In this era of Peak TV, it’s impossible to keep up with all the different shows jostling for your attention – so when one comes along that requires 65 episodes of background watching, you’d be forgiven for wondering if you should bother at all.
That’s the situation faced by new Marvel/Netflix series The Defenders, which sees the heroes of its various standalone superhero series – Daredevil, Iron Fist, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, played by Charlie Cox, Finn Jones, Krysten Ritter and Mike Colter – finally go for an Avengers-style team-up, uniting to battle evil ninjas after facing smaller threats in their own series.
But could you watch The Defenders without having seen all five previous series (including two seasons of Daredevil), or even without knowing who these characters are at all? Or would you find yourself lost in a world of magic chi, Harlem heroes and Purple Men?
We put this question to series showrunner Marco Ramirez, and he acknowledged the difficulties posed by the mass of backstory – but added that he believes the show will function just as well for newcomers as dyed-in-the-spandex fans.
“By design, we just had to make something that did five different things,” Ramirez said.
Krysten Ritter, Finn Jones, Charlie Cox and Mike Colter in The Defenders
“We had to make a show that was for the viewer who had only seen Daredevil. We had to make a show for the viewer who had only seen Jessica Jones, who had only seen Luke, who had only seen Iron Fist. And for the viewer where Defenders is the first thing they’re ever gonna see.
“There are viewers who will have seen two of the shows and none of the others, or three, or none! And so for that, the thing had to work for everyone. It had to be this universal adaptor plug-in thing.”
Accordingly, Ramirez looked for inspiration in a model that had proven to work for assembling disparate superheroes – the Avengers film franchise, which shares a universe with Marvel’s Netflix series (though no characters have crossed over onscreen as of yet).
“The [first] Avengers movie works even if you’ve never seen a single one of those movies,” Ramirez explained.
“’Oh that’s flying god guy? Oh that’s rich guy with the super suit? OK cool, I’m putting that all together.’ You kind of can get it.”
But of course, the series also had to cater to fans who HAD watched every single minute of every Netflix/Marvel series to date, meaning Ramirez and his team were forced to walk a delicate tightrope in the writers’ room.
“Because Netflix has all the data of how many people have watched what show, they were like ‘we need a show that won’t bore the audience who’s already seen all of Daredevil,” he told me.
“We don’t want to over-explain Daredevil lore. We also don’t want to under-explain it.’
“So it was a delicate tightrope to walk. It’s one of the thankless parts of this job and that endeavour, how delicate that was to walk the line between exposition, so you’ve got just enough that you can know it, even if you haven’t seen any of these shows, bordered with not over-explaining it in case you had seen it, so you wouldn’t be like ‘why are they re-explaining Jessica Jones’ backstory to me, I know.’
“It’s kind of a run-and-gun thing where you kind of only get everything you need to know to understand this story. And if you’re intrigued, and want to know more about who the heck Luke is and where he comes from, and you haven’t seen Luke, I imagine you’re going to want to go back and watch it.”
Elodie Yung as Elektra and Sigourney Weaver as Alexandra in Marvel’s The Defenders
I give Ramirez an example of a moment in an early episode that struck me as particularly impenetrable for new viewers – the reveal of a character captured by Sigourney Weaver’s villain Alexandra, whose imprisonment will only be significant to anyone who’s watched Daredevil – but he disagreed that such moments will necessarily leave viewers confused.
“There are a couple of things like that where we’re like ‘Well, if you don’t know who it is, is it going to matter?’” Ramirez said.“ And similarly with [resurrected friend-turned-foe] Elektra – if you don’t know who that is, is it going to matter?
“But in some cases, visually, if I hadn’t watched Daredevil and suddenly Sigourney Weaver takes the mask off this guy, I’d still be like, ‘who the f*** is that guy??’
“Similarly with Elektra, if you don’t know who Elodie Yung plays on the show, and this woman just shows up in this beautiful black trenchcoat and does all this awesome s*** with two swords, like, you’re still going to maybe care! Even if you don’t know ‘oh that’s Elektra’ it’s going to be like, ‘who’s the chick in the black coat?’
“Every time it was a Rubik’s cube. It was like OK now, pretend I don’t know any of Jessica Jones’ backstory, right? So if anyone mentions ‘I know the man who abused you long ago’ and I didn’t watch JJ, how am I going to know that’s impactful? How am I going to know that’s an insult?
“So it was always like, OK make sure if you mention something about Luke’s past in one scene, make sure the audience who might not know what that is also understands at least what the impact is. So there’s a lot of that.”