How the Defenders Are Saving New York

Or, at least, the city's film industry. Once upon a time the “Law & Order” franchise almost single-handedly kept things afloat. Those days are past, but Marvel's rag-tag band of superheroes is coming to the rescue.


Every morning this week, I’ve walked my dog past the offices of a nondescript transportation company that’s being reinvented as a set for Jessica Jones season two. Earlier this month, in a different part of my Queens neighborhood, my dog had the privilege of peeing under several official NYPD signs advising residents that Luke Cage (well, the show’s covert-but-easily-Google-able working title) would be shooting nearby. With five Netflix series currently under its umbrella — the other three are Daredevil, Iron Fist, and the brand-new The Defenders, with The Punisher soon to come — the Marvel Television Universe is slowly but surely taking over the sidewalk-blocking, trailer-parking place once occupied by the Law & Order franchise in New Yorkers’ hearts.

As the onscreen Defenders battle to save the city, in real life Marvel has become responsible for the largest TV production commitment in the history of New York state. As of the end of 2017, 135 episodes in total will have been shot in the Empire State since summer 2014. The Defenders, the street-savvy superhero-crossover miniseries now streaming on Netflix, is the Marvel show in which New York City plays the most pivotal thematic role yet. The opening sequence traces city streets, illuminating portraits of the title characters within these maps — a cosmopolitan counterpoint to the Game of Thrones credits, transplanted from Westeros to Gotham. As is her custom, Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) broods in her roach-infested P.I. office-apartment. Luke Cage (Mike Colter) rides a bus home from prison through his sun-drenched, D’Angelo-scored Harlem. Ominous antagonist Alexandra (Sigourney Weaver) gazes icily out over Columbus Circle and Central Park South during a private string quartet performance at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) catches up with Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) in a booth at a B.E.C.-slinging diner; Danny Rand (Finn Jones) goes, I don’t know, wherever a rich white boy who wants you to know that he’s “the immortal Iron Fist” feels like going. Jones, Cage, and Murdock even ride the subway together — which, not for nothing, is actually the PATH, but you get the point.

“The only thing keeping Manhattan from crumbling to a pile of dust is the four of you,” Murdock’s mentor, Stick (Scott Glenn), tells the titular allies. And as Alexandra tells Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho) with a menacing chuckle as she feeds the birds from a bench in Central Park: “The Dutch colonists, when they bought Manhattan from the natives, they’re said to have acquired the whole thing for $24. Ask me, they overpaid.” But the behind-the-scenes reality of The Defenders is much wider in its geographical scope. The Netflix franchise looked to Frank Miller’s Daredevil comics as source material, basing Marvel Television’s Hell’s Kitchen on a version of the neighborhood that hasn’t existed for decades. They needed locations that exuded more grime and crime than Shake Shack buzzers and photo opportunities with swarms of Spider-Men, Iron Men, and Hulks, dingy though those costumes may be. Defenders location manager Rafael Lima, a comic book fan and eighteen-year resident of New York City (he’s more recently relocated to Westchester), has been eager to take on that challenge. It’s required equal-opportunity scouting all over the city to find places that could capture that gritty feel, with a little modification — be they in the East Village, Greenpoint, Sunset Park, Yonkers, or Long Island.

“We faked the tunnels of Cambodia in Queens, at Fort Totten,” said Lima, also a veteran of Daredevil and Iron Fist, about making The Defenders. “We shot an old college bar, a favorite place of mine called the Blue & Gold in the East Village. We did some prison work out in Queens at a detention center. We did some courthouse work in the Bronx. We did a theater in Staten Island. So we hit all five boroughs.”

Of course, filming in a metropolis as bustling as New York City isn’t always easy, particularly given that roughly 75 to 80 percent of The Defenders was shot on location. “If [a setting is as] unspecific as ‘EXTERIOR DARK ALLEY,’ then the work really begins to find willing owners that’ll let you shoot all night long, dangle stuntmen from fire escapes, and keep people up,” Lima explained. To vet locations, his team had a brisk three or four weeks of “real lead time” before filming began, while they were still wrapping up Iron Fist. The pace grew faster still when production started, with only eight to ten days allotted for them to prep each new episode. “It’s very much like a freight train. Once it leaves the station, you’re just trying to stay ahead of it,” Lima said.

His personal favorite location in The Defenders is the Royal Dragon, a Chinese restaurant that becomes a de facto clubhouse for the super-friends. That sounds like a straightforward enough locale to deliver, except for the inconvenient fact that the script happened to call for a “gigantic fight between machine gun-wielding bad guys and four superheroes and a supervillain, culminating with an SUV driving full speed through the front of it.” Lima was “terrified” when he read that, knowing that no Chinese-restaurant owner in their right mind would allow such havoc in their place of business. Instead, he was able to find a former car wash — which was, of course, designed to have cars drive right through it — in Williamsburg. Within a month the crew had built it out into the realistic and, even better, eminently destructible Chinese restaurant of their dreams.

“We had a large amount of fake display Chinese food made, which we used for most of the shots where it was in the background. For the scenes in which our heroes were sitting around the table, we ordered matching dishes from Shanghai Lee, a small restaurant at 157 Franklin Street in Greenpoint,” said Peter Gelfman, property master. “They have some of the best hot and sour soup in the city, and I highly recommend their chicken with red curry.” Lima also recalled, “The whole time, residents in Williamsburg kept on knocking on the front door, trying to get chop suey and lo mein, and we’re like, ‘No, it’s just for show.’ But it obviously meant we were doing a pretty good job.” Other location shoots didn’t go quite so smoothly. They began filming a setting vital to the finale at one building, but had no choice but to start over elsewhere when the façade was unexpectedly covered in scaffolding.

After years of Vancouver and Toronto posing as ersatz Manhattans, the genuine article is reclaiming its rightful place onscreen. Over the course of Lima’s career — he’s previously worked on projects like Suits, Banshee, Manhattan Love Story, and The Big C — shooting in the city has become more difficult as state and local tax incentives have brought an “explosion” of production to the boroughs and beyond. “Lots of people, and certainly New York City residents, love to consume their media. They don’t necessarily love the realities and the logistics involved with the process. So filming overnight in neighborhoods has become more restrictive. Parking large film trucks and campers has become more complicated. Location fees that we would normally pay to sites have increased,” he said. (Per Money, the rates for renting a home in New York State to a film crew range from $1,000 to $35,000 a day.) “I’m not trying to make it seem doom and gloom, but it is getting harder every day, and that is a trend that I expect will continue as long as this boom is in progress.”

What’s uniquely tricky about working on one of so many Marvel productions shooting in New York is that there are so many Marvel productions shooting in New York. With that in mind, all the location managers need to be in more or less constant communication to keep track of what spaces have been used for which series. The last thing they’d want is for a building that served as a hospital in Daredevil to be introduced as, say, an NYU dorm in Iron Fist. “Though the city is enormous and there’s lots of locations, we frequent certain places because we know we can get them and because they are film-friendly,” Lima explained. “So if we can reuse a place carefully, we will, so as to not ruin the illusion. Maybe we just use a different room of a warehouse. Or maybe we use a different alleyway in a complex of alleyways. And so I’m constantly checking with the others, being like, ‘Did you shoot that yet?… Aw, rats. Okay. Maybe I could use the downstairs.’ ”

As the Marvel Television freight train keeps chugging along, keep an eye out for your friendly neighborhood superheroes — and keep in mind that the brand-new Chinese restaurant on your block may not be what it seems.