When the Marvel Cinematic Universe first came to Netflix it seemed like such a great idea. Four individual series of shows focused on more grounded heroes eventually coming together in a small scale, Avengers-like fashion. But the excitement for the team-up waned as the series’ began to show cracks, and eventually gave way to the majority of fans cooling on the prospect overall after Iron Fist‘s first season.
Regardless of the path it took to get here, The Defenders, like its big screen counterpart The Avengers, is the culmination of years of build-up and effort. Unfortunately in trying to properly encapsulate and celebrate this “big” moment, The Defenders tends to harm itself in the overreach.
The Defenders (Season 1)
Release Date: August 18, 2017 (Netflix)
After the events of Iron Fist, Danny Rand (Finn Jones) vows to strike down various members of the criminal ninja organization The Hand. His journey across the world has brought him back to New York, where he hears of a greater Hand plan in action. Luke Cage (Mike Colter), fresh out of prison, is trying to start a new life and build a better Harlem but overhears how a man in a white hat is recruiting young men into doing some bad things.
Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), still grappling with her new identity as a public figure following Kilgrave’s actions, begrudgingly investigates a case about a woman’s missing husband. Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) is distraught after Elektra’s death, and has been floating around aimlessly since the end of Daredevil‘s second season. Suddenly, this new character Alexandra (Sigourney Weaver, the queen) is super important and appears with a revived Elektra and is doing something to New York City. Then these four individuals sort of run into each other and now have to save NYC from The Hand.
The Defenders somehow has everything and nothing going on at the same time. Adapting The Avengers model of eschewing more toward bigger sequences rather than fleshing out story beats, this first season (or only) covers a ton of ground in terms of the narrative it wants to tell, yet it doesn’t evolve the characters in any meaningful way. Although The Avengers succeeded in this regard thanks to a combination of novelty and an unforeseen amount of popularity, it mostly succeeds because it’s over before you recognize its flaws. This series makes an improvement over the other Netflix MCU shows by virtue of trimming the standard 13 episode count down to eight, so I was hoping that also meant they had a clearer vision of the narrative and cut out most of the excess. That’s not the case.
The length of the series collides with how little meat is in the story when there’s one too many of the “all of our superheroes stand in a line and look at each other” moments. Less than dynamic camerawork (not to mention how unintelligible some fights can be with poor close-up cuts and shakycam) only emphasizes how little emotional investment there is going into each action sequence.
While there is a unique flavor of fun in these action scenes presented with a gravitas that certainly feels earned yet reflective of the limited budget for the series, after fights happen in the same fashion a few times, they lose that ironically tinged appeal. The lack of strong action sequencing may be a result of the slim variety in the team lineup (strongman, strongwoman, stronghand, ninja devil man), but these technical flaws wouldn’t matter as much if this first season spent more time exploring how these characters interact with one another and less time explaining facets of the Iron Fistmythos.
As this narrative is focused on The Hand, it often feels like a season of the Daredevil and Iron Fist show with special guests Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. Charlie Cox is a suitable anchor for this bracket of the MCU, but less so is Finn Jones as Danny Rand. There is a slight improvement in how he and Colleen Wing have been written in this series as opposed to Iron Fist, but focusing another season’s worth of plot around his antics feels like a letdown. There are occasions of brilliance as Danny is notably shut down as a whiny rich idiot by the other members of the team (and almost act as a meta-commentary of his series when compared to the others), but the focus on Rand and Murdock leaves the much more interesting Jones and Cage on the sidelines.
It’s great seeing Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones again, and it’s crazy how natural she feels in comparison to the others. Mike Colter is fine, but other than one prescient conversation about privilege between Luke and Danny, he’s underserved in the role. Jessica and Luke are only tangentially connected to the overall narrative, so the escalation of their involvement feels loosely tied and forced. Their smaller roles yield some great outsider one-liners, but it’s a shame most of the time spent in The Defendersis learning The Hand’s history and focused on villains of which only three we’ve gotten to know beforehand.
There’s a notable push and pull of time between each episode of The Defenders. The better episodes allow the actors and characters to really dig into their budding relationships, while the worse ones throw all the ancillary characters in the NMCU into a single room just for the credit of having them be there. Each episode feels as if we’re being rushed through in order to have time for the next action set piece, but then slogs about in expository plot the viewer has already figured out for themselves.
The Defenders manages to quickly burn through all the time in the world. It doesn’t have much to say beyond a standard crossover TV special, but brief moments of fan service and fun do break through from time to time.