The Marvel-Netflix partnership called their shot years ago, announcing that they would roll out shows starring Daredevil (Charlie Cox), Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), Luke Cage (Mike Colter), and Iron Fist (Finn Jones) and then bring the quartet (and their various supporting casts) together for a crossover event series called The Defenders.
Over the course of the show’s eight episodes, each of the Defenders stumbled into each others’ path and into the crosshairs of The Hand, a secret society of mystical ninjas, fronted by Alexandra Reid (Sigourney Weaver). Making things even more complicated is the presence of Elektra Natchios (Elodie Yung), Daredevil’s murdered girlfriend now resurrected as an almost mindless killing machine.
After the critical and popular success of the first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones, this plan seemed to be chugging along just as well as the cinematic MCU did in the lead-up to The Avengers. But starting with Daredevil season 2, each show has drawn significant criticism in terms of pacing and plotting, with this past summer’s Iron Fist season receiving a critical curb-stomp from both pro TV critics and the fan community. Instead of getting everyone hyped up as they headed into the homestretch, Iron Fist knocked the train off the tracks and into a children’s hospital.
But now, The Defenders has arrived, overseen by Douglas Petire and Marco Ramirez (who also ran the last season of Daredevil). So please join us for an exhaustive breakdown of what did and didn’t work.
(PS: Just as a FYI: Prior to this show, I watched/wrote about Daredevil season 1 and season 2, watched all of Jessica Jones, fell off of Luke Cage about midway through [more a life thing then any comment on that show’s quality] and never bothered with Iron Fist. So that’s where I’m coming from.)
(Bonus PS: This is spoiler-free until close to the bottom. There’s a note of warning beforehand.)
What Worked: Everything to do with Jessica Jones
Not only was Jessica Jones the best of the Marvel-Netflix shows by a country mile, but Ritter as Jessica Jones was as major revelation. The only real downside to Jessica Jones, aside from some Netflix-standard pacing/plotting wonkiness in its home stretch, was the question of how sustainable the character and show were. Brian Michael Bendis only got to write a handful of Jessica Jones stories before her book was cancelled, and the only story that people knew/cared about was her assault by Killian, The Purple Man, material thoroughly covered in the first season. Could the most believably earthbound of Marvel’s mighty heroes make sense in a high-flying story with ninjas and magic, and would the magic of Ritter’s performance transfer over with a different creative team writing her character?
Yes and yes. The Defenders writers wisely use Jones to puncture the pomposity and mysticism of the show at large, affording her endless opportunities to spit insults at Daredevil, Iron Fist, and all the wacky shit surrounding both men. Ritter especially plays well off Cox as Matthew Murdock, with the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen seeming to take endless amusement out of how resolutely unimpressed Jessica Jones is by him, which lets Cox play new notes of charming/dashing (which he’s very good at) as opposed to anguished guilt (which he’s also fine at, but gets old quick). If both Jessica and Luke Cage ultimately end up feeling ancillary to what’s largely a Daredevil/Iron Fist story, Ritter is at least able to blast through with sheer attitude.
What Didn’t Work: Anything to do with Iron Fist on his own
Finn Jones wasn’t some stand-out performer on Game of Thrones, but he also wasn’t a glaring sore thumb or anything. As Ser Loras Tyrell, Jones fit in just fine as the dashing/closeted/doomed knight, handling everything the show gave him to play with aplomb and fitting in well with the larger ensemble.
But as Danny Rand, Jones is often intolerable, to the degree that I have a hard time even blaming the actor. I’m not convinced there’s an actor alive with the requisite charisma needed to make this incarnation of the Immortal Iron Fist palatable, a character who endlessly mopes and whines and seems to speak exclusively in angsty clichés. In early episodes before the team comes together, Jones is stuck playing scenes exclusively with Jessica Henwick as Colleen Wing, Danny’s girlfriend/partner. Henwick’s not at fault in this either, but she and Jones have almost anti-chemistry, their scenes largely constituting of rattling off endlessly derivative pronouncements almost as non sequiturs past each other (“Danny, it’s not your fault!” “I should have saved him! It was my duty!”).
Thankfully this problem is alleviated once Danny starts hanging out with the larger ensemble. Jones plays well off his fellow Defenders, particularly Colter as Cage, and the show makes up for Danny’s obnoxiousness by A) having the Defenders point out his privilege (that’s usually Luke), B) having the Defenders relentlessly mock him (that’s usually Jessica), or C) having the Defenders just flat-out beat the shit out of him (everyone gets in on that).
By the end, I’m still not sure I necessarily need to see any Iron Fist standalone series, but I’d happily tune in if Netflix ever opted to pull the trigger on a Heroes for Hire show with Luke and Danny. And who knows, the events of The Defenders suggest that all involved with Iron Fist weren’t blowing smoke when they insisted that Danny being an unlikable dickhead in his solo show was an intentional choice as part of a larger arc towards heroism. Danny Rand/Iron Fist remains the weak link in this particular corner of the Marvel universe, but it’s a start. He’s just not ready to be left alone quite yet.
What Worked: Sigourney Weaver
The one area in which the Marvel-Netflix shows have trounced the movies is in their villains. Between Vincent D’Onofrio as Kingpin, David Tennant as Killian, and Mahershala Ali as Cottonmouth (along with tertiary villains and characters of nebulous moral character like Jon Bernthal’s Punisher), these shows are fairly well-stacked with charismatic and complex Big Bads to torment and reflect the heroes.
If Sigourney Weaver’s Alexandra never reaches the upper echelons of that group, it’s no fault of Weaver. The once and future Ellen Ripley brings a regal bearing to her turn as the centuries old leader of The Hand, playing things dead-straight with juuuuuuuuuust the right hint of camp to let you know it’s OK to be OK with how silly this all is. And like the absolute best of Marvel’s villains, Alexandra is a larger-than-life monster with an all-too human motivation: She really doesn’t want to die. Who can’t relate to that?
The Defenders ultimately gives Alexandra short-shrift (it also saddles her with some truly awful groaners that not even an unflappable pro like Weaver can make work [Dear Screenwriters, For the absolute love of God, please retire, “We’re not so different, you and I”]), but Weaver is never anything less than riveting to watch.
What Didn’t Work: The Hand
When we look back on this first phase of the Marvel-Netflix shows, The Hand will almost certainly be singled out as the biggest creative miscalculation across the various shows (Iron Fist is a whole other…thing). With five seasons to theoretically build out their threat and eight hours of The Defenders to play out, The Hand still managed to be a laughable disaster of a choice, barely defined as villains and certainly not dramatically interesting in the slightest.
The single greatest failing was the various shows’ reliance on telling instead of showing. We’re told over and over again how fearsome and powerful the various masters that form The Hand are, and yet Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho) is seemingly the only one with special abilities, Force-pushing an occasional crate at people. The other ‘masters’ do passable stunt-fighting, with their skill level varying wildly from fight-to-fight and fighter-to-fighter (how Jessica Jones, who not only does not know how to fight but is constantly hungover and caught off-guard, is able to land punches against centuries old super ninjas is anyone’s guess), and they certainly never resonate as characters that we can empathize with despite ourselves or at least love to hate.
That vagueness continues with all aspects of The Hand. We’re told over and over again that the resurrected Elektra, now known as “The Black Sky,” is an unstoppable superweapon of death and destruction, yet Elektra gets knocked around constantly by each member of the Defenders, and certainly never exhibits any special powers or prowess. Yet we’re told again and again (and again and again…) how special she is, how dangerous, blah blah blah.
Hell, for all the talk about brewing wars and apocalyptic consequences, the ultimate reveal of what The Hand is up to is so small-scale and shoddy as to be laughable.
(And don’t even get me started on The Hand’s supposedly inexhaustible supply of ninjas, which should have made for a fun, absurd stream of mayhem throughout the series. Not only do The Hand apparently forget for long stretches that they HAVE an inexhaustible supply of ninjas, but when they do turn up they pull inexplicable chump moves like only using their guns against Luke Cage, who is bulletproof, and reserving knives and swords for everyone else, none of whom are bulletproof and against whom guns would work, you fucking idiots, THIS IS YOUR JOB WHY ARE YOU SO BAD AT THIS.)
The best thing that can be said about The Defenders’ use of The Hand is that the show pretty conclusively ties up most of the threads relating to that organization and gives each show going forward space to either ignore them entirely or do something completely different.
What Worked: They gave Scott Glenn cool stuff to do
Like Weaver, Glenn is an old pro at this sort of genre fare (motherfucker was in The Keep. He knows how to sell nonsensical babble) and is well aware that the more straight he plays this sort of stuff, the more fun it is. As the lovable but ruthless Stick, Glenn has a fine old time rattling off equal doses of exposition and insults. Much of the mythology they try to dish out on these shows ends up being laughable (at best), but Glenn is able to sell it as something deeper and richer (and better thought out) than it really is.
What Didn’t Work: They gave Rosario Dawson almost nothing to do
To be honest I’m still a little baffled by how completely The Defenders punts Dawson’s role, relegating her to little more than Luke Cage’s concerned-but-supportive girlfriend and getting next-to-no dramatic juice out of the one person who bridges the shows/characters leading into this crossover (hell, they don’t even have any fun with the idea that she hooked up with Matt Murdock before meeting Luke Cage).
It could have been worse. My assumption going in was that the showrunners would pull a Coulson on Dawson’s Claire Temple to bring the Defenders together and get their heads in the game, but they thankfully avoided that. But having Claire be present in every show leading up to this one (and having a talent like Dawson at your disposal) seemed to be lining Claire up for something special. Instead she spends the majority of this series dumped in a police precinct with Matt Murdock’s mouth-breathing BFFs, never even getting to deploy her knack for on-the-fly improv surgeries on superheroes.
What Worked: It was short
That probably reads like a back-handed compliment, but I don’t mean it to be. None of the Marvel-Netflix shows that I watched had nearly enough story to fill 13 hours and resorted to wheel-spinning and stalling to drag their respective seasons out for the full duration. The binge-watching approach means that the shows barely ever bother with episodic, one-off stories, preferring to be essentially structured as 13 hour movies, despite not having remotely enough story to cover that.
Despite an opening hour of superfluous table-setting, The Defenders largely gets down to business quickly and, at only eight episodes which are kept to a relatively tight 40–50 minute running time apiece, it’s largely a breeze to watch. The large cast means the writers can’t really afford to waste time, and so each episode chugs along and it builds to a big blow-out finale where everyone (including many of the support squads) gets to play their part and have a satisfying hero moment or two. All things considered, The Defenders works as a tight, functional piece of narrative, and that’s not nothing considering the various struggles of the shows leading up to this.
(That said, man do I wish at least one of these shows would be comfortable with doing a few one-off Case/Villain/Story episodes. Invariably, whenever one of these shows does do an actually episodic episode, it ends up being a highlight, i.e. the Jessica Jones episode where she imprisons Killian, the Daredevil episode where Punisher captures Daredevil, etc. [and that’s also the case here again in Defenders, where far and away the best, most satisfying hour of the run is Episode 4, which is built around the Defenders holing up in a Chinese restaurant and getting to know each other. It’s one of the only episodes that actually feels like an episode of television instead of a random hour for a movie, and it works well].)
What Didn’t Work: But not short enough
All that being said, this was still a two hour movie stretched out to eight hours, and even with somewhat accelerated pacing, The Defenders still fell into that old rote wheel-spinning and repetition at times. Just as one example, Matt Murdock has two separate lunches with friends to discuss his attempting to avoid relapsing in Daredeviling (totally a word, fuck you), Danny Rand gets multiple pep talks from Colleen Wing whenever his confidence is flagging, and if you do a shot every time Jessica Jones opines about how this ninja cult shit is too crazy and more than she signed up for you’ll be as drunk as, well, Jessica Jones.
Again, a lot of this would have been alleviated if these writers and producers were willing to approach their TV show as a TV show. The first hour may be narratively superfluous (and features the absolute nadir of Iron Fist’s material on the show) but it at least has a distinctive feel to it, following each of the four Defenders in their separate paths, each character’s section designated by a distinct color scheme (i.e. Matt Murdock’s stuff is shot with a red filter, Luke Cage’s is yellow, Danny Rand’s is green [even the street lamps and office windows are tinged a different color depending on which Defender you’re watching]) and narrative style, so when the show is on Matt Murdock it’s a Catholic dirge, while Jessica Jones occupies a detective story with snappy banter and Luke Cage re-embraces the laconic neighborhood hangout vibe of his show.
Even with the shorter episode count, they still don’t seem to know how to pace out this shit, so instead of steadily building to a grand, operatic crescendo as they seem to be aiming for, The Defenders is constantly pumping the brakes on the Defenders. Most glaring of all is a penultimate episode that halts the entire story so it can spend 40 minutes in police precincts and anonymous office settings just so everyone can re-establish what is going on, as if the writers assumed that everyone watching this in one go would be exhausted by hour seven and need a quick refresher before the grand finale.
And that finale is awfully limp considering all that went into it. Again, The Hand is too poorly defined a group and their plan is too vaguely explained to really amount to much of a threat, and since the show does not give the characters anything tangible to do or find or accomplish besides run around in circles before the big final fight, it does not have the same impact as it would have as the culmination to a string of escalating battles. The overwhelming feeling by the end of the series is one of creative exhaustion, as if everyone involved (besides the eternally game cast) was just trying to get this unwieldy endeavor over the finish line so they could close the book on this phase of this world.
(Below is the spoilery shit. Don’t read until you’ve finished the show and/or stopped caring.)
What Worked: There are consequences to all of this
And credit where credit is due, the ending of The Defenders does indeed feel like a culmination point of everything that has come before, with major, earth-shaking developments for many of the characters that should provide fodder for years of stories to come. The Hand is destroyed, Stick is dead, Misty Knight is maimed and (maybe?) disgraced, and Matt Murdock is maimed and presumed dead and is secretly in the custody of nuns(?), while Jessica, Luke and Danny end the series at large and raring to get back at it. I can only begin to speculate on where these characters will go from here (or what other new characters Marvel-Netflix might bust out in the years between now and the next big crossover series) but considering how exhausted and underwhelmed I was by this entire endeavor leading into The Defenders, it was with surprise and genuine pleasure that I reached the end and found myself legitimately curious and excited about where things go from here for all these people.
And yes, that includes Iron Fist.
You might have noticed that Luke Cage’s name didn’t pop up too often in either the pros or cons columns, and that’s because Luke Cage really doesn’t get all that much to do. This is really Daredevil’s story in Iron Fist’s world, leaving Luke and Jessica Jones off to the side. Lacking Jessica’s trademark verbal-venom, Luke is unfortunately sidelined for the much of The Defenders. Colter continues to be terrific in the role, but these writers never cracked how to make Luke Cage into an integral part of the story and so instead he’s just kinda there, taking up space, for much of it. There’s a late in the game attempt to establish him as the unyielding moral conscience of the group, but it’s too little too late.
The Defenders opens with a truly wretched skirmish in a sewer, and in general the show’s aesthetic is so dark that fight moves can be obscured. Things improve from there, with the showrunners bringing their Daredevil skills to the table. But there’s also a general same-y-ness to much of the hand-to-hand combat that really starts to take a toll by the end of the series. It doesn’t help that the power levels/skill set of the various Defenders are so similar. You got two guys doing gymnastic-fu while Luke and Jessica throw people into walls and Luke stands still while people shoot him. Sometimes Danny Rand’s fist glows and then he punches people sorta-extra hard. There are occasional bits where the directors and choreographers have fun with the Defenders using their powers in tandem (my favorite being a Jessica-Luke super-strength combo move in the penultimate episode) and much of the action is well-executed throughout. It’s just lacking an extra special spark.
(P.S. I would appreciate it if they knocked it off with the “one-take” hallway fights. Not only has it become a cliché in and of itself for these shows, but the tricks that they use to hide cuts are so blatant and distracting that it makes you wonder what the point of doing it this way even is.)
Boring Attempts at ‘Realism’
One thing that pegs The Defenders as belonging to the same team that’s been running Daredevil is a weird, aggravating predilection for trying to downplay the comic book-y nature of the story and characters. Jessica Jones and Luke Cage were able to do this because they were at heart genuinely grappling with cultural and social ideas, using their superpowered protagonists as metaphors for everything from rape culture to race relations. Daredevil isn’t *about* a fucking thing, which makes its wallowing in gore and grime and speechifying about justice and whatever aggravating instead of interesting/compelling. Every time The Defenders stops to try and fit the round peg of its fantastical story into the square peg that is ‘reality’, it comes off as silly at best, insultingly stupid at worst. At some point, these folks need to just embrace the pulpy fun of this material and let ‘er rip.