Marvel has leveraged a multimedia strategy to finally give venerable team concept The Defenders a successful re-launch with Diamonds Are Forever.
When the Kingpin goes legitimate, Luke Cage’s presumed-dead enemy Diamondback returns to try to fill the void in New York’s criminal hierarchy. Possessing powers he’s never demonstrated previously and pushing a dangerous new drug with deadly side effects, Diamondback clashes not only with Cage, but also Cage’s allies Jessica Jones, Iron Fist and Daredevil. Diamondback’s aggressive moves spark a potential war. In the midst, the quartet of heroes discover the benefit of uniting as a team to protect the city from street-level threats.
The Defenders was always one of Marvel’s second string concepts, never achieving the success of blue chip franchises like Fantastic Four, Avengers or X-Men. Still, its original run lasted over a dozen years, wrapping in the mid-80s when the core of its then-current cast was needed for the X-Factor launch. Since then, Marvel has attempted any number of different revivals of the team, trying out different variations and approaches, but rarely with any sort of success.
But the franchise does have some value. So Marvel’s decision to use it as the umbrella branding for its suite of gritty, New York-based Netflix TV series was a smart move, one that paved the way for the successful new comic. Writer Brian Michael Bendis has a long history with the central quartet; he knows their personalities, quirks, strengths and blind spots. That allows the writer to cut to the chase (almost literally), deploying the defined relationships in dynamic, engaging ways that helps propel the action at a brisk pace.
Bendis’s critics often cite the “talky” nature of a lot of his work, but for Diamonds Are Forever, the writer works up a sustained sense of urgency, mixing his trademark wry dialogue with a significant amount of action and copious plot developments. It’s not a radical departure for the writer, but it’s nice to see him effectively execute a fast-paced, action-intensive approach. With a generous strain of sardonic humor to help leaven the drama of the action, it’s a nicely balanced mix.
While the series has been agreeably modernized, Bendis also honors its original premise. While the “non-team” idea is never mentioned, Bendis subtly works the notion of a more loosely affiliated team that pivots around a stable core of regulars, with other characters drifting in and out of the action as the plot demands. That means that in addition to the fan favorite quartet on the cover, fans get a host of heroes, villains and in-between types, some playing major roles, others providing cameos that help ground the series in the heart of Marvel’s superhero-packed New York. In this intro arc alone, fans get Kingpin, Punisher, Black Cat, Hammerhead, Miles Morales, Elektra, Misty Knight, Blade, the Daily Bugle staff, Daimon Hellstrom and Night Nurse. Casting the Defenders as the center of a shifting community of NYC heroes and rogues is a fun, smart idea that lets the regulars play off an expanded cast that makes the book feel expansive and open, instead of insular.
Previous Bendis collaborators David Marquez and Justin Ponsor tackle the art and do some truly impressive work. Marquez has been one of Marvel’s developing stars for a while now and it’s good to see him truly emerge as a top talent. The material here gives him a lot to work with and he responds quite strongly. He takes a thoughtful approach to page design, going with the traditional when it makes sense, but not being afraid to deploy some creative, off-kilter layouts when it enhances the storytelling. His figure work is excellent, recognizing the differences between, say, a powerhouse tank like Cage and a lithe martial artist like Iron Fist. The work is clean and expressive, crucial in helping to build he momentum of the narrative but also comfortable in examining the quieter moments. Ponsor’s color work is impeccable. A lot of the action takes place at night and he uses a variety of blues, violets and purples to tease out mood and atmosphere. He’s also quite adept at deploying contrasting tones, such as the manifestation of Iron Fist’s glowing chi or the occasional explosion. Marquez and Ponsor are so in sync, you could easily believe it was the work of a single artist.
With a high profile creative team, an involving story and strong use of its cast, The Defenders is a home run.