‘The Defenders’ Substitutes Politics For Storytelling, And The Result Is Boring

‘The Defenders’ Substitutes Politics For Storytelling, And The Result Is Boring

This is the level of writing in prestige television in its golden age: preemptive declarations of liberal grievances instead of a real plot.
Titus Techera
By

With “The Defenders,” the Marvel-Netflix enterprise comes to intersectionality. This was inevitable, because Marvel brought to Netflix a dramatization of the closing of the liberal mind: stories all about race, class, and gender. But up to now, their stories were simply not sufficiently woke.

There was always the possibility that good storytelling might win out; but instead, series sold the idea that binge-watching prestige television was the same thing as social justice.

This is as good a time as any to look back on what Marvel-Netflix has accomplished so far, so let’s review how we got here. This all started with a show about social class, “Daredevil,” still Marvel’s only real dramatic success in any medium. I don’t think that was an accident, because “Daredevil” is Marvel’s only really astounding hero: he is unique for his overt Christianity, but also because the source of his power is in a weakness—blindness. He has the rare humanity of focusing on his neighborhood, where things like poverty and crime are real, as well as the political exploitation of housing. And to top it off, he was a lawyer with a commitment to fighting off corruption in the name of the rule of law.

In short, this was Marvel’s amazing answer to Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy. Not only is Daredevil an answer to Batman—aside from striking similarities of look, there is this commitment to the installation of the rule of law—but Daredevil is American in ways Batman cannot be. He has a Christian commitment to human equality, and therefore to not killing people, even if they deserve it. Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord! That, of course, could be a guide for people who want to understand why use of force is so problematic in America.

What Made ‘Daredevil’ Unique And Exciting

But this all went to hell because the story abandoned Hell’s kitchen. “Daredevil” had to be turned into some silly fantasy about fighting an evil ninja-devil organization. I’m unfortunately not joking. This is what passes for sophistication in prestige television, even beyond “Game of Thrones.” The first season’s seriousness about the lower classes was abandoned. Partly, that’s because it would have been hard to keep up. After all, prestige television is almost always dedicated to ignoring the lower classes, even when it sells fantasies of violence and non-middle class living. Had the writers taken their setting and their hero seriously, they would have had to reflect on the changes New York has undergone since the days of horrifying crime rates. Far easier to tell a foolish story about cartoonish devils. I’m not saying the abstract fight between West and East is not an interesting topic—more on this later—but it sacrificed “Daredevil” to fake mysteries and devil-slaying adventures that are as cheap as they are fake.

Then Marvel went with a show about feminism, “Jessica Jones,” so insistent on telling you women are under sexual threat in America just for being alive that even the camera work was supposed to imitate a stalker. That show famously closed with the protagonist in voice-over, telling the audience that just living in New York makes you a hero. Aside from the middle-class privilege and shamelessly overt flattery of the Netflix audience, it seemed entirely fake compared to the realism of “Daredevil.” Whatever might be said for the compelling characterization of an abuse victim as protagonist, the show’s moralistic claims about the city and America dropped out of the blue, proving political correctness and betraying the earlier, apolitical characterization.

This proved the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of latter-day feminism. The show constantly switched from treating its heroine as a victim of horrifying abuse who turns to meaningless sexual promiscuity and drunkenness as a coping mechanism to treating her as a cool outcast, individualistic, independent, and contemptuous of the moral constraints of society. It glamorized immorality while moralistically denouncing normality. The constant hedging was meant to hold on to the old feminism of “the family is a comfortable concentration camp” while concealing the fact that the new individualistic situation is horrifying. The female characters in “Jessica Jones” are almost friendless and almost entirely isolated from any form of togetherness or community. Is it a surprise they’re also paranoid about the demonic patriarchy?

The Catastrophic Writing Of ‘Luke Cage’

Then Marvel completed the trifecta with its show about race, “Luke Cage,” the only one with high-flying rhetoric, but also by far the worst written. The morality was so serious there—this was finally a show where the symbols of the civil rights struggle were rather impressive—that it turned out to have an entirely worthless and bewildering plot. If you take the plot seriously, you’d have to say that the middle-class white audience of Netflix cannot bear to look at a story about black Americans without meaningless soap opera drama. And this as part of a show that daringly wanted to take on the corruption of Democratic black politics in Harlem.

The catastrophic writing starts with characterization. Luke Cage is supposed to have been Marine Recon and a tough boxer in illegal jail prizefights. But throughout an entire season of the action-superhero show, you never see that he knows how to throw a punch or that he has any urban tactical warfare skills. Apparently, the writers cannot be bothered to read their own scripts, but wanted to emphasize what a patriot the man was just to show how racist America is.

The soap opera plot, which emerges halfway through the show, uncalled for and unsatisfying, did have a remarkable ambition of its own. It moves the action from Harlem to the South, strange as that is, to give you an origin story. Luke Cage was one of two sons of a famous, successful black preacher around the time of the South’s civil rights struggles. The other boy was illegitimate. They end up implausible enemies in a meaningless plot, but the suggestion there is that this is a mockery of MLK. This is fairly shocking for American story-telling, but it also seems unavoidable—given the civil rights symbols, what else could it be?

‘Iron Fist’ Is The Worst Marvel Series Yet

Then “Iron Fist” came out, seemingly a rush job to prepare for “The Defenders,” so strange it didn’t even look like the dark, gritty, stylish, very polished shows by which Marvel established its Netflix brand, independent of its previous TV shows and of the blockbusters by which it dominates theaters. Instead, this looked and worked like DC Comics TV shows—“The Flash” or “Supergirl”—as soap operas for teenage Americans. Even the fighting was ludicrously bad, especially for a show all about Kung Fu!

Behold: as a 10-year-old kid, Iron Fist was taken by monks and trained to be a super-warrior. Dropped in Manhattan, he is not at all surprised by America. This kid literally never saw a girl in his years of puberty, but as a grown man he is just another pretty Millennial. His falling-in-love story is as bland as you could imagine. Or think about the big picture: a kid who skipped out on the dot com bubble, 9/11, the Middle East wars, the anti-war hysteria, shocking political polarization, and the housing bubble has nothing to show America by way of confidence and by way of an alternative to the crises of the last decades. This is how bad the writing is—the setting and character offer any number of great ideas which the writers never develop.

This brings us to intersectionality. In “The Defenders,” after Luke Cage learns this brief version of Iron Fist’s life, he accuses him of white privilege. This is not a joke: the boy who was taught by Asian mystical monks and lost his parents in a horrifying plane crash he barely survived, only to then devote his life to fighting for justice has to be set straight by the black character, for the benefit of the liberal white audience of Netflix. Marvel is thus working public hysteria into its stories, and makes sure the heroes don’t come together as a team too soon for its short eight-episode series.

If this were to suggest that liberal hysteria is getting in the way of heroic camaraderie, this would be a subtle, but interesting point to make. But it makes no sense either in this series or with Luke Cage’s character from the previous show. In the same scene, the women have to mock the conversation between these heroes who have emerged from incredible suffering as a pissing contest. This, too, is not a joke. Netflix offers three male heroes to one female, but it compensates by being woke about a kind of anti-male feminism at opportune moments. This is supposed to make it okay that the women are sidekick-girlfriends. I wonder how that will play with feminists!

This is the level of writing in prestige television in its golden age: Preemptive declarations of liberal grievances instead of a real plot. For all that, the show is going to be a success, because it’s such a glamour production and it benefits from the only thing Marvel does very well: marketing. The rollout of these shows looks like an unstoppable entertainment with its own little cultish air of mystery. Every episode is a cliff-hanger with zero dramatic impact, just a fear of conclusions. There’s always more coming. But there is something in this new series that’s actually remarkably serious, if very abstract, and so I’ll talk about “The Defenders” in my next pipiece.article, and do justice to its East-West conflict.

Titus Techera is a graduate student in political science and liberal arts, a Publius fellow, and a roving writer for Ricochet and National Review Online.
Photo Charlie Cox, Krysten Ritter, Mike Colter, and Finn Jones in The Defenders (2017)

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