Bringing Marvel’s Defenders to life: Marco Ramirez interview

The showrunner of Marvel's The Defenders talks about the challenges of bringing a team of heroes to the screen...

Marco Ramirez is no stranger to juggling lots of different characters on screen. Having served as showrunner on Daredevil Season 2, which had the added pressure of introducing Elektra and The Punisher to Matt Murdock’s world, he was a natural fit for the culmination of Marvel’s Netflix efforts, the superhero team-up The Defenders.

As part of our behind the scenes look at what went into making the show, we spoke with Mr. Ramirez by phone about the challenges of taking four characters, each capable of headlining their own series, and bringing them together in a way that remains true to all the hard work that has come before.

One thing that I am trying to figure out just for my own frame of reference here… How far after the end of Iron Fist does this take place? I know these are all kind of in real time, but roughly where are these?

I know that Marvel has a very strict chronology of when all these shows have happened and how they’ve happened, but we just say weeks to months. So that Danny and Colleen could have been on their quest for a couple of months [and] we could assume that Matt Murdock has had some time to decompress after all the Elektra stuff in Daredevil season 2 and “coming out” to Karen. So yeah, we’ve been saying months, or weeks to months.

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When did you learn you has the showrunner gig for The Defenders? Were you still doing Daredevil season 2?

Still in the final movements of Daredevil season 2, yeah. It was somewhere around shooting the finale and editing the finale. Jeph Loeb kind of presented the opportunity, and it had to be kept secret for a little bit. It was fun to get cast questions and to not be able to answer. That was kind of fun. It’s kind of like planning a surprise party. 

Daredevil is a main thread for The Defenders. Were you aware of some of the things that were going to have to get picked up in The Defenders even before you got the showrunner’s gig?

Marvel had a sense of all the threads that would need to be picked up from Iron Fist. I think Luke Cage was in the process where they were still writing the last couple episodes, so the writers for The Defenders got to see the first couple episodes of Luke Cage before they came out so [the writers] got a good sense of who Mike [Colter] was and how Luke sounded, and what his world was.

Marvel didn’t have story specifics in terms of what needed to happen in Defenders. It was more like, you know, kind of opening a curtain and saying, “This is what’s happening on these other shows because you absolutely need to know.” But ideally, I feel like we’re carrying over everybody’s stories into the next chapter, so this should also feel like Luke Cage season 1.5, and Jessica Jones season 1.5 to a certain degree. So it’s not like everyone is guest starring in one other person’s show, but rather like all four of them coming together.

Yeah, and it does feel like that. I was amazed by how in the first episode each of those little sections reintroduces everyone. It’s like Daredevil season 2, episode 13a. Did you go to the other showrunners for advice as well?

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Yeah, I mean they were around. A lot of it was obviously through Marvel, who kind of funneled everything back with a lot of information. But yeah, it really helps geographically that we’re all in the same building. So, you know, I developed a friendship with [Luke Cage showrunner] Cheo Coker, so it was nice to be able to just walk over to Cheo and ask him questions about Luke, and what Misty would sound like, and how Luke would interact, and that kind of stuff. So it was good that we would just weirdly be on this campus where we’re all making stuff from the same DNA, just to make sure that we weren’t contradicting stories or repeating stories. We wanted to make sure everyone was on the up and up.

How long did it take you to figure out an organic way to bring everybody together?

A couple of months, to be frank. But I will say one of the first things I think I knew was that we had to take our time. One of the great benefits of working on a Netflix show is because they release all the episodes at the same time, there’s the ultimate promise to the audience to just stay with us, we’re getting there. We’ll get to the stuff you came for. There was never any rush to get there so that they would have to, you know, “Tune in next week so that, as promised, you get all your people together.” It really felt like we could use the format as a way to tell the story really organically, and so the slow burn of it, and the slow mixing of ingredients, that was—I didn’t know how, but I knew that’s what we needed to do.

It also felt like we need to do the two different threads first. You know, where JJ and Matt meet, and Danny and Luke meet, and then we fold those together. So it felt like we’re mixing ingredients together slowly and organically, rather than having them all recruited by someone saying, “You all need to work together now” in episode one. That’s not—maybe that’s spoilery to talk about—but that felt like not the right way to tell this story. These characters needed to get there on their own as opposed to being told, “This is happening.” Jessica Jones has so much agency, Luke Cage has such a drive, Matt Murdock is so complicated. Everyone’s just so unique. It just felt wrong to get them all on the same page and not make that part of the story. We need to eventually get them all on the same page versus they’re all on the same page 20 minutes in.

I know everybody kind of expects when these team ups happen—because of the Avengers movies and because of what happens on the CW shows—when they happen, they automatically become bigger. So far, you’ve done a real good job of keeping it grounded in this corner of the universe. But does that scale increase as we go forward? Was there any pressure to bring a certain amount of spectacle later in the series?

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There is only in terms of of the promise of excitement as you reach a climax, but that’s just storytelling 101. I worked on Sons of Anarchy for two years, and it felt like we got our bloodiest episodes at the end of a season, you know? So that was where that happened. But here, I really think, yeah. To a certain degree, sure, it gets a little bit bigger as it opens. But really, in terms of spectacle and scale, these are really character-centered shows and really grounded ones. And so, you know, the biggest things that might happen in later episodes are the characters making big decisions.

We don’t fight in the sky on this show. These stories happen in the back alleys of New York, so in a weird way, when we talk about spectacle as really fun stuff to get to, in some case, it was as simple as, “Oh my god, I can’t wait to use this needle drop on the scene.” Or, “Oh my god, I can’t wait for these two people to finally see each other, or these people to finally address that thing.” It wasn’t always about special effects, spectacles, and big bombastic fight scenes. Sometimes, it was just about moments you know that the audience have been waiting for that we would finally give them in the last couple of episodes. You know, a certain team-up or a certain nod to the comics in a big way that people may have been waiting for for several seasons. That felt just as big as something practically big, like cars exploding or stuff getting thrown around.

I know there’s probably not a lot you can say about the villain, but how did you end up casting Sigourney Weaver?

I mean, it never happens this way. It never happens that a team of writers sits around and spit balls a character and come up with a character, and thinks, “Okay, this is a Sigourney Weaver type.” And then talks about it like that for several months, and eventually, Marvel and Netflix say “Sigourney’s on the phone. She wants to talk about the character.” So just in terms of that process, it was kind of surreal to have thought about her—I think we even had her headshot up on the wall. Whenever we referenced the character, we would talk about and point to that thing, so eventually, when I was on the phone with her talking about the role, it suddenly felt like… Not only has my life long dream come true of working with Ripley, it’s also, that was a character we’ve been talking about for so long, if you want to, you know, talk about her and how to make her interesting and three dimensional. So really, it was one of those dream scenarios.

We talked about this character a Sigourney Weaver type. We never expected to get Sigourney Weaver on the line, and much less on set. So I think we were all excited. The writers were all excited. The directors, I’m sure they’re all thrilled about the cast as well.

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The Marvel Netflix shows have been immune to that larger Marvel “curse”. People say, “Well, you know, the villain’s not really strong enough in the Marvel movies.” You can’t say that about Kilgrave or Kingpin.” So where does Sigourney’s Alexandra fit on this spectrum?

The villains…it’s even tricky to call them villains. Something I noticed when working on Daredevil Season 1, we never really talked about Fisk as being bad. He was just this other character who wanted another version of New York. I think you could probably say that about Cottonmouth in some capacity on Luke Cage, although Kilgrave is most definitely a villain.

I really think it’s just that TV is different than film, and in TV, scenes are king, not massive fights or big spectacle, or costume, or anything like that. It’s really just about ultimately what people do in scenes. And so when you think about what I think about—the most proud that we did with Fisk season one of Daredevil, they’re scenes. When I think about the things I love most about Kilgrave and about Cottonmouth, it’s always come down to great scenes, great monologues, great moments. People just making really great decisions. And so it’s not hard, I don’t think, to just automatically by default think about those characters as really sophisticated characters first, and not what kind of superpower does so and so have. Even Kilgrave’s power is relatively grounded, because it’s ultimately this mental sophisticated thing. 

In the Netflix world, they constantly encouraged us to go with more and more sophisticated cable drama with the characters, with who we’d call villains or antagonists. We’ve just always been encouraged to make them as complicated as possible. This is the network that gave us House of Cards. They’re not interested in black and white villains. They really want everyone to feel really complicated and interesting. So that’s the promise.

I’ll be frank, I think that was part of the allure, I think, to someone like Sigourney. She was very excited by the idea of joining the Kilgraves and the Fisks of the Marvel Universe. She was very excited at the thought of being one of these really smart, sophisticated, manipulative, powerful people who doesn’t have to use what we would consider comic book supervillain tropes to get what they want. And it ultimately comes down to scenes. And I think that’s what she responded to. So I hope that somehow answers that question.

I guess it does? [Laughs] And this is an original character, right?

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Alexandra is a character that’s… You know what? I can’t answer that question.

Okay, fair enough. So this has to go into production right after Iron Fist wrapped, right? Were you guys already connecting the dots? How long of a lead time in terms of pre-production and things like that? This is a very challenging project.

Yeah, it was very challenging. The great part is that we were able to carry over a lot of the Marvel crew from previous shows. So a lot of the crew that were on these shows just kind of roll from one into the other, so they’re very familiar with the world, they’re very familiar with the system, and they’re very familiar with the secrecy of how we have to shoot in New York. I believe almost everyone has worked in the Marvel-Netflix world. Our heads of departments have all worked there before. Seeing how they kind of roll from the Iron Fist production right into ours, and then similarly at the very end of production, Krysten Ritter had to roll right from the end of Defenders right into Jessica Jones Season 2. It’s very much like the trains are moving. People, get on them. I think a lot of our crew came right after either Iron Fist or Luke Cage Season 1.

Daredevil Season 2 was pretty large scale. When you factor in characters like Elektra and Punisher, that’s almost like having two more leads the way you have four leads here. Was this a tougher production? Is there more pressure on you from Marvel, for example, because this is the thing they’ve been building to?

It was different. In some ways, Daredevil Season 2 felt like a dry run to what Defenders really was. Some of the exciting challenges in Daredevil Season 2 were that we were kind of creating Elektra and Frank Castle in that world. We were casting them. We were figuring out what their voices sounded like. We were doing a lot of that, and that was really exciting. Some of the similar but different challenges in Defenders was that these characters already existed. They were already casted. Their voices were already distinct. The actors certainly have really good senses of who they were. So it was a little different in terms of—I wasn’t creating Jessica Jones, or Luke Cage, or Danny Rand. They already exist on their own shows. I was just seeing where those voices fit into this world and how those voices sounded when they bounce off each other. So they’re very different.

On one hand, yeah, it was nice to have Daredevil Season 2. On the other hand, it was a lot of… I jokingly called it leasing the car. I lease Luke Cage for the episodes, and I had to turn him right back in to Cheo to go do season 2. I leased Jessica Jones so I could turn her back in and [Jessica Jones showrunner] Melissa [Rosenberg] could give her a great story.

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What kind of input from Marvel do you get?

It’s interesting the stuff that’s very important versus the stuff that they’re open to hear new ideas on. That is really interesting. And of course, between the Jeph Loebs and the Joe Quesadas of the world, you have these comic book geniuses who are legends. I grew up reading their comics, so whenever they have notes on how Matt Murdock would do something, I listen real close.

But on the other hand, I’m taking a character and giving them a new rhyme or a new spin. I’m writing for a new medium, so those conversations have been interesting and exciting in terms of this is how such and such thing would work best in the comics. And the TV writers have to say, “In this art form, this is how to best tell that story or how to best serve it.” So it’s been an interesting dance between how established and what the audience think, what the audience love about it, and the new medium. And on top of that, this kind of new realm that Netflix has given us to play—these sophisticated characters driven stories—the super powers are kind of one of the last things that you take into account on these shows. It’s really about the characters and who the people are. The superpowers and the origins, that all comes way, way later on the importance scale, I think.

Marvel’s The Defenders premieres on Netflix on August the 18th