This month we take a look at new television set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The Defenders (Season 1)
Created by Douglas Petrie and Marco Ramirez
ABC Studios, Goddard Textiles, Marvel Television, and Netflix
Legion (Season 1)
Created by Noah Hawley
20th Century Fox Television, 26 Keys Productions, Bad Hat Harry Productions
The vast increase of scripted TV shows in recent years has created plenty of room for the superhero genre, a category still prospering in the wake of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s blockbuster dominance. While the trend continues to thrive, it’s left some critics wondering whether it’s a sustainable phenomenon. Are the superheroes of today like the westerns of yesteryear, destined to ride off into the sunset once their time has passed? As the genre grows increasingly formulaic, it’s difficult not to harbor that suspicion. But two Marvel superhero shows—The Defenders and Legion—are attempting to inject some new life into the genre and perhaps extend its longevity.
Marvel knows a good thing when it sees it—perhaps to a fault. The Defenders is an obvious attempt to do for TV what The Avengers did for film: build a complex universe from its inexhaustible roster of characters, weaving several solo projects together into a team. More Marvel formulism, right? But the weight of expectation, combined with the execution of a logistical feat unprecedented in the medium, initially made The Defenders build-up even more exciting than The Avengers. After opening promisingly with the gritty first season of Daredevil and the outstanding, unusual Jessica Jones, Marvel looked to be doing something rather different with its Netflix MTU. By the time the stylish Luke Cage had arrived, Marvel seemed well on its way to building a groundbreaking new corner of Marvel’s onscreen megaverse, perhaps even a superhero version of The Wire. Unfortunately, the sequence eventually lost its momentum—churning out diverting but forgettable fare. Luke Cage lost its way in a clumsy second half, while Iron Fist floundered through a truly terrible first season. Suddenly it appeared the critics were right. Maybe superheroes had peaked. Maybe we’d gotten too much of a good thing.
Well, The Defenders has finally launched. No, this isn’t The Wire for superheroes . . . not even close. But it’s a pretty good show, an interesting collision of the four series’ worlds, and ultimately I think it will satisfy the fans who’ve been following along with the project—even those who rightfully despised Iron Fist.
The series dawns in New York with its principal players wrestling with various inner demons. Matthew Murdock (Charlie Cox) has retired from vigilante crime-fighting as Daredevil to devote himself to more lawyerly attempts to save the city. Super-powered private investigator Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) is drinking her way through the aftermath of her traumatic showdown with Kilgrave. The indestructible Luke Cage (Mike Colter) finishes a stretch of prison time and hits the streets determined to make a positive mark on the city. And Danny Rand (Finn Jones), aka the Immortal Iron Fist, returns from Asia, still tracking The Hand in the wake of his failure to protect the magical land of K’un-lun from destruction.
It requires a few strategic episodes of simmering plot to bubble these four heroes’ lives together, but it’s time well spent, a mystery-solving slow-cook that reintroduces the characters and their extended worlds before thrusting them together against The Hand’s sinister leader Alexandra (Sigourney Weaver). In the name of furthering The Hand’s nefarious agenda, Alexandra is hatching an evil plot that could very well leave New York City in ruins, but not if Daredevil, Jones, Cage, and Iron Fist have anything to say about it.
The Defenders isn’t a seamless four-series integration, but it’s a decent show that benefits from a reduced running time (eight episodes to the usual, plodding thirteen) and from the merging of several impressive ensembles. Indeed, “getting the band together” solves a problem each show possesses: one-note protagonists. In the individual series, Daredevil’s Catholic guilt, Jones’ affected indifference, Cage’s nobility, and Iron Fist’s entitled arrogance often left me craving more participation from their many relatable sidekicks. Here, everyone on the team—especially Iron Fist—is improved by a group dynamic which distributes the emotional workload. Meanwhile, the supporting characters—Daredevil’s Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) and Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson), Iron Fist’s Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), Luke Cage’s Misty Knight (Simone Missick), Jessica Jones’ Trish (Rachael Taylor) and Malcolm (Eka Darville), series-hopping Stick (Scott Glenn), and the ubiquitous Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson)—all turn up to orient us into each major hero’s life, before ultimately mingling in fun ways. The show can be forgiven if it’s not always sure what to do with all these side characters in light of the short episode run, but their very presence contributes to the atmosphere of momentous, event television. Of the group, Dawson and Henwick are best served by the scripts, so much so that they could easily be considered full-fledged members of the team—something I’m guessing subsequent seasons will explore.
So The Defenders works in many ways. Alas, in others it’s a letdown. Despite the shorter length, the pacing wavers, and as the story bounces between characters, the scene quality is similarly uneven, leading to a Frankenstein’s monster effect that delivers everything from Jessica Jones at its finest to Iron Fist at its worst. Once the early intrigue starts adding up to something, that something is the usual apocalyptic nonsense, leading to familiar violent spectacle: true-to-form, expected, and rife with difficult-to-track, emotionally empty fight scenes. Overall, the direction is quite interesting, but occasionally gets distractingly artsy and convoluted. In the end, I think The Defenders successfully executes a difficult mission, but it’s a qualified success. This show isn’t about to transform the genre, but it does plenty to sustain it in its current form.
By contrast, FX’s Legion, a more obscure Marvel property, definitely does spin the superhero genre in new directions. An offshoot of The X-Men franchise, Legion follows the life of troubled David Haller (Dan Stevens), a schizophrenic who has spent much of his life in a mental institution. David leads a bleak existence designed to medically keep his noisy inner voices in check, but an encounter with a fellow patient, Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller), unlocks what he soon comes to learn are mutant powers—and while they’ve been driving him mad all these years, they also make him extremely powerful. David is liberated from his confinement by Dr. Melanie Bird (Jean Smart) and her associates, and spirited away to a secret research facility called Summerland. She wants to help David learn to control his powers, and keep him out of the hands of an unscrupulous government agency called Division 3. But what does David himself want? With the help of Ptonomy (Jeremie Harris), a mutant who can project David into his own memories, David confronts his past in the hopes of finding out—but the process is complicated severely by David’s rather unusual friend, Lenny (Aubrey Plaza).
Legion possesses many of the earmarks of classic comic book fare: a troubled super-protagonist, a colorful team of sidekicks, a simplistic good-evil rivalry between two opposing forces with incompatible worldviews. Summerland is basically Charles Xavier’s Psychotherapy Lab for Gifted Youngsters, a super-team of mutants and outsiders aligned against a more powerful, more organized evil: Division 3, the humorless, reactionary source of difference-squashing villainy. In all these respects, Legion is rife with the comfortable, familiar elements of the genre.
But it also dramatically veers away from formula. For one thing, it lacks the familiar structural bones of most superhero fare, its plot ricocheting through time, through unreliable viewpoints, and in and out of different planes of reality. Legion, while certainly not without violence, resists the temptation to build toward a traditional, bludgeoning showdown; it’s more random and unpredictable than that, some of its biggest confrontations of a more psychological variety. Legion lacks a traditional, nefarious Big Bad. While it does have a primary villain, it’s a creepy and distinctly different one, glimpsed largely in the reality-warping hallucinations or the scary back corridors of the psyche. If most superhero tales are built like identical skyscrapers, with hero and villain racing toward the top in parallel elevators, Legion possesses far more interesting architecture: a complicated building with lots of weird twisty corridors and tangential side rooms, erratic juts and awkward angles.
Even more striking, however, is the show’s inventive visual style. Spectacle is practically a prerequisite of the genre, but Legion doesn’t settle for the obvious. The show’s vision, while perhaps derivative, is also unique and invigorating. Numerous filmmakers seem to have made an influencing mark—among others, one sees nods to the mindbending weirdness of David Lynch and the artfully cockeyed flourishes of Terry Gilliam. (Indeed, the show’s mix of retro styles with contemporary ones reminded me of Gilliam’s Brazil, which exists in a similarly indecisive temporal landscape.)
Also lending considerable verve to Legion’s style are the performances, particularly those of Dan Stevens and Aubrey Plaza. Stevens leans into David’s instability with impressive intensity. Plaza, meanwhile, is a fearless, scene-stealing marvel. She commits whole-heartedly to her weird, multifaceted role, delivering a riveting performance that balances playful quirk with unnerving menace. No other actor’s presence contributes quite so strongly to Legion’s unusual flavor profile.
In a genre that too often relies on formula, Legion is breath of deliciously weird fresh air. Hopefully it’s not too unorthodox to attract a viewer base, but in my opinion it’s exactly what the genre needs right now: something that takes some artistic chances, shakes things up, and broadens the range of potential superhero stories.
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