In Defense Of…The Defenders!
Both in the comics and on the sliver screen, it’s the marquee superhero teams who tend to get all the glory and attention: The Avengers, The Justice League, The Fantastic Four, The X-Men, and a handful of other big-game franchises.
After all, it’s the celebrity heroes whom audiences want to see (well, and also The Guardians of the Galaxy). But this week, the Defenders—one of Marvel Comics’ oldest, least appreciated, and all-around weirdest superhero teams—finally gets its turn in the television spotlight. It took more than sixty episodes spread across four different shows to bring the Defenders from the comic page to its own 8-episode Netflix series, but the Defenders are finally getting their due.
Since 1971, the Defenders provided a home for some of Marvel Comics’ great fringe heroes and general weirdos. Very few members of the roster ever made it to household name status (at least three-quarters of the founding members being notable exceptions, as explained below). But it’s the C-Listers and spandex whackjobs populating the ranks of the Defenders who created some of the most enjoyable and unpredictable comics in superhero history.
If you’ve never experienced the original Defenders, rest assured that you are missing out on something great. Here are just a few reasons why The Defenders was one of the most underrated superhero team in comics.
Their founders could barely stand to be in the same room with each other.
Like its television incarnation, the original Defenders team was made up of a quartet of off-beat superheroes whose personalities seemed completely ill-suited to any sort of partnership, much less membership in a superhero team. Rough around the edges, prickly, and frequently butting heads with one another, from the very beginning the tension between the Defenders themselves was often more intense than their battles against their foes.
Leading the lineup were Dr. Strange and The Hulk, two characters who’ve since made the transition to the big screen (and therefore probably won’t show up on the TV show). Sometimes-Fantastic Four foes The Silver Surfer (a semi-late addition) and The Sub-Mariner made up the back half of the group (and licensing issues will keep that pair away from the TV show as well). These were four characters whose histories as know-it-all loners and hot-headed grumps indicated that they had little patience for team dynamics.
The rest of them were anti-heroes, oddballs, and reformed worldbeaters.
As time passed, most of the original Defenders began to dial back their involvement, for one reason or another. This opened the doors to a whole new roster—one seemingly selected from the deepest crevices and darkest corners of the Marvel Universe.
Members came and went, but a core group began to develop in the mid-1970s. Sword-swinging Norse heroine Valkyrie allied with fashion-forward feline Hellcat (aka Patsy Walker, a supporting character in the Netflix Jessica Jones series btw). Nighthawk, a high-flying Batman knock-off who possessed nocturnal super-strength, became the irritable and constantly exasperated leader. Weirdos with no comic to call their own also turned up—like literal scion of evil Damien Hellstrom (a.k.a. The Son of Satan) and a demonic bounty hunter named Devil-Slayer. Later incarnations would include castoff X-Men like Iceman, Angel, and the Beast, as well as telepathic martial arts goddess Moondragon and a little orange goblin called The Gargoyle.
Not a big name among them. And at least half were one-time supervillains. It was magic in the making.
They embraced a “Non-Team” ethos.
To accommodate the busy schedules and part-time commitments of the assorted Defenders, the group chose to be a “non-team.” Devoid of a roster, they welcomed any hero with an interest in joining, even for just a temporary alliance. This meant that in any give issue, the Defenders might rub shoulders with all sorts of more-prominent Marvel characters. They briefly counted Daredevil and Luke Cage among their numbers, as well as current movie heroes like Black Panther and Hawkeye.
But this also meant that they picked up some unwanted attention on occasion, which leads us to one of their greatest storylines:
Defender for a Day!
Among the ragtag group of ill-matched heroes making up their roster, the Defenders somehow picked up an overambitious and tirelessly self-promoting college film student who dubbed himself “Dollar” Bill. An annoyance at best, Bill threw the entire team into disarray by making and distributing a short film about the Defenders without their knowledge. That was bad enough, but the film blatantly invited any superhero in earshot to come join the team.
And join they did! In the space of an afternoon, the serene horse ranch which acted as Defenders HQ was beset by dozens of ambitious would-be teammates. The full list of applicants would be a burden to type out, but suffice it to say that it covered almost every unaffiliated superhero in Marvel’s catalog. Relatively well-known characters like The Falcon, Iron Fist, and the X-Men’s Havok showed up, alongside lesser-known crime-busters spouting sobriquets like Paladin, Prowler, Jack of Hearts, Black Goliath, and Tagak the Leopard Lord (a character so obscure that even most Marvel Comics diehards had barely heard of him).
Even current cinematic universe celebrities turned up. Iron Man made a cameo, but just to deliver some misaddressed mail, while the Hulk nearly poisoned their guests which the nearly-toxic brew created when teammate Valkyrie tried to make coffee. Even superheroic Greek God Hercules couldn’t stomach the bilious beverage, which says a lot. You’d never see this kind of thing happen at Avengers mansion (they have a butler).
But that’s not all! If anyone can join the Defenders, figured a group of super-crooks, then the Defenders could be anybody! A crime wave, fomented by self-declared criminal “Defenders,” immediately erupted in nearby New York City. The dozens of assembled heroes rushed into battle—awkwardly. Stumbling over each other’s feet, the combined crimefighters barely managed to defeat the assorted baddies, which led to an abrupt cessation of festivities. Every new applicant quit promptly thereafter, which was probably for the best.
Their enemies were preposterous.
No superhero team can really pull together without its roster of rogues – and the Defenders had some doozies! So as to not bury the lede, it’s worth mentioning that their biggest battle involved no less luciferian a foe than … the Devil himself! In a protracted series of stories which effectively amounted to “taking your girlfriend to meet your parents,” the Defenders went to Hell and back to aid their infernal ally, the Son of Satan, and his bride-to-be, Hellcat.
But that’s not all! The Defenders also faced off against The Headmen, four would-be world conquerors who used advanced science and magic to give themselves weird heads…or put their human heads on weird bodies. Whatever advantage they thought unusual heads might give them aside, it led to one of the fiends psychically possessing a baby deer and using it to capture team leader Nighthawk for nefarious purposes. An evil fawn, some sort of barbaric Bambi. Let that sink in:
Then there was the ape-faced Mandrill, a tentacle terror called Nebulon…and let’s not forget Tapping Tommy, a song-and-dance man who took the demise of the Golden Age of cinema personally. Decked out in top hat and tails, he literally used the power of hoofing to capture and almost destroy the Defenders.
And as far as sartorial supervillains go, it would be a crime to forget to mention The Walrus, a super-powered goon with a Fab Four theme.
But none of these hold a candle to…
The Elf With A Gun
If any one character epitomizes the absurdity and wit of the Defenders comics, it’s the Elf with a Gun. Sporadically, over a two-year period, the Elf would appear–usually within a single page–just to shoot a random, unimportant character in a scene utterly unconnected to whatever else was going on in the story. The mystery of the little felt-clad figure was deepened by the fact that none of the Defenders seemed aware of his existence, or of the deaths of his victims! The murders happened all across the country, to targets who had no appreciable relationship to the Defenders themselves.
And just when the Elf with a Gun seemed, finally, to be on a collision course with the actual Defenders— he got hit by a truck. What was the ultimate point of the Elf with a Gun? Was it to underline the whimsical nature of mortality? Or was it a pointed statement about the absurd unpredictability of day-to-day mundanity? Perhaps it was just intended to drive the fans crazy—which it did. Who knows? Nevertheless, let's keep an eye out for the diminutive dealer of death in the Netflix series.
And so much more …
Did I mention that they Defenders once recruited a living nebula to their team, and that it manifested itself as a nude teenager? Or that they one time fought an evil self-help guru? Not to mention their journey to a tunnel-shaped world with alien bird-guys who had giant wings on their heads. Or that they had a multi-issue story arc based on Blue Oyster Cult song titles. Then there was the time they teamed up with Howard the Duck. Oh, and the Hulk? For a very long time, for some reason, a great deal of attention was given to the fact that the Hulk really liked canned beans. It became a sub-plot all its own.
It’s unlikely that any of this will ever make it to the television show—which is fine, not everything needs to be captured on film to have value—but The Defenders boasts a spectacular history of weirdness which deserves to be appreciated and celebrated. Who knows, maybe some of that peculiar unpredictability will be reflected in their on-screen adaptation.
In any case, let Captain America and Iron Man hog the glory and the marquee billboards. The Defenders, as always, will grind away unceremoniously. They may never get the fame or respect that their blue ribbon, silver-screen counterparts do, but at least they’re bringing their own ragtag brand of heroism to life on television. Now all we have to do is wait for the Elf with a Gun to show up …