Overview: Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist team up to stop the mysterious organization known as The Hand from destroying New York City in its quest for eternal life. Netflix; 2017; TV-MA; 8 episodes.
Ties That Bind: Over the past two years, Marvel and Netflix have been weaving together intricate tales of grounded heroism in the midst of social consequences. Through, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist, a tangential side of the MCU opened up, and within these New York boroughs and back alleys every choice had a cost. While The Defenders, led by Daredevil Season 2 showrunners, Douglas Petrie and Marco Ramirez, is positioned as the culmination of those choices, it feels more like a bridging chapter in these characters’ lives, the step that allows them to find comfort, or at least righteous purpose, in their individual brands of heroism. All four of these major players receive a significant amount of time in the spotlight, and the necessary development to put them on the course for their subsequent seasons. But in terms of culmination, and a sense of completion (with the foresight of an already announced third season) it’s really Daredevil who gets the strongest arc and sense of payoff in relation to his previous seasons.
Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), who has given up his guise as The Devil of Hell’s Kitchen, is forced back into action when three separate investigations led by Danny Rand (Finn Jones), Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), and Luke Cage (Mike Colter) converge. While each of these investigations tie into the mystery of The Hand, which started with Daredevil, they are given personal significance to each of these characters, giving this show a legitimate reason to exist beyond just an action team-up. Danny and Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) are tracking The Hand across the world as they try to find answers about what happened to the mystical city of K’un L’un. Jessica is reluctantly investigating the disappearance of an architect at the bequest of his family. And Luke, recently released from prison, is trying to keep a Harlem kid off the streets, after failing to save his sister during his first season. What makes The Defenders work is that even when these characters are brought into a plot that’s out of their element or outside of the groundwork laid by their own shows, they bring their baggage with them, which is infinitely more engaging than their power sets.
Color-Coded: It may come as a bit of a surprise how non-action-orientated much of the show is. Even with a decreased episode count of eight, instead of the normal thirteen, The Defenders still goes the slow-burn route. Still, the chemistry between these characters, the first-encounters and winks at comic lore are achieved so effortlessly that there doesn’t feel like a need to count the paces until the next action beat. At the height of these interactions are those between Luke Cage and Danny Rand, who have been a synonymous comic duo for 45 years. While Finn Jones’ casting and performance as Rand was heavily criticized earlier this year, he seems more in-tune with the character’s voice this time around as an impetuous kid looking for a place to belong, while at the same time lacking awareness at who he is and what he represents in a world outside of a mystical city. Colter easily fulfills the older brother role, while also highlighting the necessary difference between himself and Rand. Luke points out that Danny has had power and privilege since the day he was born. As a billionaire and a white man he could create real change, instead of going after kids in Harlem. This moment, and utilization of the comics’ idea of Danny Rand as a means to talk about white privilege becomes the piece that was missing in Iron Fist’s show and expressly speaks to why Danny and Luke work so well together, not just as teammates, but as social instruments.
While none of the other relationships on the show have the same kind of impact as Luke and Danny’s, the banter between Murdock and Jessica Jones, the blossoming relationship between Luke and Jessica, and the meeting of Colleen Wing and Misty Knight provide the kind of moments that both comic book readers and fans of the previous series will go all in for. The series gets a lot of mileage out of not using costumes, opting instead to focus on these characters’ civilian lives and how their respective professions and statuses become the most integral aspects of their heroism, rather than their powers and monikers. While The Defenders pulls from a lot of various comic book runs, it’s Brian Michael Bendis’ comic works from the early 2000s that the show most resembles in its efforts to create a cohesive street-level Marvel Universe. The series mixes and matches the various tones and styles of the shows and the writers and directors have fun utilizing everything from music choices, to color-coded lighting, and mythology in a way captures just how wild these shows are when they come together. Grounded The Defenders may be, there’s nothing more comic booky than seeing this team of heroes face off against The Hand in a dragon skeleton while Method Man plays overtop of it all.
Something in the Way: While the villains have been a high-point in the Marvel Netflix shows, The Defenders is a bit of a letdown in that territory. We’ve seen The Hand three times now, and met most of their primary movers and shakers. The introduction of The Hand’s leader Alexandra (Sigourney Weaver) holds promise in the first few episodes, but for a woman who has lived centuries she never evolves into anything more than the cold matron figure we’ve seen too many times before. As an original character, with no comic ties, the writers had a chance to shake off the clichés of comic villains, but instead they delve head first into them and fail to hit the high standards set by Fisk, Kilgrave, Cottonmouth, or even the Meachums. Fortunately, Elodie Yung’s return as the resurrected Elektra does provide the show with a formidable secondary villain in terms of action, but as a mostly silent killer she’s missing some of the spark and drive she carried in Daredevil Season 2. The show would have done better to use Elektra as the primary antagonist throughout, rather than a glorified weapon. With a team of four compelling heroes, aided by their own compelling side characters, it’s a shame the show couldn’t have provided more interesting adversaries to represent The Hand. Still, as a means to bring these characters together, the villains do their part and ultimately allow the attention of these brisk eight episodes to be focused on the heroes. We only hope that the next time The Defenders come together, they face an adversary who can challenge them morally rather than mainly in terms of sheer numbers.
What is ultimately admirable about The Defenders, is that while it doesn’t feel like the characters were put through a ringer as intensive as their solo-seasons (except perhaps for Daredevil and Iron Fist), they do come out the other side changed. Even while feeling predominately like a bridge, The Defenders does the work to get these characters to the other side and promises more interesting stories and struggles in store for them.
Overall: The Defenders successfully blends characters and genres into a series that fittingly feels more like a vigilante self-improvement retreat than an epic superhero event. While there are several missed opportunities, including a moment that was perfectly primed for a costume reveal for a certain Iron Fist, The Defenders delivers a worthy conclusion to the first chapter of Marvel’s Netflix saga.