Recurring Cast: Charlie Cox, Krysten Ritter, Mike Colter, Finn Jones, Elodie Yung, Jessica Henwick, Rosario Dawson, Sigourney Weaver
When push came to shove, Netflix weren’t ready for the Defenders. Back when Daredevil was first released, it was a show that defied the superhero expectations. Jessica Jones too was a lesson in master-class writing. The trick: they were not rushed and born of independent ideas. Jessica was a clever way of discussing rape in the superhero format, for instance. Ever since, there has been a significant drop in quality. Luke Cage was charming but non-essential. Daredevil Season Two began to shake off its original feel for a more standard superhero thriller. By the time, we reached Iron Fist, there was a sense Netflix was anxious that Defenders was just around the corner. Sadly, the Defenders is similar to Iron Fist, perhaps even a little bit worse: it is rushing to meet a deadline, all original ideas out the window.
The first episode pretty much solidifies this presumption. It opens up with our four heroes going about their daily business. Matt Murdock is mourning Elektra and trying to do good on his promise to put down the cowl and fight injustice in the courtrooms. Jessica Jones takes on her first case, a missing husband. Luke Cage is fresh out of prison and looking to adopt a more community based hero role. However, the Hand return to New York, a vengeful Iron Fist in tow, bringing them all together slowly but surely. No one expected the four of them to team up in the opening moments, Netflix’s slow, thoughtful style not suiting with such a rushed narrative, but whenever the heroes are apart from each other, the Defenders’ initial season feels annoyingly adrift. You don’t want to compare Defenders to its big screen brother, Avengers Assemble, but it is difficult not to. Avengers felt like its own thing, whereas Defenders feels like four mini-seasons of the respected heroes edited down to its bare bones and mushed together. As we jump frantically from Murdock to Rand and back again, we are not watching the story of a mismatched team of vigilantes, but four independent stories. And not very good ones either. Jessica Jones is forced out of her shell too quickly, her hard exterior feeling like an obligatory story beat, rather than a clever piece of characterisation. Iron Fist was left in an interesting place at the end of his season, but there aren’t enough scenes bringing out his new persona for the audience. It also hurts that the Defenders feels the need to drag out all of the supporting cast from each show. Claire Temple is a guarantee, so when Rosario Dawson pops up, no one bats an eyelid. Even Iron Fist’s Colleen Wing feels vital to the story, Danny Rand’s conscience figure with enough of an arc of her own, she could almost pass for the fifth member of the Defenders. However, with the exception of Misty Knight, who helps tell the cops’ side of this story, everyone else feels pushed into a story that doesn’t need them. Foggy, Karen, Trish and Malcolm all hover around the peripheries of the plot, placed in case they are needed, but arguably they never are. Trish provides some pep talks, sure, and Daredevil’s friends help reaffirm emotional moral points, but the writing might have been stronger without them. This is especially true with Daredevil. Last time, his friendships were fractured, due to his determination to reject them for the superhero lifestyle. In Defenders, the awkward reunion might not be completely covered, but it is breached, a plot point you would rather see drawn out in its own season. It would have been far more powerful to have Daredevil without friends in the Defenders, rather than a watered down take on a plot that would have been far more interesting in Season Three of Daredevil. Another interesting point is that while Marvel movies seem to hold back the good stuff for the team-up movies, Netflix’s heroes are almost saving their best moments from their own shows. Jessica Jones provides her wit, but none of her intelligent writing. Daredevil is reduced to the bare minimum of brooding. The Defenders is devoid of any character-defining moments (perhaps with the exception of Misty Knight). The Defenders ends up feeling like a charity mash-up, where everyone is happy to explore what happens when everyone is together, but their minds are partially all focused on Jessica Jones Season Two.
It also hurts that the Hand are pretty crappy villains. They helped flesh out Daredevil’s sub-plots, although when Kingpin and Punisher were happy stealing the show’s best moments, the writers should have realised that the affairs of a ninja organisation were hardly bringing us all back for more. Iron Fist proved it, showing that the Hand are pretty much grand-standing red shirts. Madame Gao is appropriately sinister, but other than some cool fight scenes, we would much rather be spending time with someone else. The Hand strike me as the only villains big enough to provide a decent threat for the Defenders combined, but they lack the personality of the other villains. Elektra returns to give Murdock some interesting beats, but otherwise, we are missing the grudge matches that came with having Cage take on Cottonmouth or Jones meeting up with Kilgrave. Sigourney Weaver’s antagonist is a bit of a bust too. Her introduction suggests a strong bad guy figure, a woman facing her death in a hospital ward and bringing forward a slow-burning Hand scheme to satisfy her own selfishness. However, as each episode uncovers more of the character, there is less to get excited about. Weaver’s brand of acting sees all of the depth pushed down behind a steel mask, which while partially interesting, this style needs strong writing to bring out the emotional beats. As it stands, Weaver is a poker-faced villain, lacking the fun of Netflix’s other bad guys. Once the streaming service produced the best bad guys Marvel had up its sleeve, but now we are reduced to stock villainous faces, which is a crying shame. Elektra is more promising, at the very least, able to give us some awesome fight scenes. She also brings expected grief when it comes to any fight she has with Daredevil, trying to see light in her, when it is clearly no longer there. However, her motives are thinly written. The finale is strong, but you will struggle to see why she is doing what she is doing, other than providing a meaty end to the season. Her motivations do not hold up to any kind of scrutiny.
But while the intelligence Netflix usually offers with its material is sadly no longer there, they do get the most important thing right: the team-up. When the four of them finally get into the same room, the Defenders becomes the show you want it to be. It is at its best, when it shoves aside its thin story and just shows you what happens when Daredevil moralises to Jessica Jones, when Iron Fist picks a fight with Luke Cage. The banter is just as delicious as you expect, the writing on sharp form. Their world collide amazingly well, small pieces of wonder like Iron Fist style fight scenes playing to a Luke Cage soundtrack. You also realise how different each hero is. They aren’t just paper thin creations, but interesting takes on vigilantism. Luke Cage was almost the most two-dimensional of the four, but by the time the show rocks to an end, he is almost the most relatable. Jessica Jones, while bad-ass through her lack of pity, almost begins to frustrate in her lack of team spirit. It is interesting watching these characters work together. Perhaps that is all we really wanted. It would have been nice to have a stronger excuse to watch them work however.
Final Verdict: While not as smart as you want it to be, Defenders gets the important team-up nature right, earning it an average spot in the Netflix Marvel canon.