The Defenders Review: The Other Fantastic Four

Defenders
The Defenders may have its flaws but the strong personalities of the four leads carry the show to an entertaining event that sets up the future of Marvel/Netflix for a bright future.

On The Defenders: an architect has gone missing. Massive amounts of explosives have been found in an apartment. Kids in Harlem are being recruited to do some illegal work that ends up getting them killed. Suddenly, when a major earthquake hits New York City, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist are investigating these strange cases from different angles until their four different worlds collide with the discovery of the organization called, “The Hand,” and their sinister plans. These four loners now much put aside their differences to come together to defend the city.

The Defenders is a project that has been in development since 2013 when Marvel and Netflix announced they were going to try and take the same magic from the movies and bring it to a television show. Four individual superheroes would get their own show and then unite in a spectacular team up adventure. The shows have been uploaded on Netflix since 2015 and audiences have gotten to know four very distinct characters and worlds, all of which residing in New York.

Film and television each have their own advantages and disadvantages so it was always going to be interesting of what worked better in what medium. Does the Avengers team-up style work when stretched over eight hours in the Defenders?

The answer is yes. But maybe it isn’t as strong as it could be. That might not be because of the format not being able to support it but more in the story they’ve chosen to tell. All the best parts of the Defenders can be summed up in the four heroes. While all the negative aspects of the show stem from the choice of villains and how they stuck with a plot based off those villains even if it wasn’t that interesting.

The highlights of The Defenders are the characters. The four leads of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and even Iron Fist are all well-developed and come to the series fully formed. Yet they still have a lot of room to grow and their interactions will bring out the best in each other.

Matt Murdock has quit being Daredevil and is trying to keep is life as an attorney going. Daredevil has the most connection the plot here since it his mentor who sort of brings the team together, the ninja clan he fought in the second season, and it is his former lover as one of the main antagonist. Matt’s two lives are colliding so that means as Daredevil he is allowed to cut lose when he is alongside the other heroes as he normally would as Matt Murdock. The best parts come from the other heroes commenting on his outfit. You can guess which ones will like it and others will comment on how silly it looks.

Jessica Jones is the highlight of the show. Krysten Ritter’s performance delivers in every scene she is in. She is given the best lines as she is the character that comments on all the strange silliness going on. Jessica Jones provides the comedy of the show but is never a comedic relief character. She is the probably the best defined character as far as personality. It has been over two years since we last saw her and that feels like it has been too long and it leaves you eagerly anticipating the second season.

Luke Cage acts as this teams Captain America. In so much that he is the moral center of the team who doesn’t undergo a traditional character arc. Luke is the same moral upright person at the end as he is at the beginning. If you already saw Jessica Jones or his own show you already know how awesome of a character Luke Cage is. Plus Mike Colter imbues him with such a warmth, humor and strength he is a star who lights up the screen in any scene.

Oh now it’s time to talk about Iron Fist. Danny Rand is still a privilege bland character. Not sure if that is the creators making him like that one guy you know who took a yoga class and now talks about spirituality and chi or if it is just Finn Jones portrayal but he is difficult to like at first. The first two episodes before everyone meets, the minute it cuts to a scene about Danny the show comes to a massive halt. I will also advise not making a drinking game out of every time he says “I’m the Immortal Iron Fist” because that is a dangerous amount of alcohol.

The writers seem to have realize how annoying Danny was in his own show so they found he works best when acting along other characters who call him out on how silly his story is. Which makes him surprisingly more enduring because it makes him the underdog for once. They’ve also turned him into both a McGuffin and bro in distress. The villains are constantly after him while the other heroes must come rescue him/protect him. This almost becomes a problem because the audience is supposed to be super invested in Danny but since he is the least interesting Defender it feels like the plot is working extra hard to make him important.

The best element of this type of story, be it in television or film, is to watch all these different personalities bounce off one another. The writers have found which characters personalities would work best together as well as what growth the pairings can bring out.

Matt Murdock (Daredevil) and Jessica Jones are the most striking pair. Matt is a man of faith while Jessica has very little to no faith in anything, Matt is dark and brooding yet hopeful while Jessica is cynical. Both lost parents at a young age and have dealt with trauma. Daredevil allows Matt to let out his dark side, while beneath Jessica’s cold hard exterior is a caring individual. While they make for a great comedic pairing because of their contrast they also make surprisingly good friends.

Jessica Jones and Luke Cage are the only two with an established history. Here the two are allowed to mend their fractured relationship to a point of mutual friendship. Will these two eventually become a couple like in the comics? Who knows but it is nice to see these two reunited.

Luke Cage and Iron Fist have history together in the comics as best friends and the duo Heroes for Hire. That dynamic is changed to highlight the massive difference between the two. Danny Rand is a naïve rich young white man who had power and influence before becoming Iron Fist and no real awareness of his own privilege. Luke on the other hand was born and raised poor, a black man in America, wrongly convicted for a crime he didn’t commit and had to be experimented on to receive power. These are two men from two different worlds and the scene where Luke Cage calls Danny out is easily one of the best of the entire Marvel Netflix catalogue. Luke must become a mentor to Danny and teaches him the world isn’t as simple as his upbringing would have him believe.

Speaking of Danny learning (which after his series he has a LOT to do) he also gets a second mentor role in Daredevil. While Luke Cage acts as a sort of older brother figure for Danny, Daredevil is an inspiration. Both Iron Fist and Daredevil have history fighting the Hand so they have a bond and shared experience almost right away. Matt as Daredevil protects New York in a way Danny failed as the Iron Fist. Danny now knows a costume and a mission can accomplish great things and now he is on the way to becoming the Iron First people know from the comics.

One common critique of the Marvel/Netflix productions is how many episodes they have. They normally run for 13 episodes where they begin to drag out the story and loss momentum by episode seven or eight. Luckily this series is only eight episodes. This gives them one episode to reintroduce the audience to each character and what they’ve been up to since we last saw them (something that is sort of skimmed over in the Marvel films) and then the second episode puts everything in motion for everyone to meet.

Some people might find the first two episodes slow but it is nice to see everyone again (yes, even Iron Fist) and get re-acquainted with each hero and their supporting players. Those episodes feel like small snippets of each individual series and then in episode three when they unite it hits the ground running. It sort of fumbles it towards the end in the seventh and final episode but the climax and aftermath are so satisfying it can slide.

Having only eight episodes almost becomes a problem because it feels like the show could have benefited from one or two extra episodes. Either to give more of the teams supporting players time to interact or an origin episode for the villains. It might have then possible thrown of the flow of the series. Probably better to be to short than to long.

On a technical level the series is a mixed bag. Each of the characters unique colors are reflected in the lighting of the series. Daredevil is red, Jessica Jones blue and purple, Luke Cage is yellow and Iron Fist is green. It’s a visual way of showing their very different worlds. When the characters are together the lighting reflects them coming together. A nice little technical touch. That lighting doesn’t extend to the whole series though. Some of the fights are lit so poorly it is hard to make out what is going on. In the seventh episode there is a reveal so darkly lit you can barely make out what you are seeing. It’s already a disappointing reveal to begin with.

The biggest problem though is the plot. More so that the Defenders is plot centric rather than character centric. The foundation for which they’ve decided to build this team up seems to have been locked into place so long ago. Marvel and Netflix have invested so much time in the Hand they didn’t seem to realize they were probably the least interesting element of this universe (how you make magical ninja clan boring is beyond me). So now the plot and main conflict are all based off the bad stuff from Daredevil Season 2 and the bad Everything from Iron Fist. This also has the effect of leaving the two most interesting characters Jessica Jones and Luke Cage feel like guest stars.

It highlights one of the best aspects of the Marvel films is that they take each film and play sort of loose with the continuity based off what does and doesn’t work. The Phase 1 films were standalone adventures so by the time the Avengers rolled around it was the one villain audiences liked with an army of aliens.

The Marvel films have often been criticized for their lack of compelling villains. This was one area where the series always excelled at was because they had more time to dedicate to the villains. Vincent D’Noforio as the Kingpin, David Tennant as Kilgrave, and Mahershala Ali (five months before his Oscar win for Moonlight) as Cottonmouth were all fan favorites. It was safe to assume that the villain for the Defenders would be just as compelling. Sadly, this is not the case, even with Sigourney Weaver playing her.

Sigourney Weaver is a great actress, no question about that. She does her best to try to elevate the material she is given and she almost does it. Her character Alexandra is not a character from the comics, which wouldn’t be a problem if they made a great character but here it feels like a wasted opportunity. The problem is she is a case of tell but never showing. Previous villains like Kingpin, Kilgrave and Cottonmouth were sophisticated menacing forces who were hyped up but they delivered on the terror the show insisted on by letting the audience see their actions. Here Alexandra is shown doing the movie villain cliché of listening to classical music, staring out into the city while giving monologues, and having others fear her. Yet she never does anything of any real menace or power to make the audience feel something.

The less said about Elektra the better. Whoever is writing Elektra doesn’t seem to get or care for Elektra because they’ve taken so much of her agency away. In Season 2 of Daredevil she was at least entertaining because Elodie Yung could speak and has such charisma you forget how bad the material they’ve given her is. For most of the series, she is a silent killer, so the one good aspect of her has been taken away. When she can speak and given some agency, it comes out of nowhere and feels like any of the emotional impact is gone. Her fight with Daredevil isn’t as tragic as it should be.

 

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Someone reading this might think I had a bad time watching the Defenders. But I didn’t. I really enjoyed it. I binge watched it in a day and went back over the weekend because I had such a good time and wanted to see the characters interact more. After three years of buildup it was finally fun to see everyone together. While it wasn’t the massive game changing event for the Phase 1 of the TV side that the Avengers did for the movies, it did leave each character in a new exciting place for their next season and I’m left hoping the heroes unite again.

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