You’ve got three basic types of superhero team:
First, you have your all-star collection of popular, pre-existing characters: your Avengers, your Justice Leagues, all the way back to the Justice Society of America in 1940.
Second, you have teams made up of characters — often ones created specifically for this team — connected by a clear and common bond, whether they’re a family (Fantastic Four), mutants (X-Men), or sidekicks to more famous heroes (Teen Titans). These teams aren’t meant to represent the best of the best the way the ones in the first group are, but the thematic connection among the members can often make them better and/or more successful than the A-listers.
Finally — and historically much less successful — you have teams whose real-life origin story more or less amounts to, “Hey, here are a bunch of solo characters nobody has other plans for; what happens if we put them all in the same group?” That’s how Marvel briefly had a team (the Champions) featuring two former X-Men, Hercules, Black Widow, and… Ghost Rider? It’s largely the impetus for the CW’s Legends of Tomorrow, which at the start was made up of all the characters that Flash and Arrow didn’t really need. And it was the structure of The Defenders comic book, which featured a “non-team” of heroes like the Hulk, Doctor Strange, the Sub-Mariner, and whoever else was free and unlikely to get an invitation from Captain America and friends.
The TV version of the team aspires to be more like groups one and two, even as it can’t entirely shake off the DNA of group three. Following the playbook the Marvel movies used to introduce the Avengers members one by one, the four Defenders — blind vigilante Daredevil (Charlie Cox), superstrong detective Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), bulletproof hero of Harlem Luke Cage (Mike Colter), and martial arts master Danny Rand, aka Iron Fist (Finn Jones) — each received a Netflix solo series before finally coming together for a combined show, which debuts on August 18. And to a degree they’re all linked by being street-level heroes, as well as ones with varying degrees of history on the comic book page: Cage and Iron Fist were longtime partners, Luke and Jessica eventually married and had a daughter, Daredevil has helped the other three (often in his secret identity as lawyer Matt Murdock), and all four were even briefly members of an Avengers team at the same time.
The way the four shows were developed, how they played out, and the four episodes of The Defenders (out of eight) Netflix sent for review, though, all suggest this team has more in common with Hulk and friends than just a name. Netflix ordered all five properties — the solo series and Defenders — sight unseen four years ago, without even having any writers attached. Daredevil was a relatively big name whose screen rights had just reverted to Marvel, and all four characters operate on a smaller scale, with powers more easily portrayed on a TV budget, than the Avengers, and they did have that comic history, so they made some sense together. But it also felt like Marvel’s TV division trying to reverse-engineer their own Avengers out of a group of heroes that the movie folk deigned to let them use — possibly while snickering at the thought of Iron Fist and Iron Man being in the same story — without bothering to first see how the audience responded to these versions of them.
The results til now have been mixed. (Creatively, at least; as with any Netflix series, we have no idea how many people are actually watching, though each solo show has been renewed at least once.) Daredevil has already been through three teams of showrunners — the last set, Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez, are the men in charge of The Defenders — and features great action but sketchier plot and character work. Jessica Jones and Luke Cage were critically acclaimed, but both critics and ardent fans agreed that each show didn’t have nearly enough plot to fill their respective seasons, leading to big story problems late in each just to keep things going. And Iron Fist was widely panned for pretty much everything: lackluster fight scenes in a show about a living weapon, too much time wasted on boring corporate intrigue, supporting characters whose motivations kept changing every three or four scenes, and, worst of all, a lead performance by Finn Jones that made Iron Fist seem like a pouty 14-year-old. As Defenders teasers began rolling out over the last few months, the most popular moments have tended to be the ones where Jessica and the others treated Danny like an obnoxious bro they can’t believe they’re forced to spend time with.
Still, some characters are better suited to be part of a team than to fly solo — on the movie side, Marvel failed twice with Hulk films before a new take clicked in Avengers — and all four here could perhaps qualify. Ritter and Colter had solid chemistry together when Cage was introduced in Jessica Jones, Cox is generally at his best on Daredevil when Matt is interacting with his friends, and Iron Fist could potentially work better as the jerk nobody else in the group likes (a staple of many superteams, including Wolverine in his early X-Men days) than he did as a righteous hero on his own.
It’s hard to tell, though, because The Defenders is yet another Netflix ultra-slow burn. None of the heroes interact at all in the first hour. There are a couple of brief scenes pairing off two each at the end of the second. All four are finally in the same room together at the end of the third, but it’s for a brawl — a pretty impressive one, towards the higher end of the Daredevil fight scene scale — without a ton of vocal interaction. So it’s not until the fourth episode — a kind of superhero riff on Seinfeld‘s Chinese restaurant episode, where most of it involves the four getting to know one another while hiding out from the bad guys — that they really all talk to one another and we see how the group might work.
That episode’s much better than most of what comes before — and not just because Daredevil’s mentor Stick (Scott Glenn) calls Iron Fist “a thundering dumbass” at one point — but also a frustrating reminder that even at a relatively compact eight episodes, these Marvel Netflix shows still don’t have a great command of pacing. The early episodes have some obligation to both re-establish what each character is about — and to introduce them to any potential viewer who didn’t watch all the previous shows — and to set up the arc of the season, involving the Hand, a group of evil, immortal ninjas who have been villains on both Daredevil and Iron Fist. But those hours feel so much more sluggish than the later scenes featuring two or more of the heroes, as if even Petrie and Ramirez(*) really only got excited once they got to put people together. At times it’s a worst of all possible worlds situation: even with appearances by everyone’s supporting players, each solo segment feels too brief to fully convey that character’s individual appeal, yet too long if you’re waiting for them to all meet already.
(*) At first, it seems like Daredevil has a bit of a homefield advantage, as several of his early scenes run longer and feel more fleshed-out than the stuff with Cage or Jessica or Danny. But things come into balance in time, and the writers — with consultation from the showrunners of the other series — largely capture the voices of each lead character.
There’s some good material about Cage readjusting to Harlem (with the help of Rosario Dawson’s Netflix/Marvel utility player Claire Temple) after a prison stint, about Jessica coping with the emotional aftermath of the fight with Kilgrave, and about Matt Murdock trying very hard to not be Daredevil anymore (his friends who know the secret treat him like an alcoholic they have to keep steering away from bars), but mostly all those scenes feel like marking time. The one most directly tied to the Hand arc at the beginning is Iron Fist (fighting alongside Jessica Henwick’s Colleen Wing), who’s unfortunately just as much of a petulant charisma vacuum as you remember. (Even when he means to sound threatening, he comes across like he’s annoyed you mixed up his pizza toppings.)
The Hand were bland villains on Daredevil, where the idea of an endless army of faceless ninjas became one of many that proved far less interesting in live-action than on the comic book page. Here, they’re at least bolstered by the presence of Sigourney Weaver as one of the Hand’s leaders, Alexandra, who enjoys smiling cryptically whenever someone points out that she just referenced an event she couldn’t possibly be old enough to have witnessed. As she always does no matter how outlandish the premise of her latest project, Weaver plays things straight and with abundant screen presence; the only downside is that — like Vincent D’Onfrio as the Kingpin on Daredevil — she tends to pretty badly overshadow the leads when they’re together. (The show feels most balanced in the scenes she shares with Scott Glenn, who has a similar gift for being utterly matter-of-fact about all this insanity.)
The Hand also resurrects Daredevil’s dead ex-lover Elektra (Elodie Yung). On the one hand, this gives Matt a more personal stake in this crisis and gives the audience one villain they already know. On the other, it’s done in a manner that for the moment strips away everything that was most appealing and interesting about Elektra as both a character and a romantic foil for Matt.
At other times, Defenders does a good job of borrowing what worked best from the previous series: the fight scenes are mostly Daredevil-caliber rather than Iron Fist-caliber, Jessica gets a lot of snappy dialogue (asked what time it is, she replies, “Late. Or early, depending on your life choices.”), the music is strong (particularly in the Cage scenes), and Rosario Dawson as usual works wonders in making these characters feel like they could all be part of the same story.
All the Netflix/Marvel shows have been imperfect to varying degrees, and the parts of Defenders that actually, you know, feature all the Defenders are promising enough — if only for the chance to watch Jessica continually insult the others — for me to gladly watch the second half. (Which I declined to do for Iron Fist.) But it would be nice if at some point, both show and team could justify their existence as something more than a package Marvel put together years ago in the hopes everything would work out. Superhero teams can succeed without any real reason for being — in the comics, the original Defenders team existed in some form for 14 years — but it can be hard to look at a lot of them without wondering (as Jessica Jones does often here) who thought it was a good idea for these people to get together.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org