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The Defenders is a Marvel Comics superhero team.
Not to be confused with the Animated Series Defenders of the Earth, or with the 1960s TV show The Defenders, which was about a group of lawyers. Or, for that matter, the current TV show The Defenders, which is also about lawyers.
The Defenders have a long and varied history. The team grew out of a couple of team-ups between Doctor Strange, The Incredible Hulk, Namor The Sub-Mariner, and the Silver Surfer in the early 1970s. These became the team's founding members; it should be noted that all four of them were among the most powerful of Marvel's heroes who did not belong to a team yet. However, this was an unlikely alliance, as all four were more used to acting alone, especially Hulk and Namor, both of whom are more correctly antiheroes.
The Silver Surfer was quickly written out (as at the time, Stan Lee considered him to be his pet character and was not keen on letting other writers use him) and new characters were introduced to flesh out the roster. Nighthawk, originally a Captain Ersatz for Batman but then reinvented as one for Hawkman; Daimon Hellstrom, the horror-themed hero "Son of Satan"; Hellcat, originally a character from Marvel's comedy/romance comics reinvented as a Cat-themed heroine (using the costume of The Cat, who herself had become Tigra); Gargoyle, an elderly man who, while trying to cheat death, ended up trapped in the body of a demon; and The Valkyrie, a Norse goddess trapped in the body of a woman known to Hulk and Strange were brought onto the team along with Doctor Strange, with Hulk and Sub-Mariner becoming recurring characters within the title, often making sporadic appearances. The group itself had loose guidelines for membership, as technically, everybody who helped them was a 'Defender' (this was lampshaded in a story where a membership drive -- started without their permission or knowledge -- led to a mess as both heroes wanting to join, and villains trying to pretend they were Defenders, ran into each other.) Still, the heroes listed above were the most commonly associated with the team. They tended to meet in Doctor Strange's New York brownstone, and later, in the wealthy Nighthawk's estate.
This age of the series was famous for its bizarre stories and villains; most notably: The Headmen, a group of villains with weird heads; The Elf With A Gun, a mysterious elf-like character who went around shooting people for no reason (and whom The Defenders never actually met!) and Vera Gemini, a demonic cult leader who was based on an actual rock and roll band (Blue Oyster Cult)'s songs! These stories were largely written by Steve Gerber and David Anthony Kraft, who shepherded the group for the 1970s and early 1980s.
In the early 1980s, Marvel decided to revamp the book. Nighthawk was killed off (later upgraded to a Convenient Coma), Hellcat and Daimon Hellstrom married and retired, and a (bogus?) prophecy that Doctor Strange, Hulk, Namor, and Silver Surfer would bring about the end of the world led them to leave the team. Valkyrie and Gargoyle reformed the group with three of the founding member of the X-Men (The Beast, The Angel and Iceman), along with the morally ambiguous Moondragon, the young Atlantis warrior Andromeda, and Cloud, a gas based alien who shape-shifted into both a man and woman during its time with the Defenders. Based in Colorado, in Angel's mansion, this incarnation lasted two years before the title was canceled so that the X-Men characters could be be freed up for the upcoming X-Factor series. The entire team, save for Angel, Beast, and Iceman, died saving a possessed Moondragon.)
In the early 1990s, Marvel attempted to revive the Defenders as "Secret Defenders". This new series would have Doctor Strange organize squads of random heroes (including Wolverine, Spider-Man, Darkhawk, the second Spider-Woman and Ghost Rider, Hulk, Luke Cage, Deadpool, and many others) for one-off missions. Despite being considerably hyped by Marvel, the series did not do well and with the title launching coinciding with the launching of the more successful "Midnight Sons" horror sub-line (in which Doctor Strange could not take part due to Secret Defenders), it was decided to remove him from the book so that his title could be folded into the Midnight Son line. The title was then revamped with Doctor Druid as the new leader and a group of new heroes, but this new direction did little to revive interest in the book and it was quietly canceled by the end of its second year.
Ironically, before Secret Defenders launched, Marvel tested the waters not once but twice with two storylines involving the reunion of the original core Defenders. An arc in the pages of Incredible Hulk denounced the prophecy that drove the founders away from the team and the group later regrouped in the 1992 mini-annual event "Return of the Defenders", as evil demons hijacked Namor's body (sticking the hero inside Rick Jones' body) as part of a plot to summon their evil master. But the original Defenders would not be given their own title until 2002. Written by Kurt Busiek and drawn by Erik Larsen, the title had the four heroes "cursed" to teleport to random fights on behalf of the spirit of Earth known as Gaia. The series was critically and commercially unsuccessful and the title ended with a six part arc in which the book was retitled "The Order" and it was revealed that the curse from issue one was part of a greater scheme to manipulate the Defenders into turning evil and conquering the world for an evil sorcerer.
More successful, however, was Keith Giffen and Kevin McGuire's 2005 "Defenders" mini-series, which had the four face off against Dormammu and his sister Umar. The series recast the franchise as a comedy book, a la Giffen and McGuire's critically acclaimed Justice League International run, with the characters largely acknowledging the absurdity of lives as super-heroes and super-villains as well as exploring why the four (Surfer, Namor, Hulk, and Strange) continued to associate with each other despite having nothing in common.
After the events of Civil War, Joe Casey wrote a new mini-series called "The Last Defender", which had Nighthawk struggling to rebuild the team after being assigned to the state of New Jersey by Iron Man. The series itself explored the fan notion of the "lameness" of the original team's later members versus the bonds that existed between them: heroes assigned to the team quit on Nighthawk due to them not wanting to be associated with the "Defenders" brand and Iron Man himself constantly refused Nighthawk's attempts to recruit past Defenders like Valkyrie on the basis that said past members did not have the necessary star quality. Though the roster of the group would be finalized at the end of the mini-series, later writers (including Dan Slott, who wrote She-Hulk's ongoing book at the time) ignored it and the group vanished from sight until a Casey series called Vengeance debuted in 2011.
However, that hasn't stopped other writers from using the concept, as Jeph Loeb reunited the founders again in the pages of "Hulk", pitting Strange, Surfer, Hulk, and Namor up against "The Offenders", a quartet organized by the villainous Red Hulk that consisted of himself, Baron Mordo, Terrax, and Tiger Shark.
The 2011 crisis crossover Fear Itself teased a Defenders reunion in tie-in series "The Deep," where Strange, Namor, and Surfer (together with the mutant Loa and Lyra, Hulk's daughter) joined forces to stop Attuma, one of the eight Worthy. The tease was followed up by an announcement that Matt Fraction would be behind a new Defenders book debuting at the end of 2011 with the additions of Iron Fist and Red She-Hulk to the classic lineup.
Tropes seen in the (various) Defender series:
- Animal-Themed Superbeing: Hell Cat and Nighthawk fit under the Animal Alias type and Moondragon is the Mythical Monster Motif type.
- Body Horror: The Headmen was consisted of villains that featured body parts with peculiar, if not largely bizarre, modifications.
- Brain In a Jar: Nighthawk temporarily got stuck in this state when he was abducted by the Headmen and had his brain removed from his body.
- Breakfast Club: The team has often included emo misfits.
- Captain Ersatz: See Shout-Out below.
- Censor Steam: Cloud used to generate her own.
- Combat Medic: Red Guardian, who also was a skilled surgeon (she was the one who put Nighthawk's brain back to his body when it was stolen during a horrific surgery by the Headmen).
- Cool Horse: Valkyrie's steed Aragorn, a white winged horse formerly owned by the Black Knight. Other Defenders have had a ride on his back, including Doctor Strange. (He bucked Nighthawk off once in a bit of Horsing Around).
- Crimefighting with Cash: Nighthawk, Iron Fist.
- Defenders, Assemble!: Many stories begin with someone, often Doctor Strange, contacting the other members and gathering them together.
- Deus Exit Machina/Worf Had the Flu: Dr. Strange was often knocked out or otherwise weakened so he could not win the battles easily for the team. Eventually he took a break from the Defenders to figure out what was going wrong with his magic.
- Genius Loci: Cloud (of the Beast's Defenders) turned out to be a sentient nebula with amnesia.
- Hero Insurance: Apparently the Defenders had this.
- Doctor Strange: The Oath included a throwaway gag about Strange still being on the Defenders' group health insurance policy.
- Insistent Terminology: In the early days they were quite adamant that they were not like The Avengers. They had no members, charter, or even official recognition (until the Avengers/Defenders war, at least). As the occasional Note From Ed pointed out, they were an "un-team."
- Konami Code: Yes, really.
- Mobile Maze: Dr. Strange's Sanctum Sanctorum.
- The Nicknamer: The childlike Hulk had his own names for the rest of the team.
- Off-Model: Secret Defenders took this to ludicrous extremes. You'd swear everybody in those comics ate a huge stack of pancakes before entering the comic!
- Prophecy Twist: The Hulk-Strange-Surfer-Namor team broke up because of a prophecy saying that if they ever worked together again, it would lead to a huge cataclysm. Much later, Doctor Strange said he'd found this to be a hoax . . . but the next time all four of them did work together was The Infinity Gauntlet battle, which was unquestionably a huge cataclysm.
- Also the prophecy ended up coming true when the four founders became "The Order" and tried to conquer Earth.
- Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: The team members really only have one thing in common: they're some of the most powerful characters in the Marvel Universe in different ways, and they usually don't work with others. Perhaps they get together because no one else can put up with them.
- Lampshaded in the New Avengers, when Nighthawk interviews for a staff position and says "Clearly you guys are the Defenders."
- Red Scare: Averted with the team's temporary member Red Guardian, who was a Soviet counterpart to Captain America.
- Refuge in Audacity: The entire Umar/Hulk affair.
- Secret Keeper: In the 2011 series, the Defenders become aware of immensely powerful artifacts called Concordance Engines and must keep them hidden from the world.
- Secret Project Refugee Family: Cloud, Seraph and Harridan.
- She Hulk: Was a member of the New Jersey team.
- Red She Hulk is now a member of the new 2011 series team.
- Shout-Out: Two episodes of the Justice League animated series were homages to the original Defenders, with Doctor Fate standing for Doctor Strange, Aquaman for Namor, Solomon Grundy for The Hulk, Amazo for the Surfer, and Hawkgirl for Valkyrie or Nighthawk.
- Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: At times. The inner four (Strange, Namor, Hulk, and Surfer) are all strong personalities who are used to working alone and none of them likes to admit that they need help.
- Unfazed Everyman: Jack Norriss, who was the husband of Barbara (Valkyrie's first human host) and was constantly dragged into the team's weird adventures. It is noteworthy though that he also had his Badass Normal moments.
- Vitriolic Best Buds: The Defenders on a good day. Some members are genuinely friendly, but others seem to like all the backbiting.
- We ARE Struggling Together!: At times the only thing the Defenders can agree upon is that the menace they face must be stopped.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist: During Steve Gerber's run, Cosmic Horror Nebulon returns to Earth with the intent of bringing peace to mankind through a brainwashing-like method disguised as a pop psychology, making anyone that fell on his talk devoid of free will and individuality.
- The Worf Effect: Silver Surfer spends a issue or two being held hostage by Prester John in the 2011 series.