Defenders assemble… later! That appears to be the feeling you get as you make your way through the opening episodes of Marvel’s The Defenders, the endgame mini-series bringing together the stars of Marvel’s previous four Netflix superhero dramas: Daredevil aka Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), Luke Cage (Mike Colter) and Iron Fist aka Danny Rand (Finn Jones). Despite a trimmed down episode count from 13 to 8, Defenders’ opening moments still suffer a bit from the bloated wheel-spinning that plagued its solo series precursors.
This is not the only quality holdover though, as Defenders truly is a combination of these four heroes’ prior adventures, good and bad. Luckily in this case, accumulatively things definitely lean more on the good side, but there’s no denying that if Marvel and Netflix had just plugged a few more gaps, The Defenders could have been marvellous (pun fully intended) instead of the “just good” show we get here.
One major obstacle keeping it away from its true potential is absolutely no surprise at all. And it appears that showrunner Marco Ramirez (Daredevil season two) and his writers even know it as they have a villain exclaim to Finn Jones at one point that “You’re the dumbest Iron Fist yet!”. While Daredevil’s two seasons and Jessica Jones and Luke Cage’s efforts all had problems, they also gave us a hell of a lot to love. Iron Fist though was routinely terrible from start to finish, turning a beloved comic book badass into a mopey bore seemingly always just a few seconds removed from a childish tantrum, and who despite being a martial arts master got regularly beaten up by henchmen who didn’t even warrant a title credit.
In Defenders, Ramirez and co have a much better handle on the character, at least when it comes to his martial aspects. Now that he isn’t basically just winging it, Jones gets to partake in some great action beats, and his chi-powered Iron Fist is used much more frequently and effectively now (although once again it sputters out in odd moments, despite a big point of his solo show being him learning to maintain it). But even though he’s now better at the whole kung fu thing, he can’t kick and punch his way out of being a terrible actor, devoid of any charisma or charm with his surfer bum blonde tips and wounded puppy dog eyes.
What makes this even more criminal is that the choice to have shadowy immortal ninja organization The Hand be the big bad of The Defenders means that a lot of the story revolves around Iron Fist, and he just can’t sell it. The Hand’s actual grand master plan also ends up being a tepid plate of “Is that it?” once revealed, with no real game-changing implications at all. And just like Daredevil season two, their machinations don’t always make sense. This includes allusions to prophecies and ominous foreshadowing that is never explained and rarely has a payoff (Still waiting to hear what makes “The Black Sky” so special).
At least the show’s rogues gallery is bolstered by veteran Sigourney Weaver as Alexandra, a mysterious businesswoman whose plans for New York City draw the hero quartet together in the first place. Weaver never gets to fully let loose, but her cold and powerful Alexandra is intriguing – and not only through her penchant for outlandish coats. Unfortunately, a third act plot twist involving Alexandra and Elodie Yung’s Elektra, resurrected from her death in Daredevil season two and transformed into a weapon, is a headscratcher of note. It makes no sense at all and undercuts both characters in the process. So too some terribly cliched tropes in the season’s final moments drag down what is an otherwise enjoyable climax.
All of that being said – and I realize that I’ve been very meta in my review thus by making you wait – there is unequivocally genuine fan glee when our four heroes do eventually share the screen in the fourth episode. In what is undoubtedly the series’ best moment, Matt, Jessica, Luke and Danny simply get to know each other and figure out whether they can actually be a team or not, and there’s some real chemistry between them. Even Jones’ Iron Fist, introduced into the team dynamic as the goofy new kid hanging out with these street-smart veterans, works better here. Meanwhile, Ritter steals scenes with her acerbic drunken wit and Colter maintains the solid center. Cox’s Matt, as the de facto leader, has the most drama to shoulder and he handles it with aplomb, even given a lighter side to break away from all Catholic guilt sullenness he had to endure in his own show.
That lightness rears its head with the rest of The Defenders as well – like the solo series, it’s still drama-heavy but there’s an added element of fun to it. There’s also a noticeable uptick in the number of action beats which keeps the pace up nicely in the show’s back-half. More importantly, when the four heroes are on-screen together kicking ass as a team, it works gangbusters as you get to see how their skills complement each other. Luke and Jessica are the powerhouse brawlers, stolid and simple in their efficacy, while Matt and Danny are acrobatic ninjas adding flourish and flair. Unfortunately, the depiction of these abilities is an uneven affair.
An extended mid-season office building brawl is a major highlight, with a showstopper season finale fight also being noteworthy despite a jarringly out of place music choice during the scene. Both of these and more feature top notch choreography and clear cinematography, but some other pugilist offerings are a mess of incoherent over-editing and unforgivably sloppy lensing. The opening action scene of the entire series, as Danny and returning sidekick Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) chase down a lead in a tunnel, is possibly the biggest offender, making it completely impossible to follow what is happening on-screen without audio cues.
As for Wing, she gets the lion’s share of screen time out of rest of the extended casts of the individual shows. Just like in Iron Fist, she’s a massive boon here, being immensely likeable while also convincedly handy with a sword. The rest of the B-team don’t really get to do much, with Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor), Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) and Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) spending most of their time cooped up in a police station under the watch of no-nonsense police-woman Misty Knight (Simone Missick). Claire and Misty do get in on the action later on, actually leading to some big ramifications, but Karen and Foggy are hard done by by a script that makes them come off annoyingly selfish.
In the end, Marvel’s The Defenders is no The Avengers. Whereas the latter team-up movie felt like a groundbreaking event, escalating everything that came before it, this feels like just another chapter in the lives of these four New Yorkers. But while it doesn’t reach the highs of Daredevil and Jessica Jones (still the joint gold standard for these shows) thanks to some plotting problems and a certain glowy-handed chump, it’s not a bad chapter by a long shot. There are some really neat touches – like all the individual heroes’ early solo scenes being colour-coded, so lots of onscreen hues of red for Daredevil, blues for Jessica Jones, yellows for Luke Cage and greens for Iron Fist – and it offers enough thrilling action and superhero camaraderie to leave fans happy.
Last Updated: August 20, 2017