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.