The Defenders: Creating Marvel’s Netflix Team

Getting four street smart Marvel heroes on screen together in The Defenders took a superhuman behind the scenes effort.

Marvel's Defenders: Luke Cage, Stick, Iron Fist, Jessica Jones, and Matt Murdock
Photo: Marvel/Netflix

This article was originally published in the Den of Geek Special Edition Magazine. Click here to view the full issue!

The Defenders aren’t the Avengers or the Justice League. Those are the crown jewels of superhero intellectual property, instantly recognizable icons with decades of history in everything from comics to toys to video games. Most of Marvel’s roster of Netflix heroes—collectively known as the Defenders—operate under their real names and don’t even bother with costumes. They’re literal social justice warriors, working to change their neighborhoods, not the world, for the better. The Defenders are underdogs, and if there’s one thing New York City loves, it’s an underdog.

Marvel’s interlocking group of Netflix shows are not only set in New York City, they’re shot and produced there too, with recognizable Midtown, Brooklyn, and Harlem exteriors allowing the city to take on the same role it has always had in the comics. Other superheroes operate in fictional locales like Metropolis or Gotham, but Marvel heroes have always called NYC home. A fan can wander through Hell’s Kitchen and imagine where Nelson and Murdock, Attorneys at Law, might hang their shingle.

So of course when the cast of The Defenders united on the New York Comic Con stage together for the first time last October, it felt like superhero history was being made. This might seem like an overstatement. After all, star-studded superhero announcements at comic cons are hardly new.

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But when Charlie Cox (Daredevil), Krysten Ritter (Jessica Jones), Mike Colter (Luke Cage), and Finn Jones (Iron Fist) all took the stage together, the Marvel faithful jumped to their feet to let loose deafening howls of approval.

“I was definitely not prepared for the wild fan reaction,”  Ritter recalls via email. “No one could have prepared me for that. I thought that our first New York Comic Con for Jessica Jones was epic, because we had a pretty major reaction from the crowd after showing our first episode! But for Defenders? That room went NUTS!”

Getting the stars of all four Marvel Netflix shows on a stage for a few minutes is one thing. Getting them together on-screen is another story. For Iron Fist star Finn Jones, who had gone straight from wrapping six months of shooting Iron Fist to a day with press and fans at NYCC on roughly three hours of sleep, “It was very overwhelming and super intense.” Jones reflects, “It was fun, but… I was kind of numb to it all because I was just so tired by that point.” After his appearance at NYCC, Jones only had two weeks before he had to begin work on The Defenders. At the time of this writing, Ritter and Colter are deep into filming the second seasons of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, with their own work on Defenders only recently completed. (Due to the Luke Cage Season 2 shooting schedule, Colter was unavailable for interviews for this article). And now imagine you’re the producer and writer tasked with not only creating a crossover series that carries all the weight of fan expectation, but you also have to do it while coordinating with three other shows.

Fortunately, The Defenders showrunner Marco Ramirez is no stranger to the difficulties of balancing stories for a group of recognizable heroes. Ramirez has been with the Marvel Netflix universe since the beginning, having worked as writer and executive producer on the first season of Daredevil. Ramirez learned he landed The Defenders gig just as production was coming to a close on Daredevil Season 2 where he served as co-showrunner. That season had the added challenge of introducing high-profile Marvel characters like the Punisher and Elektra to a mix that already included Matt Murdock, Wilson Fisk, and the Hand.

“In some ways, Daredevil Season 2 felt like a dry run to what The Defenders really was,” Ramirez tells me by phone. “It was a slow game of three characters that were all major pieces of Marvel IP, and now [with Defenders] we’re doing four. Some of the exciting challenges in Daredevil 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. [It] was really exciting.”

By the time The Defenders went into production, Ramirez had to integrate three characters in Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Danny Rand, who had headlined their own series, each from a different showrunner. It’s a process he refers to as “leasing the car” before he has to return the characters to their respective homes.

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“The actors certainly have really good senses of who they were,” Ramirez says. “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.”

As the first Marvel Netflix hero, Cox had already worked with Marco Ramirez on two seasons of television, making him uniquely qualified to describe how things have changed between Daredevil and The Defenders.

“I can’t even imagine what it was like for [Ramirez] to write this show with four characters, all of whom already exist, three of whom you’ve never written for,” Cox says in a phone interview. “All of those guys have other people who wrote their individual shows, and he has to try and find the voice that matches what was already filmed and put on screen. And then he’s got to try and tell a story involving all four of those people that remains true to everything that’s been done so far.”

Complicating things further as creative work on The Defenders commenced was that neither Luke Cage nor Iron Fist had been completed. “Marvel had a sense of all the threads that would need to be picked up from Iron Fist,” Ramirez says. “I think Luke Cage was in the process where they were still writing the last couple of episodes, so the writers for The Defenders got to see the first couple of episodes of Luke Cage before they came out, so they got a good sense of who Mike [Colter] was, how Luke sounded, and what his world was.”

Since all of the shows work out of New York City, it allows everyone to remain in touch. In particular, Ramirez struck up a friendship with Luke Cage showrunner Cheo Coker, who helped him keep Luke and Misty Knight’s voices consistent. Ramirez describes it as “all making stuff from the same DNA.”

There’s also a lot of continuity with members of the camera and production teams, many of whom have worked on multiple Marvel Netflix shows. “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,” Ramirez says. To give you an idea of how much is shared between these productions, Jones once stepped out of his Brooklyn apartment and found himself, completely accidentally, on the set of Jessica Jones Season 2, surrounded by many of the same crew he had just finished working with on The Defenders and Iron Fist.

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This consistency appears to be paying off. What’s immediately striking in those first two episodes is how true they are to the tone of each hero’s individual show. “Ideally, I feel like we’re carrying over everybody’s stories into the next chapter,” Ramirez says. “So this should also feel like Luke Cage season 1.5 and Jessica Jones season 1.5 to a certain degree.”

“By the time we got into The Defenders, it was very much an equal playing field,” Cox says. “We were all given a similar amount of material, similar storylines. We got on fantastically well, the four of us. There was no feeling at any point that any of us are more or less important than the others. It never felt like I’ve been there the longest. At least, it didn’t for me.”

The show is in no hurry to bring the team together early on, and that’s by design. After all, it’s relatively easy to assemble the Avengers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe when there’s already a government agency with jurisdiction over things like super soldiers, thunder gods, and billionaire inventors. It’s a little harder to find reasons to put a blind lawyer, a super strong private eye, a bulletproof ex-con, and a mystical martial artist in the same room. Ramirez admits it took “a couple of months” to figure out the right way to do it.

“One of the first things I think I knew was that we had to take our time,” Ramirez tells me. “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’ll get to the stuff you came for. It really felt like we could use the format as a way to tell the story really organically.”

The strong voices of each of the characters presented its own challenges. “Jessica Jones has so much agency, Luke Cage has such a drive, Matt Murdock is so complicated,” Ramirez says. “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.”

What brings these characters, who might not play well with others, together?

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“I think one of the great things about these shows is you meet superheroes who are kind of lonely,” Cox says. “They don’t fit into the world. They feel like freaks of nature. And they’re ashamed about what they’re doing in many ways, as well as recognizing the importance of it. You have four people who have absolutely no interest in being part of a team but who are forced into a situation where they have to work together, and from a human point of view that is really interesting.”

“I would say Jessica [Jones] is there reluctantly, and she seizes every opportunity to say so,” Ritter says of her character, “Which lends itself to some laughs for sure! At the end of the day, her participating in the Defenders roller coaster is reluctant but also her moral responsibility. Even though she often has such contempt for her abilities, JJ is still a powered person and she knows she can help. And if put to the test, she freaking will. Which is what I love so much about her.”

Comics fans will note that there are natural pairings between the four heroes, and those will all be represented on-screen. Matt Murdock and Jessica Jones have a unique friendship in the comics, and they share some fun moments in the first trailer for the series.

“The highlight of The Defenders for me is working with Krysten Ritter,” Cox says. “I think she’s a phenomenal actor and an incredibly inspirational human being; she’s a real go-getter; she’s a master of many trades. I’m not traditionally very funny, so it was really fun for me to try to explore being funny, and she’s knockout funny every time. It was really fun to try exchanging witticisms with Krysten on a regular basis. And I’m pretty sure—I haven’t seen the show yet—but I’m pretty sure she wins most of the banters.”

“Charlie Cox is one of my favorite humans on the planet,” Ritter writes via email. “We have similar acting processes and working styles on-set… He and I would always look out for each other, share ideas, brainstorm how to make moments deeper, funnier, you name it. That’s really the case with all of us in the entire cast. I loved our scenes together, because these are two strong, loner characters who don’t really look for, ask for, or accept help. It was kind of a game of feeling each other out and really earning each other’s trust.”

The more well-known pairing, of course, is Luke Cage and Danny Rand, who have a long history of co-headlining comics like Power Man and Iron Fist and Heroes for Hire. Their few minutes together in the first two episodes of The Defenders, however, show a more difficult start for that particular friendship.

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“I love Mike [Colter]. He’s a great guy,” Jones says. “We get on really well together as actors, but also as the characters, there’s some really good chemistry there. I think we’re kind of blessed that we get on with each other so well.”

While the actors get along, the characters are another story, and the reason this particular friendship takes time is all in what we already know about them. “There’s friction there at the beginning, and it’s pretty obvious because we come from two different worlds,” Jones says. “Luke Cage is from the streets. And he’s trying to do good. He cares about community, he cares about lifting the bottom up whereas Danny comes from a completely different side of New York, one of privilege, power, and money. And so when they come together, they definitely have a clash of ideals which, throughout The Defenders, they are coming to grips with.”

Don’t worry. As you might expect, it sounds like they eventually work it out. “I think what holds them together, despite their huge differences, is that on a base level, they are just two men who are outsiders who have these powers and this responsibility but are totally lost,” Jones says. “And through that lost-ness, and that vulnerability, I think they see a real kindred friendship within one another. And I think the way that Marvel has written the beginning of this friendship, it feels very real. It feels like it comes from a very genuine place. I’m really excited to see where that friendship develops after The Defenders because I think it lays the groundwork for some really interesting story developments over time.”

In addition to making sure that the characters can work together, there are also story threads from four different shows that need to be developed. Luckily, Ramirez, who wrote and co-wrote a number of Defenders episodes, had considerable freedom to shape the team’s story. “Marvel didn’t have story specifics in terms of what needed to happen in The Defenders,” he tells me. “It was more like opening a curtain and saying, ‘This is what’s happening on these other shows because you absolutely need to know.’”

Ramirez points out that The Defenders picks up “weeks to a couple of months” after the final episode of Iron Fist, and it shows Danny and Colleen Wing fully engaged in their quest to take down mystical ninja clan the Hand. Since the Hand were established as the primary villains on both seasons of Daredevil, you can see the connections between these series start to form within the first few minutes, even before the characters have met. This will get more difficult when it comes to Luke Cage and Jessica Jones.

“Danny Rand and Matthew Murdock have experience with these people, with the Hand,” Cox says. “So the story for them is already personal. It’s up to Danny and Matt to explain who these people are [to Luke Cage and Jessica Jones], because they’ve never even heard of them… They’re the ones that have to go on the journey of disbelief through to ‘holy shit.’ If someone says there’s an ancient evil organization who are capable of destroying an entire civilization, it’s very easy for someone like Jessica Jones to say ‘Okay, good luck with that.’”

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When you’re talking about superhero crossovers, whether it’s on the page or screen, it’s a fair assumption that there’s going to be a certain amount of escalation. But The Defenders is the culmination of four shows that pride themselves on keeping their superheroics street level. It may be the same New York City that was ravaged by the special effects extravaganza of 2012’s The Avengers, but that kind of action would feel out of place here.

“We don’t fight in the sky on this show,” Ramirez assures me. “To a certain degree, sure, it gets a little bit bigger as it opens. But 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.”

Even in the first two episodes, you can see those “big decisions” coming into play. Matt Murdock has apparently hung up his red suit to focus on defending the innocent in court rather than the streets, but a mysterious turn of events sends him out to the rooftops and alleys of Hell’s Kitchen for some non-costumed, extra-curricular activity. “I’ve always wanted the show to feel like the emotional impact of what happens to the characters is relatable,” Cox says of the show’s character-driven nature. “It really is terrifying. It should feel really scary. And it should feel painful, emotionally as well as physically, what these characters go through. I don’t think the shows ever want to glamorize violence.”

“It wasn’t always about special effects, spectacles, and big bombastic fight scenes,” Ramirez says. “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.”

Simply uniting the Defenders would have been a perfect way to close out NYCC’s Saturday, the night when comic cons traditionally reach their peak. Fans would have gone home happy, journalists would have had their headlines, and the cast and crew would have known they made their mark.

But Marvel still had their special guest villain to announce. So when Sigourney Weaver walked out onto that stage, the atmosphere shifted to something akin to a playoff baseball game. The crowd, which had already been on its feet for several minutes, had nowhere to go but into the aisles where strangers hugged and high-fived. A chant of “holy shit,” usually reserved for pro wrestling events when someone emulates a superhuman by leaping from the top of a cage or something similarly crazy, broke out. “I myself was like, ‘Holy shit,’” Ritter recalls, “It was totally insane and amazing.”

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It seemed like the only sane response to the revelation that an icon like Weaver had joined the Marvel fold. Even devoted fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe will admit that, with few exceptions, the big screen villains lack a certain gravitas. That isn’t a criticism that can be leveled at their Netflix shows, which have given us standouts like David Tenant’s Kilgrave on Jessica Jones, Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk on Daredevil, and Alfre Woodard’s Mariah Dillard and Mahershala Ali’s Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes on Luke Cage. None of those characters are traditional supervillains, and all have some serious acting chops behind them.

“It’s tricky to even call them villains,” Ramirez admits. “Something I noticed when working on [Daredevil] Season 1 was 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, whereas 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,” Ramirez says. “When I think about the things I love most about Kilgrave and Cottonmouth, it always comes down to great scenes, great monologues, great moments. We’ve just always been encouraged [by Netflix] to make [the villains] as complicated as possible. This is the network that gave us House of Cards. They’re not interested in black-and-white villains.”

You don’t see much of Weaver’s Alexandra in the first two episodes of The Defenders. And, as expected, what we do see is the kind of serene screen presence we’ve come to expect from the actress. The understated performance makes her potential for villainy even more intriguing.

“We talked about this character as a Sigourney Weaver type,” Ramirez remembers, pointing out they even kept her headshot on the wall in the writers’ room. “We never expected to get Sigourney Weaver on the line, and much less on-set. Not only has my lifelong dream come true of working with Ripley, it’s also that was a character we’ve been talking about for so long. So really, it was one of those dream scenarios.”

Of course, the villains of the other shows all have histories that stretch back decades in the comics. So which world-famous Marvel villain is Weaver playing?

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“Alexandra is a character that’s—” Ramirez, who has been forthcoming and easygoing throughout our chat, hesitates as that infamous Marvel secrecy rears its head for the first time. “You know what? I can’t answer that question.”

The first two episodes of The Defenders are so methodical in their approach, so careful about establishing the relationships between the four leads and revealing the motives of its mysterious villain, that it feels about a million miles away from big screen superhero fests like Captain America: Civil War or the annual DC superhero crossover on the CW. It’s as radical a departure from the team-up concept as Daredevil or Jessica Jones are from typical superhero fare. The Defenders is built on a solid foundation but it has to accomplish superhuman feats of storytelling to connect the dots. None of that would be possible if the characters weren’t already so distinctive.

Ramirez grew up reading comics by Jeph Loeb and Joe Quesada. Loeb is now the executive vice president and head of television at Marvel TV, and Quesada is the chief creative officer of Marvel Entertainment. “You have these comic book geniuses who are legends,” he says. “So whenever they have notes on how Matt Murdock would do something, I listen real close.” But he also notes that “I’m writing for a new medium, so those conversations have been interesting and exciting in terms of [what] would work best.”

Whether hero or villain, the key to these shows’ success is clearly character driven, and that’s not something that Ramirez will forget. “This is [a] kind of new realm that Netflix has given us to play in,” Ramirez says. “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.”

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