The following review features spoilers for The Defenders.
What is ‘The Defenders’?
Having starred in successful solo outings courtesy of Marvel and Netflix, Daredevil (Charlie Cox), Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), Luke Cage (Mike Coulter) and Iron Fist (Finn Jones) team up for the first time onscreen. Their mission: to protect New York from a deadly threat, spearheaded by mysterious businesswoman Alexandra (Sigourney Weaver).
It’s been years in the planning and crafting, and taken five series to get to this point, but they’ve finally made it – where movies got The Avengers five years ago, TV now gets The Defenders. However, where the big-screen team-up flick was a blast from start-to-finish, its small-screen counterpart is a more solemn affair. And at times, something of a slog.
Much of that is due to the approach Marvel has taken to these Netflix shows. They revolve around superheroes with superpowers, but remain dark, gritty and grounded, the characters dealing with street-level crime rather than aliens, gods and monsters. Which makes for a more serious tone.
At the end of their respective shows, Matt Murdock was mourning the death of Elektra and willing to quit being Daredevil, Jessica was pretty much broken by her battle with Kilgrave, Luke Cage was heading to Seagate Prison, and Danny Rand discovered that K’un Lun has disappeared.
Each character is therefore in a bad place at the start of The Defenders. And they continue in that fashion for the first couple of episodes, each hero investigating seemingly unrelated cases involving a missing architect, disappearing street kids, and an earthquake that briefly causes chaos in the city.
It’s uninvolving stuff, lacking momentum, and becoming ever-more frustrating as the narrative jumps from character to character. But proceedings improve immeasurably when the gang finally meets up, and the Defenders start defending.
Superhero lore states that hero has to fight hero when they first meet, and The Defenders features its fair share, the best brawl seeing Luke Cage and Iron Fist go toe-to-toe. But the show is at its best when the gang is verbally sparring, most notably during an extended scene in a Chinese restaurant.
They kick off by sizing each other up, then questioning each others’ powers and motives. But it’s when the gang starts busting each others’ balls that the show really comes to life, most notably when Jessica Jones cuts each of them down to size. She may be the smallest of the Defenders, but she has the sharpest tongue, and is the source of the show’s funniest moments.
But what of the threat that brings the team together? Well, it’s a convoluted plot that’s shrouded in mystery for much of the series – less ‘clear and present danger’ and more vague and lacking urgency. Villain Alexandra delivers speech after speech alluding to her plan, while her cohorts at the head of The Hand speak of it in hushed tones.
When all is finally revealed, however, that plan involves breaking through a wall to collect ‘the substance’ that the bad guys value so dear. Sure, said substance features life-giving properties, and makes them something close to immortal. But as comic-book plots go, it’s a little dull.
Elektra and Stick
Much better is the story arc of two seemingly peripheral characters – namely Stick and Elektra. Stick (Scott Glenn) is the badass mentor who trained Matt Murdock and taught him to avoid all emotional ties, a tactic that has been good for Daredevil, but terrible for Matt.
Here he plays a more prominent role, assisting our heroes in their time of need but maintaining his own agenda, so both the Defenders and the audience are never sure where they stand with the character. He also provides several of the series’ most memorable moments, from bloody kills to a shocking act of self-mutilation.
Elektra (Elodie Yung) also comes to the fore as the storyline progresses. Brought back to life by The Hand using that aforementioned ‘substance,’ and brainwashed into becoming ‘The Black Sky,’ she’s something of a zombie for the first few episodes, blindly carrying out Alexandra’s dastardly deeds. But as her memory returns she embarks on a much more interesting journey, one that has devastating consequences for Matt, and packs the emotional punch The Defenders so clearly needs.
They aren’t the only minor characters to have a major role to play in the series. Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) might not possess superpowers, but she kills her fair share of henchmen and goes to-toe-toe with one of the big bads. Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) also plays her part in the finale, though at times it feels like she’s there as much for exposition as action. And Misty Knight (Simone Missick) proves invaluable during the concluding battle, and receives a life-changing injury that paves the way for her to become even more like her comic-book counterpart in a future show.
The Iron Fist Issue
But what of the Defenders themselves? Wel, the awesome foursome are pretty entertaining when giving each other grief. And when they team up to fight, it’s electric. Especially during the final face-off with The Hand, when a 360-degree shot of them taking down bad guys is reminiscent of that famous moment in The Avengers, and a genuine crowd-pleaser.
But it isn’t all fun and games. Daredevil’s storyline is a pretty sombre affair, with Matt Murdock having that internal battle over fighting crime, then falling prey to his ongoing weakness – namely Elektra. Jessica Jones is the only one who looks like she’s actually enjoying being a Defender, their exploits seeming to have a positive effect on her cynical self. And Luke Cage isn’t given all that much to do beyond punching through walls and shielding people from bullets.
But it’s Iron Fist who is the real weak link. Much like his series was the worst of the standalone shows, so his character is the worst of the Defenders. He’s the youngest, least mature member of the gang, and he’s had a rough ride the last few years. But the guy never stops whining. Which makes him really hard to like. Indeed, there’s a moment when it looks like he’s going to be unconscious for an entire episode, and rather than being sad, it’s something of a relief. Resulting in The Defenders being at its best when he’s offscreen.
Is ‘The Defenders’ Any Good?
If The Defenders was a standalone show, or something that launched these four characters on the small screen, many of the aforementioned criticisms could be forgiven. But Marvel has had hours and hours and hours to set this up; to get everything right so they can plunge head-first into a team-up show that takes the best bits of its predecessors, then adds new, fresh elements to craft something that’s bigger and better.
Sadly, The Defenders doesn’t do that. The jokes are good, the action great, and the interplay between three of the four characters oftentimes terrific. But the plot is frequently dull and lifeless, and the pace slow; the show lasting eight episodes but feeling a lot longer.
The villain is also disappointing. Daredevil gave us Kingpin and Jessica Jones featured Kilgrave – two marvellously memorable bad guys. Sadly, Sigourney Weaver’s Alexandra can’t hold a torch to either of those monsters, the character as forgettable as her boring plan.
The result is a superhero show that frequently entertains, but isn’t quite the sum of its parts. And when those parts are fantastic characters like Daredevil and Jessica Jones, that’s a missed opportunity. So while The Defenders is a pretty good superhero show, it’s also one that had the potential to be so much more.