The Escape Artist: Is this tale of a bird-fancying psychopath going to be the new Broadchurch?

It’s scary enough, this tale of a psychopath who seeks revenge for perceived slights even from those who have basically done him nothing but good. But I'm not convinced.

The Escape Artist
BBC1

A certain amount of hype surrounds the new legal thriller The Escape Artist. On the BBC’s preview website, the series’ writer, David Wolstencroft, has left a message begging critics not to reveal the twist at the end of the first episode (29 October, 9pm), of which he is apparently very proud.

More oddly, he writes that he would be interested to hear our feedback. Well, here’s mine. I’m not convinced. Oh, it’s scary enough, this tale of a bird-fancying psychopath who seeks revenge for perceived slights even from those who have basically done him nothing but good. It’s never not terrifying, is it, the thought of a woman alone with a small child in a remote cottage, and a porn-addicted sadist outside in the bushes? But even as I wondered whether I’d double-locked the door, I couldn’t help but hoot at quite a lot of the dialogue.

A posh lawyer who says: “That’s a redbrick education for you.”

Another posh lawyer who says: “I must say, I do like your game face, old boy.”

And a third, possibly even posher lawyer who says: “Chamber is a family. We take care of one another.”

Dear God. No one speaks like this. No one. They just don’t. Older ex-public school boys have mostly learned not to, while their younger colleagues all speak a Tony Blairish sort of mockney.

As it happens, the very morning after I watched The Escape Artist, I found myself sitting next to two moderately posh barristers on the train, beribboned briefs and all, and though they were on their way – or so I gathered – to a criminal court, all their talk was of . . . spreadsheets.

Lawyer one: [Sarcastically] “You love a spreadsheet, don’t you?”

Lawyer two: “Yeah, I do. But as you’re about to find out, so does Sarah.”

Lawyer one: “Oh, Jesus. Sarah and her spreadsheets.”

Lawyer two: [Gleefully handing over a BlackBerry] “Look at this.” [Laughing] “Now that’s what I call a spreadsheet.”

I’m not entirely sure how sadistic serial killers speak; most of them probably don’t say very much at all. But in television dramas, on the whole, they are usually smoothly eloquent and deceptively polite (a legacy, I guess, of Hannibal Lecter). So it was hardly a surprise when the killer in The Escape Artist, Liam Foyle (played by Toby Kebbell), upbraided his barrister, Will Burton (David Tennant), for his manners; given that they were drinking tea at the time, I was half expecting him to go a step further and launch into a debate about whether the milk should go in first or last.

“I don’t like people very much,” Liam said, prissily. “I’m just not a very nice person.” Hmm. As the literary critics like to say, sometimes it’s better to show than to tell. We’d already seen him fussing around his birdcages, scattering seed like confetti. No need to S-P-E-L-L it out.

The plotting is a little hokey, too. Burton is a junior barrister who has never lost a case; Maggie Gardner (Sophie Okonedo) is his great courtroom rival. In episode one, he defended Foyle, accused of a horrible murder, and got him off on a technicality. This achievement, however, induced in our legal hero a sudden bout of queasiness and outside the courtroom he refused to shake his client’s hand, a rudeness that he very swiftly came to regret. Pretty soon, then, Burton was a widower and his son a motherless child; Foyle, meanwhile, was back up on another murder charge.

The twist in the tale I will, of course, respect, just in case you happen to be saving The Escape Artist for later – though if it had come with neon subtitles and flashing arrows, it couldn’t have been any more obvious. As soon as Burton’s jolly young clerk unexpectedly dropped in to see him, looking twitchy, I knew what was ahead. And I bet most of you did, too.

On the plus side, the performances are very nice. A classy cast. I like watching Anton Lesser, who plays an unreadable high-up in Burton’s chambers; ditto Okonedo, always so coolly understated. Tennant has a lean look – those scooped-out cheeks of his – that is just right for a junior barrister on the up and even better for a man in mourning. He does family dynamics beautifully, his eyes rolling like bagatelle balls as his attention is yet again snagged on work even as his son blows out the candles on his birthday cake. Tennant’s skill works on dialogue like a pair of bellows on a reluctant fire; he gives his lines life, if not exactly credibility.

Will The Escape Artist be a Broadchurch-style hit? I’m guessing not. Apart from anything, it’s in only three parts (ends 12 November, 9pm); we’re not going to get in half so deep as its protagonists. But you never know. Some people have only to hear the words “barrister” and “murder” to come over in a flat-out swoon.

Face-off: Tennant, Toby Kennell, Sophie Okonedo. Image from The Escape Artist.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.