Review: Marvel’s The Defenders (season 1) (Netflix)

The Avengers but without the budget

Marvel's The Defenders

Marvel’s The Avengers was one of the highest grossing movies of all times. Small surprise therefore that Marvel should attempt to reproduce its unique superhero formula on the small (laptop) screen with its Netflix series, giving us four individual superheroes in their own shows before finally bringing them together in a fifth show – The Defenders.

And here we are at last. Two seasons of Daredevil (one excellent, one poor), one season of Jessica Jones (excellent), one season of Luke Cage (weak) and a season of Iron Fist (I’ve watched it three times now, so screw you, haters) has allowed some of the supporting cast to move around a bit, but here we finally are, getting all four superheroes interacting with each other, teaming up and even sometimes twatting each other with sticks.

The show picks up a few months after the other shows. Daredevil (Charlie Cox) is ostracised from his former legal partner Foggy (Elden Henson) and would-be girlfriend Karen (Deborah Ann Woll), and a bit mopey after his ex-lover Elektra (Elodie Yung) was killed by some immortal ninja called The Hand. He’s hung up his costume and is now trying to lead a normal life as a lawyer, mostly doing legal work pro bono for the downtrodden. But Foggy is looking out for his former friend and his new boss Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss) might have some legal work for him, too – looking after a certain private investigator friend of hers called Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), who’s bound to get into trouble sometime soon…

Not yet, though, since she’s still buried in a bottle, following her murder of mind-controlling rapist David Tennant. Thankfully, she’s managed to brush off both the legal charges and infamy that came with that, but she’s not ready to take on any new clients yet. That is, until a woman comes to her door asking her to track down her missing architect husband and she starts to get threatening phone calls.

Meanwhile, Jones’ former boyfriend Luke Cage (Mike Colter) is just getting out of prison, thanks to some nimble legal work by Foggy, and has to work out what he can do to look after the people of Harlem, particularly the young black men who are succumbing to the allure of crime in his neighbourhood – particularly that instituted by a white clad man known only as ‘the African’ (Babs Olusanmokun).

Could it all have something to do with the errant billionaire Danny Rand (Finn Jones), currently off hunting down the Hand in the Far East with girlfriend and former Hand-member Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), following the Hand’s apparent destruction of the seventh city of Heaven, K’un-Lun, which Rand was charged to protect, being the immortal weapon known as The Iron Fist?

You betcha. And you can bet that somehow it’s all going to involve their various storylines intersecting at some point to fight a common enemy – Sigourney Weaver, as well as some ‘Big Bads’ from previous seasons.

Of course, the Marvel Cinematic Universe isn’t the only time that a whole bunch of superheroes with independent lives ended up uniting to defeat a baddie: the once much-adored Heroes did the same thing on the small screen. I say once because as soon as everyone got together, the whole show went to pants.

So the question is: is Marvel’s The Defenders more Avengers or more Heroes? Answer coming up after the jump. Spoilers ahoy and liable to smack you in the face.

Sequels

It’s not hugely surprising that as the most acclaimed of the Netflix/Marvel franchises was Daredevil and The Defenders’ showrunners are Daredevil‘s second season showrunners Douglas Petrie and Marco Ramirez that The Defenders is mainly a sequel to Daredevil, with our blind acrobat’s storyline getting most of the show’s attention. Far, far more surprising is that it’s a major sequel to the most reviled (albeit most binged – screw you, haters) of the sequence – Iron Fist. In fact, Ramirez and Petrie draw significantly on both Ed Brubaker and Kaare Kyle Andrews’ recent runs on Iron Fist for the storyline, so much so that they decoy readers of the comic in some of the earlier episodes and the changes they introduce not only seem there purely to give said readers some surprises later on, but actually stop the storyline from making sense.

But the biggest surprise is the show’s show run-time – a mere eight episodes compared to the standard 13 episodes for the Marvel shows, despite having a huge cast of characters to service, four times as many superheroes to deal with and a dragon-sized number of plot lines to juggle.

To be honest, though, the show could actually have done with those 13 episodes, it’s got so much to do and the rush to get it all done in time spoils what could have been a really good show.

A tale of two halves

The first half of the season is rather nicely done, allowing each of the superheroes time by themselves and with their own casts to advance their own storylines and show off their own skills. Stand-outs here are Jessica Jones and Daredevil. Daredevil gets to doing some legal work, stand up for the downtrodden and be a bit pained and agonised with his former friends – again, all things he’s good at and Cox makes the most of it.

Meanwhile, free of the omnipresence of David Tennant and the shadow of sexual violence, Jones (and talented comedic actress Ritter) gets to have fun – she’s off doing proper PI work, playing different characters, drinking and cracking wise wherever she can. However, while pals Trish (Rachael Taylor) and Malcolm (Eka Darville) are along for the ride, their appearances are brief and are more like cameos, although Taylor and Woll both get a good scene together at least.

Both Luke Cage and Danny Rand suffer more in this first half. Cage doesn’t know what to do with himself, so spends most of his time having discussions about race relations and black culture with the franchise’s peripatetic connective tissue Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), rather than leading his own life or dealing with his own enemies. In fact, Misty Knight (Simone Missick) is the only Cage character of note who’s along for the ride and she does not fare well.

Meanwhile, the character development at the tail end of Iron Fist seems to have been thrown aside, with Danny Rand back to being an immature, vengeance-driven entitled white boy, just as he was by the middle of that show’s first season. There’s also no sign of the Meachams or ‘Steel Serpent’.

It’s only when Cage and Rand come together (cf ‘Heroes For Hire‘) and Cage is able to echo internet critiques of Rand’s privileged character that both are able to burst out of their trading card character descriptions and do something different.

The rush

Once the four superheroes meet up after the first couple of episodes, the show begins to pick up speed. Unfortunately, that’s when everything starts to feel hurried and the plot logic begins to disappear. It’s also when Elektra becomes the show’s main focus and any chance of truly enjoying the show disappears as Elodie Yung’s performance drains the show – and even Sigourney Weaver – of any real appeal.

The show’s other focus is the attempt by the baddies to capture Rand for purposes that turn out to be the show’s only real ‘wow’ moment (spoiler: they’re after the bones of dragons like Shao Lao, the dragon that give the Iron Fists their power, which are buried under New York City and protected by magic created by a former Iron Fist).

However, with too few episodes to bring all the characters together, give everyone time to interact, bring in all the previous big bads, and then somehow advance those storylines as well as the major, franchise-long storyline, The Defenders requires pretty much everyone and particularly Rand to behave like an epic moron. True, Rand is supposed to be an epic moron (explicitly in the comics the stupidest Iron Fist there’s ever been, although to be fair he hasn’t yet received The Book of the Iron Fist on the TV show) but The Defenders also requires at significant points that ‘the living weapon’ who’s trained all his life to fight the Hand and who has the power of a dragon’s chi within him to be actually quite piss poor at fighting, with even Daredevil and Jessica Jones able to twat him around a bit.

While we do at least get signs of new abilities for him, such as the ability to project his chi beyond his fist, too many fights require the man who could decimate the entire top floor of a skyscraper with a single punch in Iron Fist to struggle with even one ninja at times and the ‘iron fist’ is merely good for a punch or two.

Again to be fair, Rand isn’t alone in not quite fitting into what we knew of him before. The show does do its best to try to preserve the various genres of the different characters’ shows early on, but it loses discipline. Luke Cage, who could take direct hits from rocket launchers in his own show and withstands a collision with a lorry in The Defenders, is being knocked out by single punches from Elektra by the end, despite even Iron Fist finding that a hard proposition in episode two.

The show also forces the characters into out-of-character choices simply because the plot demands it. Jessica Jones spent an entire season trying to avoid killing anyone, even to the extent of considering living with her former rapist in order to rehabilitate him. Yet she is the first to join Rand’s plan to commit mass murder that might kill unknown numbers of innocents at the same time by (spoiler: blowing up an entire skyscraper on top of The Hand). Even the eternally angst-ridden Catholic Daredevil is along for that ride within an eye-blink, despite having spent most of the first and second seasons of his show backflipping through hoops to avoid committing a mortal sin.

Defending The Defenders

That is, perhaps, to dwell on the negatives a little too much. The Defenders does have many good moments and a lot of often laugh out loud humour. Colter, Cox and Ritter are great, and even Jones shows he can be better when his scripts let him.

When The Defenders is just trying to be funny and deal with characters, it’s actually really enjoyable and even the perpetually mopey Danny Rand loosens up while the other superheroes mock him.

With some actual production time, some directors who know how to deal with action and a good stunt team, we’re also back at Daredevil-level fight scenes again, thankfully.

The Defenders – is it any good?

So on the whole, The Defenders could have been a great show if it hadn’t been in such a rush to get to the end. It’s certainly one half of a great show, being overall closer to The Avengers in quality than that accursed Heroes season one finale.

But with so much lead time and so much expectation, it simply should have been a lot better than it actually was. Still, at least it’s probably rehabilitated Iron Fist. You should watch that.




  • bob

    Generally agreed.

    I really enjoyed it but mainly because it felt like a mini-Daredevil series with some good Jessica Jones and Luke Cage notes. It made me feel that we had concluded JJ and LC stories- Defenders left them in good places showing that the events of their series didn’t scar them and they were going to continue the good fight. And so now I don’t really feel the need for more of their stories in case they end up somewhere worse… On the flip side, it made me hunger for more Daredevil and I followed up Defenders with a rewatch of Daredevil’s second series which made a lot more sense and was a lot more watchable with the knowledge of the Defenders behind me (I think half the problem of Daredevil’s second series was that the Punisher story was absolutely divorced from Daredevil and the other half was that the Hand was such a mysterious foe nothing made much sense- that problem is at least resolved retrospectively).

    Iron Fist was of course humorously useless. I couldn’t help but laugh.

    Loved Colleen in this. Come the end of the Defenders, it was clear that she was one of them, more of a Defender than kidnapped Danny. If this doesn’t get addressed I will feel rather frustrated.

    I think that Sigourney Weaver rather failed to capture my interest which was perhaps the biggest disappointment of the show. Flashbacks to days of yore would have been great at the very least- I would have loved to have seen more of how the Hand formed and acted over time.

    • I’ve tried to rewatch season 2 of Daredevil three times now. As soon as it flips from The Punisher to Elektra, it just becomes unwatchable for me and I can’t get any further. I’m rewatching The Defenders though, so she’s not 100% the problem, I don’t think.

      My third attempt, incidentally, was right after my second viewing of Iron Fist, since I felt the same you did with Defenders about that – that it made The Hand more understandable in retrospect. Didn’t help, though.

      Colleen’s always good, actually, and I’m impressed they gave her so much to do in both Iron Fist and Defenders. Whether she’ll team up with Misty Knight as per the comics is an interesting question.

      Re: flashbacks. I know Netflix has a rep for big money-spends, but does it feel to you like all the Marvel shows are cheap? Everything looks like it cost about £2.50 to make, it’s always in darkened rooms (cf everything on The CW), there’s no CGI, etc. Shao Lao the underlying was a pair of red lights in Iron Fist! (I’m not sure The Defenders really got everything in the Iron Fist TV continuity – certainly, Danny’s continuing reference to ‘my chi’ rather than Shao Lao’s, for example, made me think otherwise)

  • Craig Grannell

    Just finished Defenders. Solid, but Rand is such a massive tool. The series kinda confirms for me that I’ll be well up for more JJ, will watch more LC, couldn’t give a hoot about DD, and would have to be paid good money to watch another second of IF.

    • I really hope the new Iron Fist showrunners aren’t fibbing when they say they’re fans of the comics, or else we’re likely to get more of the same. The final scene with Iron Fist in his new tracksuit was promising, since it suggests they’re going to take hints from the current run, which is all a bit Game of Death, so it could be very good.

      Daredevil’s burned up most of my goodwill, too, and the conclusion makes it sound like Season 3 is going to follow the same Frank Miller comics storyline the movie followed as well, so I’m not tempted. Luke Cage was my least favourite of the lot. So I’m hanging in there for Jessica Jones and The Punisher, who was at least the best thing about DD season 2.

      • Craig Grannell

        I’ve never read any of the comics, so have no idea about Rand there. On the telly, it seems they’d be better off turning it into a sit-com called “Oh, Danny”. Every time Danny makes a stupid and rash decision (i.e. almost any time he speaks, using that stupidly gruff voice, like he really wants to be Judge Dredd), there could be canned laughter and everyone could turn to the camera and go: “Oh, Danny.”

        Daredevil: I don’t know much about the comics, but have read some, and recall outcomes of the Miller arc, notably what happens to Karen Page. Her path in the TV show isn’t entirely convincing, but she’s one of the few redeemable things in it. If she ends up in the same places as Miller’s ALL WOMEN ARE EVIL thinking, they can get stuffed. Not that I’ll be watching anyway.

        Luke Cage: Mrs G enjoyed it more than I did. Personally, I think it (like Iron Fist) should have been a six-episode mini-series. DD, for its faults, needed the run-time. JJ felt like they’d shoe-horned twice as much plot as they had time for into every episode. LC was an interesting change of pace at first, but you can’t do that trick for 13 episodes. And Cage himself is a bit dull.

        JJ, though. I really liked that series. For me, it’s on par with the original Iron Man in the ACU. And in Defenders, she was responsible of the vast majority of the great moments. Every time Iron Fist came on the screen, I was hoping he’d be impaled. Every time JJ was there, something great happened.

        Punisher: I’ve no idea how that can work as a series. I always found the books one-note, and Marvel don’t seem to know what to do with him half the time, nor even what the other superpowers should do. Funny, though, to see the widespread US distaste for Dredd (an agent of the state, but one doing his job in shitty circumstances) versus widespread applause for Deadpool (huge body count; little concern for others) and Punisher (“I am the law, because I say I am”).

        • “Every time Danny makes a stupid and rash decision (i.e. almost any time he speaks, using that stupidly gruff voice, like he really wants to be Judge Dredd), there could be canned laughter and everyone could turn to the camera and go: “Oh, Danny.””

          Basically the comics. I don’t think anyone actually likes Danny Rand in any media, not the readers but also no one in the comics. To a certain extent, that’s because he’s an idiot, but it’s also the point of the character: he’s caught between two worlds (protecting both New York and K’Un Lun), isn’t sure which one he’s supposed to be in and no one makes him feel at home in either because he’s always off in the other one when they need him. It’s more about watching him get clobbered a lot, learn a lot and then eventually do the right thing.

          DD: Yep, the Karen Page arc is the one I’m thinking of, although I doubt the show will go there. But it’s this one: http://www.denofgeek.com/us/tv/daredevil/267106/what-does-the-defenders-mean-for-daredevil-season-3 I’m not especially psyched for it either.

          JJ was certainly the best thing about The Defenders, although there was very little actually of her, if you see what I mean – two of her characters, sure, but none of the themes, nothing really stemmed from her and so on.

          The Punisher can be fun, but he only really works if there are superheroes around to provide a moral compass. Otherwise, he’s just a gore fest. I did read the comics 20 years or so ago, and they were at least interesting, and I liked the version we got in Daredevil, so I’m hoping Netflix does something good with him this time. That said, three movies have so far proved that that’s quite a difficult proposition.

          • Craig Grannell

            Well, Born Again has the stuff with Page in, along with all the other stuff in that DoG piece. It’s… very Frank Miller. (When isolated in its own weird universe, like in Sin City, I can deal with his writing. Otherwise: bleurgh.)

            Danny Rand: fair enough. He just doesn’t click with me at all. I don’t have to root for a protagonist, but in Iron Fist I just didn’t really care about anything, and I would happily have seen him and Colleen eaten by a massive dragon or something. Or just locked in a cupboard while Danny tried hard to summon his iron fist, While Speaking… A Little Bit… Like A Certain… Starship Captain.

            JJ: Yeah, good point. She was the character, but not remotely the meat of this story. (It’s also interesting how her excesses from the original comic series leaked through, given that she then joined the mainstream MU, which to my mind at that point wrecked the character.)

            Punisher needs to be short and sharp. But then so did Cage and Fist, and it seems Netflix is keener on budgeting for a specific episode run and then filling it, rather than figuring out what the story actually needs. I suspect 13 episodes of Punisher would be gruelling. Three to six could be interesting.

          • He can be great. However, he did go a bit (genuinely) loopy a while back, which somewhat affected his writing. He seems to be getting better now.

            But I think Born Again was before that, so I don’t think he has much of an excuse.

          • Craig Grannell

            Perhaps he’s improved some. He seems to have a big problem with women. Ego also. I trust you know about the Judge Dredd Magazine fiasco?

          • JustStark

            Wasn’t that a Megazine?

          • Craig Grannell

            It was indeed, but autocorrect and my lack of proofing replies here has put paid to that.

          • JustStark

            If we don’t repeat stupid throwaway jokes long long after they have stopped being funny, what is the point of civilisation?

          • I’m actually not that well versed in the UK comics, so the Judge Dredd incident passed me by. I’ll go Google.

            He seems to be doing better of late. Certainly, Dark Knight III felt almost like an apology for Dark Knight II, and although he co-wrote it, his co-writer was Brian Azzarello, who’s never exactly a moderating influence, so unless Azzarello’s apologising for some of his Wonder Woman excesses as well, it’s safe to assume that Miller’s attitudes to women might be on the mend.

          • Craig Grannell
          • Miller can be a fine writer but he’s an absolutely terrible artist. I have no idea why people commission him for artwork. Plus people with a certain condition that I won’t mention are never the most reliable or lucid of people. But if he’s cleaning up his act, that’s good news, because he at least was capable of greatness once upon a time