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.