The untold truth of the Defenders

With Marvel's Daredevil, Netflix took a property that many people only knew from its mediocre movie adaptation and turned it into a gripping, instantly unique series. Its success led to Jessica Jones and Luke Cake, both bona fide hits in their own right, and the upcoming Iron Fist looks poised to follow in their footsteps.

After Fist hits, the four loner heroes will team up under the banner of The Defenders. Like most Marvel properties, this team has decades of comics history behind it, and within those crinkled pages are some absolutely wild secrets. Here, then, is the untold truth of the Defenders…

Netflix's team composition is unique

Fans of Netflix's Marvel shows are understandably excited about the makeup of the Defenders—it represents a unique opportunity to see Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist join forces and kick ass together. Those looking forward to the show will inevitably want to turn to the comics that the team is taken from, but once they do, they're going to be severely surprised. Here's the thing: this Defenders lineup never existed in the comics.

Plenty of characters have battled as the Defenders. Doctor Strange, Namor, the Incredible Hulk, Ice Man, and many more have been thrown together by circumstance and necessity in order to fight crime. Several of the characters featured in the Netflix show have been in the Defenders before, including Daredevil, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist. Jessica Jones has previously never been a Defender, though the comics incarnation of her best friend (Patsy Walker, a.k.a. the fiery Hellcat) has. However, these more familiar heroes have always fought as part of very different lineups; comics fans have never seen these particular characters bounce off each other. This is, of course, something that Marvel is planning to fix with a Defenders comic featuring the Netflix lineup—the same way Marvel rejiggered the Guardians of the Galaxy comics to make them closer to the movie.

Not always street-level

When it came to picking heroes (and villains) to feature in their small-screen adaptation of the MCU, Netflix very carefully selected characters that might be thought of as "street-level"—these aren't the heroes that are likeliest to throw themselves into alien wormholes or clash with scorned Asgardian gods. Instead, characters like Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage are mostly focused on keeping their neighborhoods safe and sticking to the bad guys that need a punch or two rather than a mystical hammer.

The Defenders of the Marvel comics universe, however, don't face the same kind of budgetary restrictions that even a major television show does, so it's often featured much more powerful characters. This includes magical heavyweights such as Doctor Strange, cosmic powerhouses like the Silver Surfer, and even the always angry Incredible Hulk. Because of this major power differential, it's unlikely that the small-screen Defenders will face the next-level supervillains defeated by their comics counterparts. At the same time, the essential spirit of the Defenders—that characters who would never normally team up do so in order to accomplish great things—is likely to stay the same.

It started with Doctor Strange

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Doctor Strange is something of a Johnny-come-lately, but in the comics, he's the reason the Defenders came together in the first place—and decades later, he remains the common denominator when it comes to getting the band back together.

It all started when Doctor Strange was tackling a relatively minor bad guy named Yandroth. This character was an evil scientist and apparently a student of classic super-villainy, as he built a machine meant to destroy the entire Earth. With billions of lives at stake, Doctor Strange recruited Namor, the Hulk, and the Silver Surfer in order to literally save the world. The team lineup changed dramatically over the years, but it most often featured Doctor Strange and a crew of misfits. Speaking of which…

Outsiders welcome

One of the things that made the very concept of a Netflix Defenders show surprising is the very notion of these heroes teaming up. At heart, most of these characters are loners. Oh, sure, they have their own sidekicks and support systems: it's tough to imagine Daredevil without Foggy Nelson, and it's almost impossible to imagine Jessica Jones without Patsy Walker. However, these characters usually have their own reasons for not wanting to join larger outfits like S.H.I.E.L.D. or the Avengers. Why would they come together as heroes?

Netflix will reveal the exact reason for this titanic team-up in their own time, but the notion of outsiders coming together true to the Defenders comics—a great many of its members often eschewed formal teams. This includes characters like the Hulk (often away from teams like the Avengers and on his own for the safety of others) and Namor (who, admittedly, has an entire underwater kingdom to run). Nonetheless, when the threats to the world were great enough, they got off their loner duffs and teamed up. Because of this, the team earned the somewhat affectionate nickname (both from readers and, eventually, within the comic itself) of being a "non-team" team.

Villains have claimed membership

Even some supervillains have been part of the lineup…sort of. In a particularly weird storyline, the unfortunately-named Defender friend Dollar Bill made an unauthorized documentary about the heroes, and once it aired, everyone and their brother wanted to become a Defender. In a way, this was its own kind of editorial meta-joke about the slack requirements for membership and rotating cast of heroes, but it eventually led to a group of villains (including the Sagittarius and Libra) calling themselves the Defenders in order to besmirch the honor of the actual group.

This wouldn't be the team's only brush with a kind of unofficial supervillain representation. At one point, they had to face a team that was hand-picked by the Collector in order to deal with them. This ersatz villain team was named the Offenders in order to add insult to injury. Fortunately, the resolution of this particular conflict restored both heroes and villains to their normal lives with no memory of what had happened; only the readers had to bear the burden of remembering the storyline.

No stranger to profanity

One of the things that sets Netflix's Marvel Cinematic Universe apart from their big- and small-screen counterparts is the casual use of profanity and other vulgar language. For instance, it's tough to imagine Captain America or Iron Man saying "I don't give a bag of d—- what kinky s— you're into," but that's just another scene for Jessica Jones. Historically, this kind of language doesn't fly in most mainstream comics because of things like the Comics Code, so it would be reasonable to assume that the Netflix Defenders will be more vulgar than their comics counterpart. And while that may be true on the whole, there's a truly bizarre story about how the original Defenders were no strangers to shocking profanity.

Artist Don Perlin, who worked on the Defenders comics, had a relatively unique habit: he liked to draw and write weird things in the margins (and sometimes even the panels) of his comics. His logic was that the editors would catch it and remove it and everyone would have a good laugh. In one issue, he drew a picture of a cartoon rabbit holding up a box of cereal on a TV screen for a panel, and for giggles, he labeled the cereal "S—" as its name. The panel, including profanity, was fully inked and the comic printed, making it the first time a Comics Code-approved book included profanity. His editors were understandably angry, but Perlin held his ground and pointed out that at least four other people had to read and approve it. They essentially let Perlin off with a warning…and a requirement that he stop writing weird little jokes for editors to take out.

They've worked for the government

The "official" status of superhero teams tends to vary pretty wildly. For instance, the Avengers (and by extension, S.H.I.E.L.D.) are honored as official protectors of the world, and the government is happy to consult with teams like the Fantastic Four. Other teams, most notably The X-Men, are often feared by the public or, at best, seen as vigilantes mucking about in things they shouldn't. Given the makeup of the team, it seems highly likely that the Netflix Defenders will be in the latter position, but this hasn't always been the case with their comics counterparts.

Once upon a time, the comics Defenders worked for the government—or at the very least, they had government clearance. They once fought the awesomely-named Secret Empire while many of Earth's better-known heroes were away during the original Secret Wars crossover event. At the end, the good guys won, and for their efforts, they were honored with official government clearance. This particularly pleased the Beast, who wanted this infamous "non-team team" to be more official. And while cynics might note that Secret Wars sucking away all of the better-known heroes may have influenced the government's decision, it's interesting to note that, for a time, this group of "outsiders" were actually organized, official protectors of the nation.

They might destroy the world

This one is a bit of a deep dive, and it's a weird story even by the standards of Marvel comics. Once upon a time, a mysterious race of beings composed of energy managed to convince some of the original Defenders (Doctor Strange, Silver Surfer, Namor, and Hulk) that they'd destroy the world. How? Something to do with the mysterious resonance of their "karmic energies." They talked a good game, though, so that original incarnation of of the team broke up and vowed to stay apart (this destructive prophecy only applied to the four of them working together).

Later on, the characters came to believe the prophecy was a hoax, and they reunited—which ended up being a bad call, as they discovered a reality-warping device known as a Concordance Engine and stole it (with, of course, the best of intentions). This ended up threatening all of existence (whoops), and Doctor Strange had to travel to the past to keep himself from ever getting the band back together. He saw the universe destroyed in the future, but it was averted thanks to his time-traveling shenanigans. While the Netflix Defenders are unlikely to threaten all of reality, it'll be interesting to see if they end up being even a fraction as dangerous and destructive as their comics counterparts.

Thanos had his own Defenders

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thanos has been established as the baddest of big bads, someone the mightiest heroes of Earth and beyond will need to team up against in order to stop. That said, it's interesting to note that the Thanos of the comics had his own team of Defenders. He assembled them for a very special mission, but it ended up backfiring rather spectacularly

Thanos recruited Nitro, Rhino, Titanium Man, Geatar, and Super-Skrull. It's possible that these are just the characters who bothered to show up, as the comics suggested he also chose better villains (including Juggernaut, Apocalypse, and Ultron), but they didn't play a part in the actual mission. Their job was to take out various would-be messiah figures throughout the galaxy, but after the job, Thanos ditched them on a faraway planet. At that point, the actual Defenders showed up and helped get them home, which is pretty nice to do for yet another group of villains who were tarnishing their good name.

They've been copied by the Justice League

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If that's the case, the Defenders should be honored by the fact that they've been playfully copied by the Justice League on more than one occasion. In the Justice League Unlimited show, the episode "Wake the Dead" included the characters Dr. Fate, Inza, Aquaman, Hawkgirl, and Amazo all teaming up to defeat Solomon Grundy. Eagle-eyed fans were quick to note that the team composition looked an awful lot like Dr. Strange, Clea, Sub-Mariner, Nighthawk, and Silver Surfer, all of whom have served as Defenders with roughly analagous power sets. A similar homage occurred in the later episode "The Terror Beyond." It's possible that some of the creative forces behind the Defenders may have been offended by all of this, but it's tough to truly be upset when you're being copied by the finest animated universe ever created.