Here be dragons, friends. Spoilers ahead.
Netflix’s The Defenders brings together Marvel’s street-level heroes in an eight-episode series that highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of the individual shows. Daredevil’s grit and mission flourish, while his friends still annoyingly bemoan Matt’s (Charlie Cox) decision to continue to be the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) snarks her way through an investigation with her best friend at her side, but still can’t get out of her own way. Luke Cage (Mike Colter) provides the strength and backbone and Claire (Rosario Dawson), but his moral sense still muddies the mission. And Danny Rand (Finn Jones)…well, there was nowhere to go but up from there, he finally finds his path.
At long last, Claire finally decides all her super powered friends should actually meet. The first two and a half episodes are a slog of set up and explanation, and frankly most of the explanations could have been covered in previouslies. The Netflix-based Marvel shows still haven’t learned quite how the Netflix viewing audience works. These shows are all downloaded by viewers quickly, rarely requiring the repetition of a weekly network show to remind us of what happened earlier this season, so the constant recaps are less than necessary.
Our heroes find individual threads that all lead them to the same conclusion: The Hand is still functional in New York and planning…something. The heroes don’t meet up as a group until the end of that third episode, as Danny rashly proclaims himself the Immortal Iron Fist to Alexandra, and tries to take on the Hand by himself. I prefer soundness of story over the novelty of seeing our heroes clash with each other, so I don’t mind that the team-up took so long to get to. But the lengthy set-up showcased the weaknesses of the show: poor dialogue, heavy exposition, and dammit, Iron Fist was still the worst.
However, once you get to the end of episode three it’s all worth it, as that boardroom/hallway fight scene, which we knew had to be in there somewhere, is wide-grin joy when our heroes finally fight along side one another. The show is happier to get there too, the dialogue gets snappier, the fight is well choreographed and fun to watch, (though the long take in the hallway wasn’t nearly as effective as the stunt has been in both seasons of Daredevil). The iron fist is actually useful against something other than doors.
Defenders brings together a slew of characters from the each individual show, which is a tough balancing act. For the most part it succeeds by focusing mainly on Iron Fist and Daredevil, as The Hand and Elektra (Eldoie Young) figured more heavily into their storylines. It also gives supporting characters just the right amount of screentime, we see all our favorite sidekicks (and Karen (Deborah Ann Woll)), and they all provide a moment or support that helps our heroes (except for Karen) move forward.
Defenders created an overcomplicated story that relies heavily on exposition to figure out the bad guys’ plans. The show also frequently repeated the same explanation. If they had that much time to use up, they could have used it to show us what the plan was, rather than show us that Alexandra (Sigourney Weaver) really loves classical music again. For a series with a limited eight-episode run, they still managed to bloat some of the middle episodes that could have been used to better explore the plot or the villains.
Defenders does manage one feat of strength, it gives the Iron Fist some badly needed depth. The show gives Danny partners who are grim and determined, and this allows him to go from arrogant, naïve, and stupid, to earnest and goofy. He finally gets to bring the light to the Netflix Marvel universe. Giving him room to bring a little humor gives Finn Jones a shot to redeem the character, and you can tell he’s having a lot more fun than he did in his solo series. He even loses the homeless hipster look and wears a tie.
Danny immediately recognizes the four as a team that he wants to belong to; he marvels at Jessica’s strength, Matt’s skills, and everything about Luke. Luke, for his part, reminds Danny of exactly who he is, a privileged white boy with a ludicrous origin story, who thinks his sporadically glowing fist makes him respectable or important. Daredevil’s morality and mission remind Danny of his own. Jessica’s snark and damage shows Danny a mirror of his own pain and how he should not deal with it. Luke lectures him about privilege, Jessica mocks him, and Matt…well that you should see for yourself. When Danny comes up with a terrible plan, as he is wont to do, his teammates actually stop him and tie him down instead of enabling his idiocy. The boy who wanders around telling everyone, “I’m the immortal Iron Fist,” gets taken down many pegs and is better for it. His character is still the weakest of the Defenders, however, I’m finally more interested in him, and I might even be sad if he died. Maybe. Probably a little.
Matt Murdock opens the series trying to be happy moving on with his life and not being Daredevil, which he gave up after Elektra’s death. He frequently repeats that he is happy working for a law firm and doing pro bono work, but it’s clearly a strain. He hears the city in danger, and Cox manages to show the pain Matt feels of not helping people in need. As the show progresses he slowly evolves back to Daredevil, first donning Jessica’s borrowed scarf to hide his face. Eventually, and much to Jessica’s delight/derision (“It’s back”), he re-emerges in full costume. Karen and Foggy (Elden Henson) might hope to get Matt back, but the audience is cheering for Daredevil.
Matt’s echolocation power seems to be expanding in the show too, he’s sensing depth and percussion more frequently, which is nice to see as a fan of the character. His fighting style is altered for Defenders from gritty realism into the more balletic work that you see in most shows and movies. However, despite that lack of grit, it is an admitted improvement over the fight scenes in all the shows except Daredevil. Long and wide shots show actual talent in the stunt staff and actors, the Hand finally gets to be the horde of faceless ninjas it was always intended to be. A serious upgrade from Bakuto’s ragtag gang of poorly-trained emo teenagers.
Jessica frequently played the role of making sure nobody took themselves too seriously, nearly every scene with her and Matt was lit by fun dialogue. She still avoids the hero title her friends try to press on her, whereas Matt longs to be a hero and his friends discourage him. Her investigation leads her to Midland Circle along with Matt, Luke, and Danny, and her investigative discovery opens up an important point for the finale. It also leads her to Misty Knight.
Matt bursts in on Misty interviewing Jessica and attempts to save her from her situation, a rescue about which she is fairly indifferent. Jessica and Matt easily have the best chemistry in the show. He mostly looks bemused by her bluntness, but whatever Charlie Cox lends to that look gives it heft from the very moment they meet. Later, they find themselves both in Midland Circle, and Matt grabs her to warn her to leave, and she responds, “if you grab me like that again I’ll punch you so hard you’ll see.” Matt seems to appreciate somebody who doesn’t try to coddle him, and in fact tries to threaten him. Though Jessica constantly gives Matt a hard time, her admiration is clear, and that, in turn, buoys him. Matt’s lack of fear, his willingness to treat her an an equal (after his initial failed attempt to “rescue” her), and watching him fearlessly dive into situations invites her to slowly trust the blind lawyer in the ridiculous costume.
Luke joins the group after he gets a lead from Misty on a young man he might be able to lead away from a path of destruction. But Luke finds the kid is wrapped up in forces much bigger than either of them expected, namely with The Hand. These set-up scenes are where the vast majority of the clunkiness of the first few episodes comes from, particularly in the dialogue, and a slightly over-complex way to get Luke involved. That part of the story is dropped almost immediately.
Luke provided his big brother vibes to his community, and now, to Danny Rand, who could use some reminding that he’s not a one-man army. Watching Luke allow Danny to paw at him like an overexcited kitten is the highlight of the otherwise dull first couple of episodes. Throughout the show, Luke mostly serves as the voice of reason, creating tension by constantly questioning the plans. His constant reiteration that he just wanted to help the kids of Harlem was repeated maybe two or three too many times though.
The kid he really gets to help is Danny. Their interactions are forced at first, but eventually Luke relaxes enough to ask him a serious question or two about dragon punching, which stops Danny from feeling too piled on despite being tied to a chair (it was for his own good).
Luke and Jessica share a few scenes of awkward interaction as well. Their past is complicated, but it’s also easy to see Krysten Ritter and Mike Colter imbuing the characters with respect along with some uncomfortable attraction.
Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho), my favorite elderly, all knowing, drug-dealing Hand leader gets an upgrade in this series. She’s always been portrayed as savvy and competent, but in Defenders she turns up the heat with a little super-power action. Her background, along with the rest of the leaders of the Hand, is revealed as being an ancient warrior who rebelled against the elders of K’un L’un because she wanted to live forever. No better reason to set up a global network of legitimate and shadow businesses to further your goals, amirite? The Hand is the Netflix-Marvel universe’s Hydra, an evil organization with nebulous but selfish goals who also want to destroy New York City. This time, we get to see the one person Madame Gao bows to in Alexandra.
Sigourney Weaver was a thoughtful and interesting choice for the Big Bad of Defenders. As an actress she has portrayed many strong, powerful characters, and her acting chops would bring some stability to an otherwise rocky acting company. She does her best with what she is given, but the dialogue sucks, and much like Claire in Iron Fist, she seems to cringe through a great deal of it. I also never felt any intimidation from her, I never feared Alexandra. She starts off strong with Gao and in the boardroom meeting Danny, and then the character never recovers from stilted dialogue and bad decisions. Even Murakami (Yutaka Takeuchi) was a slightly more interesting presence, he at least has the best entrances (“What is this? A skylight? Perfect.”). Sowande (Babs Olusanmokun) could have been more interesting, but he seemed to exist merely to mock Elektra, and then be captured by Luke (offscreen) so he could mock Danny. And dammit, who thought bringing Bakuto back would be interesting? He is referred to vaguely at first as “the Other” for two episode and then revealed to be Bakuto. That sort of lead up should have given us a much better reveal. He was terrible in Iron Fist, and he returned to be just as terrible in Defenders. He even dragged Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) down to his level. Additionally, I had a difficult time believing that she, no matter how well trained she might have been, could take on an ancient warrior trained in K’un L’un. Luckily, she had some friends to give her a hand. Overall, the The Hand as the villain for Defenders was a disappointment, but could have been much more engaging if they had simply shown us their backstories.
Alexandra’s plan for the Black Sky/Elektra never fully made sense either. If their goal was to capture the Iron Fist to open a mystery door to K’un L’un (no wonder the Iron Fist hates doors! He’s a key!), why did they need a reborn mystical warrior to do it? Whatever, fine, Elektra’s back. Alexandra’s fully bought into the plan. The interactions between the five Fingers were an interesting backstory that was, again, TOLD AND NOT SHOWN to us. These five people had lived centuries, creating a globe-spanning organization consisting of legitimate and criminal elements. They hated, respected, and needed each other. They told us how they had frequently attempted to stab one another in the back, and leadership frequently changed hands…and they failed to make that interesting. When do we get to see K’un L’un?
Luckily Madame Gao and Elektra had enough personality to make up for most of the others. I do understand that Alexandra had to die for Elektra to rise, but her death was so easy and pointless within the context of the show. She was practically tossed aside. Madame Gao quickly, and wisely, adjusts her allegiances to get what she wants, while the other complain that they don’t like or trust the Black Sky. Somebody has to keep these short-sighted idiots in line, and points out that she will lead them to their goal, and then they can deal with her. Madame Gao remains one of the best and most consistent villains in the Netflix-Marvel universe, she’ll most certainly be back.
The final episode gave us some great moments despite the odd plan (“It involves bombs.”) to rescue Danny and stop the Hand from getting the Substance (ugh). The fight scenes had one stellar long take fight-in-the-round shot, giving each of our characters a moment in their signature style. But the standout is easily Daredevil and Elektra’s fight. Matt realizes he needs to distract Elektra to save everyone else, and their final fight returns to Daredevil’s gritty style as two masters exhaust one another. Matt tries to find Elektra’s light, and she realizes her light resides in him. Eventually, their battle devolves into a realization that real passion still exists between them, and they go out together (aside: will they do a Born Again story line?).
Unfortunately, the production value in the show is inconsistent. It’s clear in some scenes, particularly any scene in which somebody flies through a wall, that everything is made of cardboard. And too frequently the lighting reflects the character’s theme, inexplicably flooding one scene with four different tones. Similarly, the directors struggled to keep fight scenes well lit, and they were frequently too dark to follow the action. The music is generic except for the epic theme that borrows musically from each of the solo shows.
Defenders brought in many of the weaknesses of Iron Fist, namely weak dialogue, an overly complicated story, and squandered potentially engaging villains. Luckily, it took the opportunity to explore its heroes and develop them together and as separate entities. The character development supports a show that would have otherwise collapsed under its own weight. I realized after the series ended that I would miss these characters like friends. I hope they do a lot more crossing over, and we see the establishment of the Heroes for Hire in the future. Fun fight scenes, and great character interactions made Defenders enjoyable, and made me look forward to seeing all these characters again. Even Danny.
Iron Fist finds his home and his mission. Luke finds a way to fulfill his morality and save his neighborhood. Jessica finally admits she likes and needs her friends and might even like letting them help her. And Matt finds his love is his strength, and allows himself to be a hero. The Defenders find strength, growth, and friendship together, and that makes Defenders worth watching.