Defending the Defenders
With a TV show and ongoing series featuring a new lineup, things are looking up for the Defenders.
WHO are the Defenders? This Marvel superhero team is still relatively unknown compared to say, the Guardians of the Galaxy, despite having lengthier comic book appearances and more popular team members.
Marvel chief creative officer, Joe Quesada, himself said, “No one knows who the Defenders are”, when asked about the team’s new lineup for the upcoming Netflix-based series, set to premiere on Netflix in August.
The TV show’s rollcall comprises of Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Iron Fist (and maybe Elektra). To comics fans who have been following the Defenders, this is just one of many reshuffles the team has had throughout the years.
From the Titans Three to the wannabe Fearless Defenders, the Defenders have been through numerous revamps. Could the TV show finally succeed in giving the team its breakthrough, 46 years after it was first created?
While the Netflix roll-call has a good mix of brains (Daredevil), muscle (Cage), mysticism (Iron Fist) and feminism (Jessica), the original Defenders were excessively lob-sided, with a greater focus on brute strength, and just a touch of mystical energy.
The original 1971 team consisted of Dr Strange, Namor the Sub-Mariner and the Hulk, and had the Silver Surfer on the substitute bench – essentially a team that seemed more suited for offence rather than defence.
I’m still not quite sure why the Defenders were even formed in 1971, especially when the Silver Age was already “well-defended” by teams such as the Avengers and Fantastic Four. One theory is that it was purely a marriage of convenience! Dr Strange’s regular series had just ended, tales about Atlantis were watering down, and the Hulk’s acts of violence were getting too predictable. So, the plan was to have them on one team and hope that they would turn out to be as popular as the Avengers.
Supporting this theory is the fact that it took legendary scribe Roy Thomas almost two years (!) to announce the Defenders’ arrival. Thomas only formalised the team via Marvel Feature #1 (December 1971) after two “unofficial” teamups on different story arcs across several books, namely Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970) and Sub-Mariner #34–35, (February– March 1971).
The Defenders were initially referred to as the Titans Three during their collaboration in Sub-Mariner #34. Then, the combined might of Namor, Hulk and the Silver Surfer was unleashed against a small island dictator (!). While this seems like an overkill, their subsequent collaboration had a more cataclysmic impact in the form of an alien techno-wizard named Yandroth (see Marvel Feature #1), who sparked the formation of the Defenders.
From day one, the team’s individual egos would prove to be its biggest obstacle in becoming Earth’s true defenders. Something needed to change, and thus, after barely one issue as a Defender, the Surfer left and in came the Valkyrie, Hawkeye, Nighthawk, and Power Man/Luke Cage.
It was Nighthawk’s introduction that made the team more believable, thanks to his Bruce Wayne-sque wealth and his past team experience (albeit with the Squadron Sinister).
Together with Hellcat, he gave balance to the initial muscle-heavy lopsidedness of the original team, making them more suited for daily crimefighting activities. Nighthawk even offered the team a better headquarters in the form of a ranch, which surely beats hanging out in Dr Strange’s house.
The Defenders’ first series lasted 125 issues, before changing its name to New Defenders from #126#152.
In the first 125 issues, notable events included the Avengers-Defenders War (Avengers (Vol. 1) #116-#118 and Defenders #9-#11, and the introduction of Alpha The Ultimate Mutant (#15 and #16), who transformed Magneto into an infant.
My personal favourite story-arc was The Scorpio Saga, where the Defenders, Moon Knight and Nick Fury took on the Zodiac.
Not being actively in-sync with the mainstream Marvel universe had its benefits too. The Defenders helped “rehabilitate” several B-grade characters and teams such as Howard The Duck, Omega The Unknown (!) and the (drum roll please)... Guardians of the Galaxy (and look at where they are now!).
While past “revamps” involved rotating its core members, the first major change happened in #126. An alien prophecy predicted that the presence of the four founding members would lead to the world’s destruction, so they left the team.
A new team was formed, comprising Beast, Angel, Iceman, Gargoyle, Moondragon and Valkyrie. With three mutant members, this new Defenders team felt like just another X-Men spin-off. But at least Beast got government clearance for the team, giving it more authority than it ever had.
This team didn’t last long though – it suffered poor sales, and the three mutants were ear-marked for an original X-Men reunion via X-Factor. To add insult to injury, in it’s final issue (1986’s Defenders #152), the non-mutant members of the team were seemingly killed by a mind-possessed Moondragon!
Not so secret
In 1990, the co-founders finally deduced that the alien prophecy that caused them to leave the Defenders in the first place was a hoax (how convenient).
They subsequently regrouped via the pages of The Incredible Hulk #370–371. This was followed by a crossover event aptly entitled The Return Of The Defenders.
However, this was a temporary measure aimed at reigniting interest in the team, and it would take another three years before Marvel introduced us to yet another new team: the Secret Defenders!
This time Dr Strange formed the team from a combination of A-listers (Wolverine, Spider-Man, Hulk, and Ghost Rider) and up-andcoming heroes (Spider-Woman and Darkhawk).
The Secret Defenders seemed more like a Marvel Team Up event, and had minimal impact on the main characters, who had their own regular series to manage.
While Strange’s role was subsequently replaced by Thanos and Doctor Druid, they couldn’t stop the inevitable as the series was cancelled after 25 issues.
Defending the brand
There have been other attempts to resurrect the Defenders as well, including Kurt Busiek and Erik Larsen’s 12-parter in 2001-02; a five-parter in 2005 by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire; a post-Civil War mini-series by Joe Casey in 2008; and Matt Fraction’s 2011 regular series.
There were even off-beat knockoffs like the Offenders and the Fearless Defenders, which beared little relevance to the original team. They all share the same fate though – dismal failure.
Was it the scripts? The artwork? Or is there some inherent flaw in the team itself that prevents it from making it big?
Whatever the reason, a lot is riding on the TV series and the new ongoing series featuring this new team.
Here’s hoping that the Defenders finally get the breakthrough they’ve been waiting 46 years for.
The original Defenders team - Namor, Hulk and Dr Strange. Only one of them bothered to wear a shirt. A new ongoing series AND an upcoming Netflix TV show? This new Defenders team has a lot going for it.
It may look like an X-Men team, but this was actually the ‘New Defenders’.
The Secret Defenders team had a lineup of A-listers and new superheroes.