The much-hyped team-up of all the major Marvel/Netflix players is an uneven exercise in brand management. (Full season spoilers ahoy!)
So punching’s okay now?
There’s much to enjoy in The Defenders, the culmination of three years of worldbuilding from Marvel Studios and Netflix. Whether you view the series as a success depends on what you’re looking for. If you love these characters, they all get moments to shine, and no one comes out of it less likable than they went in. If you’re looking for action setpieces, there are a few good ones (but I hope you really like ninja punching). If it’s witty banter you’re after…well, there’s some, but the dialogue is generally as mediocre as the other series. My wife has gotten suspiciously good at anticipating it — the “big twist” of Elektra killing Sigourney Weaver at the end of the sixth episode was undercut by my gasping laughter at her finishing line, “His name is Matthew,” being shouted at our television just a second before. If you want an interesting story with memorable villains, forget it — no one here comes remotely close to Fisk, Kilgrave, or Cottonmouth.
The series’ main problem is one of tone. The Defenders tries to have it both ways — to be a pulpy comic book show that includes endless waves of ninjas, dragon skeletons, and resurrections, but it also wants to be a ground-level story about urban threats and more rationally-explained superpowers. These two different shows collide over and over again, and where the first seasons of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage managed to skate through by leaning into Option 1, the renewed focus on The Hand and Iron Fist’s Iron Fist-iness often makes The Defenders a slog.
Showrunners Douglas Petrie & Marco Ramirez try to counteract this with plenty of skeptical eye-rolling from Jessica and Luke, but the main story never gels into something compelling, and ninjas are simply never as interesting on screen as they are as illustrations. It’s instead an opportunity to simply watch our three heroes, and also Danny Rand, do their thing for eight hours. It’s not a high bar to clear. On the whole, I was satisfied, but I’ve also learned to stop making these series out to be more than they are.
I also thought it fitting for this review to do a “power rankings” of The Defenders’ best and worst elements, so let’s dive in.
1. The Length
Many thanks to whoever made the decision to trim the episode order from the usual 13 to 8. Whether that came down to scheduling or budget, it helped to keep things moving in a single direction, without the wheel-spinning that habitually plagues these series around the midsection. Honestly, it was a relief. And despite still taking a bit too long to get going, once all our heroes were in the same room at the end of the third hour, the pacing stayed pretty solid throughout. The (relatively) simplified plot even created the emotional space for just about every character to get philosophical for a scene or two — and, yeah, the dialogue wasn’t always sharp, but I appreciate the effort.
2. Jessica Jones
Krysten Ritter is still the MVP of this entire enterprise, and every moment she was on screen gave The Defenders a boost. Murdock and Cage are wounded idealists, and Danny Rand is a doof, but Jessica’s sardonic let’s get this over with ethos made her the audience surrogate (especially when mocking Iron Fist). I also appreciated how they didn’t make her arc “still getting over Kilgrave” — she’s been ready to move on and just do her job, if only her friends would stop asking her if she’s okay. Her interrogation scenes with Misty Knight also made for regular highlights.
3. Luke Cage
Much of Luke’s ranking has to do with how Mike Colter could have chemistry with a burlap sack. Every scene he shared with Claire, Misty, Jessica, or even Danny Rand had that smolder factor. But Luke’s still just a great character, full stop, and the most sacrificial of the quartet; his entry into the main plot also made slightly more sense than Jessica’s, even though I’d be hard-pressed to remember much of anything from those first couple episodes. The series also uses Harlem and Hell’s Kitchen and “this city/my city” so interchangeably it becomes its own drinking game. Why are any of them doing this? No idea, but they’re the only ones who can.
4. Colleen Wing
Full disclosure: I never watched all of Iron Fist. I wasn’t that intrigued by the character to begin with, and the series’ poor reviews knocked out any sense of duty I had to complete it. But I may go back now just to get more Colleen Wing, empathetically played by Jessica Henwick (former Sand Snake on Game of Thrones, so I didn’t know she could act, either). She had more emotional growth than anyone on The Defenders, coming to terms with how she had been used by The Hand and stepping up heroically at the season’s climax. I especially liked how, with Danny Rand kidnapped, the show was not-so-subtly slotting Colleen in as the real fourth member of the team. I wish Marvel would just make that official. Trust me, no one would mind.
5. The Normies
I’d actually love a show that’s just Luke Cage and all of the women, including Jessica, Colleen, Night Nurse, and throw in Trish as Hellcat for good measure. That’d be dope. But in any case, one of my favorite scenes in The Defenders was when all of the non-superpowered sidekick characters gathered at the Harlem precinct “for their own protection;” there was more communicated through glances and shrugs than through entire paragraphs of Black Sky-related exposition. It’s the simple things, like how having superfriends sucks. Rosario Dawson is still wonderful as Claire, and the show never stooped (or had time) to put her and Luke’s relationship in jeopardy; Simone Missick had to spend much of the season failing to get questions out of the supers, but there are big things to come with her new robotic arm. Even Foggy redeemed himself a little when he gave Matt his suit (though Elden Henson is still the worst actor in the ensemble, alas); only Deborah Ann Woll really got short shrift, as radio host Trish did more “reporting” than she did all season. But the small surprise pairings that made up the season’s homestretch went a long way.
6. The Lighting Design
The direction was pretty nonspecific overall, but one intentional choice made in the premiere was to lean into the color coding that carried over from the previous shows, and specifically evinced in the opening credits. And while it leaned toward overdone in the early going, with the tinted “film slide” projections regularly cueing as to whose scene was up next, Defenders took a subtler approach as the series continued. Even when the characters were sharing the same room, clever use of ambient lighting — a splash of blue here, a red lamp there — not only helped create a consistent look for the series, but one that wasn’t afraid of its ink-and-paint origins.
Our boy Matt Murdock got to make up a bit for the dour second season of Daredevil, and being the one member of the quartet whose secret identity needed to be kept secret (or, as Foggy points out, all of his former cases could be called into question) provided a sensible conflict for The Defenders. It was also nice, however briefly, to see him back in a bandanna, as no one I know — especially Jessica — is all that impressed by his DD suit. Charlie Cox continues to nail both sides of Murdock, though this series didn’t have time to spend on the most interesting aspect of his character, his religious faith. His sacrifice at the end of the season worked on an emotional level, even if the reason for it — his final fight with Elektra (which I’ll get to in a minute) — was a mess.
8. The Fights
On the other hand, keeping Murdock in his terrible suit, and keeping Iron Fist’s fights largely in the dark, gave the series more flexibility in choreography. Three major scenes come to mind: the early rumble in the ninja boardroom, the showdown in the Chinese restaurant, and the final melee beneath the Midland Circle building. That last one featured the most expansive version of the “one-takes” that made the first season of Daredevil stand out so well. On the negative side, the heroes’ strengths seemed to ebb and flow depending on what the script required; the four never seemed to be on an equal playing field. All of them punch good and can take their share of hits, but only allowing Jessica one moment to really use her leaping ability — the one thing she has that the others don’t — is disappointing.
9. Iron Fist
Oh boy. So I’ll say this — he’s not a terrible character, though he’s certainly a terrible Iron Fist. And it certainly helped that every other character got their licks in (I especially enjoyed Luke calling him out on his privilege), but Danny was mostly here to mope, say things like “focus my chi” with a straight face, get kidnapped for the villains’ opaque purposes, and be the money man whenever the others needed something. I don’t know how you redeem an ill-conceived and miscast Iron Fist series that never carried the same level of creative vision the other three did, and only exists because “well. we need an Iron Fist.” Just let him and Colleen pop up in the other series, and don’t put us through this again.
10. The Villains
Finally, I’m lumping Elektra and all of The Hand together. First, poor Sigourney Weaver, so regal and stately as Alexandra, but wasted by the story. I couldn’t tell you exactly what The Hand wanted (something about “the substance” that will help them live forever?) or why they needed to level New York City to do it, and none of the other Fingers (or whatever) made much of an impression. It’s kind of a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation, because the show doesn’t have the budget to show the true scale of the organization, and what they did depict (mostly, ninja punching) would have been interminable if the series ran any longer than eight episodes. Scott Glenn’s Stick had one hilariously awesome moment (cutting off his own hand!) before getting skewered. And then there was Elektra, who was mildly interesting in the second season of Daredevil, but betrayed here by writing that first took away her agency, then turned her into a mustache-twirling villain without ever explaining what she actually wanted. Her final confrontation with Daredevil was just bizarre; they were fighting, then kissing, then kissing and fighting, and then getting buried under rubble. Did she survive like Matt? Dunno. Does it matter? Not really.
So that’s The Defenders. This has already gone on much longer than I expected it to, so I’ll wrap with this: I liked it. It suffered from the same pitfalls as countless other genre series, and it felt like Marvel had too many mediocre minds working on it (notably absent from the list of twenty-four producers: Jessica Jones’ Melissa Rosenberg and Luke Cage’s Cheo Hodari Coker). But it was entertaining often in spite of itself, and if Marvel and Netflix can freshen them up for the next round without hitting the same character beats over and over again, I’ll be back for more adventures with this group…with managed expectations.