What the Church can learn from Marvel's The Defenders
This month saw the release of the hotly anticipated Marvel's The Defenders, the Netflix superhero team-up event that's been years in the making. The final product is something of a disappointment, though in certain moments it shines. With calling, conflict and unity at its heart, this comic-book crossover may even have a lot to teach the contemporary church.
Four Netflix Original shows have led to this moment, each titled after their headlining heroes: the blind, Catholic, acrobatic ninja Daredevil (Charlie Cox) made his debut in 2015, followed by the sassy, super-strong private detective Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), the bulletproof, 'righteous ex-con' Luke Cage (Mike Colter) and this year's mystically minded – and supremely annoying – martial artist Danny Rand, the Iron Fist (Finn Jones).
The Defenders begins with these four individuals each in very different places, brought together (would you believe it?) to battle a dark and mysterious enemy that threatens the very existence of New York City. The dynamic of The Defenders is essentially Marvel's The Avengers scaled down for TV. Can the ever-clashing heroes put aside their differences to fight for the greater good? Who knows!
Spoilers: they obviously do. But as they say it's the journey, not the destination, and the show certainly (and quite frustratingly) takes its sweet time with that journey. But there are worthy lessons to be learned on the way.
It's no great spoiler to say that resurrection is a central theme of the story, with Elektra, a former lover of Matt Murdock's (AKA. Daredevil) making a twisted return from the dead. There's no Christlike Easter morn however, this is a dark and character-shifting resuscitation, but Murdock embarks on a passionate – and quite Christian – quest to save her soul. Hope is held out as a possibility, even for the undead.
What lies beyond death – and can 'eternal life' be achieved? These questions loom large, particularly for the villainous ninja-cult known as The Hand, led by the excellent Sigourney Weaver, who's sadly underserved by her role. Great heroes need great villains to match them, and unfortunately The Defenders are in this case let down – never faced with anything like the terrifying but compelling spectre of Daredevil's Wilson Fisk.
Speaking of which, Marvel characters don't get more Christian, or complex, than Daredevil. Here's a Catholic who's torn by his multiple identities: is he better as a pro-bono lawyer by day, or a horned vigilante by night? He's wracked by guilt and is determined to fight injustice alone, reluctant to join a band of super-friends.
When the opportunity for superpowered unity seems undeniable, his mentor chides him: 'For a guy who believes in God, you have a hard time believing he's got a plan.'
As you'd expect, teamwork is a key theme in this story, and the show is at its best when its heroes are bouncing off one another with witty repartee, and realise they need each other's gifts to succeed.
It's a timeless lesson for the Church. Some denominations may be determined to go their own way, perhaps dismissing branches of the faith they don't like, or prioritising some giftings over others.
Some leaders may be like Daredevil, arrogantly solo-minded and slow to trust others. Some could learn from the chi-summoning, 'thundering dumbass' that is Danny Rand. He's convicted about his calling ('I am the immortal Iron Fist!') but lacks maturity and wisdom.
Luke Cage is solid as a rock, but he might be holding back on using his gifts, and ignoring the bigger picture. Others may relate to Jessica Jones, who has talents and guts but refuses to be labelled a 'hero' as she wrestles with her regrets. The team are warned that their connections will make them weak, but of course the reverse is true.
So, can the team – and the Church? – come together? I was left disappointed by the finale, which despite some solid elements never felt like it reached the epic climax that was promised, and dragged on its way there. The plot got increasingly convoluted and silly, and you're left thinking: 'oh, is that it?'
A more uplifting spin is to say that you're left wanting more. You want to see more of the fun, more of the creative collaborations and more of the drama, because when it works its great. And if we're still running with the Church analogy, maybe that's appropriate. We should be ready for disappointment and sometimes painful disunity in ministry. The plan might not always come together, but you carry on anyway, because it's worth it.
Solo follow-ups for each of the Netflix heroes are coming soon – I love Marvel so of course I'll be waiting in line. Here's hoping they remember that they're better together.
You can follow @JosephHartropp on Twitter