When Marco Ramirez scored his dream job of writing Marvel’s superhero mash-up series The Defenders for Netflix, he quickly realized it was also going to be his most challenging gig. Not only was he tasked with bringing together four supremely individualistic heroes–the brooding, wise-ass private investigator Jessica Jones; the meditating martial arts maestro Iron Fist; the blind but otherwise sensorially super-powered Daredevil; and the bulletproof ex-convict Luke Cage–he also needed to preserve their identities so that they could seamlessly return back to subsequent seasons of their respective series. “It was like I was leasing one of my favorite cars–like, put the miles on, but bring it back with no scratches or dents,” Ramirez says.
Of course, Ramirez, who was a showrunner on the second season on Daredevil, had established parameters to work within. Marvel is a staunch guardian of its IP and works closely with the writers and directors of its shows and movies to ensure that projects adhere to the Marvel brand. But it was still up to Ramirez to figure out how to weave together four different storylines and come up with an overarching premise of why the four lone rangers would actually want to join forces and fight crime alongside each other. Complicating matters even more, when Ramirez and his original writing partner Doug Petrie (who left midway through to pursue other projects) began sketching out the narrative for The Defenders, Iron Fist hadn’t yet been written or cast. It was only well into the writing of The Defenders that Ramirez learned that British actor Finn Jones would be the fourth Defender.
Although we’ll never have ratings as a barometer, it seems Ramirez overcame all those obstacles. Reviews of the eight-part series have been solid, redeeming the streaming franchise, which went off-kilter with last spring’s Iron Fist. That series was critically panned and attacked by fans over the casting of Jones (who is Caucasian) as the lead in an Asian martial arts story.
Ramirez spoke with Fast Company about how he ultimately solved his narrative dilemma; the collaborative nature of the Marvel “dorm”; and texting with Krysten Ritter (who plays Jessica Jones) over lines in her script.
Laying The Groundwork Early On
Rather than rush headfirst into an action-packed plot, Ramirez took his time to set up The Defenders, carefully laying narrative groundwork in the first and second episodes. He also used early scenes to fill in story gaps for people who might be unfamiliar with the characters.
“The challenge was that these characters are really, really driven and independent,” Ramirez says. “They don’t like to ask for outside help. So how are you going to get solo, swimming sharks in the water to suddenly behave like pack animals and operating like a team? At no point would it be fair or right to any of the audiences of the shows to think that any of these characters would react well to getting a letter in the mail saying, ‘Hey, you’re now on The Defenders. Please come join a super team.’ That just wouldn’t work. So issue one was, in the writing, we need to get them all to where they’re going independently. All these characters needed to believe that they were on their own, singular journey that led them to the others.
“And I think because we did that in the script, and took our time to do that, and also to fill in the backstory on any element of the story that may not have been clear. We couldn’t assume that every audience member had seen every episodes of every show–that’s five seasons of TV. We had to do a tiny bit of expository backstory so you could understand every element. So that took the first two episodes.”
Using Visuals To Underscore A Point
To further drive home the point of one cohesive, Defender unit, the show’s visuals are an amalgamation of the heroes’ personalities and styles. Each of the Marvel TV series on Netflix has been defined by a certain color palette–Luke Cage has a golden hue that evokes 1970’s Harlem; Jessica Jones is dark and moody, etc. In The Defenders, these tones are brought together to reaffirm the idea that the characters are no longer operating solo.
“When we brought in [Director] S.J. Clarkson, she visually came up with one of the keys to unlocking how to make this show. She said, ‘We’ve done this work of isolating them each in their own worlds at the very beginning, and then slowly bringing them together. What I want to do as a director is make sure to highlight that as much as possible by using color palettes.’ So she made sure that Matt Murdock’s (Daredevil) world was very red, it had saturated reds in it. Jessica Jones’s was very violet and very blue. Luke Cage’s had amber, yellow tones. And Iron Fist’s had green, earth tones. And as those characters start to cross-pollinate, suddenly those colors are appearing in each other’s worlds. I think it’s one of the most visual, fun things about the show.”
Exploiting The Marvel Dorm
To help deal with the fact that Ramirez was “writing something that comes second, while the first thing is still being cooked”–i.e., writing The Defenders before Iron Fist was even a script–Ramirez spoke frequently with Marvel executives and other Marvel showrunners. This communication was made easier by the fact that everyone worked down the hall from each other.
“The physical proximity helped. I could just walk into [Luke Cage showrunner] Cheo Coker’s office–we were all in the same building. So I could just walk into his office and sit on his couch and talk about Luke Cage for a little bit. That really helped. Marvel has its own campus, so I was across the hall from Jessica Jones and next to Luke Cage. It’s not like we’re all hanging out in the dorm, but if you have a question, it’s just right across the hall.”
Marvel execs would also talk to the various showrunners to keep them abreast of what was going on with their characters in The Defenders. “It’s really a collaboration with Marvel at the center of it,” Ramirez says.
Looking Beyond The Obvious For Inspiration
To prepare for The Defenders, Ramirez immersed himself in the Marvel TV shows on Netflix, as well as the original comics that the shows are based on. But he also turned to classic films for inspiration.
“The comics are obviously a big source of inspiration for all of these shows. But ultimately I don’t think any of the showrunners on any of the shows want to do direct storylines from the comics. None of us ever want to feel like we’re just playing covers. We want to have some ownership of it. So yeah, we read all the comics, in the art department there were panels from the comics and we’d go, ‘Hey, we should put these on the show at some point!’
“But I took as much inspiration from cinema and movies where the characters come together reluctantly. So this, to me, is as much born from The Dirty Dozen and Seven Samurai as it is from any of the comics. The story of four people who are really independent, who do not want to partner together, but who have to for a temporary period of time–that, I think, goes beyond comics.”
Tapping Smart, Funny People To Be Smart And Funny Even If That’s Not Their Job
There wasn’t a huge amount of improvisation on the set, but Ramirez says that when it came time to fine-tuning dialogue, he would often have conversations with the actors “who were really collaborative and smart. I’d take their suggestions. The most extensive conversations I had were with Krysten. She’s the one who got to poke fun at the premise of the show. She got to look at Matt [Murdock, aka Daredevil] and say, ‘You don’t make sense.’ She gets to look at Danny Rand (Iron Fist) and say, ‘This is bullshit.’ Her character gets to do that. So by nature of that, she got a lot of fun lines and dialogue. And she and I would often find ourselves texting a different version of a line. Like, ‘What about this? Is this funny?’
“I think because she comes from a sitcom background, she’s really good at understanding what would make her line really good. There’s one that’s in the trailer that she came up with. We texted each other a bunch about how and what she would say about the Matt Murdock suit. (It’s the scene where Jessica Jones looks at Daredevil in his superhero suit and deadpans, “Nice ears.”) We had a whole lot of fun with that.”