“A protagonist and his [or her] story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them” – Robert McKee in ‘Story’.
If you’re someone who generally enjoys superhero TV shows and movies, like me, then chances are you were at least mildly excited to watch Marvel’s latest superhero series, ‘The Defenders’. But, if you’ve seen it then it’s also likely that you, like me, are deeply underwhelmed by it. Or, at least, feel like it could have been a lot better. It seems to follow in the time-honoured tradition of Marvel outings that are good enough to watch but never good enough to seriously leave a mark. Visual spectacles that promise something profound and settle for passable instead.
But rather than just brand ‘Defenders’ as “bad” or “average”, I’d like to try and figure out why it’s not as good as it definitely could be. And while there are many things about it that I think could be improved upon, in this piece, I’m going to argue that they all stem from one central flaw: bad villains. Not bad as in evil, but bad as in… why do you even exist? And I’m going to compare these flaws to what is generally considered the best superhero work on-screen in the modern era: Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’, as a means of highlighting why I think ‘The Defenders’ falls short.
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
Before I get into what makes a poor villain, I first want to talk about what makes a good one.
“Create an opponent… who is exceptionally good at attacking your hero’s greatest weakness.” – John Truby.
The above is a piece of screenwriting advice from John Truby in his work, ‘The Anatomy of Story’. The idea being put forward is that well-crafted villain is one that is good in opposition to their particular hero… and by extension vice versa. ‘The Dark Knight’ is not your perfect movie – no such thing exists – but whether you love it or loathe it, there is one thing it gets spectacularly right: the relationship between the protagonist and the antagonist. The Joker is a great villain but he is, more importantly, a great villain for Batman to face. He’d be terrible as the villain in ‘Moana’. A facetious example, I know, but it illustrates my point. Similarly, the character of the Joker isn’t going to fit in every superhero movie – Evidence A: The disaster that is Suicide Squad. You have to characterise him right. So why is the Joker a good villain in ‘The Dark Knight’?
Many reasons. Of course, Heath Ledger’s career-defining performance is one of them. But mostly, it comes back to one recurring idea: The Joker is great at pushing Batman into doing things he doesn’t want to do.
Batman has one rule, and anyone could tell you it: He doesn’t kill. What the Joker is great at in the film, is trying to make Batman break his rule.
For starters, unlike every other villain Batman ever faces, The Joker is not afraid of death. In fact, he constantly begs Batman to kill him.
“I want you to do it, I want you to do it, come on, hit me”, he mutters into the camera as Batman hurtles towards him on his high-powered Batcycle. Anyone else might run or hide but he stands defiantly… which forces Batman to swerve to avoid him and crash as a consequence.
He exploits the biggest weakness that Batman has – his morality – and uses it to make himself stronger while making Batman look weak and incapable of doing what he needs to do to protect the city.
The Joker causes increasing amounts of chaos and death (he’s robbing banks, killing people, blowing up buildings, taking over TV streams) and no matter what Batman does, he can’t seem to stop him. He arrests The Joker then beats him mercilessly. He threatens him, tries to force information out of him… none of it has any effect. Why? Because these are things that don’t bother The Joker. The Joker can’t be intimidated – he can’t be controlled with fear. He doesn’t care about being arrested because he’s already planned for that eventuality (and as we know, in any and every Batman story, he always escapes) and we’ve just established he’s not bothered about his life.
“You have nothing. Nothing to threaten me with. Nothing to do with all your strength…” he says, laughing in the face of Batman during the interrogation scene.
Gotham is a place governed by fear – a theme that the entirety of ‘Batman Begins’, the previous film in the trilogy, dedicates itself to establishing. Batman’s greatest strength is his ability to use that fear against his enemies. Batman is powerful, not just because of his physical prowess, but because he is a terrifying symbol for the villains of Gotham. Just the Batsignal in the sky is enough to stop a drug deal in a scene early on in the film.
The Joker takes all this away.
He presents him with seemingly only one option, one choice to make.
“True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choices to the character’s essential nature” – Robert Mckee
It is Batman’s insistence on finding a non-lethal solution as well as his faith in the people of Gotham that ultimately tell us who he is. It is what distinguishes him from The Joker or some ordinary vigilante. No one could really blame him for killing The Joker in the circumstances of the movie but he knows and we know that it would set a dangerous precedent and it’s a line he’s not willing to cross. It is this difficulty of choice that make us sympathise with him and his refusal to take the easy way out which makes us respect him more. We like Batman because no matter how hard he’s pushed, he still remains a good guy who’s true to his principals. Thus, the threat of The Joker enhances the character of Batman.
The Joker also helps Batman come to realisations about himself. He shows him more about his own nature and his own limits.
“Today I’ve found out what Batman can’t do. He can’t endure this”, he says to Alfred as they discuss the Joker’s threat that he will kill people every day until Batman reveals his true identity. Bruce decides to turn himself in and in doing so, realises that he’s not as infallible as he thought he was – he has weaknesses that he now sees clearly. We the viewer, in turn, are shown that, fundamentally, Batman is selfess and will sacrifice himself for Gotham (a theme that pays off again at the end of the film).
Finally, the characters of both The Joker and The Batman are dependent on each other.
Batman creates the Joker, albeit inadvertently. It is Batman’s oppressive form of justice – terrorising the villains of Gotham – that drives all the crime bosses to band together to try and find a solution…and it is during this underground meeting that The Joker arrives and gains their support. He claims that he can kill The Batman for them. They don’t trust him, but they feel they have no other option left to deal with Batman, so they give agree to his plan.
In turn, The Joker’s existence makes Batman question himself and his resolve. By the end of the film, this resolve is strengthened because of The Joker and Batman is stronger for it. He has renewed hope for Gotham. Most importantly, it is the Joker’s actions that make Batman ‘The Dark Knight’ when he decides to take responsibility for Harvey Dent’s actions. He becomes, “Whatever Gotham needs [him] to be”. The Batman creates the Joker, who in turn moulds him into The Dark Knight – the anti-hero. Their relationship is symbiotic.
So, in quick summary: The Joker pushes the Batman to make tough choices, he’s good at exploiting his weaknesses, he helps him understand himself better and their relationship is symbiotic. This is why their battle feel so powerful.
Now remember these idea while we return to the original scope of the piece and compare this to ‘The Defenders’.
First of all, who is/are the villains of ‘The Defenders’? There’s two inter-related ones: The mysterious organisation known as ‘The Hand’ and the woman they have recently revived: Elektra Natchios.
How does The Hand relate to each of the four heroes of ‘The Defenders’? Well, Danny is fighting an eternal battle against The Hand. Matt was raised by Stick to specifically become a member of the Chaste (an army to fight The Hand). Luke is concerned about the missing young men in Harlem (who are being manipulated by one of the Five Fingers of the Hand) and Jessica is pursuing a case that directly involves The Hand.
At the outset, we have plausible reasons for each of the four characters to be in opposition to The Hand. This is a good foundation. But, what does The Hand do beyond this point? The answer is… not a lot.
Once the four protagonists meet up and join forces (immediately and for quite tenuous reasons), they begin aimlessly battling The Hand in various interchangeable locations. What we’re never really told is this: What is the specific threat that The Hand brings? What is it that makes them a terrifying opposition for The Defenders to face?
If we go back to the quotes from Truby and McKee, The Hand should theoretically be good at exploiting the weaknesses of The Defenders. Well what are these weaknesses?
Luke’s is easy – he doesn’t like to use his strength. His moral compass is also too strong.
Matt – He’s conflicted on whether or not to continue being The Daredevil. He’s worried about the darkness that it brings out in him. His faith is also in opposition to his vigilantism.
Jessica – She’s an alcoholic mess and doesn’t want to be involved in anything. She doesn’t trust anyone.
Danny – He’s… headstrong? Naïve? In need of family? I haven’t seen ‘The Iron Fist’ so perhaps it would be more apparent if I had.
But we have areas in which to attack each of the heroes and things to pressure them into exploring. Do we get any of it? Not really.
Is Jessica ever made to deeply mistrust the others? No. Are Luke and Matt ever shown the terrifying potential of their powers and how they might negatively impact those they care about? No. Is Danny ever exploited for being so innocent and bereft of nuance? A little bit.
The four of them are never really pushed to exploring the depths of their soul – either as a consequence of The Hand or in opposition to each other. They’re never really brought to a moral epiphany or personal insight, in the way that Batman is.
In a show with four completely different characters working together, you would think there would be moments when their relationship would be put to strain, particularly by an organisation as devious and insidious as the Hand is supposed to be.
Are the characters ever truly pushed apart? Are they ever really at odds? Does the Hand ever try to make them think that they have different goals, or even better, opposing goals?
There are brief moments when conflicts bubble – Danny vs Luke over the boys in Harlem, Matt vs everyone because of lies about Elektra, Danny vs everyone when they want to keep him hidden. But none of these result in a serious conflict of any sort. Ultimately, they’re still on the same team, still continuing their norm. Their conflicts never affect the path of the story. What could be sticking points get passed over as temporary affairs.
What we get in ‘The Defenders’ is something that is true of almost every ensemble superhero movie of recent times – a melding of individuality amongst the characters. It is as if coming together in the same room makes these four vastly different people all behave exactly alike. Or, more accurately, for everyone except Danny to behave exactly alike. The responses of Jessica, Luke and Matt to the threat of The Hand are all remarkably similar – initial shock/disbelief, followed by quick acceptance and then generic contempt throughout the rest of the show.
Though ‘The Immortal Iron Fist’ is, by most people’s account, the weakest of the four shows, it is Danny who shines most in ‘The Defenders’ because he actually retains his individuality. It is his naïve, oblivious refrain of “I’m the Immortal Iron Fist! Don’t ya know?” that makes him endearing, while the other three merely act as an interchangeable “Sure, pal”. You could argue that the events in the show are largely hinged on him but the other characters are given more than enough time and importance to show their complexity and individuality.
A moment which epitomises what I mean comes during episode 8 and carries over to episode 9, when Matt suggests that they blow up Midland Circle – the HQ of The Hand. This is a scene where the characters are given a tough choice to make and is a great chance to have some conflict and debate.
Except, it’s a complete non-debate… there is no issue here. Luke is the only one who seriously objects to the idea and his objection is incredibly vague. I’ve watched the scene back and I still can’t find an actual reason he gives for not wanting to blow up the building. Eventually he accepts, saying the only way he’ll do it is if:
“No one but those hand monsters get hurt. Okay? Not one single innocent person. Can we all agree to that?”
But this was a given all along. Matt tells us from the offset that the building is empty and the only people who will be hurt are The Hand. Luke’s delay in accepting makes no sense to us, or at least to me. Where is the intrigue in this scene? Where is the ideological debate? The dividing of our support? What even is the point of this debate? We don’t learn anything new by the end of it that we didn’t know at the start.
A much better scene, or a scene I would have much more liked to see, is one with an actual moral decision to make. What if there were people in the building? What then? You can see Matt arguing that they should do it anyway – for the greater good. Jessica might even agree. But would Luke? Never. There you have real conflict, real choices to make. And if it leads to Luke delivering an ultimatum, “I’m not going to let you do that, Matt *raises fists*” Then that’s great! That’s what we want to see! We want to see four superheroes working towards the same end, not one amalgamous form nodding their way to victory (something that ‘The Defenders’ constantly claims itself as not being). Their disagreements should be inevitable and sometimes inconsolable. I mean, even One Direction have more disputes and motives than these guys. How do The Defenders work so harmoniously (and boringly) together despite having completely different approaches and world views?
Moreover, when does the existence of The Hand really ever ask the heroes any serious moral questions? Or to make tough decisions? How do they push The Defenders the way Joker pushes The Batman? The only time it could have been the case is when we discover that Elektra has been revived as a mindless husk. Here, we have the chance for Matt to make some difficult choices and to have to ask himself some hard questions.
But, rather than build his character, the existence of Elektra actually serves to melt Matt’s character into a shallow puddle. Gone is the morally grey, edgelord lawyer-turned-vigilante that we know and love. What we get instead is a hapless Romeo, hellbent on getting one more kiss from the woman he used to love.
What’s doubly infuriating is that his stupidity doesn’t even have any consequences. At no point do his feelings towards Elektra actually land the group in the dump. At no point does it make him do something that acts against the interest of The Defenders or jeopardize their mission. All we get is a final ‘I’ll die in your arms’ moment which, lo and behold, is again inconsequential because he survives. There are no repercussions for Matt being in love with Elektra. In fact, we can remove her character and the show would largely still be the exact same. If we replace Elektra with a ‘generic thug’ with no prior connection to the gang, this is how the story would go:
Generic Thug is revived/summoned. GT (as they shall hence be known) sets off to fight The Defenders. The Defenders get their asses beat, run away and worry about this new threat. The Hand doubt Alexandra on her decision to spend all their resources on GT while GT questions why they exist. GT, realising what they want is power, stabs Alexandra and stages a coup, becoming the new leader. The Defenders arrive and fight GT, along with the rest of The Hand. In a battle that destroys Midland Circle and ends the threat of The Hand, one of The Defenders heroically sacrifices themselves. GT is killed… and the heroic Defender actually comes out alive. All is well.
The events of the series would be remarkably unchanged.
Compare the relationship The Joker and Batman to this and we get a better love story than Twilight… or Daredvil. This is something even Lego understood when they made the ‘Lego Batman’ movie and gave the two a homoerotic, forlorn-lovers dynamic.
Elektra’s character only obscures Matt’s and makes him a less likeable superhero. And she adds absolutely nothing to the other three Defenders, for whom she’s just another boss battle to fight.
From top to bottom, The Hand are inadequate at doing what they’re supposed to in the show: test our heroes. None of them are ever really backed into a corner, asked to grow or find something in them that they didn’t think they had. As I’ve pointed out, the actions of The Hand are flawed. The philosophy of the hand is also flawed – can anyone tell me from watching ‘The Defenders’ alone what they actually do? And what they want, more specifically than ‘immortality’?
What does The Hand hope to achieve, other than destroy New York for inexplicable reasons? This explains why ‘the stakes’ of The Hand are flawed.
What is at stake in each film/show? In ‘The Dark Knight’, there is a lot on the line for Batman. The Joker spends the movie making threats and actually following through on them. He could kill Rachel (he does). He could corrupt Harvey Dent (he does). So at the end when he threatens to blow up the boats with the hostages, it’s very possible that he does. These things make us, the viewer, worry for the protagonist because we don’t know what they’ll lose next. But, when the stakes are the destruction of the entire city, as it is in ‘The Defenders’, we know the heroes can’t lose. Not even ‘Game of Thrones’, famed for its masochistic twists, would ever destroy the primary location where the story takes place. Therefore, the stakes in ‘The Defenders’ are flawed. We feel no tension when viewing the show, no genuine concern for our characters – because we know what’s threatened by the villains will never happen.
This all adds up to one simple conclusion: The Hand are sucky villains.
There are many reasons I feel disappointed with Marvel’s ‘The Defenders’. For one, I was excited to finally get the chance to explore ensemble cast superheroes in live action form for the first time in recent television (excluding your token Arrow/Flash crossovers) because I felt it was a chance to address one of the fundamental flaws of the Marvel Movies – that we don’t get to explore the mentality and character of the individual heroes. There isn’t enough time in a feature film. They usually get lost in the ‘team’ and thus any payoffs or emotional moments feel weak because we’re not properly invested in the characters. Yet, sadly, the same problem still plagues ‘The Defenders’, even with 8 hours to fix it. As stated, I think these issues stem from of a lack of a good antagonist(s) in the show, though the writing in general is poor too.
As the Robert McKee stated in the opening quote, “A protagonist and his [or her] story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them”. Unfortunately for ‘The Defenders’, some very poor, vague and confused forces of antagonism make for some largely uninteresting protagonists and it is ultimately why it falls short of the expectations we were perhaps naïve to put upon it.
Shout out to a great video by the YouTube channel ‘Lessons From the Screenplay’, who’s video on ‘The Dark Knight’ provided a lot of inspiration as well as the critical quotes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pFUKeD3FJm8&t
Another good video on ‘The Philosophy of The Joker’ : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YPvI2rLCIFc