The latest trailer for Netflix’s Defenders series is a startling change of tone for the MCU. The new superteam strips to skimpy speedos and battles giant gnomes in the name of feminism. Extradimensional robots play chess for the future of the Earth. Friendly Neanderthal apes transform into evil aliens. Also, perhaps worst of all, the heroes are attacked by perfidious porpoises.
Except none of that is true. Obviously, Netflix did not actually create a trailer featuring gnomes or porpoises, perfidious or otherwise. The Defenders show features a street-level team, tackling crime on a relatively mundane level, at least compared to their god-fighting cinematic counterparts in the Avengers. A new generation of television superhero fans are going to associate “Defenders” with low-key, gritty superheroics and a superteam that spends its downtime chatting and hanging out in neighborhood restaurants.
For those who know the original comic book version of the Defenders, that’s ironic. The Defenders started out as one of the more ludicrously cosmic super-groups ever to battle oversized crustaceans in the pages of a Marvel comic.
Writer Roy Thomas more or less created the Defenders by accident in 1970. Thomas had been writing Dr. Strange, which got canceled mid-story. So he decided to tie up loose ends by finishing the arc in the other comics he was writing — namely, Sub-Mariner and The Incredible Hulk.
As it happens, Sub-Mariner, the Hulk, and Dr. Strange are all unsuited for super team-ups. The Hulk is a semi-sentient green glob of muscle who attacks everyone on sight. The Sub-Mariner is the arrogant ruler of Atlantis, and he hates surface-dwellers. He also tends to attack everyone on sight. Dr. Strange is a master of the mystic arts whose adventures involve a whole separate interdimensional mythology that doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the Marvel Universe. To top things off, Roy Thomas (and his early replacement on The Defenders, Steve Englehart) often added the Silver Surfer — a cosmic-powered alien who, like Namor, mostly despised humanity.
The early Defenders had little in common, except that they all hated each other and wore almost no clothes. Since they didn’t think of themselves as a team, just getting them together for each adventure involved improbable logistical improvisation. One issue began with Namor literally hurtling from the sky to fall in front of a startled Hulk. (“It is Namor — the Fish-Man — the one who used to be Hulk’s friend!”)
When the writers do manage to get everyone in one place, the heroes spend as much time fighting each other as the bad guys. The first issues involve a lot of dueling beefcakes, with one character or the other bellowing, “I am your friend!” as they roll semi-nude across the panels.
Even when the Defenders take a moment to stop punching each other, dialogue often centers around competitive boasting. Hulk declares, “I am the strongest one there is!” while Namor intones, “These walls were made for lesser fish… not for Namor!”
In an effort to moderate the chest-thumping, Englehart introduced a female team member — and that’s when things got really weird. Valkyrie has one of the oddest, most disturbing origin stories in superherodom. Originally, she was a woman named Barbara who was a cultist worshiping the Lovecraftian, two-headed, mystical Nameless Ones. When Dr. Strange fought the Nameless Ones, Barbara sacrificed herself to save him, trapping herself in the hell dimension. Dr. Strange and the Defenders accidentally return to the Nameless Ones’ realm to free Barbara, only to discover that loneliness has driven her to become the Nameless Ones’ “mate,” as she puts it.
The Defenders separate Barbara from the Nameless Ones, but this drives her insane. They escape with her into yet another mystical realm, where they’re captured and thrown in prison alongside the old Thor villain the Enchantress. The Enchantress casts a spell, placing the consciousness of the super-feminist Valkyrie inside Barbara’s brain.
So Valkyrie is a feminist-empowered warrior-personality artificially grafted onto a woman driven mad by being sexually abused by a monster from outside space and time. As you’d expect, her characterization vacillated wildly. Sometimes she was presented as confident and strong, boldly shutting down her teammates’ silly chauvinism. At other times, she was written as if her feminism was a kind of false-consciousness alien imposition, making her act belligerent and prickly in spite of herself.
Obviously, Valkyrie, with her convoluted origin and metal bustier, is miles away from the pavement-pounding New York crime-fighters of the Netflix series.
Still, the introduction of the character began moving the Defenders in a marginally more conventional super-direction. Suffering from amnesia and without any friends, Valkyrie — unlike the Hulk, Namor, and the Surfer — actually wanted to be part of a permanent Defenders team. She even moved into Dr. Strange’s home for a while. (Dr. Strange’s girlfriend disapproved, presumably because writer Steve Engleheart was looking for drama.)
Eventually, more conventional heroes joined up as well, including Hawkeye (briefly) and Nighthawk, a former supervillain transparently modeled on Batman. (The Hulk charmingly refers to him as “Bird-nose.”) Namor and Silver Surfer drifted off, taking their exposed pecs with them.
Steve Gerber picked up writing chores in 1974. Gerber, best known for creating Howard the Duck, had his own sense of the absurd, though it was more self-aware than the earliest let’s-throw-Namor-at-the-Hulk-and-see-what-happens approach.
Gerber also had a weakness for more conventional, awkward soap opera dynamics. Nighthawk develops a crush on Valkyrie. Valkyrie discovers her amnesia caused her to forget her husband. Nighthawk snarks petulantly, because Valkyrie’s trauma is all about him. And so on.
The Defenders comic had plenty of other permutations over the years. Dr. Strange remained a constant, for the most part, as Gargoyle, Hellcat — and yes, Luke Cage — rotated in and out. Even if there’s some vague commonality in personnel, though, the television show doesn’t draw on any era of comic book Defenders, and certainly not on the first. That’s for the best, overall; the early comics are an enjoyable mess, but Valkyrie’s origin, for example, doesn’t need to be reproduced for contemporary television viewers.
Whether you love the new Defenders series or hate it, it’s bound to be more coherent than the comics it took its name from. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I will miss Namor boasting about how he’s better than the other fish, and Hulk musing about his mittens.