'The Defenders' Showrunner Talks Shocking Deaths and the Show's Future
By now, you’ve surely finished watching the eight episodes of The Defenders -- the superhero team based on the comic book series and set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe -- that dropped August 18 on Netflix. If that's the case, you probably walked away from the show with a lot of questions.
We chatted with Marco Ramirez, one of two showrunners who helped bring Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist together to form Marvel’s street-level answer to The Avengers. Ramirez is no stranger to Marvel’s Netflix universe, having been intimately involved with Daredevil, both as writer and executive producer. He’s also worked on Sons of Anarchy and Orange Is the New Black, but was more than happy to talk about the first season of The Defenders, and what's in store for the four superheroes.
Thrillist: Despite a shorter season than its predecessors, you start off The Defenders by taking your time getting all four of the heroes together. Can you walk me through your decision to go this route rather than throwing them together instantly?
Marco Ramirez: It really comes down to three elements. The first element is that Marvel, as part of the gig on Netflix, wanted to make sure we were making a show that someone who hasn’t seen any of the other shows could just come to. Or, that someone who has seen one or two or three of the other shows, but not all of them, could come to. How do you walk people into a world that they might not know? What’s too much exposition? What’s too little exposition? It was a lot of figuring that out. It’s something that’s never been done on TV before in this way.
The second part of it was just that the tone of the four shows were so drastically different, to their credit. Visually, it’s a challenge, and also the challenge of getting all four of these characters into the same world. We’ve said for many years that these shows are set in New York but really, the world of Luke Cage is very different than the world of Danny Rand, from Matt Murdock and Jessica Jones.
Part three is really about the characters having such individual agency and being so independent. In Daredevil’s case, there’s 26 episodes of Daredevil being the lead of the show, and [for] everyone else, there’s 13 episodes of being the lead and wanting things that the lead of a show wants. These characters are so independent that nobody is going to be able to knock on the door of Luke Cage’s house and say, “Hey, I have a mission for you, should you choose to accept it.” Nobody is going to be able to go to Jessica Jones’ door and say, “This is what you’re doing for the next eight episodes.” She doesn’t take shit from anyone. She isn’t told what to do. So, the other trick was, how do we get these characters to the story of the Defenders on their own, in their own terms?
Throughout The Defenders, it seems like you set up partnerships rooted in comic history. There's Luke and Danny, who teamed up in the comics for a series called Heroes for Hire, then there's Misty Knight and Colleen Wing, who form the "Daughters of the Dragon." Was it calculation for the future?
Ramirez: I would add one more. Coming from the comics, there are two really big partnerships, or relationships, that we’ve had the first opportunity to really showcase, and that’s Luke and Danny, Colleen and Misty, and, to me, Jessica Jones and Matt Murdock.
When Marvel officially OK'd Misty and Colleen to interact on the show, that was everything a comic-book nerd like myself ever wanted. Then, having watched Iron Fist and Luke Cage, I think both of those characters and those actresses are so exceptional, that was just a dream come true.
Writing Danny and Luke was really just about being honest and trying to write Danny and Luke in 2017, or 2016 at the time. That scene where Luke chimed in about Danny’s privilege felt like a version of that meeting that we needed to have organically. Luke is so morally centered and so about his community and so about protecting the people in his community who are being abused, that it just felt completely right to check Danny on his privilege and his single-mindedness. In that version of the story, Danny doesn’t have the empathy that Luke has, and so he has to learn it over the course of The Defenders.
And that third relationship between Matt and Jessica Jones -- what I love about them is that they are both big on talk and neither of them are used to losing an argument in a courtroom or a back alley. They just don’t lose fights very often. And you’re rooting for both people.
Seeing Alexandra (Sigourney Weaver) die in the sixth episode was surprising. Talk about your decision to have Elektra murder her two episodes before the finale, especially with a heavyweight like Sigourney Weaver as the main villain. And what was Elektra's motivation? Was it to gain immortality, or simply a power move?
Ramirez: It's always shocking when a character dies in episode 5 of 10 or 4 of 13. So it was partially that, and the other part was, Alexandra was always somebody that Elektra would take down. And then we suddenly realized, "Oh, and Elektra should kill her." We always wanted to build someone so Elektra could be told what to do, once again by another person in her life, and Elektra would reject that person. And then she would finally stand and say, "This is who I am. People need to stop telling me who I am."
Elektra's history to me has been about somebody who's incredibly powerful, incredibly smart, but she's also the kind of person who's been told who she is and what she means all the time. Whether or not it was Stick when she was growing up, later it was Matt, who was telling her, "No, no this is who you are." And then Alexandra on our show saying, "No, no, no, now this is who you are." And that moment for me is as much about Elektra standing tall... not as much about Alexandra dying as it is about Elektra standing tall and saying, "Fuck everybody who's trying to tell me who I am and what I need to use my powers for and what I need to use my abilities and my intelligence for. This is who I am. I'm not on team Stick. I'm not on team Alexandra. I'm on team Elektra. And everyone should get on my level."
Was Elektra’s mind really wiped the whole time, or was she just playing everyone?
Ramirez: I think what the story tried to tell was that she had been more or less mind-wiped and kept dead long enough that she would forget things on purpose. In the end of Episode 3, it's Elektra slowly coming to remember, "Wait, what is this apartment that I've been in? I've been in this bed." Internally she sees Matt again, she knows exactly who he is. She calls him by name and she remembers, but she's this new version of herself. And she's a version of herself who won't take shit from nobody.
Talk to me about the decision for Elektra to murder Stick as well. Why kill him off?
Ramirez: I think it's another one of those decisions that felt like she's killing off her parents, and she does them both in the same episode. She says, "No, no, that's not who I am." And she just goes around rejecting these people who have been trying to tell her who she is, these parental figures. I think Stick is very paternal, and Alexandra would get to be kind of maternal, but also, almost like a weird, psycho-sexual thing. So it felt like we should do something almost creepy about Alexandra's fascination with Elektra. I'm not sure if it's necessarily sexual, but she certainly praises her like some kind of deity. She is her savior in a way. But it's all really about Elektra's arc.
That boardroom scene in Episode 3 where we see The Defenders team up for the first time is amazing. Was there a lot of pressure to get that scene just right? Were you worried about comparisons and expectations to top the hallway fight scene in Daredevil Season 1?
Ramirez: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I think a lot of the pressure wasn't just the assignment to Matt Mulligans, who did our stunts on the show. It wasn't just, "Hey let's do a cool fight scene the way that we did on Daredevil or the way that Luke Cage did at the end of Episode 3." But the pressure on this episode was really all four of them are going to be interacting, fighting at the same time, and what does that look like?
So in this world, these shows had done a lot of individual fight scenes where one person goes down and you showcase their awesome abilities. But the big challenge of this was making sure all of their abilities were front and center and showcased, [and] their characters fell front and center and showcased. That was as much about the blows that were being exchanged as the little quips here and there, like the moment between Jessica and Matt, where she says, "You look like an asshole,” and he says, “It's your scarf.” Or Danny deciding that punching is OK now. It really felt like the character stuff had to come first, and the interaction between them needed to be the most important part of that show.
In Episode 2, Foggy alludes to the fact that Matt might be addicted to being Daredevil. How is this trope different from other superheroes like Batman, Spider-Man, and Superman? How is it different for Matt Murdock?
Ramirez: The thing that makes Daredevil extra-complicated, as opposed to many other comic book superheroes, is a lot of other comic book superheroes do this secret thing in this costume at night or during the day, however they do it. But they do it because they can't actually change the world in their regular life. Because Peter Parker is a kid, and there's some issues there, he's so powerless, he's so bad with girls, but then the reality is he's actually got all these powers.
One thing to me that makes Daredevil very interesting is, in his other life, he is also helping people. He is also doing the thing that he thinks he wants to do at night. So he's one of the few people without an excuse, if that makes any sort of sense. He could devote himself entirely to this thing, to being a great lawyer. He doesn't have to put on the suit and get bloody in a back alley. But there's part of him that enjoys it, and that's something he says in Episode 2 of the first season of Daredevil. He's kind of an adrenaline junkie. There's something about it that he likes, something about the exchange of fists in a back alley that he needs, that he can't get boxing at a gym.
The final confrontation between The Defenders and The Hand concludes fairly early in the last episode, with the remaining time focusing on Matt’s death, only to show at the very end that he is alive. Why did you choose to spend so much time on how his death affected the other characters, just to show that he’s alive in the end?
Ramirez: We had so many scenes where we needed to send people back out onto their own. We needed a Karen/Foggy scene, the aftermath of what that means. We needed the kind of post-building-comes-down scene between Colleen and Misty. We needed the post-everything scene between Luke and Jessica. And it really felt like, “Hey, wait, we've got a lot of ground to cover.”
We could either build up story early on and make the climax in the episode happen at the 15-minute mark, then rush the building, or could get the climax of the eight-hour season done, then go back into these two-on-two scenes, which, to me, are just as important, if not more important, than the fight scenes.
For me, one of the emotional climaxes of the show is from Jessica's perspective. She had two really big moments. One, when she comes in at the end of Episode 4 and she just says, "Fuck it, I'm working with you guys." And the other one is at the very, very end, where she sits and has a drink with Luke. They just kind of have this open exchange, this very mature exchange about their romantic past. Yeah, the climax comes a little early in that episode, but there were just so many things that I didn't want to shortchange.
Hopefully the audience will understand what we're doing. We just didn't want to rush anything. The other thing we wanted to be able to do was make sure we're sending everyone off into their own individual shows and send them off in a way that one can go watch Jessica Jones Season 2, Luke Cage Season 2 or now, Iron Fist Season 2, or Daredevil Season 3.
Are you going to be the showrunner for Daredevil Season 3?
Ramirez: I'm sorry, I'm not allowed to answer any questions about Daredevil.
So, I can't ask about whether next season will be based on Frank Miller’s Born Again storyline, or whether we will see a new Daredevil costume?
Ramirez: I can say that absolutely in the production meetings I was the guy that pulled out pictures of Born Again and handed it to the camera department and the staff and said, "This is the panel we're trying to recreate." Sometimes we don't pick up the exact story. But we think that the vision is kind of iconic, so we just felt like, visually, this is the moment and everyone got it, and everyone was like, "Awesome, we're doing it." For the comic book fan in me, I remember being on set shooting that with Baron Blackburn, the director, and Jeph Loeb, and we were all looking at the monitor like, “Holy shit! We're shooting a panel from Born Again." And that was really satisfying.
When the show concluded, I was like, "Oh my god, I have so many questions. I'm so excited because these shows can go in all these different directions."
Ramirez: But that's the trick of TV writing on a comic. It’s why I'm so attracted to these comics. They're so great at ending a story and then hinting at something to come. So nothing is ever a completely finished story. There's always a hint, so that was the goal. I had to explain to one of my friends, who said, "Why were Colleen and Misty having a scene at the hospital? I mean, they're kind of supporting characters, why's that important?" So, that was fun to explain to people.
If you had to pick just one part of Defenders that you enjoyed making more than any other, what would that be?
Ramirez: I absolutely loved writing and being on set for the Matt Murdock/Jessica Jones scene where she's being interrogated at the precinct. It's another panel from the comic that we got to recreate, which was Matt walking in and saying, "I'm your attorney, shut up." That was probably one of the high points. I remember when I first got the job on Daredevil Season 1, because I knew that Jessica Jones was also involved.
And also, Jessica walking into that Chinese restaurant at the end of Episode 4, because it feels like, emotionally, it is the story of the show. [The goal is to get] even the most cynical person who says, "I wouldn't watch a comic book show" -- if we can get that person to watch until Jessica walks into the room -- saying, "Fuck it, let's just get this over with. It's gonna be fun, if nothing else."
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.