Netflix released The Defenders on Friday, teaming up Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist. I already published some overall thoughts based on the first four episodes, but now that I’ve seen the whole thing, and everyone else has had a chance to, it’s time to get more specific — a few general thoughts, followed by spoilers for the entire season throughout — coming up just as soon as I tell you that the scarf looked better…
Where the other Netflix/Marvel shows that aren’t called Iron Fist have had their own creative ups and downs, they have tended to start strong and then fade. Defenders started off slowly, since — despite having five seasons worth of individual backstory to lean on — it decided to take its sweet time putting all four title characters in a room together. But that fourth episode climaxed with the Defenders (plus Stick) side-by-side, preparing to battle the Hand again, and it left me hopeful that perhaps this would be the inverse for the franchise, and all the better parts would be in the second half.
Unfortunately, that’s not the way it played out. While there are some things that the series does well throughout — any fight scene involving Daredevil, any time Jessica Jones complains about the rest of the group or the plot, any time Jessica and Luke get to banter — the season still runs out of steam well before we get to the end, even though the leads interact far more frequently in the second half than they do in the first.
What went wrong? Let’s count off five things, one for each Defender, plus unofficial team member Colleen Wing:
1. Even at eight episodes, it still doesn’t have enough story to fill the time.
As I started moving to bigger and bigger apartments, and eventually a house of my own, my parents correctly warned me that no matter how big my home got, my accumulation of stuff would always manage to find a way to fill it up, and then some. The Netflix Marvel shows seem to operate on an inverse principle: no matter how long or short the season may get, the plot won’t be robust enough to carry the whole thing.
Is there any reason this couldn’t have been a four-episode story? It feels like the long delay to put the Defenders together owes as much to a need to fill time as a desire to catch up on various subplots from the individual shows before the big team-up. The Hand’s plan never comes into enough focus to merit the long build-up — especially given what happens to Alexandra, but we’ll get back to that — and while the season never resorts to the sort of idiot plot shenanigans that derailed the later portions of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage‘s first seasons, its own method for getting us from hour 1 to hour 8 does its own fine work sucking a lot of the energy out of things. Which brings us to…
2. It keeps repeating the same points over and over, even as it presents evidence to the contrary.
There are a lot of scenes of characters waiting in The Defenders, and most of that waiting time is filled with them discussing their motivations with one another, and/or with their sidekicks, again and again and again and again. Character work is an important part of these stories, which can’t be wall-to-wall action even if the action is great (more on that in a bit, too), but too much of this season felt like people having the same conversation — Matt is an addict who can’t stop playing vigilante, Jessica needs to get over the trauma of Kilgrave and return to work, Luke has to adjust to life after prison, Danny feels great guilt for letting K’un-Lun fall in his absence, Colleen feels diminished whenever she’s around her old sensei, the various civilian sidekicks worry about the heroes, etc. — ad infinitum.
The worst example of this comes in the epilogue, after the bomb has imploded the Midland Circle building, apparently killing Daredevil, Elektra, and the surviving Hand members, as one character after another makes a life decision spinning out of the idea that Matt Murdock died to save his city. Which he didn’t, as anyone who had been watching previous five to ten minutes of the episode could tell you. Matt was obsessed with saving Elektra and proving there was still some good in her, Luke/Vader style, and rather than get on the elevator with the other three — which would have changed absolutely nothing else about the outcome of the story, the security of New York, etc. — he stays down there because he would rather die trying to save his ex-girlfriend than live in a world without her. Which is a choice he’s allowed to make! But Danny and the other characters by and large talk as if they experienced something entirely different from what was shown.
3. It leans too much on the team’s two dullest members, and marginalizes the two most interesting ones.
All the villains and plot machinations of this story are linked to events from Daredevil season two or Iron Fist season one. This is frustrating on a few levels. First, the Hand make lousy live-action villains, no matter how cool they seem when Frank Miller is drawling an army of vanishing ninjas on the page. This season does its best to beef them up by focusing on their leaders — the five Fingers of the Hand — but the exotic mysticism has never been a particular strength of any of these shows, and is most effective here when either Jessica or Luke are reacting incredulously to some part of it.
That’s also, unfortunately, a good majority of what those two characters — far and away the most interesting half of the quartet — get to do over the course of the season. The story gives Matt a chance to try to save Elektra again, gives Danny a shot at avenging K’un-Lun and proving he’s not the worst Iron Fist ever (which… good job, good effort!), and even lets Colleen achieve closure with Bakuto, in arguably the biggest spotlight moment any character gets in the finale. (She’s largely fighting alone upstairs, with occasional contributions from Claire and Misty, while the others are part of one big brawl down below.) Luke and Jessica have no former nemeses to fight, and even their reunion largely takes a backseat to talk of ninjas and resurrection and magic. Each gets a nice moment here and there, like Jessica saving Danny and Luke when the elevator cable gets cut, but they’re part of the show because the deal structure demanded it, not because they serve some major function in the story. When Daredevil and Iron Fist’s solo series return, it will be impossible to not reference the events of The Defenders, where Jessica and Luke’s shows could never allude to anything that happened here beyond Luke getting out of prison and it would impact nothing.
Charlie Cox is still an enormous step up over Finn Jones, but Matt and Danny are both driven much more here by superhero-y motivations — I must convince my reborn ex that she’s not evil! I must avenge the destruction of the mystical city that gave me my powers! — where Jessica and Luke in their solo series had far more human, and thus compelling, concerns pushing them forward.
4. It wastes Sigourney Weaver.
Making Alexandra into a red herring big bad who gets stabbed to death with two episodes to go isn’t the biggest recent waste of a big-name actor in a TV genre piece (that would still be Anthony Hopkins smiling cryptically through most of Westworld), but it’s not great, either. If the endgame was always going to be Elektra vs the Defenders, there were simpler ways to accomplish that (like Madam Gao being the one to bring Elektra back) — albeit ways that, again, would demand an even shorter season. Weaver had some excellent moments along the way — the most fun part of this whole overly-dour exercise involves Alexandra and Stick swapping insults towards the end of the fourth episode — which in turn makes the decision to take her out before the finish even more frustrating. If nothing else, couldn’t one of those sequences where Elektra dispatches the Defenders by herself have been reassigned to Alexandra before she bled out?
(Not helping matters: making Elektra an amnesiac puppet for most of the season takes away a lot of what made Elodie Yung’s performance interesting over on Daredevil. The last couple of episodes restore that spark a bit, but not enough to compensate for the loss of Weaver.)
5. The fights are a real mixed bag.
Again, most of the season is more talk than action, which is just the way this works. But even though the action’s better than it was on Iron Fist — a show about a master martial artist starring a guy who doesn’t know martial arts — those scenes aren’t enough to carry all those long navel-gazers in between.
You’ll note above that I singled out any piece of combat involving Daredevil. His solo show had by far the best stuntwork of any of the Marvel series, and the bits where he’s in action here are still strong, in part because the costume makes it easier to double for Charlie Cox. The show can’t do that as often with the others — though it tries its best to cover for Finn Jones by filming the opening fight scene in darkness, fog, and rain, and by filming his finale battle against Elektra from far enough away to use a double for parts — and as a result we get moments like the 360-degree pan around the fossil cavern where Matt is flipping and punching awesomely, and everyone else is doing their best to look convincing. Jessica, for instance, isn’t meant to be a great fighter, but the show waxes and wanes on exactly how strong she and Luke are supposed to be, and thus how much damage a single punch of theirs should do. As a result, there are moments where it’s hard to fathom how she’s staying alive, much less holding her own, against the endless wave of Hand soldiers, even though we know she has powers.
I was for the most part excited when Netflix and Marvel announced this partnership, even if it seemed a bit presumptuous to order five shows at once, particularly since none at the time had any writers attached. Five series later, my expectations have been significantly recalibrated. I’ll gladly watch the new seasons of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage (where Misty may more closely resemble the character from the comics after getting her arm cut off), even as I brace myself for each to run out of steam somewhere around the mid-point. But I’m not going to rush to watch the next Daredevil adventure (even if the place this season leaves him suggests we may be getting some version of the famous “Born Again” arc), I’m good not watching Iron Fist again, and unless there’s some kind of radical change to the way these shows are made, I can probably pass on any future adventures of this particular Defenders lineup.
What did everybody else think? Did the team-up thrill or frustrate you? If you didn’t watch all of the solo series, did you have any trouble following the plot?