“The Last Defenders,” in this final issue of the mini-series, doesn’t end as strongly as it began. Keith Giffen’s influence, so clearly felt in the first couple of issues where he was credited as co-writer, helped balance the opening of the series with wit and strong characterization. As one of the few post-“Civil War” Marvel titles that didn’t take itself completely seriously, “The Last Defenders” opened with verve and promise but the ending feels overwhelmed with plot contrivances and sets up an ill-defined future for the team. Joe Casey and Jim Muniz still tell an entertaining story here, and Kyle Richmond’s character arc reaches its logical conclusion, but it seems like an effort to tell us about the importance of the new team rather than show us why this particular group is so essential.
The overall story of this series has been about Kyle Richmond forming different versions of the Defenders — at first, Initiative-sponsored, and later sponsored by himself — trying out different groupings to see what works. The Nighthawk, She-Hulk, Colossus, Blazing Skull combination was a failure. The Nighthawk, Paladin, Atlas, Junta one was as well, for different reasons. Casey and Muniz have told the stories of these teams with a kind of self-consciousness — an awareness of the arbitrary composition of some of the classic Defenders groupings — and they’ve certainly avoided the sins of decompression. Richmond has gone through several full rosters and completed (or failed to complete) several missions over the course of these six issues. This comic has been anything but slowly-paced.
Yet, in this final issue, even as we get mindless, green (but not Skrull) versions of the Squadron Sinister and the intervention of a Defenders team from the future, it all regresses into standard superhero fight sequences. It’s only the first half of the issue, true, and after that intervention from the future, Kyle Richmond knows who he must select as the “Last” Defenders, and he knows what role he must play — as a benefactor more than a member — but it still ends with a relatively traditional scene. A scene where the new team assembles and a villain, watching from afar, says, “even as the Last Defenders are reality’s greatest hope. . . they are also its greatest liability.” Dun dun dunnnnn!
Aside from the fact that we have no idea what that last part even means — why are they such a great hope? What makes them a potential liability? And for all of reality? Really? — we don’t really know what makes this team special. Sure, they’re the team Kyle Richmond met from the future — a new Nighthawk, She-Hulk, Krang, and Son of Satan — and the latter three are, according to the enigmatic Yandroth, more controlled and/or powerful than their original Defenders counterparts (Hulk, Namor, and Dr. Strange, respectively), but so what? Yandroth says there’s some kind of alchemical significance with this team that makes them the perfect grouping, lead by a new Nighthawk with tactical training while Kyle Richmond supplies the cash, but it’s all just an imposed contrivance by Yandroth, a mystical supervillain.
One could argue that that’s the genius of this series: it subverts the normal super-team origin story in almost every way with it’s specifically-selected members, all based on the recommendations of a bad guy. But at the end of the series, it’s just been another super-team origin story, nonetheless. Just another six-issue set-up for an unresolved story that may or may not be told elsewhere. Someday.
“The Last Defenders” was a refreshing change from the rest of the Marvel line, but at the end of the day, it’s not a satisfying story on its own. I’d like to see Joe Casey do more with this team, and finish the story he began here, but until that happens, “The Last Defenders” isn’t strong enough to stand on its own.