Marvel’s Netflix shows are notably different from basically everything else in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Compared to the Marvel films or the other TV shows, the Netflix shows are gritty, dark, grim and concern themselves with actual, pedestrian people living actual lives in different neighborhoods of New York. Whereas the films (excessively?) rely on light-hearted humour, Daredevil (2015-), Jessica Jones (2015-), Luke Cage (2016-), Iron Fist (2017-), The Defenders (2017, where all of the aforementioned Netflix heroes come together) and The Punisher (2017) show their eponymous heroes battle notorious drug lords, arms dealers, rapists, crime cartels and homicidal murderers. They show the ‘other’ side of the Marvel Universe, and have been very successful enterprises over the past few years.
The Netflix shows are also characterised by a strong visual style. Not only are they very explicit in the portrayal of violence and do they feature incredible martial arts fights, but they also carefully balance everything that’s contained in every shot, and every frame is piece of art worthy of attention. For this post, I want to look at the cinematography of The Defenders, i.e. observing the way in which the camera is set up and which interesting structural ‘patterns’ we can find in looking at its visual form. I chose The Defenders because the visuals seem more poignant here than in the other shows, and because it deliberately uses cinematography to define the multiple heroes it portrays.
- Defining colours
In The Defenders, Matt Murdock/Daredevil (Charlie Cox), Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), Luke Cage (Mike Colter) and Danny Rand/The Immortal Iron Fist (Finn Jones) band together to defeat the mysterious criminal organization known as The Hand led by Alexandra (Sigourney Weaver) and her weapon called ‘The Black Sky’, a.k.a. a resurrected Elektra (Elodie Yung) who we saw die in the second season of Daredevil (2016). It is basically the television equivalent of the films’ The Avengers in 2012 (Joss Whedon). We know these heroes, as we’ve seen them each in their individual shows: we know what they’ve gone through and we know which characteristic traits define them.
What The Defenders does–particularly in its first episodes–is to supply each character with a defining colour coming straight out of the comic books on which the MCU is based. While shots containing Matt are notably red, Jessica Jones’s are consequently accompanied by a light blue. Luke’s shots show a bright yellow, and Danny is characterised by a dark hue of green. Conversely, the villain Alexandra is supported by a blank white. This means that, in the first episode, we get shots like these:
These are specific artistic choices, in that reality doesn’t automatically look this way. Later in the show, the cinematography combines these colours when multiple heroes enter the screen, as in the following examples.
When Jessica is arrested and interrogated by Misty (Simone Missick), the screen is dominated by the characteristic light blue. However, when Matt steps in as her lawyer, shades of red enter the shot as well.
We see a red door and a red folder. Again, therefore, we see that colours are used to define the heroes on screen. The following shot, from the battle scene between Jessica, Daredevil and Murakami (Yutaka Takeuchi), shows this as well:
Also, when the heroes eventually all come together in episode 3 “Worst Behavior” (Peter Hoar) to confront Alexandra and The Hand in her ‘base’ at Midland Circle, they do so against a prominently white-greyish background, indicating Alexandra’s dominance over them:
- Light and dark
As mentioned before, the Netflix shows are more gritty and murky than anything else in the MCU. This translates into visual style by balancing hues of light and dark in every shot, or having the heroes enter scenes full of flickering lights. In The Defenders, therefore, we find shots like these:
Lights are very deliberately placed in spots where they illuminate just enough for the shot to be visually understandable. In the first example here, the light adds to Daredevil’s (Charlie Cox) heroic stance over Hell’s Kitchen and symbolizes tbe fight he wages against the darkness of crime in New York. In the second, the lights we see are construction lights. They reflect the colours already associated with the four Defenders: from left to right, we see Luke’s yellow, Jessica’s blue, Daredevil’s red, (Luke’s yellow again, though missing in the water reflection below,) and Danny’s green. Note that Danny’s green is separated from the three other colours, which mirrors Danny’s situation at this given moment: afraid that The Hand would capture Danny, the Defenders tried to hide him, though they later failed in protecting him from Elektra who led him straight to the dragon’s bones beneath Midland Circle.
- New York City vignettes
When the different characters find themselves in different places (most prominently in the first episodes), the show transitions between them with rapidly changing vignette shots of New York city scenes. Although many possible sights of New York are included, the show seems to have a particular liking for the Chrysler building as an indicator of typical “New Yorkness”.
- Lines and frames within frames
The Defenders‘ shots are also heavily structured by using specific objects to form lines within the frame. The following examples illustrate what I mean:
Both shots here use an architectural line to delineate what is happening on the screen.
This also includes the show’s various uses of ‘frame within a frame’. This entails that, within the rectangular frame of the shot, the action portrayed is shown through a second visual ‘cage’ or ‘scaffolding’ containing important structural factors, as discernible in the following examples:
In the examples from episodes 1 & 8, the action is contained within a supplemental second rectangular frame, more or less echoing the form of the camera frame itself. The shot from episode 5 uses the technique a bit more inventively, and has Matt standing on the foreground while Karen (Deborah Ann Wolf) is contained within the limits of her office window on the background.
By using lines and frames within frames, the directors succeed in making otherwise normal or dull shots interesting and engaging. They also somehow echo the story box-based storytelling found in the comics, where every narrative beat is contained within its own separate cage, the size of which depends on the importance of the event to the larger story it is a part of.
- Mirrors and windows
A variation on the frame within a frame technique discussed above is the choice of framing through a window or mirror, which The Defenders exploits excessively. Usually in visual media, a mirror can be used for reflexive purposes, i.e. to show that a character is engaged in introspective thought (as Alfonso Cuarón does in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), for example), symbolizing the character’s activity of ‘looking at him/herself’. The Defenders uses this technique more excessively, mainly to avoid the trap of mainstream cinematography styles, although its reflective value isn’t necessarily lost.
In the interaction between Luke and Foggy (Elden Nelson), the use of windows is even one of the main framing devices:
Here, the cinematography transcends the ‘ordinary’ or mainstream technique of pure shot/reverse shot framing, i.e. cutting back and forth between two (or more) characters conversing with each other when one of them adds something to the conversation. S/RS is still there, but having the action framed through a window definitely adds something new and interesting to the scene.
- Tilted camera
The camera is often slightly tilted, echoing the artistic style of the comic book boxes, for example in the following shot:
The tilted camera reaches its zenith in episode 2, where we get this shot after Daredevil beats down some thugs:
The camera is fully tilted, at a 90° angle. The shot reflects the viewpoint from the thug lying beat down on the ground, but also symbolizes the drastic nature of Matt’s life choice of returning to vigilantism.
The background is oftentimes blurred, making the foreground more prominent:
In the following exchange between Alexandra and Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho), blurs are used superfluously, indicating the increasing ‘blurring’ of Gao’s loyalty and the rift forming between former allies:
The blurs make up the largest part of the shot. Equally noteworthy is the way in which the characters are depicted ‘shortsighted’: the faces are depicted close to the edge of the frame, and the space between their eyes and the person they’re looking at is smaller than the space between the back of their head and the other edge of the frame. This creates a sense of unease, as cognitively we’re used to a more conventional type of framing where the space between the characters’ eyes and the edge of the frame is larger.
- Daredevil & close framing
The Defenders often uses close framing when Matt (who’s blind) audibly observes his surroundings:
By limiting our vision of the space around Matt, the camera evokes the character’s blindness: we, too, have to explore whatever is happening by the sounds we hear since the things we see don’t reveal much. It is a neat way to increase audience identification with the character.
- The Citizen Kane shot
One of my favourite The Defenders‘ shots is the opening of episode 4. It goes like this:
The shot opens with the logo of the Chinese restaurant the Defenders are currently hiding in. The camera then moves in through the neon lights and towards a window located on the roof:
We then end up in the shot that was included above when discussing the tilted camera. What’s striking here is that it is almost an exact replica of the camera movement in the opening of the El Rancho scene in Citizen Kane (1948, Orson Welles), a film widely recognized as one of the best of all time. The relevant scene goes like this:
Now, visually ‘borrowing’ or ‘paraphrasing’ shots or entire scenes from other films or TV shows is used more often than you’d think. The pod race sequence in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999, George Lucas) is almost an exact replica of the chariot race in Ben-Hur (1959, William Wyler), for example, and Quentin Tarantino, for example, is known for saying ‘I steal from every film ever made’. The Defenders uses this technique to reference Citizen Kane, and in doing so heightens the narrative value of what initially comes off as a ‘normal’ shot. I personally love the fact that Phil Abraham did this, and consider it a neat touch to an already visually strong Netflix show.
Having broken down the show’s visuals in this way, I think it is fair to say that The Defenders is a cinematographical work of art. Its visual style contains the artistic vision of painters, and almost always tries to imbue something original in otherwise ‘ordinary’ scenes, while evading the stylistic ‘banality’ of contemporary TV cinematography. Storywise, The Defenders isn’t considered the best of the Marvel Netflix shows, but it stands out incredibly on the visual level. It is something noteworthy compared to any other entry in the MCU so far. At the time of writing, a second season for The Defenders hasn’t been announced, though if (when) it happens, I hope that the show tries to uphold the high visual bar it has set for itself in its first season.