One of the major challenges that The Defenders (2017) faced was finding a way to balance the visuals of the four previous Netflix Marvel shows – Daredevil (2015), Jessica Jones (2015), Luke Cage (2016), and Iron Fist (2017). Just as the show needed to find a way to make its four heroes work together, it also had to create a cohesive aesthetic out of four television shows with vibrant and different styles. Daredevil‘s use of neon and shadow, Jessica Jones‘ noir design, or Luke Cage‘s bold colors don’t exactly fit together, and choosing one of these styles for The Defenders would seem to privilege one hero over the others.
Instead of choosing a neutral backdrop or opting to embrace a previous show’s style, The Defenders chose to go in a new direction. The show gives each hero their own color: red for Daredevil, blue for Jessica Jones, yellow for Luke Cage, and green for Iron Fist. These colors are associated with the heroes throughout the eight episode arc, affecting their costuming, background, and lighting. During the initial episodes, before the heroes cross paths with one another, scenes are even tinted with each Defenders’ signature color. The opening credits, too, emphasize the colors of each hero.
This stylistic choice is a simple one, but it’s also striking, especially in the early episodes. While the boldness of the colors might seem harsh, the palette does call to mind similar bright contrasts that appear in comic books. Plus, given that the show is following four different people, the colors also have a certain level of practicality to them: as each scene begins, the audience can quickly identify which hero they are watching, even before the characters themselves come into view. While the color might feel over-the-top, establishing the colors alongside the heroes allows for some creativity and playfulness in later episodes.
The colors become more complicated as the show progresses and the heroes inevitably cross paths. In some cases, the color is juxtaposed for a new visual combination. For instance, at the end of the second episode, Misty Knight is questioning Jessica Jones in a blue police interrogation room. As Daredevil enters the room, he opens the door, to reveal that the outside of the door is bright red. The blue and the red create a powerful contrast as Daredevil enters Jessica Jones’s life – and perhaps the stark difference in color also represents the differences between Matthew Murdock and Jessica Jones. Similarly, in episode five, when Danny is under attack, there is a prominent blue exit door; the blue foreshadows Jessica Jones’s entrance, as moments later she enters and helps Danny.
In other cases, the colors of the Defenders mingle. In another scene in episode five, Jessica goes to save Trish, who she believes might be targeted. As Murakami (of the Hand) closes in, Jessica and Trish enter a room with purple light. Of course, purple has its own coded meaning within Jessica Jones; it’s a color that, because of its relationship to Kilgrave (known in the comics as the Purple Man), appears in Jessica Jones season one often. Purple usually means danger in Jessica Jones, and it rarely shows up in The Defenders. However, the purple in this particular scene ends up foreshadowing Daredevil, who arrives to help Jessica fight Murakami. In contrast to the earlier scene, where blue and red are separate entities, the mixture of blue and red into purple seems to emphasize Matthew and Jessica working together.
The Chinese restaurant where the heroes meet has a neon sign that includes all four of their signature colors, literally tying together their different tones into a single image. Inside the restaurant, Luke has a yellow light behind him, Jessica sits in front of a bright blue fish tank, Daredevil’s backdrop is full of reddish tones, and Danny’s grey suit looks greener in the restaurant’s lighting. In the Chinese restaurant, all four colors are present, but each individual shot will creatively incorporate the signature color of the person in the frame. When Stick enters, his green army suit aligns him with Danny, the Iron Fist who is supposed to fight with the Chaste against the Hand – and the red of his blood that splatters the shirt also aligns him with Daredevil.
The show’s villains are also coded using color. Sigourney Weaver’s Alexandra is often dressed in white, which provides a stark contrast to the Defenders. White is, arguably, the absence of color, and, while white is often associated with goodness, in Alexandra’s case it reads as sophisticated, clinical, cold, and calculating. The office hallways in Midland Circle are largely white and grey; a corporate enemy that contrasts nicely with the Defenders colors. The other members of the Hand wear greys, whites, and blacks. Elektra’s costumes, too, play with color. She is the Black Sky, but under her black cloak, she is dressed in red, which visually ties her all the more closely to Daredevil.
By the later episodes, the full palette of colors is explored and the use of color becomes more subtle. As the Defenders become more and more integrated as a team, so do the colors of their world(s). In the final episode, however, red is re-introduced after Matthew’s “death”: in the church where Karen and Foggy go to mourn (Karen’s skirt and Foggy’s tie in previous scenes are also red, emphasizing their relationships to Matt), on the Empire State Building as Iron Fist looks out on New York City, and even on the bed where Matthew is shown lying in the final shot. Since red is so embedded with the character of Daredevil at this point in the show, the red helps to solidify for the viewer that Matthew is on Karen, Foggy, and Danny’s mind.
While some might see color in The Defenders as heavy handed, it gradually becomes more subtle and adds an additional layer of complexity to the show. Other Marvel shows on Netflix probably shouldn’t attempt to replicate The Defenders precisely, but hopefully Marvel will continue to experiment and explore how color can be used to tell superhero stories.
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