If you were afraid that Marvel TV’s latest collaboration with Netflix was going to be as bad as the last one, you can breathe easy. The Defenders is pretty good, even though it’s no first season of Daredevil.
The long awaited The Defenders series brings together four of New York City’s superheroes. We’ve got Danny Rand (Finn Jones), billionaire and the incumbent Immortal Iron Fist of the mystical land of K’un L’un. Luke Cage (Mike Colter), the hero of Harlem with the unbreakable skin. Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), the tough-as-nails PI with superhuman strength. And then there’s Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), blind lawyer by day and the devil of Hell’s Kitchen at night.
All four of them are brought together when their individual investigations lead them to the mysterious Alexandra (Sigourney Weaver), one of the most senior members of criminal organisation the Hand. And then things start to get complicated when someone returns to New York…
The Defenders has been a long time coming. Marvel TV and Netflix spent the last two and a half years sinking in tonnes of money and resources into solo series for each of the four Defenders, who are more street level superheroes compared to the flashy Avengers team.
The response to this MCU-like approach has been mixed. The first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones earned rave reviews for the performances of their leads, as well as the gritty tone and fight choreography. Luke Cage started off strongly but eventually petered out into what some felt was a mediocre ending. As for Iron Fist, the less said about that the better.
And therein lies Defenders’ biggest problem: it puts Danny Rand front and centre right from the get go, even as the first episode spends a lot of time picking up from where we last left our four heroes. While Cox and Ritter are still excellent as Matt Murdock and Jessica Jones respectively, it’s another thing altogether when it comes to Jones’s Danny Rand. The narrative momentum doesn’t really slow down so much as comes to a screeching halt whenever Rand appears onscreen in the first two episodes.
Rand’s dialogue is so heavy-handed with themes of guilt, loyalty and fighting for what’s right that I actually wrote, “I really don’t give a shit about Danny Rand’s white man pain” in my review notes. It wouldn’t be as much of a problem if Luke Cage himself didn’t say exactly what I was thinking in one of his first interactions with Danny:
“You may think you earned your strength, but you had power the day you were born. Before the dragons. Before the qi. You have the ability to change the world without getting anybody hurt.”
Thankfully, this problem is alleviated whenever the focus shifts to the rest of the Defenders, and when they do finally get together to fight the Hand, it is a sheer delight to see. Daredevil showrunners Douglas Petrie and Marco Ramirez are also at the helm for Defenders. They brought on most of the Daredevil crew to work on this series, and it shows. The fight sequences are MUCH better than the ones in Iron Fist, even if Murdock is still saddled with the occasional cheesy line of dialogue.
It’s a shame that the plot seems to be focused on the quartet’s effort to eliminate the Hand in New York, because I think there’s an untapped vein of a story here. I’d be a lot more interested in a ground-level sort of character study that looks at how they learn to operate as a team, instead of having them be forced together due to the Hand.
Which brings us to the perennial problem of Marvel’s Vaguest Villains. Weaver underplays the menacing Alexandra beautifully, but she is so undefined as a villain that I got bored of her storyline very quickly. Still, Weaver’s charisma is undeniable even if we don’t know much about her motivations beyond trying to preserve the Hand’s sphere of influence.
The standouts for me in the first four episodes are the actresses in the cast, including Weaver. Rosario Dawson’s return as Claire Temple is a welcome one, Jessica Henwick’s Colleen Wing is still the only person trying to talk sense into Danny, and Simone Missick’s Misty Knight is a surprisingly formidable match for Jessica Jones.
The fourth episode ends on a helluva cliffhanger that has me itching to binge the rest of the episodes. But while Defenders is good, it’s still got a long way to go before it reaches the heights that the first season of Daredevil did.
All the flaws of Marvel’s Netflix series — indeterminably long stretches of silence, heavy- handed dialogue, the deliberate lack of a proper soundtrack during long sequences and transitions — are still present. It might be a matter of taste, but those flaws make for terribly tedious viewing, regardless of how suspenseful the fight sequences might be. Here’s hoping the next four episodes of The Defenders are an improvement.