Sad-eyed lady: Maggie Gyllenhaal as Nessa Stein
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A walking target: The Honourable Woman on BBC2

Nothing on telly is going to be this good for some time to come.

The Honourable Woman
BBC2

I saw the first episode of Hugo Blick’s new eight-part series, The Honourable Woman (Thursdays, 9pm), a while ago; the BBC held a ritzy screening in a hotel at which poor Maggie Gyllenhaal appeared in full evening dress only to be greeted by the sight of dozens of TV hacks (and a few minor celebrities) looking mildly crumpled in their jeans. At the time, I was gobsmacked by it. I watched open-mouthed, anxiety and amazement combining to induce in me, once the hour was up, the kind of hunger hotel canapés could do nothing to assuage (I ate six as I ran for the door and then headed swiftly in the direction of the nearest steak). But would it hold up on a small screen?

In your service, I watched it again a few days ago and, yes, I was every bit as gripped. The second episode – I watched that in your service, too – contains one or two bum notes (the first has none). But the momentum, richness and complexity are maintained. The Honourable Woman will win every award going and when it ends in the final days of summer, its fans, who will be legion and messianic in its cause, will have to take up needlepoint or mah-jong. Nothing on telly is going to be this good for some time to come.

Nessa Stein (Gyllenhaal, with a very good British accent) is a vastly rich and influential woman. She runs a multinational business empire, inherited from her father, Eli, a “lion of Israel” who was assassinated when she was a girl, but she also does good works: terror, she believes, thrives in poverty, for which reason she is determined to lay fibre-optic cables all over the West Bank, the better to connect all the hospitals and schools that she helped to build. Thanks to this, she has just been ennobled by the British government and is now known as Lady Stein of Tilbury in the county of Essex.

However, she has enemies and dangerous secrets; both are about to make their presence felt in her life. This is inescapable. In one sense, her elaborate security detail and even the sealed panic room in which she sleeps – it lies at the centre of her stuccoed London house, a prison cell inside a gilded cage – are utterly futile. On her alabaster forehead, just beneath her gamine fringe, there is a target. Someone, somewhere, will surely hit it soon.

Assassinations, kidnappings, MI6, the FBI, flashbacks to Rafah in the Gaza Strip – such a lot is going on and yet Blick’s script never feels overloaded. He makes demands of the viewer with long speeches, opaque conversations and teasing, highly choreographed sequences in which characters move deliberately around London like chess pieces on a board but the suspense is always enough to keep you onside.

Every detail is perfect (Blick directed, too), from the stoop of Nessa’s father in the old home movies she watches to the way she eats her TV supper, her salad plucked between thumb and index finger. People under-react rather than overreact to horror, fear having invaded their hearts so long ago; they’re weary with it, dead behind the eyes. And all of this is shot through with a kind of bottomless plangency, for we know that even if things do turn out right for Nessa, her brother, Ephra (Andrew Buchan), and their Palestinian friend Atika (Lubna Azabal), the situation will never be resolved – or not in my lifetime. As our new baroness likes to joke at fundraising dinners, if a bunch of earth-destroying aliens asked the Israelis and the Palestinians to give up their arms, well, it would be the little green men you’d wind up feeling sorry for.

The performances – with the exception of Janet McTeer, who appears in episode two and seems to think she’s in Johnny English with Rowan Atkinson, are extremely fine. The quiet solemnity of Buchan’s and Gyllenhaal’s performances suggests both their characters’ great privilege (they seem embarrassed by their incredible wealth) and their miserable fates (a lifetime worrying about what might happen in the moments between the front door and the back seat of a bulletproof Mercedes). And special plaudits must go to Stephen Rea as an about-to-be-retired British spy. He puts in a master class in the patrician, the pernickety and the downright peculiar.

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 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

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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.