Created by: Douglas Petrie, Marco Ramirez
Starring: Charlie Cox, Krysten Ritter, Mike Colter, Finn Jones, Elodie Young, Sigourney Weaver
№ of Episodes: 8 (45-55 min)
Marvel’s ‘The Defenders’ is the long awaited crossover between Daredevil (Charlie Cox), Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), Luke Cage (Mike Colter) and Iron Fist (Finn Jones), all of whom have starred in their own solo series in the last few years. The four New York based heroes cross paths to fight a common enemy – the dangerous shadow organization known as The Hand.
The Marvel/Netflix TV shows have been in a downward spiral since ‘Jessica Jones’. ‘Daredevil”s second season was a mixed bag, ‘Luke Cage’ got depressingly dull near the end and ‘Iron Fist’ was said to be so bad I didn’t even bother watching it. Yet, I was looking forward to ‘The Defenders’ quite a bit. Luke Cage made his debut in a supporting role in ‘Jessica Jones’ and it was great seeing those two together, so how cool would it be to have the whole gang together? Turns out, not very.
They four main characters don’t start meeting each other until well into the second episode, which means they spend a lot of time early on with their own supporting casts, dealing with the fallout of their respective storylines. Luke Cage returns to Harlem after serving time in prison and starts to look for ways to help his community again; Jessica Jones, still reeling from her clash with Kilgrave, doesn’t feel ready to resume her investigative work until a particularly odd case gets thrown her way; Matt Murdock is dealing with the loss of a loved one and is torn about his decision to retire as Daredevil, while Iron Fist and Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) return to New York after a trip to Cambodia that didn’t go well.
It’s a strong start that brings you up to speed on what’s been going on while also setting up the main character’s distinct backgrounds and personalities. The early episodes also go out of the way to distinguish the heroes by color coding their scenes to an almost absurd degree. Each character’s scenes are soaked in their respective color, from the lighting to the set and costume design – Daredevil is red, Jessica Jones is blue, Luke Cage is yellow and Iron Fist is boring and stupid, I mean green. It’s a bit silly, but it does give the show a nice sense of visual flair.While Luke and Jessica spend the early episodes more or less circling their status quo (don’t know what passed as a status quo for Danny Rand), Matt Murdock is in a real pickle – despite finding success as a lawyer, he’s itching to get back out on the streets. He’s also in mourning and trying to reconnect with close friends who’ve gone their separate ways. It’s compelling stuff and leads to one of the show’s best moments at the start of the second episode – after a weird tremor hits New York, Matt hears people in distress with his heightened senses. He runs off, no suit and no mask, to intervene in a robbery that’s about to go very wrong. He saves lives, kicks butt and still manages to keep his identity secret. It’s great stuff.
Things start to go downhill once the heroes actually start meeting each other. There are lots of cool interactions between various characters – funny jokes as well as some touching moments – but a lot of what distinguishes them as characters is lost in the momentum of the plot. Matt’s catholic faith and dual identity, Luke’s strong roots to the Harlem community, Jessica working as a private investigator, Danny Rand being a billionaire who co-owns a major company – by the halfway mark all of these fade into the background.
They get a mention here and there, but it mostly comes down to the four heroes running around fighting The Hand and trying to figure out their next move. Their supporting casts are rounded up and put in a secure location for their protection, which limits their involvement. The strong emphasis on The Hand and their mystical roots also does a disservice to Luke and Jessica. Daredevil and Iron Fist have history with the The Hand, so for them ‘The Defenders’ feels like a natural extension of their own storyline – meanwhile, Luke and Jessica are stranded with no tangible connection to this world apart from the fact that they’re there. They make jokes and constantly talk about how “insane” this whole thing is and that’s about it.
This would have been fine if the overall plot was actually interesting, but unfortunately, it’s really not. The Marvel/Netflix TV shows have been building up The Hand for some time now, and as it turns out, it was all bark and no bite. Everything about the show’s villains is weak – the plan, the stakes, the presence. Despite both the villains and the heroes repeatedly insisting that the fate of the entire city is at stake (“People are going to get hurt” along with characters saying “We’re on the same side” amounts for at least a 1/3 of the show’s entire dialogue), the whole thing is very nebulous.
The only ones in direct danger appear to be ‘The Defenders’ themselves, as well as some of their allies. ‘Daredevil”s first season felt much more like a battle for the entire city than anything we see here. The Hand’s plan is also very simple and straightforward, but the show insists on keeping you in the dark for about six or seven of its eight episode run. The needlessly slow drip of information and the overall terrible pacing makes the shortest show in this universe yet feel much longer than it actually is.
Remember the mysterious, enigmatic Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho) and how cool she was? Well, in ‘The Defenders’, she and the rest of The Hand play second fiddle to Alexandra (Sigourney Weaver), a bland villain that’s only memorable in the slightest because of the casting. Madame Gao feels like a completely different character that’s very hard to take seriously – especially near the end, where the show gives us the utter stupidity of watching an old Asian lady take on Luke Cage and Jessica Jones at the same time. I know she has powers, but this show can’t make a fight like that look good on a TV budget. It just doesn’t work.
Speaking of the fights, they’re also pretty uninteresting. They’re mostly shot well and the choreography’s pretty cool, but the different power levels of the various characters makes them lack any real impact. The villains can knock Luke Cage around, because they have to – otherwise they’re not much of a threat – but at the same time, Daredevil, who has no powers, can go toe-to-toe with them? There are lot of fights, but very few stand out. One of them is Daredevil taking on Iron Fist, but while that’s a solid fight, it’s brought about by Iron Fist acting like an idiot, which undermines it.
Iron Fist as a whole is the weakest link of the team. Part of that is on Finn Jones – every time he goes for serious or menacing, he mostly looks like he’s trying not to poop – but ‘The Defenders’ also gives the character little to work with, particularly in the latter half of the show, when he’s more of a plot device than a person. Out of everyone on the team, he’s also the one that seemingly gets his ass kicked the most, which makes him come across as even more useless. There are moments where he shines – he’s pretty good at being the butt monkey of the group, for instance, and he has a couple of conversations with Luke that are kind of neat.
Elektra (Elodie Yung) is back, but as a blank slate that spends most of the season without her memory and the rest acting out of character. Jon Bernthal’s Punisher is nowhere to be seen, which considering how the show turned out, is probably for the best.
‘The Defender’s has violence, swearing and sex, but they feel almost tacked on. For the most part, it’s like you’re watching a PG-13 show, except every once in a while someone says “shit”, Stick (Scott Glen) decapitates somebody or a Japanese dude guts a bear. It’s toothless violence with a bit of blood thrown in.
For every cool character interaction there’s at least a dozen moments of stale exposition or stock writing. Not one, but two villains give a “We’re not so different, you and I” speeches (to the same hero no less) and it hurts even more because ‘Daredevil”s first season gave us an example of that cliche done right. Also, Matt Murdock says lines that ar practically lifted verbatim from Return of the Jedi in the final episode and no, not as a reference or a joke – they play it completely straight.
Basically, ‘The Defenders’ is not very good. The show’s characters and its fans deserved better.