On August 18th, 2017, the culmination of Marvel TV and Netflix’s insanely ambitious partnership kicks off as the four main heroes form The Defenders. Of course, Executive Producer Jeph Loeb and co. knew they couldn’t just throw folks into the deep end with an assembled team. Instead, they took two years and five season of television to establish their heroes through solo series, each one more grounded, gritty and street-level than the MCU films or the more family-friendly ABC series.
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Now that the final solo series, “Iron Fist,” has been released and we’ve all had time to binge, process and in some senses make peace with what it was, and with a premiere for “The Defenders” now on the timeline, it’s time to take a look back at what worked in Marvel’s most ambitious project to date, the Netflix solo series. In this instalment, we take a look at the finest moments across the four series.
16. PUNISHER’S PRISON FIGHT (DAREDEVIL S2)
There’s an apocryphal story that John Wayne refused, in his old age, to shoot a man in the back during a scene, saying he never had before and wouldn’t now. It wasn’t what he felt a hero did. Wayne allegedly stormed off the set when the director said: “Clint Eastwood would.” It’s a reminder that good and evil aren’t monolithic. “Daredevil” Season 1 suggested that the conflict between Daredevil and Kingpin would forever be bathed in black or white. When its second season introduced The Punisher, he stood as a mirror image to Murdock, but in a grim shade of grey.
If “Daredevil” Season 1’s highlight was an elegant, single-take ballet of martial arts acrobatics, Season 2 takes a very different tone. Trapped in a cell block, set upon by armed prisoners, Frank Castle defends himself by any means necessary. The result is indeed inelegant; a shaky-cam, rapidly edited exercise in scrappy brutality. Frank cracks skulls, stabs and growls as he sets upon his prey with lethal intent. The brilliance of the scene is that it doesn’t exist merely to excite or shock the viewer. It’s a reminder to the audience that, unlike Daredevil, The Punisher would shoot a man in the back.
15. TITLE SEQUENCES
The title sequence is a dying art form in contemporary television. Sure, “trimming the fat” of a credits sequence can clear room for more content, but a well done opener can help set the tone for an episode, like an overture for the events to come. The folks over at Netflix understand this, giving each of the four solo shows opening sequences with a similar vibe but distinct differences that, much like their respective shows, are both unified and unique.
With “Daredevil,” we’re treated to ominous statues and towering buildings drenched in a liquid red, both a reminder of how Matt perceives the world and how the entire city has blood on its hands. “Jessica Jones” opts for an aesthetic that could be described as motion picture noir, with elements of “Rear Window”-esque paranoia. “Luke Cage” paints a funk-laden love letter to Harlem, with the very streets themselves reflected in his fists. Meanwhile, “Iron Fist” quite literally molds a young boy into the ultimate weapon. There’s a reason why every eligible title sequence so far has been nominated for an Emmy.
14. COLLEEN WING (IRON FIST)
Jessica Henwick has been on a hell of a run the last few years. 2015 saw her as a Sand Snake on “Game of Thrones,” 2016 she flew an X-Wing in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” and this year she not only kicked an astounding amount of ass on Netflix’s “Iron Fist,” she handled the barrage of questions from the press about the faltering series with the same grace and commitment that she showed onscreen.
Of course, one can’t boil down how much of the success of Netflix’s Colleen Wing is due to Henwick, how much is the writing and how much is owed to her strong foundation within the Marvel comic books, where she’s existed since 1974. All that’s certain is that, while the show may stumble with certain other characters, Colleen Wing is consistently a breath of fresh air, whose intensity and vitality can sell the hell out of even the silliest scenes she’s given. With all the positive buzz around her, one can only hope she’ll get further chances to shine, perhaps even in a “Daughters of the Dragon” spin-off with Simone Missick’s Misty Knight.
13. AUDREY EASTMAN (JESSICA JONES)
We know what you’re thinking. “Who?” Bear with us. Sure, the main storylines of “Jessica Jones” focused on powered men like Kilgrave and Will Simpson, but we encourage you to remember a subplot that cropped up for a few episodes towards the middle of the season when Jessica is hired by a woman named Audrey Eastman. Eastman claims she’s hired Jessica to spy on her cheating husband, but in reality she’s trying to trap Jones, who she knows is gifted, in order to kill her in retribution for her mother dying in the Battle of New York, which she blames on powered people.
The scene where all of this comes to light is incredible, with great performances from Krysten Ritter as Jones and Jessica Hecht as Eastman, and the emotion of the scene is palpable. Producer Jeph Loeb always likes to talk about how it’s “all connected,” and here the connective tissue comes not through cameos but consequences. Here, “street level” means being on the ground for the aftermath and seeing the erratic, irrational way real people process tragedy.
12. LUKE CAGE SOUNDTRACK
When was the last time a TV show made you say, “Damn, I gotta get that on vinyl?” Its not just that Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad’s score has the funkiest post-blaxploitation sounds this side of “Black Dynamite,” though it does. The inclusion of Cottonmouth’s club Harlem’s Paradise allows for live musical performances and memorable montages, like Raphael Saadiq’s “Good Man” and Jidenna’s “Long Live The Chief.”
Of course, a clear influence on “Luke Cage’s” soundtrack is the group of hip-hop pioneers and Marvel fanboys known as the Wu-Tang Clan. One of the early memorable moments from “Luke Cage” is his raid on one of Cottonmouth’s hideouts, where Cage pops in some earbuds, flips up his hood and works his way through the facility to the tune of “Bring The Ruckus” from “Enter the 36 Chambers.” Later on, Luke stops a stick-up at a convenience store, one patron of which is Wu-Tang member Method Man. Inspired both by Cage’s heroics and his bullet-riddled hoodie, the sociopolitical symbolism of which can’t be overlooked, Method Man appears on a popular radio program (hosted by Sway, naturally) to perform Cage’s defacto theme song, “Bulletproof Love,” which was released as a single in the real world.
11. KRYSTEN RITTER (JESSICA JONES)
Prior to “Jessica Jones,” most people knew Krysten Ritter as Jesse Pinkman’s self-destructive love interest on “Breaking Bad,” or as the outrageous Chloe on the tragically short-lived “Don’t Trust the B- in Apartment 23.” Still, even with the equally noir-ish “Veronica Mars” under her belt, some questioned whether Ritter had the chops to pull off such a complex and tortured character. As it turns out, not only was Ritter damn-near Emmy worthy in the role, though she’d have to settle for a Critics Choice nomination, but she delivers one of the best performances of any comic book TV show today.
Ritter manages to do something remarkable with her role as Jones, by making what moments of vulnerability she has not seem counter to her jaded, strong persona, but a wholly natural extension of it. She brings to Jessica a cynical, gin-soaked bravado like that of Humphrey Bogart. Even when Jones is thrown off guard, scared, adrift or even trembling with anxiety, she never once appears weak, never once plays the victim. It’s a testament to Ritter’s immense talent that she can embody a wide range of emotions in a character who is actively trying to suppress them.
10. IMMORTAL EMERGES (IRON FIST)
Yes, “Iron Fist” has been getting a critical drubbing, and we’re not going to pretend a good chunk of it isn’t well-deserved. The issue, of course, is that while the other three characters have had their finest comic book moments in the dark and gritty pages of works by writers like Frank Miller and Brian Michael Bendis, the finest Iron Fist story is the light, fun and fairly campy “The Last Iron Fist Story” from Ed Brubaker. As such, trying to approach the character from the same angle as the other three series would result in, well, the kind of responses the show is currently getting.
Thankfully, for one episode they hired a director who understood the genre of the martial arts movie. Armed with an arsenal of shots and styles lifted from decades of Shaw Brothers flicks on VHS, Wu-Tang Clan founder RZA brought all of the delightful B-movie sensibility he showed off in his directorial debut, an homage to Marvel’s immortal weapon entitled “The Man With the Iron Fists,” and delivered a standout episode where Danny must square off in a tournament against three different specialized challengers of The Hand to rescue a Russian scientist’s daughter.
9. MISTY KNIGHT TAKES POINT (LUKE CAGE)
Save co-leading the all-too-short “Daughter of the Dragon” miniseries, Misty Knight has always been on the periphery of the Marvel comics world. Despite key roles in “Civil War” and “Shadowland,” Knight has never really gotten her due and is still best known as the, admittedly significant for its groundbreaking interracial nature, love interest of Iron Fist Danny Rand. So when Misty was introduced on Netflix’s “Luke Cage” in a sexy outfit, and slept with the show’s protagonist so early on, it was easy to suspect that once again Knight would get shoved off to the side.
Instead, Knight charges forward, carrying as much if not more of the narrative weight of the series as the indestructible titular hero, proving to be such a compelling subplot as to essentially become the co-lead of the series. Indeed, in a given episode, Knight’s arc and actions prove even more compelling than those of the conflicted Luke Cage, as Simone Missick gives Knight an utterly unshakeable drive. Perhaps most remarkably, the show lets Knight treat her fling with Luke as an extension of her own confident sexuality, instead of some unrequited pining for commitment most female comic characters are forced to embody.
8. THE COURTROOM (DAREDEVIL S2)
Yes, we all know “Daredevil” has great cinematography and brilliantly choreographed action, but what’s most impressive about the show is that it holds up where it matters. A crucial component of casting a superhero is how engaging he or she can be outside the suit. While it soared in its stylish fights, “Daredevil” could have easily stumbled when it had to be a courtroom drama. Instead, especially in season two, which brings Matt’s legal profession to the forefront, it’s the courtroom setting that yields the best character moments for all involved.
The trial of Frank Castle shows the entire cast at their best. As Karen Page, the sole member of the team wth real compassion and sympathy for Frank, Deborah Anne Woll showcases a remarkable ability to say multitudes with a simple look or gesture. Foggy has rarely been better than doing his improvised plea to the jury in his opening statement. Matt not only uses his questioning of Frank to show off his calm command of a jury, but also to subtly make the case for his own vigilantism. In an explosive finale to the proceedings, Frank gives a testimony declaring himself the “big bad Punisher,” clearly proud of his work.
7. THE PSYCH WARD (IRON FIST)
While much criticism has been made of not showing more of K’unlun in “Iron Fist,” in this particular instance, it’s a blessing they didn’t show it right off the bat. Instead, “Iron Fist” drops us, along with Danny Rand, in modern NYC, wandering around uncertain of who anyone really is. When Danny’s constant foolhardy attempts to assert his identity land him in the psych ward, the show expertly plays with audience uncertainty in arguably the most compelling bit of mystery within a show overstuffed with them.
Indeed, as we’ve at this point seen very little of Rand’s alleged skills, and nothing of the city he speaks about, we’re meant to take him at his word that these outlandish claims are true. Yet, and perhaps to the detriment of investing in the character later, Danny’s personality reeks of both confusion and self-assuredness, a blend of traits that can’t help but hint at madness; so much so that when the doctor arrives with Danny’s passport showing a different name, one almost wonders whether the show intends to take on a Moon Knight-esque central conflict of “What’s really true?” Unfortunately, the show ditches this angle far too quickly, but for a moment it truly worked.
6. MAHERSHALA ALI AS COTTONMOUTH (LUKE CAGE)
It’s impossible to suggest any performer had a better year than Mahershala Ali in 2016. Coming off of notable, if minor, roles in “Hunger Games” and “House of Cards,” Mahershala’s 2016 involved a role in the top grossing film “Hidden Figures,” an Academy Award for his role in the Best Picture winner “Moonlight” and an absolutely scene-stealing role as one of the most engrossing villains in the entire MCU, Cottonmouth.
In any other actor’s hands, Cottonmouth could have been the typical “smarmy gangster who plays like a business man,” a knockoff of the archetype best exemplified by “The Wire’s” Stringer Bell. Instead, Ali imbues Cottonmouth with a wealth of emotions, giving the audience an abundance of sympathy for him before the first flashback even tells us why we should. Though he talks often of power, of what he feels he has achieved and is achieving, teetering often on braggadocio as the portrait of Biggie crowns his head, Ali subtly infuses a sense of self-loathing deep beneath the surface, a sense of longing that no material wealth can fuel. For a character who contains such multitudes, Ali makes sure we know this man is spiritually empty.
5. IDENTITY (JESSICA JONES, LUKE CAGE)
As the inaugural show, “Daredevil” was always going to be the template, the foundation, the standard “heroes journey” superhero show that set the tone in terms of content and style. From there, though, the showrunners of “Jessica Jones” and “Luke Cage” were able to build upon that foundation with their own unique voices and come at their properties with a perspective which made them click, both with the previously marginalized audiences they gave voice to and audiences as a whole who craved something new.
What’s key about both shows is that they never could be boxed into the typical trap of a “For _________ by __________” dynamic that almost always tokenizes, panders and alienates. “Jessica Jones” was never a “For women by women” show. It was enough that it was made by women, starring women, who told a story that hadn’t yet been told. So too with “Luke Cage,” which tackled social issues because they mattered to the creative team, not because they thought it would matter to the audience. In doing so, we got two landmark unique shows that resonated because they focused on telling stories from the showrunners’ point of view instead of merely trying to target certain demographics.
4. JON BERNTHAL AS PUNISHER (DAREDEVIL S2)
There had been three previous attempts to bring the relentless killing machine with the tortured soul to life, with Dolph Lundgren, Thomas Jane and Ray Stephenson all attempting to fill Frank Castle’s boots. Each one, whether through poor writing, a lack of directorial empathy or simply a lack of run time, proved unable to capture the essence of what made Castle a compelling character. So, when “Daredevil” Season 2 announced The Punisher would appear as the season’s primary antagonist, fans were trepidatious at best.
They needn’t have been. What Bernthal brings to the table with his interpretation of Castle is so powerful, so potent that even detractors of the comic book character are drawn in. Easily the most sympathetic depiction of The Punisher in any medium, the brutality of his acts of “justice” are so perfectly matched by his heartbreaking confessional moments. Bernthal takes care to show that Castle’s psyche is profoundly damaged, but his tactical mind and killer instincts are fully intact. What comes across is Bernthal’s enormous empathy for the men and women who serve our country and suffer as a consequence, while never treating his character like an outright hero.
3. THE INTERCONNECTIVITY
When Jeph Loeb first discussed “Daredevil” and the subsequent Netflix shows at a New York Comic Con sneak peak panel in 2014, he evoked his oft-quoted “It’s all connected” to let the audience understand that the type of interconnectivity we’d see in the Netflix series would be different from how, say, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D” relates to the films. Rather, the way the shows would connect to each other is by sharing a world. A cop you see in “Daredevil” might appear in “Jessica Jones.” A newspaper editor shown on “Jessica Jones” would be mentioned on “Iron Fist.” They’d all know the same police stations, same hospitals, and generally feel like they all have their own lives, but walk the same city streets.
Of course, the shows are also united by the character Claire Temple, played by Rosario Dawson, whose cross-series arc has made for some utterly compelling viewing as we’ve seen the character truly come into her own from a skittish night nurse patching up Matt Murdock to tackling The Hand alongside Colleen Wing and Danny Rand.
2. THE REINVENTION OF KILGRAVE
Fans of the Jessica Jones TV show may have been surprised to open the pages of Brian Michael Bendis’ original “Alias” book to find no mention of Kilgrave in the first 2 volumes, which instead showcase Jessica tracking down a runaway pseudo-mutant and an imposter Rick Jones. Instead, when The Purple Man finally appears, he’s already been captured, taunting Jessica like Hannibal Lecter behind the glass, smug and repugnant.
While the essence of Kilgrave’s powers, and his connection to Jessica, remained the same, the series otherwise reinvented the character from the ground up. Every step of the way, from casting the charismatic and charming David Tennant to the invention of his seemingly tragic backstory to wrestling with what it would really be like to live with his power, they crafted a character that can only be described as “deceptively sympathetic.” “Jessica Jones” succeeds in creating the comic book version of Nabokov’s Humbert from “Lolita,” whose charm earns your sympathy until a ripcord is pulled and you, the viewer, are horrified you could ever feel for so repugnant a man, much like the pantheon of real world abusers who’ve skated by on their privilege and a smile.
1. THE HALLWAY FIGHT (DAREDEVIL S1)
This was the defining moment of the Marvel Netflix experiment, without doubt. While the first episode showcased a “This ain’t Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D” level of gore, there was still room for doubt about the potential quality of the forthcoming content. The masterful technique, both in front of and behind the camera during Episode 2’s famous fight, not only set a high bar for just how “cinematic” the TV side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe could get, but revealed a level of artistry and pulse-pounding action that to date has been rivalled but never surpassed.
Takin heavy cues from both “Oldboy” and “The Raid” series, the hallway fight uses a single shot, with intricately choreographed combat and camera movements. It takes advantage of the confined space and limited lighting to craft a scene that shows not only how Daredevil’s skills could keep up with the big boys and girls on the Avengers, but also how different his circumstances are, having to duke it out in the murky New York underbelly. The internet lit up with copies of and commentary on the scene as soon as it dropped, and it’s still the gold standard in action that all super hero TV shows seem to be striving towards.
What has been your favorite moment in Marvel’s Netflix shows? Let us know in the comments!
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