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‘The Defenders:’ Defining Identity through Color Cues and Cinematography

The Defenders, the new ensemble Marvel Netflix project, has drawn together four character franchises to create a new super-team. Unlike Marvel’s other team, the larger-than-life Avengers, the Defenders are centered in New York and address a conspiracy of a dangerous organization that appears motivated by personal, individual drives rather than a larger goal of conquest. Despite its narrative problems, continuing the White Saviour complex and dualism of Orientalism and “Fear the Yellow Menace” that Daredevil and Iron Fist first articulate, the visual forms are intricate and interesting. The series uses tonal cues and shot composition to reference the visual style of each of the individual characters’ series. The visual framing keeps each character distinct in the larger team, highlighting their strengths and weaknesses and keeping the story set through different perspectives.

The colour tones, noted in the Vulture review of the first episode, are a consistent element throughout the series, though the colour and lighting association is stronger in the early episodes as the team becomes established, and become more subtle as the series goes on. These colour cues, red for Daredevil, yellow for Luke Cage, blue for Jessica Jones, and green for Iron Fist, indicate quickly who is in control of a sequence. The enemy of the series, the mystical organization called The Hand, are shot, framed, and primarily garbed in white. The opening credits lay out the characters’ colours clearly and simply, mapping the character to the city by using lit-up street grids to form the shape of each character in their associated colour.

The secondary aspect of the visual framing and colour cuing is the matter of perspective. Each character comes at the threat of The Hand from a different angle: Jessica is working for a client; Luke is trying to save the people of his neighbourhood; and Matt is dragged into the fight a bit more willingly than he’d like. Danny is the only one who understands the fight on a larger scale, but this means he loses perspective of the very real lives impacted by corporate bodies and their decisions. Episode three features a powerful conversation between Luke and Danny, in which Danny admonishes Luke: “You’re not thinking about the bigger picture.” Luke answers simply, “and you’re not thinking about anything but yourself.” Each of them has their own perspective, their own motivation, and thus these contexts colour their versions of the world.

Daredevil, the first of the Marvel Netflix series, plays with light and shadow and non-standard visual framing. Presenting Daredevil’s world as darkness mitigated primarily through non-visual senses means the cinematography often focuses on objects making noise, or frames Matt Murdock tilting his head and in profile to highlight the importance of his hearing. Light is less important to the protagonist, so it becomes an interesting framing device for the viewer; the opening episodes highlight characters' faces against backgrounds wholly in shadow. This lighting draws out the face to indicate Matt’s ability to read people, through hearing their voice, breathing, and even heartbeat, but not the static and silent environment around them. Fight sequences tend toward fixed camera or a series of steady shots, highlighting the physicality of the fight by often showing Daredevil as beaten down or exhausted. The framing situates his movements in the larger picture, making his stamina and tenacity the focus. His palate is red, from the opening credits to little cues within the series, as his character contends with morality and the language of damnation.

Jessica Jones plays with light and shadow as well, but with a stronger graphical direction. The camera plays with shots from above to use shadow as shape in “Ladies Night,” echoing the visual style of the comic series. The camera also frames Jessica with willful discomfort: the scenes can either be framed from odd angles, upside-down or sideways, moving or pivoting in strange ways; the cinematography makes her look like she’s standing when she’s lying in bed, or the camera takes a fixed position and pivots as Jessica moves through the scene, resulting in the view being upside down or strangely off-kilter. The sense of unease around Jessica’s framing relates to her personal experience. As Matthew Murdock is framed to highlight his ears and counter shots focus on the objects making noise around him, Jessica is framed to show her sense of dislocation in the world around her. She is filmed from above, or framed in mid-distance shots with the world moving indistinctly around her. The blue tones in the credits and through the series highlight her cool detachment from the world. Her strength is visible in a limited way: despite her physical power, she lacks the on-screen presence of Daredevil or Luke Cage. Instead, Krysten Ritter plays her as slouching, moving through scenes casually. Most physical action seems to happen around her, with a few exceptions when her strength is front and centre. Her ability to lift cars, break doors and physically dominate the world around her get downplayed, as she casually mentions, “I’m stronger than I look.”

Luke Cage’s framing in his titular series is in and through his space: he is a man of the city, and is often grounded and situated as such. The opening credits for the series map iconic landmarks onto his body, and place him in the context of Harlem. Characters are framed in their surroundings, as in the powerful image of Cottonmouth standing in front of the Notorious B.I.G. poster. The use of backdrop to define the characters shows how much space and place matters for the character of Luke. The colour palate is warm, with a consistent tone of yellow tinting the world, even though much of the action still is set at night. Slight camera movement in close scenes gives the viewer the sense of being present to the scene, while viewing action through windows, blinds or chain-link fences situates the viewer as voyeur. These visuals bring the viewer into Harlem along side Luke, continuing to articulate the importance of the context and space. Fight sequences focus more on the faces and people, rather than on the broader scene, or takes wide-shots of Luke moving in the space: he is a figure of agency in the world and is the unstoppable force.

The Iron Fist's visual style is the least distinct of the four Marvel series, with varied camera angles, bright scenes, and little in the way of consistent framing. Danny Rand’s fight against The Hand, setting up the narrative line of The Defenders, uses quick-cut sequences that erase the physical toll and strain of the fight highlighted in Daredevil, and his movements lack the sheer physical presence of either Luke Cage or Jessica Jones. His flashback sequences use vertical line and glare effects to indicate his struggle with memory and the trauma of his past, but his scenes are all well lit and lack the discomfort or distortion evident in Jessica Jones’ story. As the most recent of the Marvel narratives, its articulation of difference has been based more in story than in cinematography, as the imagery of The Hand and their plots have picked up from Daredevil. Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist all had the same lead cinematographer, Manuel Billeter, who drew the distinctive styles for each of the characters’ perspectives on their Manhattan neighbourhoods.

These visual styles echo in The Defenders, as each of the characters maintains their identity in the larger team structure. While the first few episodes establish the narrative threat to each character individually, they also set out the perspectives: while the four work together against a common enemy, they do not do so for a common purpose. They instead each maintain a unique drive that colours their experience, both figuratively and literally. The opening episode moves from the shadows of the sewer in Cambodia in which the lighting is dim and primarily white, indicating Elektra’s control of the scene, to the cold blue tones of Jessica Jones’ world, to Luke Cage’s warm yellow tones, into Matthew Murdock’s rich reds and finally into Danny Rand’s green shades. Each of these colour tones also indicates a visual style: each of these sequences is filmed in the style and visual framing of the characters’ original series. These styles keep the viewer tethered to the character, connected to his or her storyline, as each of the series has a distinct visual style.

The opening sequences reinforce the associations of character to colour, as Jessica Jones begins in darkness and is thrust out onto the street in cool-morning tones, meeting with Trish who is clad all in blues. The shots focus on the Jessica is not the most dynamic or active part of the scene, as she is instead steady in the face of the world moving around her. Her strength is off-camera: she smashes down a glass but the scene cuts away before we see it break, despite us hearing it; she pulls Trish’s car off a tow-truck hook-up, but is hidden behind the car until it has rolled to a stop. She does not exhibit overwhelming power, but instead possess a strength that keeps her distant and detached from the world around her. This off-camera power is consistent with Jessica Jones, as her strength is always a bit of surprise.

Luke Cage walks through Seagate Correctional in warm yellow light, wearing an orange prison jumpsuit; he’s framed through bars, and from an overhead walkway. As he leaves custody and goes to meet Foggy Nelson, his lawyer, the camera switches to a guard’s room, with television screens watching Luke’s movement through the lens of the surveillance camera. The viewer is voyeur and Luke remains active and in control of the scene. The warm light and yellow tones are disrupted just slightly by Foggy Nelson’s red tie, connecting him to Matt Murdock and the world of Daredevil. The cinematography matches Luke Cage, keeping the character’s identity articulated from the outset. This consistency is further amplified as he rides the bus home: his view out the window, the scenes that he’s passing and the space he’s reorienting to is key to his character, to the point that his disembarkation from the bus is shot through and around a chain-link fence. He is grounded in Harlem, in its buildings and its people.

Matt Murdock’s opening sequence frames the sounds of his apartment: the shot moves from the coffee maker to the braille printer in a room drenched in red light. Matt moves in the background, preparing his defense for court. He comes into focus and the sounds of the events outside begin to rise, changing the camera angle to focus on Matt tipping his head and the camera focusing on his ear: the sensory centre is the camera’s centre. The focus shifts to Matt crumpling the papers in frustration at his temptation to respond to the conflict, which is only relieved when he hears the arrival of police to address the problem. The red tones and the very specific camera angles bring us back into the world of Daredevil, framing him in the larger story.

Danny Rand is introduced first in black and white, with a battle in shadows that situates him strongly in the world of his opponent, the as-of-yet-unrevealed Elektra. His first scene where we see him in control of the narrative is on his private jet, and the green hues in his and Colleen’s clothing are amplified by the green hue to the lighting. The filming of this sequence doesn’t particularly evoke Iron Fist in its styling, as Danny’s vision is not preceded by his vertical-line blurring or any other framing device. Yet, the tones and clear markings of Rand Enterprises effectively articulate the world he lives in.

The last key colour indicator in the series is The Hand, the nefarious organization who seem to have global machinations centred around the extension of their own lives. The clean, clinical white of Alexandra Reid’s coat is echoed in the medical waiting room and MRI, and each scene after featuring The Hand has clear, white lighting. The bright clarity of the scenes stand in stark contrast to their willingness to sacrifice any number of people in their pursuits of immortality. The bright, clean lighting also fits with the institutional spaces of the series, as the Midland Building and Police precinct both highlight the white light of the corporate, official power that is represented by The Hand.

The scenes featuring one of the Defenders takes on the tones of their theme colour, but as the team begins to form, the negotiation of agency takes on greater importance. When Jessica is called in to meet with the police in “Mean Right Hook,” Matt Murdock surprises her and announces himself as her lawyer. In the exchange between them, the tones of the scene stay starkly blue. The shots fit the style of Jessica Jones, not Daredevil; the scene is about her, not Matt. However, he wears his red glasses, a red tie and has a red folder for his paperwork: he keeps his colour cues, despite being part of her world. Further highlights appear when he tries to tail her on the street. The blue tones are disrupted slightly just as Matt is about to enter the frame, with the camera panning down to catch a spatter of red paint on the ground. The camera work and visual language is very much about Jessica and positions her as the figure with agency in the scene, which the blue tone reinforces. Yet, Matt can find some space in that world, and the little touches of red indicate that to the viewer.

A pivotal scene of character growth for Danny takes place when Luke challenges him about his ample privilege. This moment has a subtle shift in colour, as the dojo where Danny lives and trains typically has a green hue; as Luke and Danny talk, and Luke points out the power and privilege that Danny possesses aside from his mystical fist, the tone in the room shifts slightly to a warmer yellow. Luke is framed by his yellow hoody lining, the yellow highlights on the punching bags, and the warm light, as the camera focuses in closely on the faces of the two men and situates them effectively in the room. Luke is in Danny’s space: it’s not a place that defines Luke, yet he is still the more powerful, more present figure in the room. He speaks with confidence and far too much familiarity about injustice and the economic forces that define most lives. In contrast, his childhood being raised by monks and return to a life of wealth exempts Danny from these forces and he visibly struggles with the sheer concept. Though the scene takes place in Danny’s home, the visual language subtly cues Luke’s influence over the scene and indicates his authority in such an important discussion.

When the four discuss their collaboration in The Royal Dragon restaurant, the colour shifting reflects a more complex negotiation between the four figures. All four characters have colour cues throughout the restaurant and the lighting shifts to highlight control of the situation: the table is lit in green tones, as Danny’s narrative takes precedence in this space, but the rest of the restaurant is dominated with red in its décor and lighting. Daredevil and Iron Fist are the storylines that have intersected with The Hand previously, so those characters speak from a position of authority. When Alexandra enters, however, she is lit in white, framing her control of the space. Few of the camera angles in this setting take on a particular character framing, which in effect defaults to Danny, as the Iron Fist lacks a clear and distinctive shot style for the cinematographer to emulate.  Matt’s discussion with Stick is framed very clearly in red and returns to the shot-in-profile style of framing, and Jessica’s departure from the restaurant is shot from above in a disorienting angle tinted in blues. Her return, however, is cued even before her arrival. Elektra arrives in the restaurant, and each of the men on the team is framed with a strong blue light from the aquarium behind them; this visual cue foreshadows the car plowing through the window that Jessica throws. It is not driven through and, as ever, we don’t see her exerting energy to throw the car: she casually walks in after it. The colour suggests the kind of action that is about to happen, foreshadowing the shot.

The last two episodes of the series have less of the lighting-cues, as once Danny is stolen, The Hand appears in control. Instead, the lighting is predominantly white, with slight hints of other shades. The individual perspectives and their motivations are less important than the battle against the force that threatens New York. The stripping away of the colour cues leaves the scenes starker and simpler, as the individual context and their related visual styles are less important. The caverns underneath Midland Circle are tinged green until Danny leaves, at which point the battle between Elektra and Daredevil are simple plays of light and shadow, like to the original series of Daredevil. The dropping away of the colours shows the struggle of agency, as the shots are less distinct and framed to fit a particular character. There are moments of exception, as Colleen’s fight with Bakuto is tinged in green, and Jessica stepping out to the elevator with Daredevil and Luke Cage in tow is cool lighting, but it is primarily in the aftermath scenes, when the various characters are shown returning to normal life, that the shot-styles and colour codes come back into full effect.

The director and cinematographer of The Defenders have used the colours to reinforce the shot-design of the series. The individual characters have aspects of their distinctive visual style articulated throughout the series, so that no character gets lost as part of the larger whole. Each of their friends and allies maintains some form of colour cue throughout the series, with Karen and Foggy in reds, Claire and Misty in yellows and oranges, Trish and Malcolm in blues and greys, and Colleen in greens. The visual language is clear and gives a sense of distinction to the characters in the frame of the larger show. Mimicking the shot-style of each of the individual shows maintains a sense of identity, as each of the characters does not lose themselves as part of the team. The Defenders are a temporary alliance, not a redefinition of who these characters are. While each of them shows growth in some form, they return to their individual worlds, tinged in their own individual way. They remain grounded in their own framework and remain strong characters each in their own right.



Christina Fawcett has a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Glasgow, teaches courses at the University of Winnipeg, and writes on fantasy, science fiction, superheroes and horror as they appear in texts, graphic novels and new media. She loves monsters, villains and what the things that scare us say about our culture.


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