SPOILER ALERT! Spoilers ahead for multiple Marvel Comics stories.
To some, they’ve never been much more than a second-rate version of the Avengers. To others, they’re a delightfully bizarre collection of misfits, who explore the far out corners of the Marvel Universe. Whatever you may think, the Defenders possess an undeniable resilience, bouncing back from relative obscurity several times over their long history.
With a new Netflix miniseries set for release in 2017 that’s already begun filming, the Defenders are poised to steal their way into the spotlight once again. Featuring a roster made up of all four stars of the previous Marvel Netflix series, this version of the group will be like no other incarnation we’ve seen before. 2017 is right around the corner, so we thought it was a good idea to get ahead of the curve and compile a list of 15 things you ought to know about the Defenders before they leap off the small screen.
15. Marvel Feature #1
Historically speaking, the Defenders never became an official team until their first appearance in “Marvel Feature” #1. However, their origins actually begin in a pair of crossovers spanning 1969-1971. Doctor Strange recruited the Hulk and Namor, the Sub-Mariner to help him thwart cosmic horror of the Undying Ones, tying up the loose ends of an unfinished storyline left over from his cancelled ongoing series. Shortly after, Namor recruited the Silver Surfer and the Hulk for aid in halting a catastrophic weather experiment that inadvertently put them at odds with the Avengers.
The Defenders’ first appearance as an actual team didn’t occur until their starring role in the first issue of the aforementioned “Marvel Feature.” As he would time and again throughout the team’s complicated history, Doctor Strange gathered together a specialized team of heroes to fight a supernatural threat. Their inaugural adventure pitted Strange, the Hulk and Namor against the Sorcerer Supreme’s techno-wizard rival Yandroth. It was to be a short-lived collaboration, though. Immediately after foiling Yandroth’s plans, the Hulk bailed on his comrades, setting the precedent for his infrequent membership over the years and contributing to the group’s reputation for revolving line-ups.
14. Powerhouse Founders
At the center of virtually every superhero team, one can usually find a core group of founders embodying the values the team was founded on and providing guidance and leadership to their compatriots. While it is possible to shoehorn the Defenders into this mold, in typical Defenders fashion, it must be on their own terms. Doctor Strange, the Hulk, Namor and the Silver Surfer aren’t exactly known as team players and all four, at one time or another, have presented very clear, very present dangers to the rest of the world. That being said, their unpredictability and varied skill sets has set the tempo for virtually every incarnation of the Defenders since their inception.
Collectively, they are also four of the most powerful beings in the Marvel Universe, which when you think about it is kind of scary. With god-like powers literally at their fingertips, including Doctor Strange’s ability to alter reality, the Defenders founding fathers could be a force to be reckoned with – if they ever got on the same page, that is. Perhaps we should be happy they’re so disorganized…
13. The Anti-Avengers
Everybody knows the Avengers are the Marvel Universe’s premiere superhero team. Boasting a roster that includes several of the most powerful beings on the planet, the Avengers have saved the Earth from countless threats, from alien invaders to worldwide terrorist networks. They are renowned for their structure, discipline and battle-hardened experience. In short, they are everything the Defenders are not. For most of their history, the Defenders lacked both a stable membership and a dedicated headquarters, though not for lack of trying. Their reputation as the non-team super-team is undeniably well-deserved.
Their contrasting styles have put the two teams at odds many times over the years, most famously during the classic “Avengers/Defenders War” crossover that spanned eight issues in both titles during the early ‘70s. This titanic tussle between the two vastly different superhero teams stemmed from the insidious plans of both Loki and Dormammu, providing fans with a superhero fight card for the ages: Cap vs. Namor, Thor vs. the Hulk and the Vision and Scarlet Witch vs. the Silver Surfer. By the end of the crossover, everything was copacetic but the obvious stylistic clash between the two teams set the tone for the Defenders for years to come.
12. Supernatural Plots
Besides their lack of organization or clear direction, what sets the Defenders apart from teams like the Avengers and the Fantastic Four is their connection to the Marvel Universe’s supernatural underpinnings. While the Avengers and the FF typically battle alien invasions and inter-dimensional tyrants, the Defenders stand guard on an equally important battlefront, facing off against mass demonic incursions, megalomaniacal evil sorcerers, and occult menaces from beyond the stars.
Along with Doctor Strange, the Defenders’ roster also includes occult luminaries such as the sorceress Clea, Devil-Slayer and Daimon Hellstrom, the Son of Satan. From their very first adventures together battling Yandroth the techno-wizard to their classic struggle against the Six-Fingered Hand, the Defenders have always skewed closer to the myriad realms of the supernatural than the average superhero team. For a time, as we’ll explore in more depth later in our list, their very existence was connected to Earth’s need for supernatural protectors. Think of it this way: If the Avengers are fighting to save our lives, then the Defenders are fighting to save our very souls.
11. “The Defenders” #62: “Defenders for a Day”
Easily one of the coolest, craziest stories in the history of the Marvel Universe, “The Defenders” #62 is a major Bronze Age touchstone for many long-time comic book readers. Written by David Alan Kraft and drawn by Ed Hannigan, this issue kicked of a three-issue arc in which the Defenders attempted to bolster their diminishing ranks with some new blood. Their open call for recruitment drew the attention of dozens of heroes and villains, the latter seeking to confuse authorities and commit crimes during the chaos of the membership drive.
The applicant list reads like an appendix of minor characters from the old “Marvel Universe” guides: Prowler, Marvel Man (Quasar I), Black Goliath, Jack of Hearts and Tagak the Leopard Lord (!) in his last known appearance. Although none of the applicants lasted for more than a single mission, the storyline continues to fascinate readers to this day, an enduring reminder of when comics were still allowed to be unconditionally off the wall.
10. “The Defenders” #100: “Hell on Earth”
Nowadays, it’s rare that a comic reaches 100 issues, before getting rebooted with new numbering or cancelled altogether. The original run of “The Defenders” reached this milestone in October of 1981, with an over-sized issue by legendary creators J.M. DeMatteis and Don Perlin (not to mention a host of equally legendary inkers led by Joe Sinnott). The issue served as the culmination of many ongoing plotlines, including the Defenders’ campaign against the demonic Six-Fingered Hand, who succeeded in creating a literal Hell on Earth for their masters, the all-powerful Hell-Lords.
Satan, first among equals of the Hell-Lords, separates the Defenders, pitting them against his allies Mephisto, Satannish, and Thog in separate battles designed to test not only their physical mettle, but also the integrity of their morals. In the climactic battle between Daimon Hellstrom and his father Satan, Doctor Strange breaks the rules to save his friend, drawing on the combined spiritual energies of the Defenders to turn the tide. Although the Son of Satan would ultimately sacrifice himself and agree to sit at his father’s side to save the Earth, it was a victory that came a cost for the Defenders, causing them to question themselves after abandoning their morals so easily.
9. A Path to Redemption?
Not every hero’s path to greatness proceeds in a straight line. In fact, it could be argued in most cases, that line is almost always crooked and filled with obstacles that test a hero’s moral center. The Defenders, like many other superhero teams, feature more than a few members with colorful pasts, providing a path to redemption to characters, who might not have been given the opportunity otherwise. Let’s not forget that the Silver Surfer, the Hulk and Namor all represented extreme, potentially cataclysmic dangers to the entire world on several occasions over the course of their respective careers.
The founders set a precedent that spurred the Defenders into providing a second chance to many other villains and antiheroes throughout the team’s history. Perhaps the most visible of these is Kyle Richmond, who first took up the mantle of Nighthawk as one of the infamous Squadron Sinister, who battled the Avengers on behalf of the Grandmaster before becoming a valued member of the Defenders. Other members such as Overmind, the Son of Satan and even Dracula all found some measure of redemption thanks to their time with the Defenders.
8. Rumble! The Defenders vs. Squadron Supreme
Power Princess vs. Valkyrie! The Hulk vs. Hyperion! The Sub-Mariner vs. the Amphibian! “The Defenders” #113 showcased the Defenders at their very best, engaged in a no-holds-barred smackdown with the other-dimensional super-team Squadron Supreme. It was a fight for the ages that truly illustrated just how powerful the Defenders truly were. More than that, it was a story that also tugged at the heart strings as the team mistakenly thought their late comrade Nighthawk had somehow cheated death.
Ultimately, it was revealed that Nighthawk’s resurrection was bogus and the Kyle Richmond the Defenders thought they knew was in fact his Earth-712 doppleganger, and that his teammates on the Squadron Supreme were under the mental control of an ancient malevolent cosmic horror (aren’t they always?). The two teams set aside their differences to defeat Null, the Living Darkness, and return the Squadron Supreme to their rightful Earth – but not before giving readers one hell of a battle royal between two powerhouse teams.
7. The New Defenders
The Defenders underwent a dramatic shift in direction in issue #125. Feeling burned out and fearing creative stagnation, writer J.M. DeMatteis – who had been penning the team’s adventures since issue #92 – implemented sweeping changes to the title’s tone and roster. Out were team stalwarts Nighthawk and Hellcat and in were three former X-Men: Angel, Iceman and the Beast, who become the team’s de facto leader. The four founders also departed the book, some of their otherworldly qualities replaced by a former Avenger with connections to Thanos, the powerful telepath Moondragon.
The change in tone was short-lived. DeMatteis left the book after realizing he’d turned the Defenders into a stereotypical superhero team, stripping the series of its niche appeal. Strikeforce Morituri co-creator, Peter B. Gillis, took over as scribe until the series finale, issue #152, and attempted to return the Defenders to their supernatural roots with a complicated story about Moondragon’s destiny as the Dragon of the Moon but was unable to recapture the Defenders distinctive oddball feel. It wouldn’t be the last we saw of the Defenders but it would be many years before Marvel revisited the classic line-up.
6. Shh! It’s a Secret!
During the ‘90s, Marvel attempted to revive the Defenders as a spin-off of the current “Doctor Strange” ongoing series. This time around, creators embraced the team’s tradition for eclectic, revolving rosters, recruiting whatever characters they deemed necessary for a given mission. Three of the original founders returned to these “Secret Defenders”, with Doctor Strange, the Silver Surfer, and the Hulk serving as the core around which each specialized team of heroes would be built.
This new approach only lasted a few issues but featured high profile members such as Ghost Rider (Danny Ketch), Wolverine, Spider-Man and even Captain America. Later rosters would lack the star power of Marvel’s marquee players, who were presumably busy in their own books. Eventually, the perennial Doctor Strange understudy known as Doctor Druid would assume leadership of the Secret Defenders, signalling another new direction for the book and featuring a cast of unknowns known as the Cognosenti. With little connection to the original series, the Secret Defenders were doomed to a short run and the series was cancelled after only 25 issues.
5. Curse of The Order
The four founding members of the Defenders returned during Kurt Busiek and Erik Larsen’s revival of the classic line-up, which also featured Nighthawk and Hellcat. The initial 12-issue run gave way to a subsequent six-issue limited series called “The Order”, during which Yandroth once again rears his ugly head to plague the team’s founders. Having convinced the Earth goddess Gaea to curse Doctor Strange, Silver Surfer, the Hulk and Namor to gather together every time the world came under threat, Yandroth telepathically prodded the founders into attempting to conquer the world.
Although Yandroth’s plan was ultimately foiled by Nighthawk, Hellcat and a handful of new recruits such as Namorita and She-Hulk, the story did underline just how powerful the four founders could be if they managed to pool their resources towards a common goal. Unfortunately, once they disentangled themselves from Yandroth’s latest scheme, the Defenders once again disbanded, unable to recapture the glory of yesteryear.
4. The “Last” Defenders
The next incarnation of the Defenders to make an appearance was supposed to be the last version of the team – at least according to Kyle Richmond. Having been resurrected in truth before the events of Civil War, Nighthawk sided with Iron Man’s faction in favor of superhuman registration. To this end, the Defenders were dovetailed into Tony Stark’s 50-State Initiative, designated as New Jersey’s dedicated team of superhuman protectors.
Initially, Richmond lobbied for a team of experienced Defenders pulled from previous rosters but was vetoed by Stark, who favored his own choices. The result was an odd line-up consisting of Colossus, the Blazing Skull and She-Hulk. This version of the team only lasted one botched mission before Nighthawk severed ties with the Initiative and recruited his own team of Defenders. Arguably, this new team – including Paladin, Atlas, and the Atlantean Commander Krang – had an even stranger make-up than its predecessor and was in any case forcibly dismantled shortly after its inception by Norman Osborn’s HAMMER.
3. No Fear
Although series creator Cullen Bunn insists there’s very little to connect his Fearless Defenders with earlier incarnations of the team, it’s impossible to talk about the Defenders without mentioning his critically-acclaimed, fan-favorite team of Valkryrior. Born in the wake of Marvel’s Fear Itself crossover event, “Fearless Defenders” chronicled the birth of a new team of female heroes under the leadership of Valkyrie. The series only real connection to the Defenders was through Valkyrie herself, as Bunn consciously steered on a course that veered sharply away from her previous team.
Starring a diverse cast of empowered Marvel women, including Misty Knight, Dani Moonstar and the aptly-named Warrior Woman (the Amazonian Hippolyta), “Fearless Defenders” was slightly ahead of its time, predating all-women versions of the Avengers and the X-Men by a few years. Unfortunately, despite positive reviews from fans and critics alike, the series couldn’t sustain enough sales to justify its continuation and it was cancelled after only 12 issues.
2. The Offenders
The origins of the Offenders lay in yet another contest of champions sponsored by the Elder of the Universe known as the Grandmaster. This time playing against his fellow Elder, the Collector, the Grandmaster recruits the Hulk, the Silver Surfer, Namor and Doctor Strange from past points in their respective histories, when they were most vulnerable. The Collector chooses a bloodthirsty team of adversaries in Red Hulk, Tiger Shark, Terrax the Terrible and Baron Mordo.
The Red Hulk defeats the Hulk and demands to join the other fights, tearing through the other champions – including his fellow Offenders – like a hot knife through butter. After killing both Terrax and the Silver Surfer, the Red Hulk becomes infused with the Power Cosmic and threatens Galactus himself (who the Collector brought in just to make things more interesting), taunting him with the corpse of the Silver Surfer. This prompts Grandmaster to halt the game, presumably feeling things had gotten a little out of hand. Crying foul, the Red Hulk decapitates the Grandmaster with Terrax’s ax, causing the Collector to reset reality and return everybody to their respective timelines.
1. The Defenders Who Never Were
Our list’s final entry never really happened – at least not as far as the rest of the Marvel Universe is concerned. When the Hulk comes to Doctor Strange for help facing Nul, the Breaker of Worlds, they recruit a new team of Defenders to fight the menace. This incarnation of the group includes the four founding members plus new additions Iron Fist and Red She-Hulk. It was eventually revealed that this latest gathering of the four original Defenders actually heralded the end of the universe, bringing upon the arrival of the Death Celestials, when they inadvertently uncover the existence of a universal machine called the Concordance Engine.
Doctor Strange attempts to save the universe by travelling back in time to prevent the formation of these new Defenders. Although he succeeds in resetting the timeline, the Defenders perish while destroying the Concordance Engine and the Death Celestials arrive to kill the universe anyways. Sounds like a bit of a bummer, right? Aren’t the good guys supposed to save the day? Well, the good news is that thanks to Doctor Strange’s tampering all of this never happened in the 616 but rather in throwaway alternate universe, prompting readers everywhere to exclaim, “Huh?!”
What do you know about the Defenders that we don’t? Let us know in the comments!
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