was one of the finest ever written, her schtick gets a little old on her own show.
Not Daredevil though; that show has been awesome throughout, though it gives us an interesting opportunity for experiment: The standout character in season two was The Punisher, so now we’ll see if he’s also a strong enough character to carry his own series or if he’s only good when working as counterpoint to another hero.
Because it’s the contrasts between heroes that makes them interesting, something Marvel learned in the 1970s when it teamed up Luke Cage and Iron Fist into a singular series after each proved incapable of carrying their own, yet somehow forgot 40 years later when it came to the small screen.
In the immortal words of Stan Lee, “nuff said.”