The Defenders Are Here to Tell You All Lives Matter

The Marvel Netflix shows have been gritty and down to earth—which has meant, in practice, that they've tried to focus on marginalized communities. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is all about cosmic rich kids, deities, and government operatives saving all of reality from alien hordes and high tech gone awry. But Netflix has focused less on universal threats and more about injustice directed at folks who aren't millionaires. Jessica Jones was about rape and domestic violence; Luke Cage focused on Harlem and violence faced by black communities—even if it was chary of specifically condemning racism and white oppression. Daredevil, season 1, was set in Hell's Kitchen, a community facing gentrification. The show was mired in white ethnic nostalgia, but it tried, nonetheless, to address poverty, and its heroes were, notably, defense attorneys, not prosecutors.

The second round of Netflix shows have largely abandoned this interest in, and focus on, the have nots. Daredevil's second season wandered away from issues of urban poverty in order to babble on about ninjas, and Iron Fist notoriously and tediously is the story of a billionaire named Danny Rand (Finn Jones), who is as wealthy as Tony Stark, but lacking any of his charm. The Defenders is the apotheosis of this approach; Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), Luke Cage (Mike Colter), and Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) all set aside their petty concerns about injustice, and instead append themselves to the supposedly universal narrative of the whiny wealthy white guy. Rather than challenging the superhero default, the Defenders uses its marginalized characters to validate and reaffirm the standard superhero insistence that the most important people in the world are rich white guys.

It didn't have to be this way…and in fact, The Defenders seems at times to dimly realize that it didn't have to be this way. Luke Cage, in particular, has several moments in the series in which he challenges Danny's smug centrality. When Danny starts talking about his own special chosenness and his all-important war with the evil ninja organization the Hand, Luke stops him and asks him why he was beating up Luke's friend, a young man from Harlem who took a job cleaning up after the Hand's kills because legal work is sparse when you're black and poor. "You had power as soon as you were born," Luke tells Danny who (thanks to Finn Jones' usual acting prowess) looks petulant and constipated. Luke even drops the word "privilege", and then exits, vowing not to help the wealthy douchebag who clearly only cares about himself. In another scene, Danny's selfishness threatens the entire city, and the three working class Defenders team up to beat the snot out of him.

The writers and showrunners, it's clear, don't really like Danny, and don't expect the viewers to like him either—Danny's repeated humiliation is almost certainly intentional fan service for the character's many detractors. But like him or not, he's the linchpin of the plot, and his battle with the Hand that expands to rope in the others, no matter how much they bitch and moan about it. Admittedly, Matt, the other (relatively affluent) white guy is also more or less central to the plot. Luke and Jessica are there mostly, it seems, because their contracts say they have to be.

This is a shame, because there was at least an opportunity here to explore the ramifications of Jessica and Luke's world, rather than abandoning it. Both Jessica Jones and Luke Cage operated on the assumption that the people who really need protection, the people who face violence and injustice, are the marginalized. Superhero stories tend to treat evil as a kind of egalitarian exercise; in The Avengers, Loki and his space alien buddies want to destroy the whole world, which means everybody on earth is in the same (not all that metaphorical) cross hairs. A team up with someone like Danny, who is white and rich and convinced he's saving the world and doing everybody a favor, could have been a way to question the superhero assumption of egalitarian risk. A plot centering on Luke could have followed through on his dialogue with Danny, questioning whether the supposedly universal threat ("All Lives Matter!") is really the most important thing, or whether you actually confront violence most directly when you acknowledge the way that prejudice and structural inequities target the least. 

Instead, the series does what superhero team-ups usually do, and ropes in marginalized characters to validate the stories and angst of the rich white guys. Matt Zoller Seitz argues that superhero team-ups ask "how exceptional but damaged people with radically different worldviews and life experiences find common ground and fight for the greater good (which is the story of democracy itself)." But the big team up events on screen haven't been about disparate folks finding common ground. Civil War was the story of a billionaire's bromance with a military muckety-muck, with various African princes, black sidekicks, and teenage kids thrown in as special effects. Similarly, the new Justice League looks to be about billionaire Bruce Wayne's guilt issues, acted out with various sidekicks. As in the Defenders, the wealthy, white and male are at the center of the universe, and everyone else defers.

Superheroes in general are mostly white, mostly men, and disproportionately rich; if you spit on a comic rack, you're likely to hit one of the 1%. Superhero stories tend to the cosmic, the vast, and the simplistic; they're, intentionally, about supposedly universal problems or evils (bank robberies, space monsters), and everyone is supposed to cheer alike when the hero punches those problems out. Netflix's Marvel series started out trying a different approach. With mixed success, they tried to reach universal stories by focusing on particular injustices, and treating the plight of the marginalized as central. The Defenders is badly written, poorly directed, and a barely watchable slog. But it's most painful because it betrays the characters, and the communities, that Netflix and Marvel seemed, for a moment, to care about. 

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