TV Review: Marvel's The Defenders
The Defenders | Netflix | 8 Episodes
As this is a look into the entire first season of The Defenders, a SPOILER WARNING is in effect.
When the idea was floated during the production of the original Iron Man to create a shared universe using all of the characters that Marvel still had film rights to (they had sold off the majority of their heavy hitters, like the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and the X-Men, throughout the 80s and later in the early 90s in an attempt to stave off bankruptcy), little did they know what they were starting. Aside from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (comprised of 16 released movies, 8 films in various stages of production, and 10 TV shows), their chief competitor in the comic book space, DC Comics, has begun their own embattled DC Extended Universe, Universal has the Monsters-themed Dark Universe, Legendary has formed the Godzilla/Kong team-up Monsterverse, indie comic company Valiant has begun shaping their own shared universe. Everyone is scrambling to get their disparate franchises to pal around with each other, but Marvel, though not the first to do it, seems to have cracked the code. Their plan with their Netflix shows was to follow the more adults-only characters in a season each, building up to the Avengers style team-up miniseries: The Defenders. After a couple of slight changes to the plan (A second season of Daredevil in general, that second season being used to set up The Punisher for his own series), this past weekend saw the release of that highly anticipated show. Was it any good?
When last we left the main characters, Matt Murdoch (Charlie Cox) has lost his law firm, his friends, and his lover, Elektra Nachios (Elodie Yung). He’s trying to separate from his Daredevil identity like a junkie trying to ditch their heroin addiction. Matt is given some overflow cases by Foggy (Elden Henson), who has gotten a job with Jeri Hogarth’s (Carrie-Ann Moss) firm. This puts him directly on a path toward Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter). Still dealing with her final encounter with Killgrave, Jessica has taken on a case involving the disappearance of an architect that quickly becomes beyond the simple missing person search she anticipated. Meanwhile, Luke Cage (Mike Colter) is released from Seagate Prison and returns to Harlem. He encounters Misty Knight (Simone Missick) and is told about a kid that isn’t taking the death of his brother well. In reaching out to the troubled youth, Luke discovers a much larger conspiracy that is also being tracked by Danny Rand (Finn Jones) and Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) in their search for those responsible for the destruction of K’un-Lun. They all eventually cross paths in their investigations of the sinister criminal organization The Hand, led by the ancient Alexandra Reid (Sigourney Weaver). The Hand’s ultimate goal threatens to destroy the whole of New York unless these disparate personalities can manage to come together to stop it.
The Defenders is, overall, quite fun and with only 8 episodes, it’s a surprisingly easy sit. It’s not unimaginable that one could breeze through this in a couple of nights, or even one straight shot in a day. The dynamic between the characters is immensely fun, especially where the show’s writers have decided to pair them up: comic fans will be very excited by the Power Man and Iron Fist team-ups, Jessica and Matt are as charmingly sarcastic as you can get together (especially when Matt gets into his Daredevil outfit), and we even get a tiny taste of the Daughters of the Dragon with some interactions between Colleen and Misty. The performances are consistent with everything we’ve seen before, with Scott Glenn’s Stick, the surliest, grumpiest Mr. Miyagi you can imagine, being the biggest standout. There are only two exceptions: Jones and Henwick have upped their game since Iron Fist for the most part, but are still saddled with occasional dialogue that seems like it was written by those responsible for the clunky exchanges in Iron Fist; and Yung, whose Elektra previously felt like a wild child that had a propensity to take things a little too far and, in this, felt like the writers were taking pages straight out of the Supervillain 101 textbook.
In fact, the writing can be singled out as the biggest flaw. When we first saw the Avengers form as a team, we had a clear reason for the heroes all coming together. The scope was bigger than any of the individual movies had been to date and the stakes were far, far higher. The Defenders here feel as if they came together simply because they were all aware of what the Hand was doing. The scope never feels bigger than any of the individual shows and the threat comes off as something that could have been handled by any of the heroes on their own. Story-wise, we’re frequently told that New York City is at risk, but we never see why beyond a few inconvenient power bumps. Overall, the single biggest disappointment was Alexandra, Sigourney Weaver’s character. They took a page right out of Luke Cage’s playbook and spent three quarters of the series setting her up to be the ultimate villain only to kill her off suddenly and have Elektra take over as the ultimate Big Bad. The sum total of Alexandra’s time was spent telling everyone that she was the main villain, but she almost never demonstrated why the rest of the Hand’s leadership feared her enough to fall in line. This is never a big problem until Elektra plunges her sais into Alexandra’s back. Her sudden and easy death brings the problem with the character into sharp relief. This is the main problem with the show. They frequently ignore the main rule of screenwriting: show, don’t tell. The net result is that the tension is undercut because we don’t have a tangible example of the danger.
It really sounds like I didn’t like the show. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. I enjoyed it immensely. However, there are a few flaws that I can’t ignore and that I hope are fixed going forward. This was an overall solid series and I do highly recommend it to fans of the Netflix Marvel shows or the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole, but the next time we see the Defenders come together I hope we see a threat that we haven’t already seen these heroes defeat on their own. The various showrunners on the individual shows came up with clever ways around superhero tropes, but this can often feel like they are simply falling back on what worked before rather than pushing their techniques forward. Even with those issues, it’s more than worth it to see these characters unite for two grand causes: to defeat the Hand and to tell Danny to shut up with his constant, “I am the Immortal Iron Fist,” shtick.